Science Policy - A career of bridging the gap between politics and science

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Science Policy - A career of bridging the gap between politics and science

Universally, government officials have the final say in science policy decisions. Why is it that political bodies are in charge of allocation of resources for scientific development? The current pandemic and the ongoing climate change debacle have driven home the point that scientists need to be part of the policy making dialogue. As Sir David Attenborough said during his acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Award, “it’s unthinkable, what happened fifty to one hundred years ago, that biology was regarded as something not of particular or great importance, and it's unthinkable that people could be put into power without an understanding of the way the world works”. The increasing need for scientific policies led to the founding of the Society of Biology (now Royal Society of Biology, RSB) in 2009 in London, although the Institute of Physics (1960) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (1980) have already existed for over 30 years in the UK. The RSB is a professional body, a learned society and charitable entity deputed to the advancement of the scientific field of biology and related fields. Academies and scientific societies contribute to shaping the system, including the way scientific discoveries are published and research is funded.

For our latest virtual Career Events for Life Scientists on 14 September, we connected with Alessandro Coatti, who works as a Senior Policy Officer at the RSB. After his Masters’ studies in neurobiology and a 3 months internship at the Italian embassy in London, he realised that rather than pursuing a career in research, he wanted to involve himself in scientific policy making. He therefore applied for an internship at the RSB, which he did not get. Eventually, he landed a job interview and eventually started working as a Policy Officer in the Science Policy Team at RSB.

What does Alessandro’s job look like? For the major part, it is an office job with regular working hours. However, there are some official or ceremonial events that policy officers need to attend, such as sessions in the parliament or meetings with politicians. Alessandro’s team interfaces with the parliament and the political bodies dealing with scientific evidence. Examples of activities carried out by them are consultations and letters of commitment written to politicians or other stakeholders.

How can scientists become involved in political discourse and science policy? Positions in science policy are usually advertised, and it is possible to be exposed to this field even as a student or a scientist. There are, for instance, policy networks in UK colleges, and it is possible to take part in internships in policy teams or government offices. Scientists can join networks and learned societies, and invite people to talk and discuss policy topics, thus gaining valuable skills through the organisation of scientific engagement activities, graduates’ networks or similar. It is also important to nurture an interest in your scientific field and the societal impact of your research. It is possible to join a learned society at every stage of your academic career. For instance, the RSB Science Policy Team includes Masters' graduates, PhDs as well as former postdoctoral researchers.

What skills are useful for a science policy job? Alessandro mentioned that it is valuable to have data analysis (mostly qualitative) skills, to know cultural elements of the specific work environment or country in which you want to work, and to have a professional network. Scientists should also exploit their specific scientific skills and background knowledge, which come useful when opening a dialogue with various stakeholders.

Alessandro, who used to be involved in the German educational outreach initiative, German Neuroscience Olympiads (DNO, of which we already spoke in a previous article), encourages young scientists to engage in pursuits and careers outside of academia and find out what may be the right career path for them.

If you don’t think you may be the right fit for a job that interfaces with politicians, you can contribute to science policy by working in different teams. At the RSB, there are in fact two additional groups within the Policy and Public Affairs Team. The Education Policy Team that mostly deals with scientific education policies and the Social Media, Science Outreach and Public Engagement Team that mostly interfaces with the general public.

So, get out there, get involved, and help shape the future of biology/science!


Written by Chiara Galante; Edited by Radhika Menon. Featured Image: NGC/Design.

We thank the Gutenberg Nachwuchs Kolleg from Mainz University for the financial support in organizing this event.

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