Since March 2017, I’ve spent my free time as an intern for New Jersey state Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, Ph.D. While it may seem overwhelming to dedicate time to working in state government while also working toward a Ph.D., I have found it to be very doable and rewarding. For me, it has also been an achievable way to explore public policy while continuing my scientific training and research.
My foray into state government was as easy as a phone call. I didn’t originally set out to join the office of my assemblyman; I didn’t even know that was a possibility. Instead, I was calling my representatives as part of semi-regular, informal phone banking sessions, in which we’d reach out to our elected officials about particular issues like science funding or healthcare policy. Finding that I had quickly reached the end of my list of federal representatives, I decided to give a ring to my state-level representatives.
I was excited to call Assemblyman Zwicker’s office. Before graduate school, I took two years off to be a federal science policy fellow at the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., where I worked with members of the executive branch on science-related policy work ranging from evaluating the efficacy of biomedical research grants for spurring innovative research to understanding the nation’s earth-observing capabilities to fostering a more diverse and representative STEM workforce. I’d seen and felt the importance of having members of government with STEM backgrounds. So my enthusiasm was tangible when I called and expressed my support and admiration of Assemblyman Zwicker, who is a trained physicist and works at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (New Jersey elected officials don’t work fulltime as legislators). His director of constituent relations, who had answered my call, asked if I would consider interning at the office, even suggesting that I send in my resume so she could pass it along to their policy director.
I polished up my resume and sent it into the office. I got a call back inviting me to come speak with them in person, and from there, my work in the office started. It really was that straightforward, and any graduate student, postdoc, or even career scientist or engineer could do it. Even if you don’t have previous policy experience, it doesn’t matter. Assemblyman Zwicker has said to me that what he values about graduate students and trained scientists in his office are their analytical skills and ability to parse through evidence and research for good ideas.
Every week, I spend about four hours working in the assemblyman’s office on policy research. This typically means researching a legislative topic and preparing a briefing for the assemblyman that surveys the possible legislative actions. For example, when I first joined the office, I was assigned to look into autonomous vehicles. I scoured reports by relevant organizations, like the RAND Corporation and the US Department of Transportation, to compile an overview of the pressing issues that will need legislative attention at the state level. I then researched what sorts of policies other states had put in place as a list of “role model” legislation that New Jersey could implement. After weeks of work, I submitted a two-page briefing to the assemblyman and policy director. My work will help the assemblyman craft bills he can introduce to modernize the state’s motor vehicle laws to make room for possible autonomous vehicle use. The time may be right for these policies, since New Jersey’s new governor has a strong interest in bolstering its STEM economy.
It’s quite surprising how much science- and technology-related policy happens at the state and local levels. In addition to working on autonomous vehicles, I’ve helped research emission-reducing policies (e.g., cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax), helped respond to constituent inquiries about state agricultural regulations regarding honey bees, and even looked into how New Jersey could foster technology innovation with state-backed venture capital. I recently had the exciting opportunity to sit in on a standing-room-only hearing on nuclear energy subsidies in the state.
My background and training in a STEM field, perhaps surprisingly, prepares me well for policy work. Much like preparing a manuscript for publication, writing a policy briefing requires you to take the wide, sometimes endless amount of information on a topic and boil it down to an essential overview of the most essential elements. The ability to read reports and research documents critically, like a scientist, allows me to quickly find relevant information and omit spurious claims on the issue. Even more so, my comfort with quantitative information allows me to pack a statistical punch into every briefing or policy position I draft.
Aside from researching specific science-related policy topics, I’ve had the chance to see intimately how government works at the state level. Although I joined the office as a policy research intern, I still work as a general member of the office as needed when I’m around. This has given me ample opportunities to answer constituent calls and discuss their concerns or to help with the logistics of events organized by the assemblyman’s office, like job fairs and book drives. Occasionally, I’ve had a chance to sit in with the assemblyman when he meets with constituents, and have been invited to chime into conversations about topics ranging from library funding to voting rights.
I feel that working in state government has grounded my Ph.D. research and allowed me to gain another source of satisfaction outside of science. For one, seeing science interface with policy and society has helped bring perspective to the potential importance of my own work. Even though I largely work in abstract, theoretical biology, having a weekly reminder of how science can be applied to society’s ails helps me at least envision what may be the long-term value of my work. Second, while I definitely believe in the value of science in society, I recognize it is a very long-term endeavor, often with very delayed gratification. Thus, working in policy allows me to impact my community much more immediately, even if those impacts are, for now, very modest.
There are always a million excuses not to do something, including graduate school. Trust me when I say, if you think you’re interested in policy, then you can start right now. Phone your state legislator. There’s a good chance they’re interested in what you have to say, and they may even love to have you volunteer with them for a few hours a week.
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