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Science policy training could be a part of the traditional graduate experience

A training gap in our education system has become apparent as an increasing number of Ph.D.s are looking to careers outside of academia to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. Most graduate and post-doctorate experiences, however, focus predominantly on scientific ingenuity that is critical for success in academia and little on other skills, such as entrepreneurship, communication and activism. Chris Schaffer, an associate professor in biomedical engineering at Cornell University and a former AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, has designed and will teach a new class this fall, called Science Policy Bootcamp, which is aimed at introducing undergraduate and graduate students to science policy and the policy making process.

Schaffer has been an active science-policy mentor to his colleagues and lab members and believes passionately in the need for and value of developing skills beyond the bench.

"We want our best scientists to be aware of and engage with a variety of career paths. This is not an excuse to be a poor scientist, but rather a way for scientists to excel in the career trajectories that they are most excited about," said Schaffer. "The most effective way to teach people to be good scientists is essentially modeled after an apprenticeship. You learn to be effective at your job by actually doing it in a mentored environment. We teach individuals how to be a scientist this way, and we can teach the other skills and knowledge necessary for other careers in this way as well."

In Schaffer's class, students will be tasked with identifying, deeply researching, and technically analyzing a topic at the intersection of science and policy, deciding on the best policy option, and determining the best way to achieve change. Finally, they will implement tactics for achieving those policy-promoting strategies, such as writing a legal brief or bill, drafting an opinion editorial, and constructing social media and outreach campaigns.

The need for developing skills for scientists interested in non-academic careers has garnered national attention.

"The NIH has unquestionably recognized that the classic training approach that is used to train graduate students and postdocs is missing some things that would be valuable for people who do not pursue a career in academia," said Schaffer.

This past March, the NIH released a Funding Opportunity Announcement titled, Broadening Experiences for Scientific Training, for proposals aimed at diversifying graduate and postdoctoral training. A group of Cornell faculty, including Chris Schaffer, are vying for one of the rare BEST awards (up to 15 will be funded). Funding decisions could be announced as early as September 2013.

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