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Wednesday, April 20, 2016
#1 skill, perspective shift, & money

The bottom line in science policy: Communication skills are essential, both written and oral. Money drives more decisions than the science behind a policy. Scientists need to embrace this perspective change to be successful in this field.

Three panelists with a passion for science policy shared their perspectives and advice with a broad audience of grad students and postdocs who are interested in learning more about how to incorporate their budding enthusiasm for translating their research to policymakers.

Carrie Wolinetz started out as a zookeeper. Following her passion and a natural career progression, she majored in Animal Science at Cornell as an undergraduate. It wasn't until her stint studying lemurs at the Duke Primate Research Center that she fully realized she no longer wanted to become the next Diane Fossey. As she progressed through her PhD she found herself starting to lie a lot to counterbalance the stigma of pursuing a career beyond academia. "I told my advisor and others I wanted to do a postdoc in reproductive toxicology," a plausible fib, "until I found the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship." But it was too late to apply, so she started volunteering for her professional science society and on university committees to gain experience. Then while writing her thesis she did a lot of informational interviewing in D.C. to find out more. She was hired at FASEB and later AAU covering biomedical policy issues. "I kept being offered jobs that were better, so I said yes!" She now wears two hats, as Associate Director for Science Policy and Director of the Office of Science Policy (OSP) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

As a contrast to the federal level, "Policy at different levels of government is very different," Charles Kruzansky, Associate VP, University Relations at Cornell, said, but either way "you should know that very quickly you'll be talking about money." He started out as a chemistry major but switched to political science because "it was much more fun." He told the audience that since policymakers are not generally scientists (and often even admit they've hated math since third grade), scientists in the room are assumed and expected to be the experts on every single topic, "because you certainly know more than they do."

"Decisions are not made based on the science," however, so when working with policymakers, "get used to translating what you do into money and jobs. They can always find the science to back up each side of the argument," so you have to be convincing.

"So the number one skill needed is the ability to communicate to a variety of audiences," chimed in Zoe Nelson, Associate Director, Office of State Government Relations at Cornell. Whether you are involved with science policymakers in the legislative, regulatory, industry, or education areas, "you will be called upon to be a translator of science, the culture--to explain what scientists do--and content, into jobs and impact on the economy."

Advice to trainees while they are still at Cornell?

  • work especially on your written communication, to make a better argument (you are much more likely to have some written brief get the eyes of  policymakers than having an in-person chat)
  • don't be afraid to create your own job (if you are interested in many things, convince them why they need someone like you to do them, and why)
  • keep up on the news, and capitalize on this knowledge to inform your strategy and to modify your argument to keep it relevant
  • don't think that scientists aren't skilled for all sorts of other jobs a) remember you can count and add!--seriously, don't underestimate this-- b) you can read and distill the essential points of a document, find the holes and decipher if the data support the conclusion c) you can find sources to address a question, and if they are not available, you can create them d) you are using persuasive arguments all the time in your grant writing and e) you are already good at networking, for instance at disciplinary society meetings when you get together with colleagues
  • think of it more as a perspective shift than a skill shift as you consider marketing yourself for jobs beyond academia
  • be deliberative about your career decisions, and approach it by trial and experience--consider internships or fellowships, that allow for a taste without the commitment 
  • remember no advocacy is too small, because sometimes decisions are made based on a single conversation or chance meeting
  • use informational interviews to inform yourself about opportunities
  • don't skip the social events at meetings; they often result in introductions that can help you
  • seek out mentors (plural)