This week I had a very informative informational interview with a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF). The PMF program was designed to encourage graduate students from many disciplines to develop leadership potential, specifically in government. This is a fantastic oppurtunity to rotate through a variety of experiences in government agencies. If you are interested in this program, you should know that this fellowship has an academic timeline, and that you MUST start the process while still a graduate student. Which is why I'm not going to say anything else about the fellowship, I'm not eligible, and that isn't what we talked about.
What we did talk about were non-bench positions for scientists at the NIH. In the past, when I have mentioned that I am interested in science policy, my well-intentioned mentors always put me in touch with their Program Officer (PO). If you don't have a trusted working relationship with your PO, you may be missing out- this is the person who receives your grant after submission, finds reviewers, and a study section and ultimately recommends it for funding. This person is also inevitably a former tenured professor who has the credibility and experience to deal with the diversity of challenges at this job. This is a really interesting way to be involved with shaping research in this country, but I am rather more interested in a job I could get this decade, so PO has been off my list for a long time. (I am exaggerating- not all NIH Institutes require POs to be tenured faculty.) Also, this is more of a policy implementation position- funding objectives are already set and these blessed souls are responsible for finding some way to meet those objectives.
Perhaps now is a good time to mention my motivations for looking at policy at all. I have the impression that Science should be used for good, and that the tax payers who have funded the ~$250,000 investment in my training deserve some return on that investment. Further, I feel strongly that a strong nation must build policy based on credible science, and that not every politician may be in a position to understand that Science. I see a real need for scientists to get involved in policy development, both as Science for policy and policy for Science.
I had heard that this particular contact was also a Ph.D. in biology and planned to stay at the NIH after the fellowship. In fact, she told me that there were many jobs, policy or otherwise, at the NIH that could be filled by someone without post-doc experience. Specifically, each of the 27 NIH institutes has some type of office for Policy, Communication and/or Program Planning. This office is full of people with job titles like Legislative Liaison or Policy Analyst, who can be involved in policy development. As a recent graduate with minimal other experience, I should keep an eye out for jobs in the GS-11 or possible GS-12 grade. As expected, these jobs are always posted at USAJobs.
She also recommended that a common way scientists end up in policy is through one of the fellowship programs designed to help with the transition (such as the PMF). The most common is the AAAS fellowship, but she sent me this link to a host of others. These are all quite competitive, and strong applicants have some demonstrated interest in policy or evidence of leadership skills.