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Points of Entry into a Science Policy Career

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Given the diversity of opportunities relating to science policy, there are consequently many trail heads that lead into science policy career path-ways. Those at the earliest stage of their training as scientists have the greatest variety of paths to follow, because they have more opportunities to adapt their education and are more flexible about salary requirements (i.e., will work for food).

For those who already in the midst of their careers, an entirely different set of opportunities exists for developing the necessary skills and experience. You can become known among decision-makers by demonstrating a willingness to communicate your expertise through your participation in National Research Council studies or on advisory boards for federal agencies. Certainly, the administration of science agencies is an opportunity for those who seek it, just as a deanship is an opportunity for those professors with an interest or flair for administration (or a knack for herding cats!).

Reported here are a number of possible pathways for people with a science background and experience gained through the internships, coursework, fellowships, and volunteering. All of these points of entry together represent only a handful of the many ways into science policy careers. The following paragraphs cover nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Congress, and federal agencies in descending order of opportunities and experience levels required.



Washington is teeming with a motley assortment of nongovernmental organizations that occupy a somewhat nebulous zone between the public and private sector. Naturally, they are a haven for science policy wonks. Most of these organizations hold nonprofit status, although some may represent for-profit entities. NGOs tend to have fairly flat organizational structures. Although limiting the potential for advancement, these structures provide entry-level staff with a host of opportunities and responsibilities that more hierarchical structures (such as the Department of Energy, where it is possible to hold a job 20 layers beneath the Secretary!) do not allow. Several categories of NGOs have opportunities in science policy, including scientific societies, think tanks, and interest groups, and the National Research Council.

Scientific Societies

Many scientific, engineering, and professional societies as well as university consortia are based in Washington or have Washington-based government affairs programs. Many of the jobs are filled by individuals without a background in the scientific discipline they are representing. My own job falls into this category and is described in detail above.

The size of these programs varies from 1-person shows to as many as 20 people. Scientists, who apply for these jobs generally have some policy experience either in Congress or with a federal agency, part of the "revolving-door" world of Washington.

As with other types of science policy positions, these jobs are not reserved for scientists and a scientist applying for such a position will be competing against other candidates who have considerable experience in government affairs as a career in itself, often having advocated for a variety of different issues and organizations.

I would argue that ideally scientists should be representing the scientific community. Otherwise, the advocate becomes another buffer between the scientists and policymakers. Having a background in the discipline that one is representing also provides insight into how issues concern or impact scientists, and may improve other scientists' comfort level with the advocacy process.

Think Tanks

Another type of NGO is the so-called "think tank," places like the Brookings Institution or Resources for the Future that provides policy analysis and advice to government and industry. Although these organizations tend to be dominated by social scientists, they address a range of technical issues that require a strong scientific background.

While most of these organizations view themselves as nonpartisan, others (such as the Cato Institute) occupy a particular region of the political spectrum. A number of scientific societies also have policy-related programs that fall into this think tank category. Rather than advocacy, such programs focus on increasing the use (and usefulness) of scientific information in the policy-making process. An example is the Ecological Society of America's Sustainable Biosphere Initiative.

Interest Groups

That leads us to yet another group of NGOs, known as interest or advocacy groups. One need think only of the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association. Trade associations are a related group, often employing policy analysts and others to help make their case. Some groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund pride themselves on the number of scientists that work for them.

Although some of these jobs are in research, most are policy related or have a significant policy component. Working for a group with a clearly defined agenda may make some scientists uncomfortable, but for someone with a strong affinity for a given issue, working for an interest group can be very rewarding. For better or for worse, interest groups play a dominant role in informing and framing public policy debates and thus represent a tremendous opportunity for scientists who wish to improve the technical basis upon which these groups advance their positions.

National Research Council

The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. Although it is congressionally chartered, the Research Council is not part of the federal government but it does derive the bulk of its funding from Congress and from federal agencies. Much of the Research Council's activity involves the preparation of reports by committees consisting of National Academy members and other experts on a variety of science policy issues.

Although committee members are volunteers-one of the principal means by which scientists provide advice to the federal government-the Research Council employs a considerable number of doctoral scientists to staff the committee studies and to develop new ones. These staff officers have backgrounds across the entire breadth of science and engineering disciplines. The staff plays a major role in shaping the reports and consequently in contributing to significant societal decisions.

The qualities that are most important in this post include a willingness to work in fields outside your scientific discipline, a love of learning about new fields, the ability to work well in teams, and, above all, being a good communicator who enjoys and excels at writing. The positions represent an opportunity to help define the agenda and to interact with all-star casts (hence a certain deference may also be a useful skill). The Institute of Medicine is the equivalent agency for the medical community with similar opportunities for those in health-related fields.

Congress and Congressional Agencies

Like NGOs, Congress has a very flat organizational structure. In a congressional office, even the interns are no more than three levels below the representative or senator for whom they are working. As a result, staff has a tremendous amount of responsibility and potential impact on public policy. Moreover, the turnover rate is high-the average tenure of a staffer working in a House personal office is under 2 years-so advancement can be rapid. The average personal office staffer is in his or her twenties, holding a bachelor's degree. Many worked on campaigns or interned before obtaining a staff position.

As an example, one of my program's interns had just graduated from college with a geology degree. Based on her internship experience and an earlier internship on the Hill, she obtained a job with her home-state senator as a legislative correspondent, answering constituent mail. Several months later, her boss became chairman of a committee, and she landed a job working on science education issues for the committee.

Committee staffers generally are older and experience lower turnover. They also are more likely to have a law degree or other advanced degree but few have a technical background.

A number of scientists work for the House Science Committee, House Resources Committee, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee (science education and biomedical research), and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Although many are former congressional fellows, others arrived from federal agencies or came to work in a personal office and moved up with time. In turn, many congressional staffers obtain policy-level jobs in federal agencies based on their Hill experience.

Opportunities also exist in two congressional agencies-the Congressional Research Service in the Library of Congress and the General Accounting Office. The former is the principal source of information for Congress on every issue imaginable, including scientific issues and related policy areas such as the environment, natural resources, and health care. The latter is a watchdog agency, undertaking audits and other investigations into activities at federal agencies and elsewhere at the request of Congress. Although dominated by social scientists and assorted number-crunchers, the GAO addresses a wide range of issues that require a technical background.

Federal Agencies

In the United States, science is dispersed across many mission agencies with research conducted in support of program goals. That dispersal means that there is potentially a much broader set of opportunities for science policy wonks. In the European model, a single centralized science agency provides a single entity for research funding, giving scientists more influence in their own affairs but not beyond.

Although federal agencies are a natural home for science policy wonks, there are few points of entry. Instead, most scientists who have agency policy jobs either came up through the ranks from technical positions or came from jobs in Congress or NGOs. There is a variety of positions in science agencies and mission agencies in legislative affairs or as special assistants to high-level political appointees. Consequently, many of these policy-level jobs are themselves political appointments.

Although officially the hub of science policy in the federal government, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has relatively few opportunities for direct employment. Instead, scientists either arrive at OSTP with outside funding (such as a fellowship), on loan from their host agency, or as a political appointee. Scientists at OSTP are there either because they are experts on a specific hot issue or because they bring a broad background and understanding. In both cases, they have to be capable of writing speeches that contain good sound bites but keep the science accurate.
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