November 2010

A Career In Science Policy

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

Brown 
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.”

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