How Scientists Can Leverage Research Skills in Policy Development
I’m frequently asked by fellow scientists what it takes to transition from biomedical or bench research to a career in public policy, business consulting, or beyond. As someone with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, I spent the first half of my career as a researcher working on Drosophila and E. coli. What I came to realize over the course of my graduate school career is that I had a genuine interest in how this research translates into science policy and I began to look at how I could use my science background in a new and different way.
As a trained scientist, I’ve found that there is a unique and valuable perspective that researchers bring to policy development. I have learned to balance these skills with those needed to succeed in the policy world, whether that means working for the federal government, in the private or non-profit sector, or as a consultant.
This two-part blog provides insight on how other scientists can make a similar transition with a look at (1) existing skills scientists can apply to develop meaningful policy and (2) how researchers-turned-policy professionals can build on some of these same strengths to transition to consulting.
Four Traits of the Research Brain
Making a career transition can be daunting. However, as I know from my own personal experience, scientists are well suited to contribute to policy given four important traits that we share: technical knowledge, problem solving, passion and learning, and communication.
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As researchers, we’ve mastered the skill of gathering information and developing patterns of explanation. In science policy, we build on these skills in an interdisciplinary way. Our ability to utilize systems-level thinking to address many angles of policy issues can help transform scientific knowledge into real policy change.
For example, our team of experienced researchers at Ripple Effect used our technical background and understanding of external funding mechanisms to tackle the complexities of the grant application process for our client, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The results were a fresh and reorganized treatment of their grants policy and application guides. This could only be accomplished through the blending of technical know-how and a methodical approach to policy.
Learning to work with ambiguity is vital in the field of research. Scientists are trained to suspend judgement until we’ve collected all the data we feel we need. In policy, this translates to being open-minded and considering many alternatives to a problem. At Ripple Effect, we learn to be creative in our problem solving, and this is something that we also look for in hiring “future ripplers” – our version of an ideal employee who mirrors these skills.
As good researchers, we learn techniques to explain complex concepts and communicate our positions with data and logic. In policy, rational thinking and communication are essential to success. At Ripple Effect, we rely on this skill nearly every day. A few years ago, the Office of Extramural Research (OER) at NIH came to us to help them create a research training and career development website. We developed an organizational strategy for their content based on career levels, and we created a database approach that catalogued the programs, FAQs, and other resources to better organize and consistently display timely information that would best resonate with the biomedical research workforce.
Curiosity and investigation are traits inherent to researchers. These can be leveraged by researchers to help inform new policy approaches and build incremental steps to reach specific goals. As one of my scientist colleagues said, “I consider myself a life-long learner. What began as a drive for solving questions of chemistry and bio-mechanics, has since evolved to an interest in breaking down scientific concepts for policymakers who, in turn, are better informed to make critical public health decisions.”
Please note this post refers to portions of a presentation for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). To view the full presentation or watch the program, go to https://www.aaas.org/event/stpf/4th-annual-visualizing-science-policy-20×20-resource-fair
Jennifer Pohlhaus is Vice President and COO of Ripple Effect Communications, Inc. and oversees high visibility government projects for clients like the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense.