Have you ever wondered how science and policy-making intersect? At Harvard’s Science Policy Careers Symposium, panelists from the government, private, and non-profit sectors, as well as current and former AAAS fellows, spoke about their careers in science policy. This day-long event took place on May 2, 2012 on the Longwood and Cambridge campuses. The collective efforts from co-sponsors at the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Office of Career Services, FAS Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, Harvard Medical School/Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HMS/HSDM) Office for Postdoctoral Fellows, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) Science Policy Group, Harvard Graduate Women in Science & Engineering (HGWISE), and the Division of Medical Sciences (DMS) Policy and Non-Profit Paths made this year’s Symposium a great success. The Symposium featured a keynote address from a former senior adviser at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and four different panel discussions covering fellowship programs; policy governing science research; health and education policy; and energy, environment, and climate policy.
Norka Ruiz Bravo, PhD (Yale University ’83), former Senior Advisor for Science and Technology Partnerships at USAID, former Deputy Director for Extramural Research at NIH kicked off the event with an inspiring keynote address cleverly entitled, “Embracing the Cactus: Making Policy/Making Change.” She emphasized participation of scientists throughout the “life cycle of policy-making,” whether during the conception of the vision, the developmental process, or the implementation of the policy. Ruiz Bravo believes strongly that input from scientists is crucial for producing the policy that ultimately governs science. She emphasized that one of the most challenging aspects of policy-making was predicting downstream effects of policies, and presented case studies from issues she has worked on throughout her career. Ruiz Bravo highlighted that while working in science policy can be frustrating at times, it has been an extremely rewarding career path for her.
Diverse panelists representing Capitol Hill, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Union of Concerned Scientists were on hand to answer questions about health and education policy. Kyle Brown, PhD (Harvard University, OEB ’09), Legislative Assistant for Senator Frank Lautenberg, was candid about the difficulties facing policy-makers, one of which is that “regardless of what the right answer is, the possible options are limited by politics.” Brown also emphasized the need for strong communication skills in his line of work, which are essential for advising the Senator, meeting with constituents, and articulating political positions on Capitol Hill.
Cathleen Walsh, MSPH, DPH, Director of the Policy Research, Analysis, and Development Office at the CDC also shared her experiences making meaningful contributions to the betterment of human health through policy work. Questions from the audience led to a discussion on surprises encountered when transitioning into a career in science policy. One of the unexpected challenges Walsh faced was handling opposition to the CDC’s announcement that there is no scientific evidence demonstrating a definitive link between childhood vaccinations and autism. Walsh recounted the difficulties of watching mothers of autistic children picket in front of the CDC and remarked, “Politics. is messy, and you need the temperament to deal with it.”
Wrapping up the panel discussion was Jalonne White-Newsome, MS (Southern Methodist University), PhD (University of Michigan School of Public Health), the first recipient of the Kendall Fellowship offered by the Union of Concerned Scientists. White-Newsome had always been interested in careers dedicated to protecting public health. As a Kendall fellow, she is doing exactly that by conducting environmental research, as well as supporting lobbying efforts on environmental issues on the Hill. Her responsibilities are divided between conducting original research, advocating for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and engaging the media.
The second panel, entitled “Policy Governing Science Research,” covered advocacy and the process of informing policy-makers and influencing legislation. First to speak was Adam Fagen, PhD (Harvard University, Molecular Biology and Education, ‘03), Executive Director of the Genetics Society of America, whose approximately 5,000 members are comprised mostly of researchers. Fagen enjoys remaining close to science through his work with members of the scientific community. When asked what challenges he faced for leaving the bench and joining a scientific society, Fagen commented, “Often times you make decisions with imperfect or incomplete information, which can be hard for those of us trained in research. Also, adapting to a culture outside of academia took some getting used to.”
Miriam Quintal, MA (Harvard University, Chemistry, ‘09), a lobbyist and consultant at Lewis-Burke Associates, has job responsibilities that include extensive amounts of writing, scheduling symposia, and prepping individuals for visits to the Hill. In transitioning from graduate student to her current roles as a lobbyist and consultant, Quintal attributed her National Academy of Sciences fellowship as “a great bridge into policy” and promoted fellowships as a way to break into policy work.
