How to Transition From Academia to Government
Pictured: Graphic showing person working in a lab and at an office/© Nicole Bean
Moving into an industry job isn’t the only option for those who are looking to leave academia. For those looking to make a difference, moving into a government role could be one of the most rewarding pathways available.
While scientists can influence policy while working in academia, they may find it easier to do so when working directly in the government or in policy-making roles.
How to Transition from Academia to Government
Dr. Chris Cvitanovic, a transdisciplinary scientist working at both the University of New South Wales and the Australian Government Department of Environment, told BioSpace that his first role in government came about at a climate-focused company. He said the company needed a knowledge broker, or “someone who could speak to both science and policy communities to bridge the gap.”
“That was how I got interested in the academic ways we understand knowledge exchange,” Cvitanovic said.
There is potential to improve the lives of millions of people through effective and scientifically sound policies. According to Reuters, the global crises currently at work require policymaking with scientific input now more than ever before, and academics have a critical role to play as their skillset is useful in both science and government.
According to the Center for American Progress, simply advocating for science in government can have huge benefits; the return on investment for the U.S. from publicly funded scientific R&D ranges from 30 to 100 percent, and sometimes even higher. Scientific innovation also leads to higher productivity, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation reported, which grows the economy and shrinks budget deficits.
Scientists can play a role in diplomacy by facilitating collaboration and addressing global challenges. There are policy-making roles available public health, agriculture and the food supply chain, the environment, international relations and more.
One reward of moving into policy and government, Cvitanovic said, is the personal relationships and networks researchers can build, as scientists often flourish when given the opportunity to share their knowledge. Cvitanovic said someone interested in making the switch should begin by reflecting on their values and position in the system, and always be transparent.
Cvitanovic also advised researchers wanting to transition into government to explore the wide range of department graduate programs that offer permanent placements at their conclusion.
“It’s a pathway into government—a way to develop those skills as a researcher,” he said.
He also suggested scientists be true to themselves and think as broadly as possible about the work to which they could contribute.
“Take opportunities, particularly in your early career training, outside of your immediate scope. It’s about diversifying your skillset early. Test the waters.”
Here are some of the top skills many researchers and academics already have that they can use when transitioning into government.
Scientists have experience engaging with stakeholders in ethics, legal and safety departments, and are often skilled at communicating their science with people outside academia. They often represent a direct link to science to the people around them, providing invaluable experience when moving into government.
The skillset researchers gain from this is useful in government roles where policies may involve multiple departments that can provide funding or support.
Complex scientific research projects often span years and have many moving parts, with progress dependent on detailed plans and careful management. Scientists can use their project management skills to set realistic goals and timelines and ensure projects stay on track.
The evidence-based approach of a scientist can keep policymaking grounded in facts and analysis. Using data to monitor and evaluate, they can examine project progress, identify areas for improvement and make informed decisions about how to adjust project plans or resource allocation.
Academics can identify assumptions and biases present in policy discussions and ensure that decisions are based on objective analysis rather than personal or political preferences.
Some ideal roles for a researcher transitioning away from academia and into government include:
A science adviser provides expert scientific advice and guidance to decision-makers, ensuring that STEM is considered in the development of programs and regulations. Researchers excel in these roles by using their extensive academic knowledge, and work closely with policymakers to help them understand the scientific basis for policy decisions. They are also able to identify potential scientific issues or risks that may arise with any proposals.
Policy officers are responsible for developing and implementing policies within organizations or government agencies. They are involved in community engagement and collect feedback during the consultation phase of a new policy, analyze any issues, draft recommendations and develop monitoring frameworks and timelines.
A policy analyst identifies issues with policies and evaluates the solutions, which requires a systematic and evidence-based approach. Policy analysts also evaluate the impact of decisions once they’ve been made and provide recommendations for future development.
Using their skills at translating research into accessible content, scientific communicators convey information to the public, policymakers and others in a way that’s easy to understand. They may work in government agencies or as educators developing science programs, advising others on how to incorporate science, maintain accuracy and design communication strategies.
A program manager oversees the development of programs designed to achieve specific goals in government agencies, non-profit organizations and private sector companies. Scientists can excel as program managers by using their experience in coordinating complex projects and pushing research forward. Program managers can have a significant effect on the application of policies that affect a wide range of societal issues, providing deep job satisfaction.
Regulatory Affairs Specialist
Regulatory affairs specialists ensure that organizations comply with regulatory bodies like the FDA or EPA. Scientists can also work within these regulatory bodies themselves, providing expert advice on public health and safety, industry requirements, environmental issues and innovation.