Friday, August 10, 2012

TIBBS Career Networking Lunch with Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan, MD: Careers in Science Policy

by Rebecca Bauer

Biography: Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan, MD is the Director for Genome Ethics, Law & Policy at Duke University. He got received his medical degree from the University of Colorado and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Harvard College. Following two years of postdoctoral research on the molecular biology of oncogenes at the University of Colorado, Dr. Cook-Deegan was awarded an AAAS Congressional Science & Engineering Fellowship in 1982 and spent six years at the congressional Office of Technology Assessment.  Dr. Cook-Deegan held several positions at The National Academies from 1991-2002, when he joined Duke’s faculty. Dr. Cook-Deegan wrote The Gene Wars: Science, Politics, and the Human Genome (New York: Norton, 1994) about the launching of the Human Genome Project.

Synopsis: Though the federal government is a vital source for research funding, the decisions and policies that govern scientific research often seem far removed from everyday research. Based on three decades of experience teaching and working at the intersection of science/technology and policy, Dr. Cook-Deegan delivered a candid look at working in science policy, with a few pointers about how to start a career in science policy.

How does the organization of academic and government institutions differ?

Academic institutions are based on a social dominance hierarchy and are organized into disciplinary silos. Though politics play a role in determining the academic hierarchy, competence and merit are usually the major determinants of your position. By comparison, most government institutions are organized into what Dr. Cook-Deegan describes as “tribes.” In government institutions, loyalty and trust count as much as competence and merit for determining your position. Additionally, though academic culture is heavily invested in written communication, oral communication is still the mainstay for politics.  Thus, establishing a large network of personal references in government that can speak to your communication skills and trustworthiness is important for obtaining and maintaining a career in science policy.

What is the best way to get into science policy?

There are lots of science policy jobs, but most are obtained through social networks. Thus, the better question is “how does one break into the social network for science policy?” Beyond knowing someone already working for the government, nonprofit group, or trade group, a great channel into the network is through science policy fellowships, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and National Academies’ fellowships.  

The AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships and the Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program at the National Academies are designed to provide fellows with an opportunity to engage in science policy and learn about the process which informs U.S. science and technology policymaking. The AAAS fellowship is open to PhDs or other doctorates (and some other advanced degrees, depending on the sponsoring society) at all stages of their career. The AAAS places fellows in either congressional offices or government executive branch agencies for a one- to two-year tenure. The Christine Mirzayan fellowship matches graduate students, professional school students, and postdocs who have completed graduate studies (degree awarded within the last five years) with a mentor in one of the National Academies’ units for a 12-week experience. Since members of the National Academies serve as advisors to the federal government for scientific and technological matters, but are not actually part of the federal government, the Christine Mirzayan fellowship does not place fellows in federal agencies.  Rather, the fellows work on policy projects underway at the National Academies.

Fellowship awards are merit-based, making the fellowships an excellent entry for policy novices to break into the DC social network and make connections. The fellows are not expected to have previous experience in science policy; however, some indication that applicants have an interest in science policy and demonstrate excellent social and communication skills is expected.  One good way to show this is to write about science, technology, medicine or another technical field for a general audience, blog on policy issues, or do something to keep your interest alive and demonstrate it to others.  

Once you are into the network, you are part of a community of trust, and you are apt to find opportunities you did not even know existed. Washington, DC is in constant ferment, as many members of the staff rotate through congressional offices and nongovernment organizations before heading off to other careers.  Turnover is therefore generally high, although this is not as true in executive branch positions.

What are the typical daily activities for science policy jobs?

The only way to know the answer to this question is to experience it yourself. The daily activities differ based on your specific job and agency, and there is a wide variety in these activities.  Some experiences are narrow, while others are quite broad.  For example, if you work for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), you may work primarily on organizing peer review, writing program announcements, or otherwise helping design research programs that are fairly focused. Alternatively, if you work in the personal office of a member of Congress, you may cover health policy, science policy, and some constituency services.

With congressional offices, the daily activities depend on your supervisor (i.e., the Senator or Representative in Congress who is elected and gets to vote) and his or her committees. Daily life consists of meetings, reading, and communication via phone/email in order to gather information to pass onto the Senator/Congressman. For example, if the Senator/Congressman is part of the Senate Finance committee or House Ways and Means Committee, your job would consist mainly of reading news and technical data and writing memos for the senator/congressman to help them make decisions on tax policy or issues that arise in the entitlement programs.  In contrast, if you work for the House Science Committee, you are likely to focus on holding hearings and advancing bills that “authorize” government action, but you would not have much direct influence over budget matters.  In executive branch agencies, you would be working on the concerns of your immediate office, which will generally have a specific function.

Can you still engage in science policy and not work for a government agency?

Yes, in many ways.  Many organizations in the policy network interact with government, but are nonprofit. Trade groups also often have science policy components (especially those in “high tech” fields such as biotechnology, medicine, space, telecommunications, computing and information technologies, environment, agriculture, or energy).  

Science policy also works through many expert advisory bodies. The National Academies committees consist of experts in the field from many backgrounds who write reports to pass on to policymakers. AAAS also has many policy committees, and most agencies have many expert advisory groups.  Thus, you can have a career in research and still participate in science policy if you are a scientific or technical expert.

What is the outlook for federal funding of science and technology?

In terms of research funding, Dr. Cook-Deegan feels that NIH and NSF (National Science Foundation) will survive relatively well because they are appreciated by Capitol Hill. Science, technology, and healthcare are recognized as vital for the U.S. economy and necessary to cure disease. However, the current financial situation for science in government agencies is nonetheless bleak.  NIH and NSF may be spared some of the budget concerns that may afflict other programs, but it is unlikely to escape the next few years unscathed.

For government employees, morale is low as they are worried about shutdowns and furloughs and feel undervalued.  Both political parties are running campaigns “against Washington,” and federal employees are regularly pilloried in the presidential campaigns. Many agencies are currently under a hiring freeze, and a freeze is quite common after presidential elections.

The silver lining is that the AAAS fellowship program is growing because the commitments are short term (1-2 years), AAAS does the brunt of the recruiting work for agencies, and AAAS fellows do valuable work but are not counted as federal employees.  Agencies thus get talent vetted through a national network that does not come with a permanent commitment, making the science policy fellowships an excellent pathway into science policy networks, even during tough economic times.

About the author: Rebecca Bauer is a doctoral student in the Curriculum in Toxicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and works in the laboratory of Dr. Ilona Jaspers. Her research is focused on understanding the mechanisms by which airway diseases and air pollution alter lung immunology.


  1. Such a well written post! Science blogging at its best

  2. Nice to read about Science policy helpful for job search.