Save the world and keep a career

jeudi 8 décembre 2005

If the prospect of endless lab work doesn’t appeal, maybe using your qualifications to address global problems more directly would be the answer. There is plenty of scope for those who wish to pursue science with a ‘social conscience’, as Virginia Gewin finds out.Virginia Gewin– November 2005

Throughout his scientific training, Taylor Ricketts was a gung-ho, academic kind of guy. After his postdoc, he faced a fork in his career path, choosing between academia and the ‘civil society’ world of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). On the promise that he would conduct research, he became director of the conservation science programme at the WWF.

Ricketts, like a growing number of scientists, wants his work to improve the world, and NGOs value research that can help them shape policy. « Research is now considered an important core activity at many NGOs, » says Michael Edwards, director of governance and civil society at the Ford Foundation in New York. To get results, he says, NGOs realize that they need to back coherent and convincing stances with research rather than rhetoric.

As the number of NGOs continues to increase – currently some 40,000 international organizations, most of which formed since 1970 – civil society provides an option for scientists, most notably in global health and the environment. As these organizations mature, they are better able to raise budgets that can support research. Oxfam, Save the Children, World Vision and Environmental Defense are just a few NGOs with in-house research departments. Although the number of research positions at NGOs is still low, insiders suggest that the demand for researchers will increase. For those interested in career opportunities at NGOs, it is important to understand their scientific needs, the potential trade-offs and the cultural differences.

Environmental NGOs often have particular, even regional, areas of research interest. For example, Conservation International is based in Washington DC and specializes in rescuing biodiversity. It recently established a tropical ecology, assessment and monitoring project to collect data on climate, soils and biodiversity in South America. The project’s scope lured Thomas Lacher from a tenured professorship and endowed chair at Texas A&M University in College Station to become executive director of the organization’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science. More than half of his research staff of 70 have PhDs ; the rest have advanced technical backgrounds, showing that scientists are entering the NGO arena at all stages of their careers.

Policy decisions

Most positions requiring a scientific background will translate science into an organization’s policy position. Laurie Geller, a science officer at the International Council for Science in Paris, chose to combine her scientific background in atmospheric science with public policy. She helps to create interdisciplinary research programmes and to oversee the production of assessment and advisory reports on scientific issues. She represents the organization at international meetings, for instance, of the United Nations or Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Although the number of research positions with environmental NGOs is still small, the need for scientific expertise within the global-health arena is often underestimated. In addition to the need for health professionals, such as epidemiologists and immunologists, at organizations that respond to disasters and emergencies, the global-health NGO community supports a surprising amount of biomedical work to translate basic research into real-world solutions.

Melissa Pope, an immunologist at the Population Council’s Center for Biomedical Research, continues work she started at Rockefeller University on HIV transmission to help develop treatments and preventive methods. Her colleagues conduct complementary population biology, demographic and social science studies to enhance treatment effectiveness.

Indeed, several global-health NGOs have found that conducting scientific assessments of the efficacy of various health initiatives helps inform future policies. « I see a growing need for people who bridge boundaries between scientists and policy-makers, » says Karin Ringheim, research and analysis director at the Global Health Council in Washington DC. For those wanting to stay in academia, conducting science on policy-relevant areas or volunteering to be a public voice on controversial issues are options (see ‘Science policy in academia’). But, for those ready to make the leap from academia to the non-profit world, there are a number of trade-offs to consider.

Money can be an issue. The large established organizations can offer salaries comparable to academic positions, but most smaller organizations, on tight budgets, offer comparatively low salaries.

In addition maintaining scientific credibility can be a problem. Scientists specializing in environmental or resource-based issues often have their credibility attacked by organizations with opposing views. « Although the aim of NGOs is often overtly political, one should strive to avoid politicizing scientific information and analyses – which can be a real challenge, » says Geller.

Time out

Finding time to focus on research is an issue itself. Ricketts, for example, spends only 30-40% of his time doing research. The job-demands inherent to NGOS often outweigh research interests – a common, sometimes frustrating problem. « I don’t have time to pursue any basic research. I mostly manage relationships and people, » says Xan Augerot, director of science at the Wild Salmon Center in Portland, Oregon.

The biggest consequence of not doing research is limited career mobility. Claudia Neubauer, coordinator of Fondation Sciences Citoyennes in Paris, notes that it is difficult to go back to academia once you have left for advocacy. Ricketts says that this is really his grand experiment – to find out whether he will be able to move back to academia should he choose to do so.

But it can be done. After 20 years at Environmental Defense, Michael Oppenheimer recently became director of the programme in science, technology and environmental policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he will split his time between policy and science. Oppenheimer says that his ability to continue a research programme at the NGO was key to keeping the door to academia open. But his research – modelling the effects of climate change – was not expensive because it relied on data that had already been generated. « Effective scientists have to know what’s going on in the field, » he says, « but more importantly they also need to maintain and expand connections with other scientists. »

Being a first-rate scientist won’t necessarily get you a job. Try volunteering with the NGO to understand the workplace dynamic and demands, or taking a policy internship through a professional association.

Clear thinking

Excellent communication and writing skills, for a variety of audiences, are a must – and brevity is key. Geller is often asked to explain everything about climate change – without jargon – in a five-minute presentation. Seeking opportunities to write for local newspapers or NGOs can be a good first step.

Geller says scientists need to be very adaptable, as they are often asked to jump into topics they know little about. And project management skills will help in juggling the numerous job demands.

Unfortunately, there is no escaping the grant application. « Although the applications from private foundations are often shorter and easier than a typical grant from the National Institutes of Health, the institution gets less money, » says Pope.

« This is not a place for someone who needs constant success, » says Jane Rissler, food-biotechnology expert at the Union for Concerned Scientists in Washington DC, adding that one must look back at a year-long campaign to see that small victories add up to progress. Much of her satisfaction comes from helping citizens have a role in important policy debates.

Not surprisingly, many people who work for NGOs recommend such work. « When you can make a difference to the lives of many by using your science, you will feel a sense of satisfaction in what you have accomplished that transcends the paper in Nature or Science, » says Gerald Keusch, associate dean for global health at Boston University’s School of Public Health. Increasingly, lucky scientists, such as Ricketts, have the opportunity to strive for both.

Science policy in academia

There are a number of ways for young scientists to satisfy their idealistic leanings without leaving academia. Sense about Science is a London-based non-profit organization that encourages scientific dialogue on challenging issues. It relies on academics volunteering to take part in public debates or to write documents for lay readers. Recently, young interns have been working as unpaid staff for long stretches of time.

Undergraduates can make a difference. Science Shops – independent or university-affiliated research providers, 70 of them in Europe alone – link non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to scientific expertise (see Naturejobs 4-5 ; 5 July 2001). Supported in part by the European Commission, they provide research free of charge either through volunteer efforts or through credits offered to university students. « Students want their theses to have a social impact, not just in social sciences, but in economics and natural sciences, » says Michael Straehle of the Science Shop in Vienna.

BioVision, a global life-sciences forum, hosts a conference called BioVision.Nxt for young biologists interested in the common ground between academia, industry and NGOs. « We put together the programme to help students and NGOs understand where their mutual interests lie, » says Abigail Gemo, director of Biovision.Nxt, in Paris.

Virginia Gewinis a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.