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Careers in science policy

When it comes to influencing government policy, science has two avenues through which it can reach the right ears. One is by having skilled science consultants report on the current state of the research. The other is by sounding out public attitudes towards science issues. In both areas, skilled scientists are needed, but what is it like to build a career in science policy?

Dr Suzanne King is the director of People Science & Policy, a small consultancy based in London. The topics her firm has tackled range from everyday perceptions of physics and synthetic biology to the public's understanding of climate change and willingness to use environmentally friendly transport.

King describes how she began working in science policy. “I see myself more as somebody with a set of skills related to social research in terms of survey research, focus groups and in-depth interviewing. In 1996 the Wellcome Trust were looking for a social scientist who had the same skills as I did, and it just looked interesting and a bit different. Ever since then, I've been involved with science policy.”

On a typical day, King says she will be working on several projects at once, so she might spend some time on proposals, questionnaires, focus-group schedules, or writing a report. Interviews with senior civil servants and other people in the science policy world are also a regular part of her schedule. Although most of the consultants at People Science & Policy are social scientists, physical scientists possess important skills for her line of work. “One of the big issues is numeracy. There's quite a shortage of highly numerate social scientists, people who can do difficult modelling and take the results of surveys and do complex analysis.”

On the other end of the science policy spectrum is Dr Stephanie Manson, who works at United Biosource, an international pharmaceuticals consultancy. She evaluates newly approved drugs, analysing results from clinical trials, epidemiological studies and economic models. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) uses her reports when deciding whether to make drugs available for reimbursement within the NHS system.

Manson learned about drug regulation through her research. “Some of the work I had done in my PhD was on drug development - trying to find new uses for Viagra in different diseases. That's how I found out about the big decisions that are made and all the thought and politics that goes into it.”

She explains that NICE are primarily looking at how much benefit you get from a new drug, and how much that benefit would cost; estimating these costs and benefits requires economic models. “What I do is the modelling and also I put together the dossiers for submissions that go to NICE.” Diplomacy is a big part of her job. “We work with a lot of companies that have drugs that are all right but not brilliant, and you have to tell them that.”

When asked about the most important issues in science policy today, both mention funding cutbacks. “Thinking about the most sensible way of making those cuts is a big challenge,” King says. Manson sees the same tendency in her area. “Because of economic reasons, people are forced to decide against making drugs available, even though they would be useful drugs. It's a question of balancing social opinion versus economic and political necessity.”

Despite the bleak outlook for funding, Manson enjoys the good days at work. “Seeing a drug get approved, seeing people that cheat and lie [by manipulating statistics] get caught.” King has a more practical outlook. "The best part of the job is winning a project. It means that the client has thought your proposal is better than other people's and better at addressing their objectives and making a contribution to
the field, to say nothing of the fact that it means you can pay the bills for the next few months."


Catherine Lichten is a visiting PhD student in the Centre for Systems Biology


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