How Can a Neuroscientist Work in Policy?

For the first time in U.S. history, the science advisor to the president has been elevated to a cabinet-level position. While this move was perhaps precipitated by the scientific nature of global concerns like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, we welcome this increased engagement of scientists into the decision-making process.

The relevance of a scientific perspective on societal problems isn’t always obvious, but scientists can provide tangible insights into societal challenges beyond therapeutic and physiological applications, from racial inequities to the addiction crisis to environmental justice. For example, disseminating our knowledge of adolescent brain development can help advocate against punitive juvenile incarceration policies, and emphasizing the detrimental mental health-effects of “heat islands” could inform more equitable urban planning and help counter environmental racism.

In our new column Neuropolitics & Society, we will consider some of the many ways in which science can shape policy, as well as the political and social implications of emerging scientific research. Many of us entered our respective scientific fields to better society – whether through researching degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, or trying to increase our understanding of cognition, memory, and decision-making. The ability to use our scientific training to engage in discourse outside of research settings to affect real social change should be accessible to all scientists who are interested. The goal of this column is to spark interest, provide tools, and open up dialogue on societal issues adjacent to our research and across neuroscience.

Our first article will focus on how a neuroscientist (or any scientist!) can engage with policy or the government. We interviewed three professionals working in different areas of policy to get a range of perspectives on how you can get involved and possible roles you can pursue.

Tepring Piquado, PhD
Senior Policy Researcher, RAND
Chief Policy Director, California Issues Forum
Adriana Bankston, PhD
Principal Legislative Analyst for UC Office of the President
Incoming CEO & Managing Publisher, Journal of Science Policy & Governance
Andrew Thompson, PhD
Narcotics Science Advisor, International Policy for Drugs, Health, and Science, US Dept of State
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellow

 

Could you describe one aspect of how you arrived at your current role? For example, did you have pivotal experiences that changed your career trajectory? Was policy something you were interested in from the beginning of your scientific training?

Adriana: My transition from the bench into science policy largely took place through volunteering with a series of nonprofits and other organizations focused on academic and higher education policy areas. One significant project I’ve engaged in with Future of Research has been monitoring the compliance of U.S. institutions with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which connected federal policy to the academic space. Through this project, and subsequent work with the organization on postdoctoral salaries, I realized how much policy can impact early career scientists and their future in science. I also realized that I enjoyed gathering data across a large number of institutions and looking at broader trends in U.S. higher education issues. This was a pivotal moment which helped focus my efforts on policy projects related to higher education from that point on, and started me down a career trajectory leading to my current position.

 

“Developing how to communicate is just as important as learning what to communicate in order to provide the most benefit to your desired audience.”

What are some skills/personality traits that you think have helped you be successful in your role? And/or, what are some traits of your colleagues that you appreciate and you have seen contribute to their success?

Tepring: Two characteristics that I believe are essential are communication and curiosity. Communication is the science and the art of telling a narrative while engaging with others. Developing how to communicate is just as important as learning what to communicate in order to provide the most benefit to your desired audience. In my experience, curiosity is a quality that benefits scientists and policy makers. I consider curiosity a fuel for the mind that is needed to sustain us as we put in the hard work it takes to excel.

Adriana: In my current role, there is a lot of thinking on your feet and being able to pivot from one area to another pretty quickly, as well as getting up to speed on certain issues sometimes within a very short timeframe. To an extent, I think you have to be comfortable with not knowing how your day will look when you first come into the office. This could definitely be a challenge for scientists to get used to…
The other thing you need to learn is to think about issues related to your area at a very high level and be able to articulate the societal value of this work, which may be very different from how a scientist is used to writing about research topics.

In relation to colleagues, one thing I appreciate about my role now is that we each bring a different type of expertise to the table and it becomes a really nice blend of ideas where we all learn from each other and are able to advance our position on a given issue from a collective standpoint. This field is very collaborative and one thing that’s important, which you also learn as you go, is who the best person is that you need to go to who will be able to answer your question or solve a problem that will allow you to move ahead in your work. You also have to know who your allies are in the community and how to strategically position yourself or your team to interact with the most relevant individuals or stakeholders that can help move your priorities forward.

Andrew: The ability to talk about science in a way that resonates with people. It’s not as simple as avoiding jargon or simplifying your science. You have to find a way to connect science to a person’s values, or to what they care about. Not everyone will be persuaded by good science; most people will be persuaded by good communication.

 

“I didn’t fully appreciate the breadth of other considerations that go into policymaking, including economic, political, legal, and social factors, that can shape the final policy product into something different than what science would produce on its own.”

What is the most unexpected thing you’ve learned about engaging with policy/legislators/government?

Tepring: Policy making is rarely, if ever, only about the single policy. Policy makers must incorporate the context of the proposed changes, the needs of their constituents, the demands of competing issues, and the other areas of policy that this may impact. Policy making is a delicate, yet robust and complicated system.

Adriana: One thing I’ve learned, though, is that they can be allies to our current work, and this is a two way street where we provide expertise and scientific knowledge to them, and they may have other types of information that comes from a higher level than we may have given their positions. During this time, I’ve enjoyed interacting with staff and hearing their points of view, realized how important their roles are for our nation to advance in research, and have gotten a better understanding of what public service roles are like. In this field, we of course show a high degree of respect to our legislators and their staff, so there is a certain level of etiquette and professionalism to be learned, but it’s also been nice to know that to an extent they are just regular people making a difference. And because of their roles, they have a lot of influence over a number of issues, therefore our responsibility when interacting with them is to provide relevant information when needed, and help them achieve what they need if we can be of service to them. It’s also a really great privilege to interact with them and learn how they think about important issues facing our nation and how we should move forward.

