I’m reposting a career advice column I wrote for the monthly magazine ASBMB Today. This article first appeared in February 2011 here.
For those of you who crave a career outside of the lab, you are in luck – there are loads of fellowship opportunities for scientists who want to work in the policy realm.
Whether pre- or post-doctoral degree, you can help translate science into policy for executive and legislative branch leaders. A policy fellowship provides you with the opportunity to communicate science to nonscientists, conceivably shaping legislation at the state or federal levels.
Life as a National Academies fellow
I recently completed one of these fellowships: the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship at the National Academies in Washington, D.C. The fellowship appealed to me, and likely to my 25 fellow fellows, because it’s a quick and dirty introduction to federal science policy in our nation’s capital.
The fellowship began with an intensive one-week orientation. Former fellows told us about their current positions in the departments of State, Energy, Agriculture and Defense; in the House and Senate science committees; and at think tanks or private firms. We also met the director of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, who works in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. A bowl of alphabet soup, anyone?
During orientation we delved into the workings of the National Academies (this includes engineering, medicine and science). The National Academy of Sciences was the first of the academies, chartered by President Abraham Lincoln as an independent organization to provide the nation’s leaders with scientifically sound advice. The twelve-week fellowship program places fellows in a variety of departments within the National Academies, from science education to astronomy to climate change.
My home department at the National Academy of Sciences was the Board on Army Science and Technology. Here, my doctorate degree in chemistry finally came in handy as I immersed myself in the U.S. Army’s chemical weapons disposal project. The U.S. has stockpiles of the blister agent mustard gas, several nerve agents and the arsenic-containing Lewisite left over from the cold war era and before. To increase our safety a few notches, the U.S. has ratified an international treaty to destroy all of these stockpiles. I learned this as I traveled to army bases, met with BAST committee members from academia and industry, and talked to experts about the army’s chemical demilitarization progress.
D.C. has a ready supply of governmental and nongovernmental policy organizations, so I met with program directors at the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the American Chemical Society, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. On Capitol Hill, I observed House and Senate hearings on science policy from advancing STEM education to finding solutions for global warming. I attended lectures at think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Potomac Institute, and I visited the Smithsonian museums carpeting the National Mall.
The twelve weeks flew by, and after the fellowship ended, I took a Duke University job in science administration. My fellow fellows returned to academia to finish graduate school or begin professorships, entered or returned to the business world, went to teach high school, stayed at the National Academies, or started new jobs or fellowships in the policy world. The National Academies is one of the few places you can jump into policy before finishing your doctorate, but post-doctorate, you have your choice of opportunities.
In the realm of public policy, but not specifically science policy, the Presidential Management Fellowship is a two-year fellowship open to science doctorate holders as well as nonscientists holding advanced degrees. This fellowship program seeks future federal leaders, and PMFs are placed in a variety of federal agencies. Two of my National Academies classmates accepted positions within the NIH at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. NIH fellows can rotate every three to six months, a key attribute of this fellowship. Current fellow Mengfei Huang says, “As a Presidential Management Fellow, I have an unparalleled opportunity to shape my fellowship experience across different content areas and functionalities within my institute, across the NIH as well as other federal agencies. Talk about being a kid in a candy store!”
The most prominent fellowship in science and technology policy is the American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellowship in Washington, D.C. This program hosts more than 100 new fellows annually in a variety of federal agencies. The three main fellowship divisions are diplomacy, security and development; energy, environment, agriculture and natural resources; and health, education and human services. One or two AAAS fellows can score a congressional fellowship – working as committee staff or personal staff for a senator or representative – but the more common route for this fellowship is through a scientific professional society. The American Chemical Society, the American Geological Institute, the American Physical Society and many others sponsor a fellow each year for the AAAS Congressional program.
Of the three AAAS fellows who were my National Academies classmates, two chose the diplomacy, security and development fellowship with placements at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the third works on the Hill. Current AAAS fellow Hadas Kushnir says, “At USAID, I am learning how science can best inform policies, strategies, and program implementation both in Washington and in the field across a number of different countries in Africa.”
Another AAAS, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, offers their Hellman Fellowship in science and technology policy. The academy, a policy think tank in Cambridge, Mass., selects one or two fellows with science doctorates to work on the social implications of current science research questions. This one-year fellowship program currently is in its third year.
ASBMB offers a fellowship similar to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences one. It also is geared toward science doctoral degree holders but has a few extra perks: It can last up to 18 months and offers a more personal exploration of federal science policy. The selected ASBMB science policy fellow works directly with ASBMB Director of Public Affairs Benjamin Corb, in Bethesda, Md.
California offers a state version of the American Association for the Advancement of Science federal science and technology policy fellowship through the California Council of Science and Technology. In this program, 10 fellows (all with science doctorates) work in Sacramento for the state legislature on policy issues important to California. This one-year fellowship is in its second year, and my National Academies classmate Tony Marino is a current fellow. According to Marino, “California has been a bellwether for science policy, being the first state to pass an e-waste recycling program, green chemistry and a carbon cap-and-trade. It’s a great place to learn about where the country is headed.”
For those of you interested in global science policy and further along in your careers, the Franklin Fellows Program in Washington, D.C. offers a one-year placement in the Department of State or USAID. I met a Franklin fellow at a congressional hearing on science education; she was on a one-year sabbatical from her university and likely will be an invaluable resource on science education policy once she returns to her post.
If you are interested in broadcasting or publishing, the American Association for the Advancement of Science offers a program where fellows spend ten weeks at a major media outlet within the U.S. This Mass Media Science and Engineering summer program is a non-policy fellowship where you can learn how to communicate science to the general public. This program is open to pre- and post-doctoral degree holders, and each fellow has the option to work behind the scenes in research, as a production assistant or editor, or even in front of the camera as a reporter.
Besides these programs, other smaller and subject-specific fellowships abound – check with your professional organizations, the policy office at your local university, a local think tank or a career center at your workplace. Think broadly and apply for any program that strikes your interest.