In the Paths to Science Policy series, we talk to individuals who have a passion for science policy and are active in advocacy through their various roles and careers. The series aims to inform and guide early career scientists interested in science policy. This series is brought to you by the GSA Early Care­er Scientist Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee.

The following transcript is from my conversation with Dr. Adriana Bankston, a Senior Fellow in Science Policy at the Federation of American Scientists, who is also the Membership Engagement Chair with AAAS Section X, and immediate past CEO & Managing Publisher for the Journal of Science Policy & Governance (JSPG). Here we discuss different traits commonly­ found in successful policy and advocacy fellowship applicants, various approaches for building one’s network, ways to transition into a policy and advocacy role from an academic background, and the importance of a dependable leader in any discipline.

One of the major takeaways I’ve learned from other interviews of yours is that your Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Policy & Advocacy Fellowship was a major door opener for your interest in policy and advocacy. Many international societies offer similar fellowships. What types of traits are necessary for an application to get a candidate to that next step and be selected for these programs?

Having an interest in a specific policy area and following that passion can be a good strategy. But you also have to be flexible once you get into the fellowship, as you may work on projects that you didn’t anticipate, and you need to think on your feet.

In preparation for applying, engaging in activities that show your commitment to a career in science policy is important, such as writing for a non-academic outlet and organizing policy events.

When I applied for the SfN Policy & Advocacy Fellowship, I had advocated for research policy for several years. I had a good story to tell, since I had previously engaged in advocacy activities, and could articulate why the fellowship was a clear next step for me to build upon these experiences and advance my career.

So when applying for policy fellowships, you need to be able to say why you want to go into policy, how the fellowship will help you move forward, and what your career goal is. Your goals or policy interests may change, but having a direction at the outset can go a long way.

In the “Beyond the Thesis” podcast, you share the importance of getting involved and gaining momentum by building your network early. But not everyone may have that network innately. What soft skills were necessary for you to reach out and start building your professional network?

Honestly, you learn by doing it. Because scientists don’t tend to be very social, and policy is a very people-oriented field, you have to get used to the idea that you will always be talking to people. Start small, such as with your peers, and present on your policy interests in trusted circles.

If you can find a specific policy area that you are passionate about, it will likely make it easier to talk in front of people. That’s how I came out of my shell and forced myself to get out of my comfort zone. If somebody invited me to speak, I would accept and figure it out later. So, sometimes you just have to say yes to an opportunity. While I’m generally pretty shy, if they asked me to talk about the future STEM pipeline, I would do it anytime because that’s what I’m interested in.

Relatedly, when meeting with science policy professionals for informational interviews, start with your current network and build on that. When requesting these meetings, have clear goals and know what you want to get from the conversation and be respectful of their time.

So your recommendation, from what I’m gathering, is that if an opportunity comes just rip off the band aid and go full force right into it?

That’s correct. When I was starting out, I wouldn’t say no to any opportunity. And even if it was a small opportunity, I would take the time to do it well. I believe that the more you do things well, the more people see you, and you build your reputation on that. It feeds on itself. I started small, by talking to graduate students about policy topics and speaking on these topics in spaces that felt safe. I would recommend giving a couple of talks within your circle and seeing how it goes, but also don’t be afraid to take on larger opportunities if they come along even if you don’t feel ready. But always be prepared to do well in even the smallest event because you never know who is there. And you want to do a good job for yourself too. So it’s like everything else— practice your talking points beforehand.

How can a science writer transition to a more policy-oriented style of writing?

One avenue is to educate yourself by getting practice in policy writing and submitting to journals like JSPG which provides training components. Writing policy publications is a good exercise in thinking and formulating arguments on policy issues within a larger societal context. This is why I think more academic style outlets like JSPG are valuable. I would also think about this from the audience standpoint. If you’re giving this to your legislator, what would they want to read about that is timely and relevant? And how do I make it easy for them to understand my main points and asks?

Another avenue is to consider policy implementation. If you’re writing for a magazine and want to get the piece in front of your local representative, developing non-academic writing skills comes in handy. Your message needs to be very concise and often delivered within a short timeline, so you have to be ready to push out a message to Capitol Hill, for example, possibly even within 24–48 hours. Learning to develop a written paragraph or longer piece on the spot on an issue that legislative staff will care about is a good skill for mastering policy writing. 

What insights have you gleaned from your mentors, and as you have become a mentor yourself, that you could distill down and share with other individuals who are now stepping up into a mentorship and leadership role?

I think the most important thing for a supervisor or mentor is to support people in what they want to do, and not what you want them to do.

This is not always an easy thing to do. As a supervisor, you need to make sure that things are moving forward in the best interest of the organization while making sure that individual needs are getting fulfilled. It is a balance between elevating organizational priorities while building people up at the same time. Those people will appreciate working on something they are interested in while building their resume and serving multiple interests.

I like to believe there’s a certain degree of tenacity and altruism shared amongst all individuals pursuing a role in policy and advocacy. These individuals will strive to bolster their cause and do everything in their power to support those sharing the same set of values. Do you agree with the sentiment? And if so, what other traits or qualities of an individual are necessary to succeed in the realm of policy and advocacy?

Going to medical school was my childhood dream because I wanted to do something for other people, and to serve the greater good. I realized that working in science policy fulfills the same needs for me. Policy making as a field is very collaborative and every person’s contribution matters, and a lot comes down to your own accountability. Moral integrity is key, so if say that you are going to do something, then do it. Be dependable and a good team player. When you have a section of a letter to the Hill assigned to you within a certain timeframe, that needs to be done in order for the letter to be sent on time. If you are part of a good team, your work will be valued and be part of the final product. But you have to do the work yourself and do it well to show your contribution to a collective endeavor.

I also want to make a point about adaptability. Sometimes you have to quickly write a statement for your organization on a recent policy development on the Hill which can be exciting. I think that keeps it interesting, that adrenaline rush, but also you have to be able to adapt and realize that your day is not in your control. You may have to drop what you had planned for that day if required and help with an urgent task to serve your organization’s needs.

Do you have any closing remarks?

I want to encourage young people to get your voice out there and into relevant spaces. Just because you are an early career scientist, it does not mean that people do not care about what you have to say. On the contrary, ou bring a lot to the table, and most policymakers and their staff like to hear from you. So don’t be afraid to speak up on policy issues that you care about and you think they should address for their constituents.

Graduate student and postdoctoral leaders from the Early Career Scientist Committees of the GSA.

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