Science policy has an academia problem

When I first decided to pursue a (potentially temporary) career outside of academia, I got a lot of flack. First rule of academia is that you don’t leave academia. This is a much talked-about topic that I’m not going to beat to death here, but we all know that this is largely true. Now, I will say that this is a shifting issue as tenure-track jobs are harder and harder to come by and more and more graduate students become fed up with the academic system. Also, there is an entire group of graduate students that went to grad school with full intentions of never being in academia after their education. I’ve met many of these people in both my Knauss and Mirzayan Fellowships.

Many of my science-policy colleagues had to deal with stereotypical backlash from peers, advisers, or just the community as a whole when they announced that they may like to pursue a career outside of academia. Luckily for them (and myself), there are actually many options outside the ivory tower, many of which in career paths where you can more readily see how your work influences management, policy, and/or legislation.

Being part of this group of young, passionate scientists has been an amazing experience. However, I recently had an interaction with someone that really surprised me and got me thinking. I mentioned to them that I would potentially like to return to academia (I’m exploring all sectors currently – science is the calling, what form that takes is currently a mystery). They paused, looked at me like I was a sad puppy, and asked, “But why?!” This question is not wholly unexpected when I talk to scientists who are more interested in policy than academia. What surprised me was the disgust in their tone, like “Why would you ever want to go back, that’s insane!”

This revelation was especially surprising coming from someone who received similar criticism when they left academia. From this conversation, I began to retrace many of the interactions that I’ve had with scientists who tend towards non-academic vs academic pursuits and realized that I received comparable reactions quite often. People outside “the bubble” are genuinely surprised when I talk of academia and how much I didn’t hate it and how I would be open to returning to it. They act the same way as those who criticized my decision to leave academia in the first place.* This made me realize that academics and non-academics are like republicans and democrats, atheists and theists, Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart.**

I am hopeful that the thinking on the strong divide between academic and non-academic science is shifting. I live on that dividing line and am making a career of it. I know of many prominent, established academic scientists who are dedicating much of their time to working with non-academic entities. There are also many groups whose goals are to connect academics with policy-makers (e.g. Compass). I am hopeful that my generation, a generation of scientists who understand that we are not all going to be academics, will help to blur this divide that unnecessarily exists. It starts with one.

*I understand that I am speaking in broad strokes. When I chose to leave academia, my adviser, collaborators, and close peers were all incredibly supportive. The same can be said for my colleagues outside of academia to whom I’ve spoken about the possibility of a return.

**Again, catch-alls. There are a plethora of examples where academic-NGO-gov’t partnerships exist. One such example are Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, an effort spearheaded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whose objective is to bring together science from all sectors to solve pressing environmental problems. I speak more of the old-school ideals.

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