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May 19, 2011

Pull your heads out of the sand: Young scientists need to be policy aware

by David Kent

OstrichXSmall In an article I wrote last month on Nature magazine’s "The Future of the PhD" series, I highlighted a thought from Steven Running (Forest Ecologist extraordinaire) who compared today’s PhD student to those going through the system with him in the 1970s:

“The modern PhD student needs to be much more policy aware, because society has many environmental problems to solve, and not much time.”

While Professor Running was mostly speaking about climate change policy and his own research area, his point about being equipped to handle the attention of the public is well taken, especially in this age of hyper-information exchange. Today’s graduate students and young investigators need to be policy aware and the field of stem cells is a great example where the highly successful laboratory heads often find themselves in policy advising and public relations situations.

Just this week, followers of this blog would have read about the recommendation made by Advocate General M. Yves Bot on patents relating to ES cells. This prompted an open letter from scientists that was spearheaded by Austin Smith, a household name for those in stem cell biology, and co-signed by numerous other European stem cell biologists (including Peter Andrews, Clare Blackburn, and Olle Lindvall). This isn’t the first time that Professor Smith has invested in non-lab advocacy projects. He was also the driver behind the Open letter to Senior Editors of peer-review journals publishing in the field of stem cell biology.

Similarly, other prominent stem cell biologists have found themselves in the thick of the policy wars –- just look at the top stem cell scientists in the United States. George Daley has been front and centre in the topsy-turvy world of spending federal monies on stem cell research. He has led the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s (ISSCR) special task force for developing the guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell research and has appeared before the US senate a number of times to promote the expansion of stem cell research funding. Irving Weissman has been another stalwart for stem cell biology including prominent roles in the National Academy of Sciences and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Stem cell scientists in Canada have also being called upon to face a barrage of public concern surrounding stem cell research and to encourage support for such research. A great example of one such advocate is Michael Rudnicki, Scientific Director of the Stem Cell Network, who has had countless interactions with government and the public. 

But, critically, it’s not just the old guard that has been needed to face the public and policymakers. Just try cataloging a few young, high impact stem cell biologists and ask what roles they have had above and beyond their own scientific research –- you’d be surprised how many of them have undertaken such duties. A great example is Sean Morrison who is a driving force behind the ISSCR’s A Closer Look at Stem Cell Treatments. Furthermore, a quick YouTube search garners a clip from young group leaders Amy Wagers and Kevin Eggan speaking in very accessible language about the work they are doing. 

Suffice it to say that if you are planning to be a stem cell biologist in the 21st century, you should ensure that you are up to date on relevant policies, therapies, trials, etc. because with the snap of a finger, you might be called on to help rescue your field from having its funding cut or having the public turn away uninterested. So, young scientists -- while you’re off burying your head in experiments, make sure you tune in to the world around you, it’ll come in handy later.


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