A New Role for Policy Analysts
A DISCUSSION OFGovernment and the Evolving Research Profession
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In “Government and the Evolving Research Profession” (Issues, Fall 2022), Candice Wright highlights the increasing pressure on researchers to make fundamental advancements in their fields, enable technology transfer to help solve pressing problems, contribute insights to policy, and appropriately manage national security risks and research security. Navigating such challenges requires a mix of skills that are hard to find in any single person. Instead, these challenges call for collaboratively produced technical and policy-relevant analysis that can then be applied in both public and private spheres.
It is imperative to consider how scientific and technical experts can best contribute to a productive, evidence-based scientific and policymaking process. How researchers answer this call can have a profound impact on their career, their professional standing, and occasionally their public reputation. The problem is that for professional academics and researchers with an educational and knowledge-generating mission, such policy, tech transfer, and national security work is difficult and often requires time and resources that can be hard to justify within existing incentive systems. How do you best retain your honest-broker status amid the risk of entering the political fray or distracting from your research agenda with a multitude of nonresearch engagements and travel? Policy analysts who are well-trained and make a career at the intersection of policy, national security, and emerging technologies can help fill this gap with specialized skills that augment those of researchers.
Policy analysts (including those at the Government Accountability Office) can help translate the scientific and technical content for nontechnical decisionmakers. This is a viable career for both technically and policy-trained individuals. Working with good analysts who have a strong contextual understanding of policy and enough scientific technical expertise to understand the core issues in play is transformative. Their ability to communicate and translate information from technical experts will help bench scientists increasingly understand the analysts’ value and will open up new ways to work together.
Finding people who can work both sides of the technical and policy equation is difficult. There’s a history of training policy fellows (e.g., at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academies) and now some new fellowships are increasing attention on this role (TechCongress, Open Philanthropy, Federation of American Scientists). This is heartening, but the total number of highly skilled emerging-technology policy analysts is still relatively small, and their long-term career viability is still uncertain. The scientific research and academic communities need to create ramps and pathways from traditional fields to policy analysis roles with formal training options in these hybrid areas. Technical experts need to be encouraged to take these paths and find home organizations where they can develop and excel.
Those who choose to stay within research careers can cultivate alliances with colleagues at policy analysis institutions, and I offer the one I lead, the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, as an example. As this becomes more common, universities may choose to create more independent centers devoted to policy analysis or incentivize sabbaticals for those who can coproduce relevant policy analysis. Scientists and policy analysts are natural partners and have a vested interest in each operating at the top of their game, which can help fill the gap that Wright keenly observed.
Center for Security and Emerging Technology
The US research environment is at an inflection point. While the Vannevar Bush model expressed in Science, the Endless Frontier has evolved somewhat over time, it has served the nation well for decades. Yet in the face of formidable competitive challenges, there are growing concerns that this model will not enable the country to maintain its international leadership position in the future. As an example, the Special Competitive Studies Project recently wrote, “China is creating spheres of influence without any clear limits, underpinned by physical and technological infrastructure, cemented with commercial ties and technology platform dependence, deepened by authoritarian affinities, and enforced by growing military capabilities.”
The current US model for scientific advancement is enabled by federally sponsored basic research, the results of which are leveraged by the private sector to produce new capabilities. There has been little strategically planned connectivity across sectors or through the innovation process, however, and the government’s ability to drive activities has diminished over time. Yet this approach is now competing with China’s holistic strategy for international leadership in science and technology (S&T) arenas important to national and economic security. To better compete, MITRE has called for a
new federal effort to build innovation-fostering partnerships: a voluntary coordination of government, industry, and academic activities to holistically address our nation’s most-critical S&T priorities. It must integrate such diverse players into a collaborative network to share information about opportunities and solutions, and to coordinate shared, complementary efforts across sectors, institutions, and disciplines … to help catalyze solutions to the biggest technology-related challenges.
The Special Competitive Studies Project is now working to develop such a new model that could drive collaboration of America’s “five power centers” on critically important S&T topics. It is against this background and toward this future model that researchers will likely have to work, and about which Candice Wright provides useful insights.
Wright tackles three key issues: collaboration, balancing idea exchange with security, and rigor and transparency. All are important. Research collaboration (between government, industry, academia, and international partners) will soon become as important as cross-discipline collaboration has been, but while it’s easy to discuss the virtues of open research environments, this can be difficult to implement due to security and intellectual property concerns. Scientific integrity is also paramount, and Wright recommends actions to help at project initiation.
Additional components that must also be considered and incorporated within the future research paradigm include determining the roles, requirements, and collaboration approaches of different innovation sectors (including national laboratories and federally funded research and development centers) so that each succeeds and the nation’s capabilities advance; enhancing federal government S&T coordination; communicating to nonscientists; and ensuring that needed technical advancements occur while maintaining important national ideals such as privacy, equity, and free enterprise.
Our research future will be collaboration-based and strategically driven. Let’s begin now, together and with a consistent vision.
Senior Principal, Science & Technology Policy Analyst