Rounding out the panel was Heather Rieff, PhD (Harvard University, Neurobiology, ‘99), the Health Science Policy Advisor for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Rieff described her day-to-day work as interacting with a variety of stakeholders, organizing events, and writing for NINDS. When asked about her work/life balance, she admitted that it can be challenging to effectively juggle time between work and her family life.
The third panel at the Symposium directly addressed a common method for scientists to transition to a career in policy: science and technology policy fellowship programs. Each of the panelists was a current or former policy fellow with a PhD-level background in scientific research. Erin Boyd, PhD (Harvard University, Physics, ’11), and Dana Christofferson, PhD (Harvard University, Cell Biology, ’11), are each currently engaged in a fellowship—the AAAS congressional fellowship and the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF), respectively—while the last panelist, Ilya Fischhoff, PhD (Harvard College ’99, Princeton University ’07), had previously completed two separate AAAS fellowships, an Executive Branch fellowship at USAID and a Congressional fellowship (sponsored by the American Geophysical Union) with Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) and the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee Democrats.
Boyd, who works as a fellow in Senator Al Franken’s (D-MN) office, noted the important distinction between the executive branch and congressional fellowships offered by AAAS. Executive branch fellows are placed in a department within the federal government and take part in numerous aspects of policy implementation. AAAS congressional fellowships are run through professional societies and place fellows directly in the offices of United States representatives or senators. Fischhoff offered a unique perspective as someone who had done both fellowships, saying that his work in each office was tremendously different, varying from making recommendations regarding how the federal government could assist stakeholders on climate change to assisting Congressman Markey on questions of nuclear safety and homeland security. Christofferson described the PMF program as an unusual path for someone with a science PhD, but one that offers the potential to, upon completing the fellowship, automatically transition from a fellow to a full-time position in whichever office one is placed.
The final panel of the day dealt with policy opportunities in energy, environment, and climate policy. This panel featured Mitchell Baer, PhD, the Director of the Office of Oil and Gas Analysis at the Department of Energy; Jenny Dissen, MS (North Carolina State University), Director of Climate Literacy and Outreach at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites North Carolina (CICS-NC); and Eric Larson, PhD (University of Minnesota), a senior scientist with Climate Central and a research engineer at Princeton University. Baer, a meteorologist by training, suggested that one way to get into science policy was to first focus on obtaining an area of technical expertise and transitioning to a policy application later in one’s career. Dissen and Larson both followed more non-traditional paths. Dissen worked extensively in management consulting prior to developing her interest in climate change solutions at the William J. Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Climate Initiative. She is currently working in climate science at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, focusing efforts in advancing the use and application of climate data for businesses and industries. Larson is an active researcher who also spends a great deal of time “working to inform energy-related policy rather than making policy, per se.”
A recurring theme in all of these panels was the importance of time management and communications skills—especially writing. Science policy work inevitably involves meeting with people coming from a variety of backgrounds, whose priorities will often not match with that of the scientific community. A successful career in policy requires flexibility and the ability to communicate extremely complex topics in simple, bite-sized chunks. These are skills that academic science typically teaches poorly, if at all. However, the panelists also repeatedly noted that scientific training can be extraordinarily useful on Capitol Hill, as it gives one analytical skills that can be applied to policy making as well as a certain amount of intellectual authority on scientific topics.
Attendees of the Science Policy Careers Symposium were exposed to diverse areas of science policy within the government, non-profit, and private sectors and learned how the speakers successfully navigated the transition from the bench to their dream jobs. When asked what the overall impression of the Symposium was for the panelists, Erin Boyd expressed her amazement at the broad range of speakers recruited locally and from D.C. The diversity of speakers as well as the organizational efforts from co-sponsors made this a wonderful opportunity for Harvard graduate students and post-docs to get the inside scoop on the ins and outs of science policy.
Author’s note: For more information on pursuing a career in science policy, speakers referred attendees to visit the website training.nih.gov. Additional information of fellowships and career opportunities is provided on the Resources page of this website. Photos courtesy of Molly Akin of the Harvard GSAS Bulletin. Cherie Ramirez and Alison Hill also contributed to this article.