New Voices recently interviewed Dr. Patrick Clemins. An electrical and computer engineer by training, Dr. Clemins has spent the last several years of his career in science policy between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Through AAAS, he began a prestigious Science&Technology Policy Fellowship with the NSF. At the NSF, he worked within the Department of Biological Infrastructure to help build connections between computing and biology programs. In his current position as Director of Budget and Policy programs for AAAS, he has become an expert in the U.S. federal budget, innovation policy, and international research and development trends. Dr. Clemins received his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Marquette University. He also was employed in systems engineering at a Wisconsin company.
How did you first become interested in science policy?
There were few science policy programs before 2005 so I had no prior exposure. I saw it as an adventure. Science policy was a way for me to use my PhD more creatively as I had been doing primarily technical work before. Even though I enjoyed my prior job in engineering, I came to the NSF to gain experience in policy, which led to my current position at AAAS.
What was it like to transition from engineering to science policy?
Since my last position was very technical, I would say the skill sets used were different. Communicating science in simpler terms and relationship building are important skills in science policy. The orientations at NSF and AAAS allowed me to understand the work culture, DC politics and the historical context for many of the policy discussions.
What types of policy activities have you monitored to help early career researchers?
I have met many people who come into policy frustrated by the current system to get a tenure track position. The average age for a researcher to obtain their first NIH investigator award is 42. Some work at federal science agencies has centered on changing the peer-review process or creating targeted programs to make it easier for young investigators to receive funding. There has also been a focus on transformative research projects that are less conservative and potentially more exciting and rewarding.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in science policy?
If you are a student, I would suggest joining a science policy group on campus (or forming one) and inviting speakers to get informed about policy issues. At some point, you should come to DC because it is the center of policy. Programs like the AAAS fellowship, Congressional fellowships and internships at science policy offices offer a way to learn about and enter the field. I also recommend participating in panels at federal R&D agencies as they help build communication and relationship building skills.
What is your outlook for the future of the research budget?
It’s tough times. There will be no immediate drop in funding, but I believe standard inflationary increases may be the only additional money for awhile. The “Super Committee” needs to agree on $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, or else across the board cuts will take place in 2013. That would really hurt research budgets. Overall, the outlook is not rosy. We must argue that research provides a long term investment for our country and its economy. Most representatives are supportive of research and development, but applied research is under the most scrutiny right now because they feel private industry should be more involved in that aspect. It is mostly understood that basic research needs a greater federal investment. The main question representatives are asking now is how much of the R&D pipeline should be funded by the government?
What is your proudest policy or program-related achievement?
More generally, I feel the personal relationships I’ve established are my proudest achievement. This has been through building trust with the people I work and collaborate with. I have also been able to foster a reputation for research and development in policy, which is very important to the future of science in the US.