Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Chronicles of a Science Policy Fellow

So, here we are, in my third week as a Science Policy Fellow. This has been a bit of a switch for me. You see, for the last ten years or so, which essentially is the span of my professional life, I have been associated with academia. After undergrad, I was a research technician in a medical school, then went to grad school and earned my doctorate, and finally wound up as a college professor. Now here I am in Washington, using my experiences in academia to advocate for my research colleagues. This blog is about my transition from academia to the office; from research to policy.

I won’t lie; I do feel a bit out of my element. Each profession has a different way of doing things. I knew the ins and outs of academia. Now, I’m transitioning to policy, and while it’s not as different as I thought it would be, there is still some adjustment to be had. Overall, though, I find that I’m using all of the skills that I honed as a scientist. I’ve just adapted their application to a new realm.

What I like about this position is that I’m taking all of the things that I most enjoyed about academia and putting them to use as an advocate for science. I do a lot of background research, including scanning various news sources for interesting science discoveries as well as articles about issues relevant to our organization. In doing this, I’m constantly thinking about how these articles relate to our job as science advocates. So my job is three-fold… to stay informed about what’s happening on the Hill and among the public, and to monitor the research coming out of the science community. In doing so, I’m constantly thinking about how these three areas relate and how I can act as a bridge to make that cross-over apparent.

So that brings me to the next task, which is communication. This is through writing (i.e. blogs, newsletters, and other informational publications) and events, (i.e. Congressional hearings, meetings with other organizations, or public events). Here is where the exchange of ideas happens. I interface with other advocates, policymakers, and the public, talking about their interests, thoughts and ideas, and relating it to science and research. The face to face can be very rewarding and extremely productive: it’s during these exchanges that progress happens.

Finally, there’s my research project. While not conducted at a lab bench, it is very similar to a scientific study: I designed it around a question in which I am interested, I’m doing the research, and I will be preparing and presenting the results. Much like with laboratory research, the hope with this project is that it will lend some insight to the advocacy community and benefit the public.

So, in all, the transition has been pretty easy. I do miss the bench science a bit, but the atmosphere in the DC area is such that I really don’t have time to think about what I’m missing, because there’s so much that I’m learning and doing. To some degree, the Hill is a world away from the bench, but for me, my experience in academia has given me a unique point of view in the policy debates. So, while I’m still using my scientific curiosity and applying all of my research skills, I’m doing it in a slightly unconventional way. Perhaps in the end, that will allow more scientists to use their skills at the bench.

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