Had it with politics or ready to jump in: Reflections from an LTER researcher

By, Bonnie McGill, PhD candidate and LTER researcher, W.K Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan State University

Bonnie McGill, in Washington DC for the American Meteorological Society’s Summer Policy Colloquium

KBS LTER PhD student Bonnie McGill in Washington DC for the American Meteorological Society’s Summer Policy Colloquium.

Tired of the US Presidential race dominating the airwaves? Wish the candidates talked about issues like climate change, global food security, or science education?  Well, I can’t make any promises for any immediate changes (for that see sciencedebate.org), but one of my career goals is to use my scientific expertise to bring more science to Washington.

As most any graduate student will tell you, exploring careers outside of academia while you’re immersed in academia is a challenge. Most, if not all, of your mentors are people who chose the tenure track professor career. So graduate students interested in exploring a diversity of careers must go forth and find scientists outside of academia. In my case, this meant finding scientists who had chosen to pursue jobs in policy. But where do you start? Fortunately several professional societies offer opportunities for scientists to learn more about the role of science in the policy world.

This past June I attended the American Meteorological Society’s Summer Policy Colloquium in DC. AMS really knows what they’re doing. This program has been running since 2001 and has National Science Foundation funding to support earth science graduate students to attend. The program ran for ten days, meeting in the AAAS (the worlds’ largest general scientific academy) building in downtown DC. We were a group of about 30 people, many of whom work for the National Weather Service as well as several meteorology graduate students, a few paleoclimatologists, and a mish mash of other earth scientists. (We also stayed in a hotel downtown, which meant we were only a few blocks from the National Mall!)

The majority of the program involved a parade of speakers including high-ranking scientists from federal agencies (for example, USDA, USAID, the Department of State), think tanks (for example, RAND), and private industry (Lockheed Martin). We also visited the House of Representatives and the Senate office buildings and met with staffers including several AAAS Congressional Science and Technology Policy fellows, a female physicist who is the staff director for a House subcommittee, and a member of the Congressional Research Service.

Two speakers who stood out to me were Dr. David Reidmiller, Chief Climate Scientist at the State Dept. and Dr. Tegan Blaine, Senior Climate Change Advisor, Africa Bureau, U.S. Agency for International Development. Dr. Reidmiller is the lead US negotiator on scientific and technical issues with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Dr. Blaine works on funding and coordinating climate change adaptation programs in Africa. Such cool jobs! Both Reidmiller and Blaine are alumni of the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium.

Before jumping in to policy, I’ve been struggling to figure out two things: 1) What does a scientist find rewarding about policy work, given that it is very different than research work? and 2) My PhD training is narrow-focused, how can I be useful when the science issues at hand are broad ranging? In fact, I asked many of the speakers these questions. For the first question, they expressed how their policy work feels to them like they’re having a bigger impact helping society by providing a scientific perspective to policy discussions than their scientific research would have had. These seem like people who are more driven to make the world a better place by applying science to policy rather than through scientific discoveries—both of which are important. In response to the second question, most people explained how a scientific PhD is valuable in DC not necessarily because of your specific area of expertise, but because through the PhD process you learned to teach yourself new information, seek out and synthesize new information quickly and accurately, write and speak well, and think like a scientist. It’s really about the journey and not the final destination.

I’m not sure if I’m ready to completely “jump in,” but after this experience I feel even more excited to try out policy work after I finish my PhD. I recommend this AMS Summer Policy Colloquium to other scientists with a serious interest in pursuing a career in policy.