NIH’s recent request for information (RFI) related to post-doctoral training (Re-envisioning U.S. Postdoctoral Research Training and Career Progression within the Biomedical Research Enterprise) naturally attracted interest from many early career scientists. In response, Research!America hosted a webinar about how to respond to a federal agency RFI. Our guest speaker was Dr. Yvette Seger, Director of Science Policy at Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). Many members of the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) were in attendance.
Elena Suglia is a biology PhD candidate at the University of California-Davis, where her dissertation research focuses on California native plants and their responses to climate change. She first became interested in science policy through her experience with journalism and is currently an advisor for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice initiatives in the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences Dean’s Office. She is also a member of the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) advocacy committee and was one of the leaders involved in writing NSPN’s comment on the NIH’s Request for Information (RFI) on “Re-envisioning U.S. Postdoctoral Research Training and Career Progression within the Biomedical Research Enterprise.”
We were interested to learn what it was like for Elena to respond to the RFI and whether she had advice for others interested in getting involved in federal policy.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Were you familiar with RFIs before writing this comment?
“Previously, I’ve seen RFIs written about in different science policy listservs, but I hadn’t read any of them or read any responses to them. I was curious about what the process was like. I thought it would be a good experience to get this type of policy writing under my belt.”
Research!America recently hosted a webinar with Yvette Seger, PhD, Director of Science Policy at FASEB, on the process of writing an RFI comment. Were there any resources that were helpful for writing your RFI comment?
“Yes, I heard about that webinar! The best resource I had were other members of the NSPN community. Sharing anecdotes of our experiences in academia and our colleagues’ experiences was helpful so we could form our comment in a way that represented the diversity of lived experiences of folks who have either considered or completed postdoc positions. One person I interviewed was a dean who had thought about this situation a lot but from the other end of it. I looked at peer reviewed papers, survey reports, and opinion pieces to learn more about the up-to-date literature and public discourse on the topic.
Also, I am much more familiar with NSF policies than NIH. Commenting on NIH policy, I needed to learn more about what types of grants they had and compare them with NSF to see whether there were any policies that they could adopt from the NSF. I used the NIH Data Book, which is a nice, user-friendly platform for exploring the types of grants available and statistics on grant funded research projects.”
What was it like being an NSF-funded biology graduate student working on an RFI specifically for NIH-funded biomedical postdocs?
“I wouldn’t have wanted to write this RFI by myself because I wasn’t in that field and had never done it before. I mentioned ideas, and most of the time, they were not exclusive to my field. There are so many issues that affect everyone. I know there’s variation in the different agencies that provide funding and base pay, but in general, a statement about marginalized communities and disadvantaged groups having more barriers to success is going to hold true for any field.”
As an early career researcher, how did writing the RFI comment differ in comparison to your typical academic writing?
“I think the primary difference is the audience. It’s directed at people who are decision makers and defining policy. They’re thinking about a lot of different factors — not just the evidence that you’re supplying to back up your claims, which is the way that academic writing is done. We didn’t want to use jargon or focus too heavily on citing the literature. We brought in a lot of anecdotes about personal experiences to say, ‘we’re observing this in our community, and some of these trends might be because of the struggles we’ve heard about.’ That type of anecdotal evidence holds weight for decision makers.”
How did you manage writing a single comment that is representative of a large organization with various perspectives?
“That’s part of the reason that we did so much research on what the public discourse was, to make a statement that is representative. You’re never going to write something that is [100%] representative of that many people because you can’t, but you can engage in collaboration and a democratic process as much as possible by inviting feedback from members, which we did. We got a lot of folks to go into the Google Doc and comment. We did our best to incorporate all of that and not focus on one specific issue or community. It ended up being a pretty broad overview of issues.”
What motivated you to write this RFI comment?
“The previous memos I’ve done have been more technical and focus on areas that involved using ‘science for policy,’ like taking scientific findings and translating them to inform decision making. Over the past several years and with the work I’ve done in the Dean’s office, I’ve come to realize I am really interested in ‘policy for science.’ I enjoy thinking about the structure of graduate education and how we can enhance equity and inclusion to make science more welcoming and accessible, while bringing the benefits of science to everybody more evenly. I think in a general sense, as an adoptee, I’ve always struggled with a sense of belonging. So, anytime I see a process, policy, or a program that seems to be excluding people or making it difficult to succeed because you don’t feel like you belong, I feel compelled to bring in some of my personal experiences. When we target inclusivity, community, and equity for marginalized groups, it goes a long way towards helping everybody — not just those marginalized groups.”
What are the outcomes that you hope for regarding this RFI?
“I think the primary goal with this type of activity is to shed light on the issues that you care about — anything we can do to uplift marginalized voices is worth doing even if we’re one of many voices. This was a popular RFI; there were a lot of people at those [NIH postdoc RFI] listening sessions and many voices that wanted to be heard. In our democracy, advocacy is the most powerful tool that every citizen has, and we have a responsibility to use that voice.
In terms of actual policy changes, it’s not easy to balance all the different needs and make good policy decisions. I think more money was a big theme. Anything you can do to pay postdocs more will solve many issues. With everything I’ve seen, it’s clear that early career academics, including grad students and postdocs, are struggling to make ends meet.”
Has writing this response influenced your thoughts on whether or not to write more RFI comments in the future?
“I enjoyed the process and I’m interested in doing more ‘policy for science’ writing. With certain memos I’ve written in the past, I felt the topic was important, but it wasn’t the thing that got me up to go to work every day.’ I think that turned me off from policy writing. But once I found something that I was interested in, it was much easier to get energized by the topic and enjoy conversations with other people as I was writing and doing research.”
What are your post-PhD career aspirations and has writing this RFI comment influenced them?
“I definitely want to go into science policy. I’m applying for a couple of different fellowships and looking at state government jobs. Working on the RFI comment made me realize just how interested I was in higher education and diversity and inclusion policy as an actual career. When I heard of science policy, I thought it was much more along the lines of ‘science for policy,’ which is a lot of the science communication I’ve done in the past — translating research results for a general audience. I was less aware of the fact that thinking about how science is done in graduate education, funding decisions, etc., was also part of science policy, and that makes me even more excited about science policy as a career option.”
In what other ways do you think graduate students can get involved in advocacy?
“When I decided I was interested in policy professionally, I applied for different opportunities to travel to Washington D.C. and advocate for science funding at the federal level. There are many scientific societies or advocacy organizations that will sponsor students to go and advocate for science. I did that twice this spring — once for the AAAS CASE Workshop and another time with the American Institute of Biological Sciences for an annual Hill day through the Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award. It was a really valuable experience.
There are many different volunteering opportunities out there. There are a few different listservs that provide opportunities: there’s the policy alerts from AAAS, the NSPN newsletter, the Emerging Scientists and Engineers in Policy Coalition , the Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally, and many others.
You can work with your local government or advocate for issues you care about in your immediate community. You can even form a new chapter of NSPN at your institution; the list is endless. You can also apply for fellowships if you’re about to graduate. There’s tons of fellowships out there — you’ve probably seen the science policy fellowship master list.”
Check out Dr. Seger’s discussion and view the slides on the process of weighing in on policy at NIH and other research agencies through RFIs. Also, keep your eyes open for the next round of Research!America’s Early Career Microgrant applications opening soon!