November 2010

A Career In Science Policy


Former ASBMB Policy Fellow Kyle M. Brown offers a few impressions about what scientists can expect from a career in science policy. (Titled "Dr. Brown Goes to Washington" in print version.) 


Kyle M. Brown received his bachelor of science from Georgetown University and his doctorate in evolutionary genetics from Harvard University. He served as the 2009-2010 ASBMB science policy fellow and currently is the genetics and public policy fellow for the American Society for Human Genetics and the National Human Genome Research Institute. In November 2010, he will continue his fellowship with the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

When I decided to major in both biology and government in college, people said to me, “That’s a unique mix. What are you going to do with that?” I didn’t have a good answer until I discovered science policy. So, as my doctorate began to wrap up, I decided to embrace my two passions.

Fortunately, science policy is a viable and vibrant career choice for academically trained scientists. After a year as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology science policy fellow, I offer a few impressions about what scientists can expect from a Washington, D.C. experience.

Policies and Priorities

Politicians and scientists often assert that there is a scientifically correct solution to every policy problem. While sitting in congressional hearings, I have heard members of Congress say “we should do what the science tells us.” Although scientific analysis is important for informing policy decisions, science is mute on which decisions are “best.”

Fundamentally, policymaking is about priorities. There is never enough time or resources to ensure that every meritorious program receives what it needs. Furthermore, policymakers rarely share the same priorities. Congressmen from Wichita and Los Angeles are likely to champion vastly different issues. Even federal agencies pursue certain policies over others based on the political priorities of the current administration.

Our national science policy is rife with such prioritizations. For example, biomedical and ecological research each receive vastly different amounts of federal funding. Also, although many lawmakers would like to stop global climate change, the country needs cheap and reliable sources of energy.

At ASBMB, I helped to shape the policy priorities in Washington. In meetings with congressmen and their staff, ASBMB members and I emphasized how biomedical research saves lives, creates jobs and increases American competitiveness. Because “all politics is local,” senators and representatives were keenly interested in the effects that research funding had on the economy and their districts.

But political realities and competing needs often trump ideal solutions. Every program has its advocates and opponents, and policymakers and politicians must weigh the costs and benefits of each decision. Because so many independent political actors are involved, policies always represent political compromises.

Hollywood for Ugly People

Kyle M. Brown poses in front of the Capitol Building at ASBMB Hill Day 2010.

For the political junkie, working in Washington can be like standing outside of a Hollywood premiere. When I first started at ASBMB, I had a number of star-struck moments while walking the halls of Congress or attending briefings. Apparently, members of Congress not only talk on their Bluetooth headsets but also jog in Dupont Circle. As Us Weekly would say, “Senators: They’re just like us!”

The connections between Hollywood and Washington are all too appropriate. Members of Congress live and die by their images. Long-serving senators can be tagged as “Washington insiders” and “pork-barrel” spenders, making them vulnerable to “virtuous” and ideologically pure challengers.

For those interested in policy, appearances are as important as results. Great policy that is perceived poorly will go nowhere. In the recent New Yorker article “As the World Burns,” Ryan Lizza details the U.S. Senate’s negotiations of potential climate-change legislation. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., led the initial negotiations but pulled his support after FOX News claimed he was proposing a widely unpopular “gas tax.” Without Graham’s support, the bill garnered no Republican support and was dead on arrival.

Policymakers cultivate their images on Washington’s political stage. High-profile events draw attention to important issues and bring new information to the forefront. But equally important is how members appear to their constituents at those hearings. Offending CEOs who testify before Congress can expect an indignant public scolding from each member of Congress involved. For many members, portraying themselves as tough public servants is as important as any outcome from the actual hearing.

In short, the spin is as important as the content. Effective policymakers work within the system and use the theater to push their agendas forward.

Skills I Never Thought I’d Use

Academic-scientific training teaches critical thinking and research skills that translate well in policy fields. But other nontechnical skills, like writing and communicating well, are essential for nonacademic careers. Often, my “softer” skills have come from unexpected places.

Because I was interested in how science could be explained to the public, I took a course on “communicating science” while in graduate school. The course was taught by a journalist and focused heavily on journalistic writing. At the time, I thought, “This is fun, but I’ll never be a journalist.”

To my surprise, journalistic writing became an essential part of my daily work at ASBMB. Under the excellent mentorship of the society’s public relations expert, Angela Hopp, my previous training blossomed. Monthly news stories for ASBMB Today quickly led to weekly pieces for the ASBMB Policy Blotter, the society’s science policy blog. The lessons also served me well while preparing policy briefs and memos on important issues. A skill I never imagined using became an essential part of getting ASBMB’s message out to members and policymakers.

My foray into journalism demonstrates that unlikely experiences can be an essential part of successfully transitioning into policy. Drawing upon all of your skills can help give you a head start in roles for which you haven’t been specifically trained.

Marketing Yourself

In a town of spin doctors and lobbyists, the reserved and introverted scientist can feel overwhelmed. A scientist expects his or her curriculum vitae, with all of its degrees, honors and publications, to speak for itself. But selling yourself is part of the policy game, and a successful transition requires that you be your own best advocate.

Interested in joining the field of science policy? 

Become an ASBMB science policy fellow. The formal application procedure begins in February 2011, but feel free to contact Geoffrey Hunt for more details, and to be informed when the application process has opened. Stay tuned to the ASBMB website for more details on how to apply.

First off, get out there and meet as many people as you can. Although you may have had a robust academic network, in the policy world, you likely are starting from scratch. I quickly lost track of how many receptions, happy hours and events I’d been to in Washington. But, they help you meet people and hone the “elevator speech” that describes you and your interests.

Of course, “networking” involves business cards. Lots of them. I carry them with me all the time, and I’m never shy about handing them out. If your school or organization doesn’t print them for you, Internet-based companies will for a small fee. They are a great way to remember a conversation, and it’s polite to exchange cards at the end of a talk or meeting.

In Washington, I quickly dispensed with my academic CV. Scientists like to list every award, publication, society and teaching position they have ever received. Most of that is irrelevant. Even when I listed my publications on my resume, no interviewer ever read them. I’ve now condensed my multipage academic monster to a clean 1 1/2-page version that is adapted to the position for which I am applying.

When I interview for positions, I make sure to tailor my resume and my answers to the specific position. Employers want to hear how your skills and experiences will benefit their organizations. An interviewer definitely will notice if you highlight your experience with an issue in which he or she is interested.

The Future

I learned a lot with ASBMB, but I’m just getting started. My new position allows me to contribute to policymaking from inside a federal agency and with a U.S. Senate committee. Although I’m still deciding where I’d like to end up in the long term, I can’t think of anything more worthwhile than using my education for the public good.

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