STPP students participate in a range of training and networking opportunities. Read a first-hand account by Rachel Wallace:
I first learned about Science Outside the Lab (SOtL) from a Google search -- I was looking for science and technology policy internship opportunities in Washington, D.C. Because of the timeline for applying and the cost of the program, I decided I was going to participate in the program more than a year and half before I actually went. I remember being so excited because SOtL promised to be an incredible opportunity to spend two weeks learning the intricacies of S&T policy from a wide variety of people who work in and shape S&T policy.
So, finally, in June 2017, nine other PhD students from all around the country and I went to Washington, D.C. to participate in SOtL, a science and technology (S&T) policy "boot camp" run by the Center for Engagement & Training in Science & Society at Arizona State University. We had the opportunity to learn from and network with policy makers, program officers, analysts, advisers, career civil servants, and educators from executive agencies, legislative committees, professional societies, museums, and consulting firms. It was invaluable to hear from so many people about the opportunities, jobs, and career pathways that exist in the rather nebulous field of S&T policy. Now almost six months later, I have come to appreciate the impressive breadth of the SOtL program: we met with people at all levels of government, in agencies and organizations with diverse S&T policy missions, and no one had the same path to a career in S&T policy.
During the first few days before we met with many of these experts, however, we had "lessons" on the basics of S&T policy and communication. Much of what we covered echoed the basic training of the STPP program, but SOtL took a different tact and forced us to do something entirely new and unexpected instead of just learning to explain our science to "the public." Stephanie Long, the Director of Live Science at the Science Museum of Minnesota tasked us with writing short plays about our research. SOtL then hired professional actors to perform our plays! Our SOtL cohort initially had some resistance to this - it was an exercise well outside the comfort zone for S&T PhD students - but in the end we all felt it was a valuable exercise which forced us to think creatively about how to explain our research. (I wrote about targeted drug delivery as a crime drama and prisoner interrogation.) This exercise ultimately proved to be successful when we all commented afterwards that we finally understood the research everyone else was doing.
The rest of our time was devoted to conversations with the various experts. The people we met were excited to speak with us, and all of them provided insightful and thought-provoking perspectives on their paths to their current positions and their experiences working in S&T policy. Ira Bennett, the director of SOtL and Assistant Research Professor, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, specifically tries to bring in people positioned in the middle of their organization's hierarchy. He explained that people at the top of an agency or organization must stick to the "party line," and the group does not learn anything that cannot be read in a newspaper or press release. Staff members in positions below the top but still high to have access to privileged information tend to have the most interesting perspectives on the S&T policy work and the organization's overall mission. Our conversations were unstructured, and we were encouraged to ask hard, probing, and interesting questions. But, the one rule was that the question "couldn't be something you can look up with a Google search."
In particular, we asked every SOtL speaker we met if and how their work has changed and what they think will happen in their field under the current Presidential administration. Given the atmosphere and political unrest in Washington, D.C., it was fascinating to hear about the wide range of responses, even from staff within the same organization. The responses ran the full spectrum from, "Things are pretty much business as usual. We're just keeping our head down and doing our work until we hear otherwise." to "It's absolutely awful. No one knows what's happening. This administration is a disaster." On average, people said that not much had changed yet; they were still doing their work day-to-day, but they were wary disturbed by signals from the administration and wary of potential changes to come. Those conversations occurred back in June, and I would love to know how answers have changed, particularly from those working in organizations such as the EPA and OMB.
As soon as SOtL was over, I knew the program had proven to be an excellent opportunity to be "on the ground" in Washington, D.C. In addition to being purely educational, I was encouraged by observing the wide variety paths on which to find your way in the S&T world. I was particularly excited to learn about the FDA's efforts to develop to field of regulatory science. One of the speakers, an SOtL alum and Mirzayan fellow who had recently earned her PhD in Pharmacology, was one of the first cohort of new scientists the FDA hired into their regulatory science positions. As she talked about her job, I was thrilled to see how her work ties together her scientific and technical skills with her policy expertise. I had never heard about this type of policy work before, and I realized that it is exactly what I want to find in my own S&T policy career. SOtL is a critical component in building the path to get there.