Professional Development

The skills you need for a career in science policy

Chris Pickett
May 01, 2014

Almost exactly two years ago, I sat down to write an article for ASBMB Today detailing the problems I, a classically trained bench scientist, had with constructing a curriculum vita fit for a future career in science policy. I wasn’t blazing the trail from the bench to policy, so why was it so difficult to find and walk the same path as others before me? Through some hard work and a giant mound of perseverance, I found my way. Now, after a stint as a science policy fellow, I am a policy analyst for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

What I didn’t realize two years ago is that there is no single path from the bench to policy. Everyone starts on the path at a different place, so everyone is going to have a different experience. But what I’ve learned since then is that the many paths have commonalities. Here are some of the things scientists can do to blaze their own trails from the bench to careers in science policy:

Get involved

How do you even know that you like policy work? Luckily, policy is one of those things you can try without investing too much time or money. I encourage you to check out the ASBMB’s and other organizations’ meetings programs. Or pick up the phone and call your representative’s or senator’s office in Washington to give your two cents on specific pieces of legislation. Or apply to participate in a Capitol Hill day, which provides participants with the chance to travel to Washington to meet with federal representatives. These meetings make up only a small fraction of an actual policy job, but they can serve as a crucial test to determine if science policy might be right for you.

My first experience with policy work was as a participant in a program that set up meetings between scientists and their representatives and senators during the summer congressional recess. I discussed research funding and scientific workforce issues during a pair of 30-minute meetings with the staff members of my district’s representative and one of my state’s senators. I was encouraged by the staff members’ interest in these topics, and more importantly, I came away from those meetings excited and eager to get more involved in policy activities.

Ask questions

As a scientist, you have highly tuned critical-thinking and investigatory skills, and these should be used in your job search. First, write out your list of questions about science policy. Make the questions as basic (What exactly is science policy?) or as specific (What is your organization’s position on immigration reform?) as needed. Next, seek out people who have some experience in policy work, whether these are people you know or just know of. Then, being respectful of their time and position, ask all of your questions about science policy. If you are appropriately passionate and professional, you also can build a relationship with this person to widen your network while learning valuable information about your new career path.

When I started building my policy CV, I didn’t know anyone involved in policy. So my asking-questions process started with a number of cold calls and emails to people who I hoped could help me refine my policy interests. My experience reaching out like this ran the gamut: One person flat-out told me I was wasting her time, whereas another was so helpful and supportive that I asked her to write recommendation letters for me. Finding out what policy is and how it works from those who have been involved in it for years was the most important thing I did in my entire job search.

Pay attention

How do you make sure you don’t get scooped in science? Read the relevant literature. How do you make sure you’re speaking intelligently on science-policy topics? Pay attention to the news. Science funding, minority affairs, immigration reform and many other science policy matters are discussed in top-tier scientific journals and the mainstream media. Read these stories! You also should search for blogs and other publications that discuss policy topics. No one expects you to be an expert on all the issues, but knowing a little about a lot of issues will allow you to converse intelligently with others in the field.

When I was investigating science-policy jobs, I came across a notice that the National Institutes of Health had released a request for information pertaining to the future of the biomedical workforce. Workforce issues are a passion of mine, and I saw this call for input as an opportunity to practice researching and writing about science policy. Of course, this had to be done after my daily lab work was complete, but I was excited about this chance to gain policy experience on a topic I cared about. Simply paying attention to what was going on provided a great opportunity to learn more about science policy while making my voice heard in the process.

Write — a lot

The vast majority of policy work is writing. Policy writing requires the precision of science writing while weaving a narrative together with enough data to make a compelling point. This is true whether you’re writing blog posts, op-eds, position statements or news releases. The only way you can develop your policy-writing skills is to practice. What you write is up to you, but the goal is to become proficient at conveying a single, cogent message about science and science policy for a variety of audiences. Search out opportunities, and start writing! (ASBMB Today always welcomes contributions. Contact Editor Angela Hopp at ahopp@asbmb.org to find out more.)

I also wrote several letters to the editor of my local newspaper. None of them was published, but I still found the exercise of writing about policy issues an important step in my growth into science policy. My most extensive experience with policy writing was when I was crafting policy fellowship applications. While the string of initial rejections was disheartening, when I was finally offered a fellowship position, it signaled that my writing skills had matured to a point that was appropriate for a policy position.

To transition from the bench to science policy, you have to be passionate about science as well as interested in how government operations affect the course of research. These interests, as well as working on the skills listed here, will help you blaze your own path from the bench to science policy.

Chris Pickett

Chris Pickett is the director of Rescuing Biomedical Research and conducts the day-to-day work of the organization. He is a former ASBMB policy fellow.

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