Building a Career in Science Policy
Career Story Blog Post By Brad Smith, PhD, Director of Policy at FasterCures, a center of the Milken Institute1
In the 15 years since I earned my PhD, I’ve had experiences, met people, and made contributions that I could never have imagined had I stayed at the lab bench. As I was finishing up my graduate work (studying DNA repair in E. coli and B. subtilis), I made the decision to embark on a career in science policy. There are many ways to engage in the public policy process as a scientist. My work has orbited around the intersecting axes of science policy, health policy, and national security policy. I’ve fielded phone calls about B. anthracis at the height of Amerithrax in October 2001 (just two months after I defended my thesis!), worked with Congress to pass needed legislation, coached former prime ministers and other leaders to mimic an international crisis as the BBC’s cameras were rolling, analyzed innovative R&D policies while in a think tank and then got the opportunity to implement one such policy in the federal government.
My path is just one example of a career in science policy. There are many places to do this work – think tanks, academia, advocacy groups, philanthropic foundations, scientific societies, the Congress, and the executive branch (e.g., the White House and the federal departments and agencies). Each of these has distinct characteristics that need to be weighed when considering a career. In a think tank or other nongovernmental organization, you have considerable flexibility and may have the opportunity to look years into the future, but generally don’t have the authority to actually implement any of the policy solutions you develop. Policy implementation is the role of government. However, in government, you generally are so busy that you can barely look ahead to next week and your activities can be constrained by the policies and philosophies of your superiors – ultimately the President if you work in the executive branch, or a Member of Congress if you work in the legislative branch. While my experience is primarily with U.S. federal policy-making, state and local governments can also be a good place to participate in the science policy process, especially as regions look to biotechnology as an engine of economic development.
In spite of the variety of work environments, there are some generalizations that can be drawn about working in science policy. The world of public policy is a marketplace of ideas; basic concepts, core strategies, and even full-fledged policies circulate incessantly throughout the community. New ideas are added; old ones fade away, but sometimes return years later. This mix is continually buffeted by current events, the media, scientific discoveries, and politics. Occasionally, an idea emerges, surpasses all its competitors, and becomes real. What does this mean for a biomedical or health science early researcher contemplating a move to science policy? Primarily, you have to be able to communicate effectively (and repeatedly) in writing, at the lecture podium, and in one-on-one conversations. You may develop brilliant new policies (and the analytical skills that are at the core of a scientific education are extremely helpful in this regard), but if you can’t communicate your ideas to audiences large and small, you will have a limited impact on the real world. In the realm of public policy, real world results are what matter.
One aspect of work in policy that differs from scientific research is that success is generally much less direct than it is at the lab bench. In the lab, when you do an experiment, you will, in a defined amount of time, get results that support your hypothesis – or not. You can then plan your next experiment in a deliberative fashion. In science policy, rarely do your activities lead to a clear result. The closest thing to objective success is an increased budget for a federal program. In fact, you usually have to say the same thing over and over for months or years – it takes a long time to turn the ship of state. Then one day someone in authority (e.g., the President, a Member of Congress, or other opinion leader) will say exactly what you’ve been saying, but they will likely not reference you or acknowledge your contribution as one would expect in the scientific community. Nevertheless, this is a huge success. And you have to be poised to take advantage of that success by building on the newfound acceptance of your ideas.
One of the greatest benefits of a career in science policy is working in the interdisciplinary nature of the public policy enterprise. Bench science is certainly interdisciplinary, but even if you are working with geneticists, biochemists, and structural biologists, everyone has a similar background and set of life experiences. Work in science policy routinely means collaborating not only with scientists, but also politicians, physicians and public health experts, economists, public advocates, business executives, legal experts, social scientists, reporters, law enforcement and national security professionals, among others – a group with a far more diverse set of agendas, worldviews, and personal histories than you would likely find in any scientific research building. Working in such a diverse environment has its challenges, but leads to a much broader view of the world and of science’s place in society. Effective science policy can only be formulated by honest conversation among researchers, policy makers and the public. The role of the science policy professional is to facilitate that conversation and translate the talk into action that allows the country – and the world – to safely and effectively harness science to accomplish powerful goals such as improving health, insuring security, and raising economic standards.
1Adapted from: Smith, B., “Careers at the Interface of Biology and Public Policy,” ASBMB Today, Sep. 2006.