Wednesday, April 20, 2016
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?