Science Stories: from the Community

Flame test sequenceAs the Science Straight Up community grows in Charlottesville, we have decided to add a new section to the site, where members, scientists and the public, can share blogs with supplemental information about the talks or about updates on their research, endeavors, and experiences.

If you are interested in submitting, email us at opengrounds@virginia.edu as we want to expand openScience in Charlottesville.

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Experiencing Science Outside the Lab:      

a particle physicist’s exploration of science policy and education                    Ajinkya S. Kamat, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Physics, U.Va.

NEWS - 3MT 2014 WinnersThis article will be released in three parts before Mr. Kamat’s talk: Communicating Science: a Particle Physicist’s Endeavor  (Nov. 20, 5:30 PM, OpenGrounds Studio).  The talk will not be centered around this article (intended initially for other graduate students), but is interesting to read for those interested in science and public policy.

   PART III (See Part II , I below) 

Industry has always been one of the driving forces behind technological advancements. NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 show that industrial investment in basic science research is increasing in recent years.Many of government projects are contracted to industry. This necessitates industry to work with policy makers and hence, it opens up science policy job opportunities in private sector. Companies like Google, Microsoft, many smaller companies and startups require people with scientific background and excellent communication skills to take care of their government relations. Even law firms, which handle patenting and copyrighting of STEM research and products resulting from it need scientific advisors. If you search through the jobs posted on LinkedInlong enough, you’d surely come across such job postings.

All the sectors I’ve mentioned so far in all parts of this article are certainly important in shaping a comprehensive science policy, and for structuring policymaking process, but science communication and outreach are also equally essential. It’s not only outreach to public, but engaging in conversations with scientists outside one’s research field also becomes important to start interdisciplinary research collaborations. Therefore, STEM researchers ought to actively communicate about their research not only within their research community, but also to public, policymakers and researchers in other fields. Although, scientific writing/communication style that we are trained in during graduate school, while writing research papers, reviews, reports, grant proposals, research group meetings and giving seminars is quite different from the style and approach that makes science outreach most effective. Therefore, we graduate students need to put in extra efforts in developing such communication skills.

Reading informal science literature like science blogs as well as discussing with friends outside your area of expertise are great ways to practice and develop these skills. This page on AAAS website is also a nice place to start looking for resources that will help. Science outreach activities happening around are not limited to public talks or coffee hours, and journals like Nature, Physics Today, open access journals, etc., but magazines and blogs like Science, Slate, Wired etc., social media like Twitter, Facebook and also informal STEM education at museums contribute a great deal in educating people about STEM research. Social media as well as many magazines like Slate also provide people with platform to express their opinions, concerns about research and science policy. That is why for science and engineering graduate students with excellent communication and writing skills such magazines, journals have full time, part time (or free lance) job opportunities as a science writer, reviewer or member of the editor team etc.

So many opportunities in so many sectors, and for people with such varied skillsets! But if I have to tell you the most valuable thing I learned at SOtL, I’ll say the importance of networking! Networking is something that all of us, graduate students must do to find opportunities in science policy (or any field for that matter) and make a successful career. It is very important to build your social and professional network beyond one’s own research field and also beyond one’s network within academia. Networking only within your field is indeed one of the 5things that keep PhDs From Getting Jobs! Attending science policy workshops, seminars, networking events can surely get us started. Social media like Twitter, LinkedIn can be used effectively in networking, staying in touch with one’s professional network, to follow events and news, and to find fellowship, internship opportunities etc. in science policy. In the upcoming academic year 201415 several science communication workshops, seminars and other events will be organized by the Vice President for Research, University of Virginia. This will be a golden opportunity for UVA graduate students interested in science policy and science communication. So do follow the schedule of events here.

To summarize, the field of science policy is overwhelmingly complex and dynamic, and there are various players in the field. This is a great news for jobseekers with scientific background, who want to contribute in shaping science policy, since it opens up a wide spectrum of job opportunities! As one of the speakers at SOtL advised: if you’re keen on doing something in science policy, approach the employer in the right way and tell them that you want to do it; if that’s something useful for them, they’ll even create a new position to hire you to let you do it! Thus, developing one’s communication skills and networking outside one’s research field are very essential.

To tell everything I learnt at SOtL is way beyond the scope of this article, but in a line: as one of the best first steps in immersing yourself into the field of science policy SOtL is highly recommended!

c0113916     PART II (See Part I below) 

On the first day of SOtL I was very happy to see a roundtable setup of the room as opposed to a classroom. Over the next two weeks we got to interact with speakers from several sectors that influence science policy. There were staffers from government offices and agencies, e.g. the Department of State, U.S. Forest Service, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCA), Government Accountability Office, NASA, etc. Some speakers werefrom organizations like Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, World Bank. Few sessions were conducted by speakers from various professional societies like American Chemical Society, American Meteorological Society, as well as various universities e.g. Arizona State University, New York University, John Hopkins University. I attentively listened to all of them, as they shared their experiences, knowledge, their career stories and their roles in shaping and influencing science policy. The speakers were at various stages of their careers, from youngsters starting out their careers in science policy to highly experienced professionals, who have worked in various positions at government offices, universities. All were brilliant, sharp and amiable. As a graduate student and a job seeker it was inspiring to know about their career paths. Many of them had started as science Ph.D.s and later sought postdocs or policy fellowships like AAAS science policy fellowship, Christine Mirzayan science and technology policy graduate fellowship, Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) etc. to get started in the field of science policy. Discussing with them about the nature of their jobs and their roles, I learnt how one can contribute to science policy from various positions in governmental, nongovernmental and industrial organizations. We toured museums, monuments, memorials in D.C. – all visits (officially part of SOtL) encapsulating discussions about all these places from public policy point of view. It was fascinating to learn that a great deal of public policy and public education thought is behind exhibits at museums like the Smithsonian museums, and behind building the monuments and the memorials. On the first day of the second week, a former staffer from OMB (Office of Management and Budget) spoke to us about the federal budgeting process and many knots of confusion about research funding in my mind were untangled. Day by day our understanding of science policy evolved, it became more panoramic and in depth.

