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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.