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Science and Public Policy

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Science threads its way throughout the entire federal government. The current session of Congress has featured debates and legislation involving standards for ozone and fine particulate matter in the air, acceptable radiation exposure levels for nuclear waste disposal sites, steps to limit the impact of global climate change, and many other issues with a hefty scientific or technical component. In addition, Congress set funding levels for the federal agencies that support or conduct scientific research. The range of issues addressed by the executive branch and by government at state and local levels is similarly dependent on science and technology, yet very few of the policymakers or policy-level staff in any of these settings has a background in science and engineering.

Historically, policymakers have sought the advice of the scientific community on issues large and small, and there is a long history of scientists providing expert opinion. But there is an equally long history of frustration and misunderstanding between policymakers, who are looking for simple, straightforward answers, and scientists steeped in uncertainty, multiple working hypotheses, and emphasis on detail. Policymakers are used to making decisions based on available information, whereas scientists are loathe making a final conclusion, knowing there is always more data to collect and analyze.

The Need for Science in Politics

This communication gap, combined with the growing importance of science and technology in society as a whole, has created a need for scientists who can work at the interface between science and public policy. What began (and still continues) as an advisory role done "on the side" of a traditional scientific career has evolved into a career in itself. There is now a significant cadre of trained scientists who occupy the nebulous space between their colleagues in research and policymakers in Washington. Like scientists who pursue careers in the media, scientists in public policy are translators between two worlds, filling a critically important need.

The opportunities in science policy are diverse and are not easily defined. What constitutes a career in science and public policy (or put more simply, science policy)? A narrow definition would be those engaged in policy for science, essentially the management or administration of science itself. A broader definition includes all those working on science in policy, the input of scientific information into a wide range of policy issues and decisions that have a technical component.

Although understandably diverse, this group-call them science policy wonks-share a number of qualities: they are good communicators, particularly as writers, they have an interest in issues outside their discipline, and they work well with a variety of people. The analytical skills developed through scientific training are equally useful in addressing policy issues. One congressional fellowship program for scientists listed desirable attributes for candidates as being not only a broad scientific background and strong interest in applying scientific knowledge toward societal problems but also a high tolerance for ambiguity!

Science policy is about advocacy, analysis, and advising. Scientists pursuing careers in science and public policy write speeches for members of Congress, develop environmental initiatives at the White House, manage federal agencies, prepare long-term policy analyses at think tanks, advocate on behalf of their colleagues at scientific societies, provide issue briefs for advocacy groups, unravel regulatory requirements at consulting firms, provide technical expertise for law firms, and engage in a host of other tasks for other entities.

Because of recent budget cuts and the expectation of future ones, the scientific community is realizing that it needs to focus on Washington and work harder to justify its share of federal dollars. There is a growing recognition that an important niche exists for scientists interested in fostering communication between their community and the policymakers. Although professors still remain who see value only in cloning themselves, many more recognize that there is enlightened self-interest involved in putting scientists into policy positions.

Making the Shift

Unlike their counterparts in academic or industrial research, scientists in public policy often occupy jobs that are not exclusively reserved for their skills. Discussions over an academic faculty position might center on whether to hire a biological oceanographer or a physical oceanographer-a choice between a scientist and a lawyer is unknown. But many science policy positions can benefit from either of these backgrounds. Consequently, the scientist must make a convincing case for why his or her particular background is not only relevant, but crucial to success in that position.

To use the analogy of a symphony, lawyers are the violins of public policy, since we are talking about formulating the nation's laws. Scientists and other technical specialists are the woodwinds, adding another dimension to the sound of the more populous strings. Although few in number, scientists involved in policy are not equivalent to Woody Allen's marching-band cellist in the movie. Take the Money and Run. Far from being out of place, their expertise brings a critical and necessary element into the process.

In the past, science policy was something that a scientist came too late in a distinguished research career, either by virtue of getting "kicked upstairs" into administration or being asked to sit on advisory committees or other "blue-ribbon" panels that are still an important facet of the science policy landscape. These tasks were done as an aside, and were not a career in and of them-selves. Just like George Washington's ideal of a citizen-legislator, the scientists were expected to return to their laboratory after dispensing the necessary wisdom.

Today, those considering a career in science policy do so at many stages in their careers, sometimes after only an initial training in science. For example, an undergraduate biology major that minored in government or interned for a home-state senator and subsequently lands a job on Capitol Hill is not uncommon. These people become part of the broad spectrum of professionals, whose preparation includes a solid foundation in science, bringing a scientific orientation and some knowledge of how science works with them to their job.

For a growing number of scientists, a career in science policy is undertaken following the many years of training and research leading to a doctorate. Some are drawn by a desire to see their training put to more immediate use, and others by outside interests in political issues (such as environment laws, health care, or education).


At a time when the emphasis among career planners is to prepare for not just one career but many, science policy is an important and fascinating choice to consider either as a diversion from one's present course or as an end in itself. Because it is broadly defined, many of the opportunities are there to be made. Science policy is a career field consisting of many niches, some of which are not readily apparent because the case for them must be made to other scientists and to policymakers alike. Although the lack of ready-cut positions and lines of advancement may seem daunting, any career field where you can make your own niche is one with a lot of growth potential and freedom to tailor a position.

Like one's education, policy experience is money in the career bank. The combination of scientific expertise and a firm understanding of how government works is valuable and marketable for jobs at consulting firms, large companies, universities, and within federal or state agencies.

Scientists are capable of much more than the specific laboratory techniques that they perfected in graduate school, and there is a very real need for scientists to apply their skills and knowledge to the public policy-making process. In doing so, they not only may find a satisfying alternative career for themselves but will help to ensure that traditional science careers for their peers do not vanish under budget pressures for lack of a compelling justification.
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