Science and technology policies are key to many health, environmental, energy and security issues today. A variety of powerful interest groups exert pressures that keep science policies in a constant state of flux. The ultimate decision makers in government, industry and academia rely on policy advisors to communicate salient information needed to move in the right direction. MDs and life science PhDs with strong interpersonal and communication skills can be prime players in the policy-shaping process. Policy advisors facilitate the transfer of information between entities (all parties involved). For example, a policy advisor might take input from a number of scientific associations, condense and summarize it and make it available to the proper governmental office. The ability to communicate complex scientific ideas in an understandable way, without oversimplifying, is crucial.
In addition, the policy-making world moves very quickly, so an advisor must be able to provide needed information at a rapid pace. Beyond providing insight to policy makers, the advisors’ constituency relies on them for information regarding changes in regulations and funding, as well as what is on the horizon. Leaving the politics up to the professionals allows scientists and professors to focus on their work, but keeps them in the loop in terms of policies that affect their discipline. The policy advisor also serves as a conduit for the constituents’ views to be heard by policy makers. Many science policy professionals organize conferences as part of their role in shaping policies. Such proceedings bring policy-makers and scientists together, allowing each to work more effectively with the other. These events must be carefully planned for balance, so that each side takes away useful insight. Due to the nature of the work, excellent written and verbal communication skills are mandatory to succeed in the science policy field.
MDs and life science PhDs who like working with people, have a passion for their field and natural leadership abilities make the most powerful policy players. Coordinating and effectively communicating information in a timely manner takes an unflappable demeanor; policy advisors are often required to gather information and/or put together “talking points” at the drop of a hat. Diplomacy and patience are also key characteristics of a policy professional, since they must communicate between groups who often don’t see eye to eye. Washington, D.C. offers the densest concentration of policy job opportunities, but is by no means the only place to find work as a science policy player. The legislative offices of most corporations (such as pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms) are in need of extroverted professionals with the kind of science background only found in MDs and life science PhDs.
In addition, professional organizations (i.e. American Institute of Biological Sciences) serve their membership by employing policy professionals who keep up to date on changes in regulations and funding opportunities and keeping members informed. Within universities, policy coordinators help shape guidelines that enhance the educational experience of all concerned. Jobs that put scientists in the policy advisor position bear a variety of titles. Science Policy Advisor, Government Affairs Specialist, Science Policy Coordinator, Science Policy Officer, Director of Public Policy Office, etc. are common titles for jobs that affect government policies. Universities are another policy job market; there, the titles are more topical, such as “Director of Diversity Issues.” Job descriptions are often as varied as the titles, but radiate from a core of communication. There is more than one way to launch a career influencing science policy. Participating in a political action committee at a university or within a professional association will give you a feel for the kinds of personalities you will encounter and allow you to begin figuring out the “rules” of the political game.
You might also pick a few non-governmental organizations you might like to work for, ask for the opportunity to speak with the Director about how she got into the policy field. This approach allows you to build a networking system that may help you land a policy job. Many professional organizations offer fellowships that allow you to work with members of congress, and staff of federal agencies on a temporary basis. The National Academy of Sciences provides an entry into the policy area through the Christine Mirzavan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program (www.nationalacademies.org/policyfellows/). The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is deeply committed to keeping scientists involved in the policy formation. They offer fellowships in six different areas (http://fellowships.aaas.org/02_Areas/02_index.shtml), and also offer occasional internship opportunities. The AAAS maintains a directory of policy fellowships and internships available through other organizations at http://fellowships.aaas.org/03_Directory/03_index.shtml. While a fellowship is not a long-term position, it allows you to forge connections that may prove invaluable as you search for a permanent place in the world of policy-making.
A number of universities offer graduate programs in Public Policy. Earning a Masters of Public Policy (MPP) provides insight into both the practical and applied aspects of policy making. Duke University, MIT, Princeton, Georgetown University, George Washington University and the University of Michigan, and many others all offer MPP programs. Taking a year to develop essential skills and gain knowledge of the how the world of public policy operates is another way to lay a foundation for blazing a career in policy. Policy-makers are in need of the kind of insight MDs and PhDs can offer in regards to the changing needs of the science community. If you are outgoing, energetic and able to communicate with both scientists and non-scientists, you can make an impact on the future of science as a policy player.