When Disciplines Collide: Career Options in Bioethics and Science Policy

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This winter, AIOG has had the pleasure of hosting two science policy professionals for separate seminars: Dr. Zubin Master, an Associate Professor of Biomedical Ethics at the Mayo Clinic, and Dr. Kirstin R.W. Matthews, a fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Both shared their unique career paths through science policy and offered insights as to how to make the transition from PhD to Policy.

If you’re wondering whether or not a future career in science policy may be for you, a good starting point is understanding what science policy is and what some of the responsibilities individuals working in science policy undertake. Master described “policy” as the attempt to alter or guide human behavior through guidelines, standards, laws, and regulations. Matthews noted that understanding science policy also means understanding what impact policy has on science, for example regulations and funding, and the impact science has on policy, such as the way climate change, weapon technology, or COVID-19 changed the policies governing our country. Individuals working in science policy may be seen as a “middle-man” between scientists and government officials, helping to translate scientific experiments and results to policymakers. Science policy is a place for bench scientists to transform into “civic scientists,” focusing on providing science advice to the government in hopes that the policies created will more accurately reflect current scientific knowledge.

Some careers in science policy include a governmental relations officer at a corporation or university, being a lobbyist, working as a part of an advocate group, or employment through either federal, state, or local government. Science policy careers can require various responsibilities depending on the position. Matthews made reference to the “many hats” she wears as a fellow in science and technology policy; she conducts research, teaches, plans events, mentors students, manages programs, and fundraises. Master, having worked for Health Canada (a regulator equivalent to the FDA in the United States), described potential benefits to working in policy for the government compared to academia – a “9-5” schedule with flexible hours, work-life balance, great pay & benefits, generous vacation time, chance to learn a diversity of topics, and lots of training opportunities. However, when comparing science to science policy, there are some aspects that can be seen as disadvantages. Science policy is process driven instead of product driven, its bureaucratic nature allows upper management to shelve projects or cut budgets, knowledge is “brokeraged” as described by Master instead of generated, and there is no ownership for intellectual property outputs.

Avenues for getting into policy post-PhD mainly include policy internships, post-doctoral fellowships, and jobs. To make you more marketable for these positions, Matthews recommends attending public science & policy events, participating in outreach programs, keeping up with current policy topics by reading policy blogs, honing writing skills, and contacting congressmen or staffers. Master also emphasized the importance of developing writing skills outside the scope of purely scientific content. Finding online grammar courses or developing a personal blog can be actionable ways to get back into touch with a less scientific writing style. There is the student-run Journal of Science Policy & Governance (https://www.sciencepolicyjournal.org/) where you can stay up-to-date on policy topics or even submit your own writing piece, which could make you stand out in a pool of job applicants for a policy position. The key that Matthews stressed is being a good listener, so that you can understand what the public views are and appropriately address concerns. 

If it’s possible, there are even internships available that can be completed during a PhD. Matthews recommended inquiring about policy positions in whichever societies you affiliate with or noted that positions through the National Academies will help get you into the DC policy scene. Other easy steps to take during your PhD to prepare for a policy career is practicing an “elevator pitch” of your research to those who may not understand science as thoroughly and continually encouraging science literacy. Additionally, PhD students take transferable skills with them into any job market. Ones that transfer well to science policy are communication and teamwork. While some positions prefer to see Masters level training in areas such as public health, bioethics, public policy, or public admin, seeking job experience or an internship in those areas may alleviate that.

You may be thinking, so how does bioethics relate to this? Master poignantly noted how much policy is really rooted in ethics, and thus, how much science policy is rooted in bioethics. He defined bioethics as the study of what’s right and wrong in medicine. Bioethics covers major research conduct policies like biobanking, stem cell research, research involving human subjects, animal use ethics, and clinical practice. It is a multi-disciplinary field and uses conceptual, theoretical, quantitative, and qualitative research methods. Broadly speaking, bioethicists teach, conduct & present research, participate in consultations, sit on committees, and make/evaluate healthcare policies.

Whether you are interested in science policy, bioethics, or both the take home message is that you need to compliment your biomedical science background in skills in health policy, ethics, public health, and/or law. Finally, there are many careers and several career paths to obtain them – there is no single way to earn a job in bioethics or policy. If you are interested in the specific path Dr. Master or Dr. Matthews took or resources they provided, please feel free to check out the video recordings of their seminars on our website (https://ctaiog.com/recorded-seminar-events-workshops-and-interviews/).

Published by Rachel Gilmore

Rachel is a third year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Science program at UConn Health. She studies a rare neurodevelopmental disorder, Prader-Willi Syndrome, using stem cell and stem cell-derived neuron models. Outside of lab, she enjoys hiking, yoga, good food, lots of coffee, and snuggling with her cat.

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