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take a sabbatical in policy

“For 20 years, I thought my job was, as a basic scientist, [to] publish papers and throw them over the wall for someone else to apply. I now realize that there’s no one on the other side of the wall, just a huge pile of papers that we’ve all thrown over.” These words from sociologist Duncan Watts at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia will resonate with many researchers who are frustrated by the difficulties of translating good science into good governmental policy.

But what can be done about it? One under-appreciated answer, for scientists who can take a sabbatical, is to spend time working in government. Tours of service, as these experiences are called in the United States, can boost agency capacity and expertise, bring fresh perspectives into policymaking and create lasting relationships between the government and external researchers.

Spending a sabbatical in policy work can help scientists to identify urgent, understudied research areas, communicate their findings to decision makers and translate their knowledge into action. It can also enhance their reputation and visibility, both in academia and outside it.

Governments around the world are facing unprecedented questions related to science and technology, from climate change to artificial intelligence, often while operating on insufficient budgets and struggling to find relevant experts. There is a pressing need for scientific expertise in crafting and implementing sound, robust, evidence-based policies. At the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) — a non-profit, non-partisan policy-research organization based in Washington DC — I have witnessed at first hand the impact of bringing technical expertise into government. Over the past few years, FAS’s Talent Hub has helped US federal agencies to bring on world-class fellows. Last year, the programme placed 71 researchers into one- to two-year tours of service.

Agencies’ budgets and philanthropic funding can go only so far — as a result, fewer of these placements are offered than are needed. Last year, FAS and the Institute for Progress, a think tank in Washington DC, launched Sabbaticals in Service to address this gap. This pilot project taps into academia’s paid, flexible sabbaticals by helping to match academics who have sabbatical credits with federal agencies, where their expertise can have an impact on policy. It takes inspiration from successful university-level public-service programmes, such as Stanford Impact Labs at Stanford University in California.

To be sure, spending a sabbatical working in government instead of writing a book or completing a research fellowship will not appeal to everyone. But many of the concerns about this option are overblown. Fears that six months or a year are not enough time to make a difference don’t account for the long-term value of the relationships that such placements establish. Worries that policymakers will not be receptive to scientists’ perspectives overlook the impact of efforts to enhance evidence-based policymaking. And concerns about opportunity costs underestimate the insights and avenues for research that direct policy engagement can unlock.

Many academics who have done tours of service trumpet these benefits. Ira Lit, an education researcher at Stanford, says that while doing a policy sabbatical through Stanford Impact Labs’ Scholars in Service programme, he learnt substantially more than he would have from a typical sabbatical — and in ways he couldn’t have anticipated. And after completing a fellowship at the US Department of Agriculture, veterinary epidemiologist Gay Miller at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign continued to collaborate with the agency to model the impacts of foreign livestock diseases.

Many researchers who could excel in government roles simply don’t know about them. To start building awareness, scientists can seek out information on opportunities and supportive organizations — including FAS and other non-profit bodies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Horizon Institute for Public Service, both based in Washington DC, and Research4Impact in Baltimore, Maryland — and discuss policy roles with colleagues.

Researchers can’t do this alone. More universities should support scientists pursuing tours of service by providing guidance, mentoring and networking opportunities, and recognizing policy sabbaticals in promotion, tenure and hiring processes.

Government offices can smooth the way, too: they should start by publicly listing a point of contact for interested scientists, and those with experience in hiring and engaging with academics can share their knowledge with others. Ultimately, agencies could build sustainable programmes for short-term placements for researchers — excellent models include the US Congressional Budget Office’s Visiting Scholars programme, the US Patent and Trademark Office’s Croak Visiting Scholars programme and Jefferson Science Fellowships in the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development.

Together, we can reimagine the metaphorical wall between science and policy as something more inviting. Helping academics to navigate the other side effectively can advance evidence-based policy and impactful science.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

Fonte original Nature.com

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