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Outside of Academia: Kavita Berger, Science Policy

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While each is different, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Kavita Berger says that on any given workday, she might interact with FBI investigators, academic PIs, and politicians on Capitol Hill. Berger, an associate program director at the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy, spends half her time orchestrating projects related to biosecurity, global health, and public health preparedness and response, while the other half she devotes to connecting key players from disparate groups in order to address policy issues related to those areas.

For the project management aspect of her position, Berger says she acts like any PI in a lab. "I write a lot of grants and I manage a few programs than I'm PI on," she says. For the policy aspect, Berger both attends and hosts events where "people from different sectors … come together and talk about issues at the intersect between science and society or science and security," she says. "We talk to policy-makers … about how science is done, what questions have to be asked in order to address certain initiatives, and how to manage promoting the science that is needed while minimizing the associated risks."

Upon obtaining a PhD in molecular genetics, Berger went on to study, among other things, microbicides and vaccines for HIV as a postdoctoral fellow. "After I finished my postdoc, I knew that I did not want to go into bench science," she says. So Berger took it upon herself to survey the landscape of potential careers by networking. "I actually explored a whole variety of different fields just by talking with people," she says, adding that, in the end it turned out that "science policy was extremely intriguing to me."

Berger says she considers herself lucky to have been hired in a policy position with a focus on biosecurity at AAAS despite having no formal training in the field. However, she now realizes that her scientific training and expertise have enabled her to "really look at things more systematically, trying to bring various different perspectives and lessons from a variety of different sectors together."

Those who embrace academic collegiality — the sense that "we can learn from our colleagues and our colleagues can learn from us," Berger says — are in a position to "really learn a whole lot" by working in policy, she adds. Interacting with a variety of people is especially rewarding, she says, because "the collaborations that you set up … are with people from … a variety of different backgrounds and experiences. You can really do some interesting stuff together."

It's not all roses, of course. Berger says that because the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy is supported by soft money, she must continually write grants to keep her projects afloat. She also says it can be difficult for some bench-trained scientists to transition into policy positions. There are some "who try to make the transition [but] think they know everything because they've gotten PhDs or some higher degree," she says. "It's extremely important for them to understand that when they transition away from the bench they're going into a new field where they're a novice, and so they need to be willing to learn from different people … from different sectors."

Berger says that those seeking to get a start in science policy ought to get a feel for the opportunities available to them by networking. "Look at who's doing what. Start interacting with them," she says. "People seem to be very open and helpful to providing at least their experience, if not opportunities or advice on careers." She also points to internship and fellowship programs sponsored by AAAS and other organizations as great opportunities for getting one's foot in the door. Scientists interested in policy should also "keep an eye out on congressional Web sites for hearings and other events going on — bills that are being introduced, discussions that are being had," she says, adding that many think tanks webcast such events. In the end, to build a successful career in science policy, "being able to keep an open mind … is extremely important," Berger says.


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