Even the questions that we asked speakers during discussions became more indepth. The complexity of science policy and of the dynamics between various players that influence science policy is surely overwhelming. But for graduate students, jobseekers, who sincerely want to work towards advancement of society and want to contribute in molding the science policy with that goal in mind, there is a wide spectrum of job opportunities that this complexity presents! There are several career paths, where one can contribute to science policy, other than just obtaining a tenured position at a university or a researcher position at one of the national labs like LANL, ORNL, NIHs, NASA, etc. A science policy fellowship or a policy postdoc is certainly a great first step. AAAS maintains a nice database of various science policy fellowships on their website. Government relations jobs at Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, NIHs (National Institute of Health), etc., and at professional societies like American Physics Society, American Chemical Society, American Metebubbleorological Society and other leading societies representing (and/or advocating for) scientific communities in various fields are also definitely on the list. Such job profiles include responsibilities ranging from working on budget and funding to informing public and policy makers about issues and developments in science through congressional briefings. After talking to a public policy communications manager at ACS during SOtL, I have learnt that these jobs not only require understanding of science, but also require a grasp of politics so as to advocate for or even inform about a specific scientific issue or cause! NGO’s advocating a particular cause or funding academic and research projects also require people with scientific expertise in their projects, for public and government relations as well as campaigns. It was especially encouraging for me to find out that many of these nongovernment jobs at professional societies, NGO’s and fellowships including PMF (although very competitive) are also open for non US citizens. Congressional staff positions and scientific advisor positions to executive offices of the President and cabinet members are also great career paths in the field of science policy. These jobs are more directly involved with shaping the science policy. During SOtL, one of our exercises simulated an assignment that such a scientific advisor would get in his/her day to day life. The assignment was to present a comprehensive report on an ongoing issue or news on a couple of hours notice, for a cabinet member or the President preparing him/her to face the press on that issue. I must say that was the most intense session of SOtL, but I also found it most fun!

                     PART I

Over past five years of graduate studies I have seen the research funding scenario in different fields sometimes getting worse and sometimes better. I have seen it in my own research field and have also heard similar experiences of my friends and peers working in other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields including health sciences. It often made me wonder about the policy making and budgeting process that funds science and technology research. I thought, why aren’t scientists more directly involved in shaping science policy? But I have noticed that not many scientists could really engage people outside their field of expertise in discussions about their research and importance of their research. This creates a communication gap not only between public, policy makers and scientists, but also between researchers in varied branches of STEM.

At least a broad outlook to the field of science policy is in order here – this field encompasses policies and policymaking processes that influence the conduct of STEM research and its applications; it also includes science outreach, advocacy and lobbying activities that affect and are affected by STEM related policies. In this article I hope to convey a more detailed picture of the field and different opportunities in it.

It was just a few months since I had seriously started thinking about the field of science policy, policymaking process and science communication. I had started following STEM policy news; I would read and reflect about interplay between science policy, funding and advancement of STEM and, thus, of the society. I attended AAAS’s (American Association for Advancement of Science) “Communicating Science to Public” seminar and workshop that was organized at UVA in Spring 2014. Then through one of the newsletter emails at UVA, I came across a unique science policy immersion program “ Science Outside the Lab” (SOtL) organized by Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) at the Arizona State University. It was a two weeks program beginning in the last week of May, in Washington D.C. – where all the policymaking stuff happens. I noticed that this program is also listed in the list of science policy programs on the website of AAAS. I looked at it as a next step in comprehending the field of science policy, little I knew that I would also get to learn so much about such a wide spectrum of job opportunities available in science policy!

When I set foot on the campus of George Washington University, I decided to keep an open mind of a learner, ready to soak in all the knowledge one can in next two weeks. I got introduced to my SOtL classmates and I was happy to find out that all of them were also graduate students and experts from a very wide range of fields like biochemistry, decision making, informal STEM education, civil, chemical engineering, emerging Science policy wordletechnology, sustainability, renewable energy technologies, etc. From my classmates I learned a great deal about issues, concerns (technical as well as at the policy level) in their fields of research, their shortterm, longterm potentials and ramifications – something I knew very little about. They were also very interested in knowing about particle physics, my research and its potentials, as (being a theoretical particle physicist) my area of research was quite different from theirs. I loved to share my knowledge with them and I also took it up as a challenge to engage researchers from entirely different areas of expertise in discussions about particle physics and what my notion of the role of the field was in advancement of science, technology and society. All these discussions soon started to build a big picture of the world of science, policy issues, which I think was a most suitable state of mind to get started at SOtL.

Mr. Kamat’s page: http://people.virginia.edu/~ask4db/