Increased awareness of public policy issues is increasing the number of opportunities, but competition for available positions is fierce, and may require starting at a very junior level.
- There are two main routes into this field – an undergraduate degree in a science, or public policy.
- Advanced degrees in science policy are available, and the preferred route is usually a science degree with experience followed by academic policy training.
- Median annual wage for political scientists was: $107,420 (2010)
Careers in science policy are based on communication – communicating science to policy makers, and communicating policy to scientists. For example, many elected officials are not experts in science, so they hire expert advisors to provide balanced scientific information about all sides of the issues, in order to allow them to make an informed vote. Many government agencies use analysts to turn policy into rules and regulations that then must be communicated and applied to all interested parties.
Science policy positions exist not only in the federal government (mostly in the legislative and executive branches, but some in the judicial as well), but also in state governments, professional organizations, scientific societies, non-governmental organizations, lobbying groups, and even independent think-tanks. Interactions with state or local agencies may involve providing advice on how to protect
Depending on the type of position, analysts may specialize in a specific area (energy, biotechnology), or be a generalist, responsible for knowing about all aspects of all types of science. For example, a state government position would be focused on the types of technologies that are prevalent in that state, while a nonprofit agency employee would specialize in the technologies that are relevant to their particular mission.
Increasingly, universities have people in this role, serving as a liaison between the university and government funding agencies, potentially with some lobbying activities. They may work in university development or government liaison office, and will convey information about potential funding opportunities to university employees, and results of university research to state officials. Another academic position would be to manage institutional review boards, ensuring that research is conducted ethically and following all appropriate guidelines.
Job titles vary widely, and can include Science Policy Advisor, Public Policy Specialist, as well as analyst, coordinator, officer, director, etc.
Typical Work Duties
- Collect and compile background information on a particular issue, and write a summary document that explains all sides of the issue
- Advocate for increased funding for particular programs
- Write talking points on a particular hot topic on a short deadline
- Organize conferences or panel discussions, where scientific experts present the latest results in a particular field
- Inform scientists about the impacts of new or changed legislation on their research
- Assess the uses, benefits and economic impacts of certain classes of chemicals, by collecting and analyzing data on application methods, effectiveness, and quantities used
- Interpret laws, regulations, agency policy manuals and directives to identify how these regulations may impact potential developments
- Review documents to ensure that proper technical and professional procedures were followed, and that all recommendations are in line with applicable statutory, regulator and policy guidance requirements
Working in science policy requires training in both science and public policy issues. Most people earn at least an undergraduate degree in a science, and obtain some professional experience before obtaining advanced education in science policy. The science education and experience provides an understanding of how science is conducted, while public policy education makes you familiar with the process and terminology of public policy creation. While in school, work or volunteer with organizations that are involved in social issues or political action committees to gain relevant experience. Tutoring younger students in science classes is also a great way to gain experience in explaining scientific concepts.
The majority of public policy positions are in Washington DC and the surrounding areas. The work is conducted in an office setting, with lots of time spent reading background research and writing reports. Your coworkers will be attorneys and politicians, with a few scientists.
Is This Career a Good Fit for You?
Much policy work is conducted at a very fast pace – a hearing may be called and testimony required in a matter of days, or a new regulation passed with a short time frame before implementation. For scientists, who are trained to conduct thorough research and evaluate all options before forming an opinion, reacting quickly can be a challenge. You must have confidence in your scientific knowledge, be able to communicate it, and be able to earn the respect of both scientists and government agents.
- Excellent communication skills, both written and oral, especially under time pressure. You must be able to convey complex scientific topics, making them understandable without oversimplifying.
- Interpersonal skills to build relationships with key people, and diplomacy to work with people with whom you disagree
- Negotiating skills, and confidence to be able to debate professionally
- Ability to see the big picture, and analytical skills to critically evaluate all sides of an issue (scientific, political, economic, etc.)
- Interest in a wide variety of scientific issues
- Ability to conduct thorough research quickly, and to work independently
There are many people competing in this field, so you may have to take a low level position or unpaid internship just to get started. It is possible to do a science policy fellowship for a year or two, and then return to scientific research with a more thorough understanding of how decisions are made. If you decide to stay in the science policy field, advancement usually comes in the form of larger and more complex issues to deal with, and supervisory responsibilities.
Future Employment Trends
Employment of political scientists is growing, due to increased interest in political issues and more public input into policy issues, but it is growing more slowly than average. In addition, large numbers of students with degrees in this field mean there is strong competition for available positions.
Miriam Quintal works with a full service government relations firm that represents universities and scientific organizations.
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