Thursday, August 4, 2011

Interview with a AAAS Policy Fellow

Here is a hook: 95% of the NIH budget goes to fund science, either in the form of grants, awards and fellowships or equipment. The other 5% fund those that administer, facilitate, manage and advocate for the first 95% of the budget.

I had the opportunity to interview a former AAAS Fellow and current Legislative Liaison, and I must say- I'm smitten. The whole career path seems so compelling, it's exciting, dynamic and frankly very important, and if you can position yourself well this should be manageable transition.

So let's dive in: The American Association for the Advancement of Science has designed a competitive and prestigious fellowship program for Ph.D. scientists at any age/career stage to gain experience in policy. Fellows select one of the hosting agencies for their experience, and are provided with training and support for the duration. This is a 1-2 year experience, and provides a stipend on par with a GS12 level government job (depending on host agency. This is between $55,000 and $85,000/year). Many fellows use their experience and connections to find a permanent position in science policy, so this is a great way to transition from the bench to the Hill (or the NIH, or just check out the list of hosting agencies).

Anytime I have mentioned my interest in science policy, people suggest the AAAS fellowship. There is lots of information available on the website about this program, which you should explore. In my interview, it became quite clear that there is a lot of flexibility for a proactive fellow to create the experience they need during their fellowship time. But I've read through the requirements before and felt really outclassed. I was assured that a strong applicant is not someone who already had know-how and influence in policy; these people have an MPP and don't need more training. Rather, a strong applicant is someone who can demonstrate a desire and competency to be a good citizen to science and willingness to be involved in the aspects of science that take place outside the lab. Think about ways you can demonstrate if not an actual aptitude yet, but an understanding for the value of communication, management, education or facilitation skills. It's less important that you remember high school civics than you understand why scientists should take a role in science policy. For example, our fellow had some interaction with his university's Federal Relations Department, who basically act as lobbyists for the university on a federal level, which is what got him interesting in acting at the interface of science and the public. That covers what you might already know about the AAAS Fellows.

I also wanted to talk a little more about the position of Legislative Liaison. I first heard about this type of job during my interview with the PMF. Each of the Institutes of the NIH have people who bridge the science with the politicians who fund it. His role as a Liaison is to serve as the contact for legislative offices, to monitor and respond to legislative requests and to monitor and report the progress of the intramural funding of his Institute. He felt he was very involved in science, and he really enjoyed his position as an advocate and facilitator of that science. This requires a lot of communication, and depending on the institute, a breadth of expertise. In principle, a person can apply directly to this type of position, but if you are a grad student/post-doc, you might find it hard to demonstrate the ability to facilitate and manage programs. That said, if you are excited about a position, apply anyway. I will be.

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