Policy and Advocacy Careers: Making Change at a Large Scale
Editor’s Note: This article is part of an NQ series highlighting career paths for neuroscientists. Read the introductory article for an overview of the diverse range of career opportunities available to neuroscientists and how the field is addressing the evolving career and training landscape. Read the Summer 2015 article “Careers in Academia: Advancing Research One Step at a Time” to learn more about opportunities in academic research and administration.
For many neuroscientists, nothing is more fascinating than digging deep into a single topic and becoming a world-leading authority. For others, though, the idea of becoming that specialized may not have the same appeal.
Meredith Fox knew she didn’t want to be a bench scientist for her entire career, but she didn’t know what she wanted to do instead. After serving as a professor at American University, she started a temporary detail in the policy office at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
After six weeks, she said it was clear that policy was her place. Now, as chief of the office’s Science Policy and Evaluation Branch, she spends her days helping to develop the science agenda and policy for NIMH and communicating it to various stakeholders such as Congress, mental health advocates, and the public.
For people like Fox, a career in policy or advocacy is an attractive alternative to a more traditional research career. Government organizations, scientific societies, advocacy groups, and corporations all hire experts to research, develop, and implement policy and legislative ideas on a wide range of scientific and medical topics.
Making a Difference
Interested in a career in science policy and curious about different paths to explore? Check out SfN's new webinar on science policy careers.
Policy and advocacy positions provide a chance to effect change on a large scale and touch many people’s lives. “I like to call the work here delightfully challenging because we have so many deadlines,” Fox joked. “But I love the opportunity to represent the work at NIMH and to make an effort to try to bend the curve to help people with mental illness.”
Steve Roberds, chief scientific officer of the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance, an advocacy and support organization, said working to serve a specific population directly takes a long-term commitment to making a difference. “The rewards are seeing progress firsthand — seeing people have better treatments than they did a few years ago, seeing that they will have better outcomes and lead longer lives,” he said.
Bruce Altevogt, director of science policy and science advocacy at Pfizer, said his efforts “lead to improved health in a manner that will have a large and direct impact. Topics like access to medicines and an ecosystem that improves research and development into innovative science have some of the biggest impacts in science, and are why I continue this career.”
Applying Your Training and Learning New Skills
Neuroscientists are well-positioned for policy and advocacy jobs. Roberds, for example, pointed out that, like bench research, policy work requires application of the scientific method: identifying problems, testing solutions, and most importantly, being critical of your hypotheses and willing to change them.
Although positions that focus primarily on brain issues are rare, neuroscientists will also be called upon for their knowledge about the process of science. “Understanding the scientific community — the pressure to write grants and publish, interactions with postdocs and graduate students, and so on — it’s helpful in my work and gives me credibility,” said Kacy Redd, director of science and mathematics education policy at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
At the same time, scientists thinking of making the transition to an advocacy career should be prepared to quickly develop new skills. “In a lot of ways, it’s like the opposite of getting a PhD — you need to cover lots of different issues and get up to speed on an issue very quickly, rather than going into depth on a few topics,” said Kim Montgomery, a professional staff member on the Committee on Science, Space and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Work in the policy arena can be fast-paced and hectic, but it’s well-suited to those with interests in a broad range of subjects. “I’m a generalist now,” said Libby O’Hare, a program officer for the Board on Higher Education and Workforce at the National Academy of Sciences. “This presents its share of challenges. There is a constant need to be learning and adapting to new topics and areas. But this is something I really love — learning a little about a lot of things.”
According to Montgomery, other tasks that will have scientists flexing entirely new muscles include meeting deadlines measured in hours instead of months or years and writing short memos, speeches, and statements in plain language for non-experts instead of fellow scientists.
The extent to which policymaking requires stakeholder engagement and consensus-building might also require some adjustment. “Your work is not done in vacuum,” Altevogt said. “You need to find alignment between different views to advance. You need frank and honest dialogue between all of the actors so you can advance the interests of everyone.”
Planning Your Policy Path
Fortunately, neuroscientists don’t have to blaze their own trails. Many scientists who have transitioned to a policy role, including Altevogt, Montgomery, O’Hare, and Redd, took advantage of formal fellowship programs operated by American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academies. “It was a three-month chance to get exposure to the field,” Altevogt said of his Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship with the National Academy of Science. “It was a great opportunity to test the waters without a long-term commitment,” he added, pointing out that it also helped him land a full-time position as a program officer at NAS’ Institute of Medicine.
The Society for Neuroscience offers a neuroscience policy fellowship in which a graduate student or young scientist with a strong interest in public policy works on advocacy issues as part of SfN’s staff for about six months. In addition, the Society encourages young scientists interested in advocacy through its Early Career Policy Fellows Program. In this program, fellows learn how to become effective advocates for science and how to encourage others to do the same. The fellows participate in SfN’s Capitol Hill Day and commit to engaging in at least three additional advocacy-related activities at their home institution over the course of the year.
People interested in a policy or advocacy career can also take other steps. “They need to learn about the sausage-making of policy any way they can, e.g., by participating in campus or local government. They need to see policy being done as much as possible,” Redd said. Montgomery recommended that students take as many policy classes as they can and consider volunteering with campaigns to learn more about politics and policymaking.
Working in the science policy arena also requires honing communication skills. Fox encourages young scientists to seek out opportunities to write for general audiences. “You have to become a sensitive, smart, and good writer,” she said.
Because science policy operates at the intersection of politics, science, and advocacy, the job of communicating comes with sensitivities and minefields, Fox said. The challenge is to “get the message out without offending anyone,” she added.
Most importantly, those with an interest in policy — at any stage of their career — need to meet people with the kinds of jobs they want. “I think at times people are fearful of networking, but really people understand and appreciate networking and the value of relationships,” Altevogt said. “Try and build networks across sectors. That can only make you a stronger policy analyst.”
“Developing and maintaining a network of colleagues is probably the most important thing you can do,” O’Hare added.
Like any other form of career-switching, moving from a research to a policy role requires hard work upfront and a willingness to experiment. But ultimately, the rewards can include regular exposure to opportunities and responsibilities that a research scientist would rarely see. “The most satisfying part of my job is that I get to work on legislation, to directly modify the law,” Montgomery said. “Granted, lots of people are involved, but to get to be part of that process — that’s really amazing.”