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Ogmius Newsletter

Transitions by Kevin Vranes

It seems inevitable: as society grows increasingly complex, the efficiencies provided society by dividing labor demand ever more specialization.  This holds not just for factories, computers and medical fields, but for the Earth sciences as well.  A quick comparison between any 2006 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research and any 1966 issue of the same will show just how specialized the Earth sciences have become in four decades.

Increased specialization means that anybody wishing to study the Earth sciences at a high level must, well, specialize.  And deeply.

The problem is, even though I am certainly a scientist-type, I am not a specialist.  I've always been more comfortable considering myself a sort of jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none Earth scientist than a "number one expert in the submicroparameterization of Lagrangian vector fields in mesoplutonic cryospheres" type.  Even while working toward a Ph.D. in physical oceanography, which required considerable specialization, I had an eye toward the bigger picture.

For me, the "bigger picture" meant not, "how does the global ocean and climate system work?" but, "why do we care how the ocean works?" And, "what does society get out of prioritizing one science over another?"  That kind of thinking is your one-way ticket out of specialized research in the physical sciences and into science policy. So, realizing that I wanted to understand issues in both fields, I stuck it out in the physical sciences and planned my eventual transition to science policy.

To be sure, the study of science policy requires as much specialization as any academic field.  The difference is that within science policy I can look at two universes simultaneously and thus be a bit of generalist.  I can study science in a wide sense while also studying the "whys" of our society's approach to science.  This bimodal study has presented me with challenges and opportunities a set of challenges and opportunities quite different than what I faced upon completion of my Ph.D.

Finishing graduate school in 2003, I sailed two degrees in latitude south to Washington D.C., jumped off the research ship and landed as the Congressional Science Fellow of the American Geophysical Union.  I served as a senior staffer and science advisor to a Senator from the Pacific Northwest.  Fortuitously, my boss held seats on all three authorizing committees with jurisdiction over science issues.  There the opportunities and challenges were quite clear: 

  • A chance to learn the legislative process and congressional decision-making first-hand, from the inside-out. 
  • A chance to interact with major movers and shakers throughout the political and policy worlds. 
  • A chance to get my phone calls answered or messages returned immediately by powerful people. 
  • A chance to write legislation and thus have a direct influence on national policy (hint: see PL 108-360). 

Heady stuff for an anonymous former academic.

The challenges were just as clear: Know your boss' goals and priorities and be willing to subordinate yours to his.   Understand how the interactions and discourse in politics are nothing like in academic science (while both can be quite antagonistic, they are antagonistic in very different ways).  Be willing to be a mile-wide and inch-deep rather than the converse. Transition from the grad student uniform of sandals and ratty t-shirts to wearing a suit everyday.  Don't screw up.

Now that I've come back to academia there are still broad challenges and opportunities, but here they are the array familiar to all academics: the opportunity and the challenge of being original and creative, of setting your own goals and priorities, and of being relevant.

In coming from science into science policy via politics, however, I recognize a unique set of possibilities.  Using your inside knowledge, can you still influence the process, this time from the outside?  If so, can you teach those unfamiliar with inside-politics to also have an influence?  Can you live in both worlds, speaking two languages, and be successful in either?  Can you convince traditional scientists to pay attention to decision-making and convince decision-makers to listen to scientists?

Perhaps most challenging is that the academia-to-politics-to-academia experience has pulled me into a new shape, one possibly incompatible with the traditional methods of academic research.  While I distrusted the ephemeral nature of how the political machine processes important issues, I came to love the fast pace (minutes versus years).  I also came to appreciate being a decision-maker (or close to one) rather than somebody who studies decision-makers.  Despite these heady political-side benefits, by rationally examining situations academia provides ultimate flexibility and the chance to have long-lasting effects on thoughts and decisions.

As the political process leaves little time for rational, detailed examinations into issues, the dichotomy between academia and politics is clear and the choice of emphasis black-and-white.  For now I have chosen the rational, detailed side.  Tomorrow? 

We'll see.

Kevin Vranes