Science Policy: What is it?
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Submitted by Jennifer Reineke Pohlhaus on Wed, 2010-11-03 10:30

Science policy is one of those “alternative” careers for scientists, but what is it really?  In its most simplistic sense, it is the policy around science, much the same way we think of business policy, education policy, or housing policy. 

But there are also complex meanings to science policy.  There are at least four ways to think of science policy. A career in science policy may involve any number of these four (or even something else since the field is very broad):


Developing policy for science

What it means:  Developing policy for science is usually a top-down approach taken by the White House. 

An example: The current policies for US science are defined by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, with initiatives such as: increased funding for biomedical research, the physical sciences, engineering; increased support for high-risk/high-payoff research; making the R&D tax credit permanent; and ensuring that Americans have appropriate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.


Using science to inform policy

What it means:  It is very common for health-related government policies to be informed by science, but other policies, such as defense policies, can also be based on science.

An example: In 2009, the US Preventative Services Task Force issued guidelines on mammography screening.  The guidelines increased the age at which women should get their first mammograms, and this change in guidelines was based on scientific findings.


Determining the policies under which science is funded

What it means:  Organizations that provide science funding have to decide what principles they will use to balance their portfolios.  Each year, the government as a whole makes decisions in the fiscal year budget that are then promulgated down to various agencies. Decisions are also made by non-governmental organizations, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, on what they will support.

An example: Many Institutes and Centers at the National Institutes of Health are governed by a Strategic Plan, which determines what types of research they will fund.  Examples include the NCI Plan to Eliminate Suffering and Death of Cancer, the Strategic Plan for NIH Obesity Research, and the National Institute of Mental Health Strategic Plan


Identifying alternatives and choosing among them to reach an explicit science policy outcome

What it means: Sometimes, a policymaker has determined the desired outcome, and policy analysis is used to identify alternative ways to reach the desired outcome.

An example: Recently, the NIH all but completed the Enhancing Peer Review Initiative, which had several goals.  For each of the three implementation goals, alternatives were discussed and debated in the process of creating policies to work towards the stated outcomes.

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