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Mr. (or Ms.) PhD Goes to Washington

September 2009--How can biomedical scientists make the transition to the policymaking world?

As a postdoc at Hopkins, Cathy Enright’s day-to-day work involved cutting and splicing genes, running gels and analyzing their results—techniques she employed to understand how cells make a special type of RNA. That was 14 years ago, and Enright hasn’t picked up a pipette since.

Instead, she’s worked as a science policy diplomat for the U.S. State Department, Department of Agriculture, and Trade Representative’s Office, and she is now a lobbyist for an agriculture association.

Enright belongs to the subgroup of biomedical scientists who trade in their lab coat for a suit and a job in the policy field, working in any number of roles—science policy advisor, analyst, legislative aide, lobbyist. Many, including Enright, say that their scientific training has proven an immense asset to their current careers. But they also admit that their experience at Hopkins didn’t prepare them for everything they have encountered in the policy world.

Hopkins, like most of its peer institutions, doesn’t offer formal training in policy for science students or postdocs. Its basic research labs are set up to groom trainees for careers in research, particularly academia. But could it do more to prepare them for careers in policy? Do sufficient resources already exist—inside and outside of Hopkins—for them to make that leap?

The need for graduate students and postdocs to consider career options outside of academia has been a gnawing concern. While the number of science Ph.D.s at Hopkins nearly tripled from 1989 to 2006—a trend that reflected funding increases—the number of faculty positions barely budged. Consequently, those who continue along the traditional academic trajectory risk longer stints as postdocs, waiting for faculty positions to open up.

In 2002, such quandaries contributed to the creation of the Professional Development Office (PDO), which provides career assistance to junior faculty, fellows and students within Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. The PDO provides confidential career counseling, serves as a resource for information about internships and other opportunities, and hosts panel discussions on a variety of career paths. A panel this spring highlighted careers in science and health policy.

Someone with scientific training can cut through the hype and assess the validity of the science that underlies a policy decision, says PDO Director Donna Vogel. And from a practical standpoint, just having the appellation “Ph.D.” can carry clout in the policy world. “If you want to have a seat at the table where policy decisions are made, you need standing,” says Vogel. “A Ph.D. or other advanced degree makes people take you seriously.”

But it often requires more than an advanced degree to land that first job. To get her start, Enright won a coveted AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, designed to give scientists and engineers the opportunity to learn and practice policymaking. Posted at the State Department for a year, she was sometimes the only one at the table who knew the science behind an issue.

Pam Bradley, now a senior science policy analyst with the American Association for Cancer Research, found a similar path. After graduating from Hopkins with a degree in Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology and working as a postdoc at Harvard, she won a fellowship with the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

That fellowship and a subsequent one versed her in the nuances of public policy—something not offered by her research training. One hard lesson, Bradley says, has been recognizing the stark differences between the way science progresses and how policymaking operates.

In politics, she says, a complex issue can boil down to a single question: whether or not to support a particular bill. “I’d want to ask if there are caveats or not, are there deviations?” says Bradley. “I felt so much was lost in that black-or-white decision.”

Enright has learned similar lessons. “There’s a lot of subtext in science policy decisions.” Layered on top of the scientific data are political, economic and cultural issues.

For instance, following the mad cow disease scare of 2003, she was part of a delegation at the Trade Representative’s Office that was trying to reopen Asian markets to U.S. beef exports. Although studies showed a minimal risk of the disease among U.S. cattle, the Japanese needed the promise of improved record-keeping and increased inspections at slaughterhouses. “In all of this, the overlay was politics,” Enright says. “No country wants to be told what to do.” Negotiating the environment required diplomacy.

Some Hopkins faculty believe that the curriculum could do more to impart such skills.

Various graduate program courses at Hopkins touch upon policy issues. And at least one course, Genetics, Ethics and Policy, has focused specifically on policy issues relevant to biomedical research, and genetics, in particular.

Debra Mathews, a bioethicist in the School of Medicine who taught Genetics, Ethics and Policy, suggests that all students be required to take a policy course. Scientists should be conversant in policy issues related to their work and learn certain skills, such as communication techniques, even if they plan to continue in research.  

“Scientists should be able to translate their work, not using jargon, and to convey an infectious enthusiasm for what they do,” Mathews says. “It’s a skill set that needs to be taught and cultivated. Most scientists get zero training in that.”

The Professional Development Office hosts elective courses in scientific communication skills. But Hopkins doesn’t offer anything like a dual-degree program in science and policy. However, few schools have such programs. (The University of Wisconsin offers a dual degree that blends a Ph.D. in neuroscience and a master’s in public affairs. Several other schools offer graduate programs that combine coursework in a particular science discipline with public policy training.)

However, the school of medicine is currently in the process of reviewing its graduate curriculum. A revised version may provide the opportunity to include more courses or other types of programs that address topics such as basic government and science communication, says Randy Reed, a professor of neuroscience who chairs the Committee on Graduate Education, which is overseeing the review process.

All scientists, Reed says, should understand how scientific research and public policy interact.

--Melissa Hendricks

A sampling of fellowships for scientists interested in public policy:

AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships—Sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Fellows spend a year in a congressional office or federal agency. 

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellows Program—Offers grants for up to two years to health professionals and behavioral and social scientists. 

The National Academies Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program—Offered to graduate students and postdocs. Fellows participate in two twelve-week sessions. 

Genetics and Public Policy Fellowship—Sponsored by the American Society of Human Genetics and the National Human Genome Research Institute. The 16-month fellowships are awarded to candidates with a degree in human genetics or a related field. 

Hellman Fellowship in Science and Technology Policy—Administered by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

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