26 January 2017

Science politicians: a new path in non-academic careers

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Shane M Hanlon

“What can scientists do?” I hear or read that question multiple times every day. It comes up in meetings, swirls around Twitter, and is on the lips of of my co-workers and scientific peers. “Now is a time for action” I hear (and I write). “Now, more than ever…” I read (and say). And for good reason.

I am in the business of providing scientists with the skills and tools for them to share their science with any audience. And, while I wish that the circumstances were different, business is booming. There are new and renewed calls from every direction for increased science awareness, outreach, advocacy, and more. There have been protests by scientists, multiple opinion pieces on science-communications training (e.g. from COMPASS, Sharing Science), posts from AGU President Eric Davidson (herehere, & here), a piece in Science written by President Obama, and too many calls for engagement to count.

A separate—but somewhat connected—issue is an ongoing crisis in science: too many PhDs, not enough academic positions. This is an overly-simplified statement but the gist is true. More and more are scientists looking to segue their skills as research lab/field scientists into non-research positions. As a former research scientist myself who made the transition from academia, to government, to the non-profit sector, I know all too well about the struggles of transitioning out of academia.

I started my path to leave academia late and took advantage of a science policy fellowship for post-graduate school scientists (and wrote about it here). But not everyone wants to do a fellowship after their PhD (or MS), or more importantly, wait until completing their degree to begin using their training for a non-academic career.

What if there was another avenue for post-graduate trained scientists to use their degrees? And what is one way to truly ensure that science is heard in our towns, cities, states, and on Capitol Hill? Grad students should be trained to run for political office. 

In the months since the election, calls for scientists to run for elected office have reached a fever pitch. (There is currently ONE non-medical hard scientist in all of Congress.) Groups and movements that support increasing that number have sprung up or received renewed attention. For example, 314 Action was founded last year as “a non-profit organization whose mission is to raise the profile of science in public life.” The founder, Shaughnessy Naughton, is a chemist-turned-entrepreneur who ran for a seat in the House in 2014 and 2016. Together with a formidable group of scientists, 314 action is hoping to elect more legislators with STEM backgrounds into public office. Though not explicitly stated, I imagine that the target audience for potential candidates are early career or established faculty. What if this process started sooner? What if part of graduate education in science involved a required element of political science? That’s my proposition.

It is true that most PI’s and committee members lack the background to provide poli-sci courses or training for their advisees. Perhaps organizations like 314 Action can be utilized, not only to encourage scientists to run for office, but to also provide them with the knowledge to then pass along those skills to students. They’re holding an online information session in March for those interested.

In addition to 314 Action, scientists can begin to inform themselves and do their own research into the legislative process. One place to start is AGU’s Policy Action Center. There are resources ranging from “How Congress Works”, to samplings of science-related legislation, to information on upcoming webinars about the new administration and Congress. For those who want immersive training, established faculty have also taken time during sabbaticals to participate in science policy fellowships through organizations like AAAS and Sea Grant. And at the end of the day, scientists are undeniably resourceful in the art of research. They understand how to interpret scientific information that should inform policy – and are the best people to push back on political interference in the scientific process. If they approach obtaining knowledge about political office like they approach research, there’s nothing that they can’t accomplish.

Newly-minted PhDs need non-academic career options. Science needs to be part of policy. The fit is natural. The time is now.

-Shane M Hanlon is an AGU Sharing Science Specialist. Find him @EcologyOfShane.