Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Last Words

Image credit: Sarah Gallagher, Columbia University Commencement 2010

My final post has been difficult to write because it marks the end of an important chapter of my life. However, this is nowhere near the end of my journey in policy, so these are only my last words as a science policy fellow for Research!America.

May 18th, I had the opportunity to attend the commencement ceremony for my PhD. I actually defended in July and received my degree in the mail last October. However, 'walking' 10 months after my defense ended up being very fitting.

I finished graduate school mere months after the economy crashed and unemployment skyrocketed. At that point, I had applied to over 50 positions, but did not get a single interview. Since then, I have had two incredible opportunities: I was a legislative intern for a Congressman and a science policy fellow for Research!America.

Having decided to forgo the standard chemistry track of a post-doctoral position, I needed to gain experience since my graduate studies had not given me the chance to explore policy earlier. The opportunities I accepted were vital and enabled me to become a marketable candidate for jobs I truly wanted.

One year later, May 2010, these experiences have allowed me to obtain my dream position. This fall I will be a AAAS Fellow for the EPA. Having a clear next path for my career made commencement more meaningful. Graduating this year was appropriate because it marked a true life transition.

My fellowship with Research!America helped me to better understand the role of science in policy and more importantly, the role I see myself filling in the process.

At the end of April, I posted a poll to determine where you, our readers, thought scientists belonged in the policy-making process. The results showed that most believed the most important capacity is as a science advisor.

There is a lot of value to all of the other options listed in the poll. As lawmakers, a scientist would be able to choose issues they decide to tackle. As a lobbyist, scientists can bring credibility to their work pushing science policy decisions that they understand in depth. Instead of just sitting on the sidelines, why aren't more scientists compelled to pursue a career path that enables them to influence policy?

Here is a list of reasons I believe scientists can find the transition to policy difficult:
  1. Jargon – Scientists speak another language. I've gotten my fair share of blank stares when discussing technical topics. The stares are mostly because I have forgotten which words should be common knowledge and which are a foreign language. Learning how to communicate science in a digestible manner for all audiences is a skill I have been working to develop.

  2. Conditionals – It is rare that A = B. I always want to use phrases like "is thought to" or "can be" to communicate an appropriate level of uncertainty. However, these conditional phrases can confuse the overall message. It is essential for scientists to learn how to communicate topics clearly, while at the same time maintaining accuracy.

  3. Research and Grant Writing Take Up Time (…all of it) – Principle investigators have the life-consuming obligation of running a lab. Therefore, the experts in the field often find they are too busy to find time for political engagement. For recent graduates, like me, research is not viewed as ‘credible’ work experience, which makes the transition to science policy extremely difficult.

  4. Science Policy Decisions Aren't Based Solely on Science – The all-time most frustrating realization I had was that non-science factors can weight heavily on science policy decisions. As I discussed in my series, TSCA enables the EPA to regulate chemicals when they pose and unreasonable risk of harm to human health or the environment. However, it also requires the EPA to take the most inexpensive approach, which doesn't necessarily mean it is the most public health conscious approach. While this is extremely frustrating, we still need scientists to fight for issues they believe in and keep the most effective solutions on the agenda.
Here is the main reason why scientists need to get involved:
Scientists Know the Issues Best – Lawmakers need a group of knowledgeable people who are able to dedicate a significant amount of time to specific issues.
My career path is definitely non-traditional for a scientist. And it is even less traditional that I decided to get my Ph.D. because of my interest in policy. A year in, I can definitely say I would encourage any scientist who has ever considered policy work to give it a try.

New Voices wishes Sarah the best in her science policy journey and congratulates her on her upcoming AAAS fellowship.

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