The need for scientists in public service has never been greater. Policy makers now confront the daunting task of containing COVID-19 through investments in vaccines and countermeasures, developing new diagnostics, implementing public health strategies, and modeling various outbreak scenarios -- all of which require expertise in science, technology, engineering and medicine.
A major challenge stands in the way: relatively few policy makers have a scientific background. And as a nation, we don't sufficiently prioritize careers that are at the interface between science and public policy.
Just consider the U.S. House of Representatives where, out of 435 members, only three have a Ph.D. in science or mathematics. Of the 100 senators, none do. By contrast, 53 senators and 161 representatives hold law degrees.
Law schools encourage their students to engage in public service. But our science and engineering graduate school training programs don't prepare researchers for careers in public policy or how their skills can be useful in the government space. And that's despite increasing numbers of graduate students deciding against academic careers. Academe has simply not emphasized public policy as a valuable career path for students and postdocs. Further, most institutions don’t even present public policy options -- like a stint at a federal agency via a temporary appointment under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act -- as a credible professional leave opportunity for STEM faculty. They rarely incentivize tenure-track or tenured scientists to consider contributing in a public service capacity.
The results are far-reaching and long-lasting. Important policies that the federal and state governments consider, enact and implement -- policies that can significantly affect us all -- are not as evidence-based as they need to be.
It’s time for a change. Higher education leaders need to encourage their STEM faculty members and students to step up and contribute to public service.
Even before the pandemic hit, reports from Harvard University, the National Academies and others called for more science expertise in government and mechanisms to provide more pathways for scientists and engineers to become active in policy.
Opportunities abound for more policy engagement. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, Tech Congress and the U.S. Department of Defense all have programs that bring to Washington, D.C., scientists to support evidence-based decision making at the federal level. This spring, more than 20 executive branch agencies vying for science policy fellows from the 47-year-old AAAS program held virtual interviews for a fall 2020 start, and demand for science policy fellows currently vastly outstrips supply. Similarly, multiple states -- including California, Virginia, Idaho, Connecticut and New Jersey -- host science fellows who contribute to state legislative and executive agencies in programs modeled on the AAAS initiative.
Recent program evaluation data show that STEM professionals who take part in programs like the California Council on Science and Technology and AAAS fellowships have a positive influence not only in policy makers' offices and agency placements but also transform their careers going forward, whatever path they pursue. These science and engineering policy fellows develop a network of colleagues with shared experiences who bridge science and policy, working across sectors to propel advances forward.
But a fellowship that may require relocation is not the only way to serve. The Federation of American Scientists has launched a program to help faculty scientists inform the U.S. Congress on science policy issues in which those scientists serve from their home institutions. The National Science Policy Network, jump-started in 2017 and growing rapidly, has been fostering virtual linkages for early-career STEM professionals to embrace their role in public policy. And some colleges have responded to the need with initiatives such as the Science to Policy program at the University of California, Riverside, and the Public Engagement & Impact program at the University of Michigan.
Despite all of those opportunities and more, most faculty members and students are unaware that contribution to the government or policy sector is even an option. It’s time to reverse that trend so that the country garners the expertise it needs to recover from COVID-19 and prepare for future challenges. Doing so requires leadership from college presidents and other higher education leaders to inform, enable and incentivize their communities to take part.
When it comes to training scientists to excel in research, our graduate programs are the envy of the world. Let's also make sure we are producing the next generation of leaders who can apply their scientific and technical rigor to solving national and global challenges.