Andrew: Most policymakers have access to good information. I used to think that if policymakers only knew the science behind the policy issues they deal with, they’d make the right choices. I didn’t fully appreciate the breadth of other considerations that go into policymaking, including economic, political, legal, and social factors, that can shape the final policy product into something different than what science would produce on its own.

 

Could you speak to an example of a challenge you’ve faced, or barriers that you have/continue to experience?

Andrew: Sometimes when I started and my colleagues were still learning my communication style they would take me too seriously because I was a scientist – I might casually toss out a suggestion to see if it sticks and they would take it as the scientific final word on the matter. I’ve had to learn to be more careful with how I frame advice.

 

Is there anything you suggest for being effective in engaging with policymakers or influencing legislation?

Tepring: Learn the legislative process well. Learn all the tools available to influence legislation, even if they are not part of your tool box. Know your audience and your goals. At all times, be helpful and in service to others.

 

“[…] find a policy issue that you are passionate about, and build your portfolio around that. Find national organizations that work on those issues and see if you can volunteer.”

What steps can students interested in policy take, whether they are at the high school, undergrad, grad, or postdoc level? Especially if they can’t relocate to DC or the state capitol?

Tepring: Find an area that you’re interested in. Go to your state’s legislative website. Find the committee that focuses on your selected issue. Read the legislation that’s coming through the Legislature to help you get a sense of the problems and the proposed approach to improve. Also, get involved. Talk with your local non-profit that is also working in your area of interest. Ask how you can help serve the community by supporting their efforts.

Adriana: Before I lived in DC, my strategy has been to cultivate both a national and a local level presence in policy. I would encourage students to get involved with or start a local science policy and advocacy group, that type of leadership can go a long way in this field if you are able to spearhead some initiatives or the actual group itself. Local engagement with legislators is also a good avenue, they often have town halls and city council meetings that you may be able to attend and engage with them. Legislators also like to hear from constituents, so I wouldn’t be shy to call your local representative about an issue in their district, and you can also try to make your opinions known by publishing an op-ed in a local newspaper. On a larger scale, I would say to find a policy issue that you are passionate about, and build your portfolio around that. Find national organizations that work on those issues and see if you can volunteer. Another strategy is to think about the skills you will need in policy, and engage in activities that will help you build those skills – for example, blogging is a good way to learn how to explain your research to non-scientific audiences. Also it’s never too early to learn how to write policy documents that you will need to know how to do in a policy role. The Journal of Science Policy & Governance offers opportunities to publish on a large variety of topics in science, technology and innovation policy, and in many different formats. We also offer writing workshops and other opportunities to hone your skills in policy research and writing, including with through involvement with the editorial board.

I would also become active on Twitter, and you can follow many organizations that are in the policy space to see what topics they are discussing, as well as subscribe to newsletters from scientific societies or other avenues (like FYI AIP newsletter) that summarize the most relevant federal policy issues in a timely manner. Informational interviews also can go a long day towards making connections in policy, it’s always a good idea to schedule calls with folks who have positions that you find interesting. Most people enjoy talking about themselves, and it will help you build your network overtime, and then you can tap into those folks when you are looking for your next role in policy.

 

Many early career research scientists are interested in academia because of the capacity for mentoring — could you speak to any experiences with mentors/mentees in your policy career trajectory that have been important to you?

Tepring: Policy making and politics are grounded in relationships. As such, mentor-mentee is an essential aspect of many of those relationships. Additionally, I firmly believe that we should be building a mentoring network, not just one person. Personally, I set aside time to mentor when ever requested and am proactive at inviting people for coffee or lunch to learn about what they do, how they designed their career, and ask them to share any pitfalls that I might be able to avoid with their guidance.

 

*Edited for clarity and brevity.
*This post represents the writer’s personal views and not the views of their employer.

 

Written by Zoe Guttman and Yuki Hebner.
Edited by Holly Hake.

 

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Author(s)

  • Zoe received degrees in Neural Science and Psychology from New York University before moving to Los Angeles to pursue her PhD in Neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles. In the lab of Dr. Edythe London, she combines cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics (Neuroeconomics) to investigate decision-making under risk and uncertainty in both healthy people and those with addictive disorders. She uses neuroimaging methods (fMRI, PET), economic tasks, and computational models to better understand why people make less-than-ideal choices in environments of uncertainty. She is a co-founder of the Science Policy Group at UCLA and enthusiastic about science policy and communication.

Zoe Guttman

Zoe received degrees in Neural Science and Psychology from New York University before moving to Los Angeles to pursue her PhD in Neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles. In the lab of Dr. Edythe London, she combines cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics (Neuroeconomics) to investigate decision-making under risk and uncertainty in both healthy people and those with addictive disorders. She uses neuroimaging methods (fMRI, PET), economic tasks, and computational models to better understand why people make less-than-ideal choices in environments of uncertainty. She is a co-founder of the Science Policy Group at UCLA and enthusiastic about science policy and communication.

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