Policy Scientist as an Independent Consultant
Pamela Ebert Flattau, PhD
Flattau Associates, LLC
National planners and policymakers regularly call on scientists to help shape decisions. Scientists may convey their knowledge as expert witnesses at congressional hearings, as members of national policy committees, as authors of technical reports or as staff members of key offices throughout the government. In the past few decades, a number of national organizations have worked to increase the visibility of psychologists in the policy and planning process, creating more opportunities than in the past for scientists to share their wisdom and views. Thanks to these expanding opportunities, it has been possible for me to contribute to that policy and planning process for almost 25 years. However, I have had to go through several steps to acquire the skills that enabled me to make the transition from a doctoral student in experimental psychology to a policy scientist.
Like thousands of post-war "boomers," my interest in science was stimulated by the launching of Sputnik. Science classes were made memorable by my teachers' enthusiasm for the subject and by the many hands-on experiments. Many years later, I learned that my special experience was the result of the NSF having included my high school in a national testing of the "new" scientific curriculum.
By the time I completed high school, it seemed quite natural to pursue a career in science. However, those plans changed partly as a result of winning an Illinois State Scholarship that restricted my selection to colleges in the state. I decided to pursue college work at a prestigious university in another area for which I had shown some aptitude — journalism.
At the end of my freshman year, I took the opportunity to expand my writing experience by spending sophomore year "abroad." It was during that time that I first encountered psychology. A social psychologist outlined the value of psychology as a tool for documenting public opinion and its uses in market research. His lecture — and those by other psychology faculty that year — led me to explore psychology in more depth. Four years later, I had earned a Bachelor of Science degree in experimental psychology from the University of Leeds. Though I had abandoned plans for a journalism career, I still harbored an interest in pursuing a career that would span the science/public interface.
I continued to build my scientific skills in the laboratory of Professor Robert Pollack, whose commitment to psychology instilled a tremendous interest in research among his students at the University of Georgia. There were numerous opportunities for us to conduct experiments, present findings and publish results, and the experience furnished me with important insights into the scientific process. In addition, Pollack encouraged each student to explore the range of resources available at the university in preparation for our life's work. During those four years, I became involved in local political issues and invested time in courses offered by the School of Journalism to sharpen my writing and communications skills.
Toward the conclusion of my doctoral work, I discovered that the AAAS had launched a fellowship program that brought scientists to Washington, D.C., for a year. The APA co-funded my fellowship application in 1974-1975, making me the first psychologist to come to Washington under that program. [I am happy to add that APA has continued to fund those fellowships every year since then.] I spent a stimulating year with the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children and Youth, bringing psychological science to bear on such issues as education for handicapped children, developmental disabilities, life-long learning and day care regulation. After the fellowship, I continued to develop my nascent policy skills by becoming a staff officer with the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council. Except for four years of work with the National Science Foundation's Science Indicators Unit (1981-1984), my career at the Research Council spanned a 20-year period, from 1975 through 1995.
The Research Council occupies a unique position in national affairs by bringing the expertise of scientists and engineers to bear on issues of significance to the country. It is the role of the staff officer to become familiar with the information needs of the office or agency requesting input from the scientific community, assemble a committee of experts, generate the information the committee needs to form conclusions and recommendations, and then assist the committee in achieving consensus. Staff also play a role in summarizing the views of the committee in a report to the project sponsor. Staff experiences vary widely, but in my case, I acquired strong survey research and data acquisition skills, in addition to those related to consensus building and communication. By the time I left the Research Council in 1995, I had contributed to many studies in education and training. I was also fortunate to serve as the first staff officer for the U.S. Committee to the International Union of Psychological Science.
My career progress can be described as a combination of increasing skill acquisition and management responsibility. My first appointment at the NAS/NRC in 1975 was as one of our four executive secretaries on a large NIH project. I worked specifically as the executive secretary for the Panel on Behavioral Sciences, as well as the Panels on Health Services Research and on Nursing Research. This was followed by a variety of other "study director" positions. In 1990, I became the Director of the Studies and Survey Unit at the NAS/NRC Office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel, which I continued into 1995. This rather steady career trajectory allowed me time to raise a family--my first child having just completed the first year of college.
My recent decision to form a professional research and consulting firm comes from a conviction that education and training policies in science and engineering would benefit from the development of new tools and measures. I am positioning my firm to contribute to the formation of those measures by increasing the visibility of contemporary human development theory in the policy and planning process.
Whatever success I have achieved has partly to do with my willingness to acquire new skills and refine old ones, welcome new employment experiences, and learn from colleagues. Of course, I am also indebted to organizations like the APA for creating an environment in which a career like mine has been made possible.
(Originally published in the September/October 1998 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)