What is Science Policy?

As a member of the Science Policy Group, people frequently ask me what science policy entails. This is a difficult question to answer, because the word “policy,” usually evokes images of lawmakers on Capitol Hill drafting thousand-page bills full of “legalese.”

However, when you talk to people that work in science policy, much of their responsibilities are more nuanced and diverse.

Through this new regular column, the Science Policy Group at UCSF hopes to illuminate science policy issues as well as current events that relate to science policy.

We hope to engage more scientists at UCSF in what’s happening in the policy community, and over time, perhaps get a more complete answer to the question of what science policy is.

In a first attempt to define science policy, I quickly discovered that a short definition is difficult to synthesize.

Dr. Keith Yamamoto, the vice chancellor for science policy and strategy at UCSF, describes science policy work as, “any pronouncement… on science education, practice, ethics, communication, application, or social impact.”

Dr. Yamamoto’s summary, while beautifully succinct and impossibly broad, serves as a good starting point.

It is clear to me that an involvement in science policy combines a deep appreciation of the scientific method with an even deeper appreciation for implementation of policies that are informed by the scientific method.

As explained by Geoffrey Hunt, the public outreach coordinator for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) in a Society News article published by ASBMB in 2010, “those working in science policy… take what is happening on the bench and bring it to the light of day.”

As you might expect, the best people to explain complex scientific topics, are scientists themselves.

Dr. Yamamoto qualifies his original definition in saying, “success of the enterprise depends upon volunteer efforts of the best scientists.” He continues, “Thus, scientists must be deeply involved in conceiving, framing, and implementing science policy.” Here he touches on what makes science policy unique.

The people involved, frequently scientists themselves, are responsible for helping lawmakers and the public understand new and exciting scientific discoveries.

There are several ways that scientists can participate in and influence science policy.

These avenues include academic faculty such Dr. Yamamoto, scientific organizations that have dedicated policy branches, and scientific institutions that are directly linked to the government.

The most well-known of these is the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an organization that controls a majority of biomedical research funding.

Additionally, the National Academies of Sciences was chartered by the United States government in 1863 as an “independent adviser on scientific matters.” Non-governmental scientific organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), have dedicated science policy branches that employ scientists from a wide array of different fields to help advise and guide lawmakers on scientific issues.

These groups, together with lobbyists and lawmakers, combine efforts to ensure that policy is targeted at the most innovative and useful discoveries.

A recent example of a national science policy effort is the 21st Century Cures Act. This legislation, originally drafted in May of 2015, recently passed through both houses of congress and was signed into law last week. This legislation has many working parts, but the cornerstone of the bill is the 4.8 billion dollars budgeted for NIH-funded research to be distributed over the next 10 years.

This money is primarily allocated for ”the BRAIN Initiative, the Precision Medicine Initiative, and Vice President Joe Biden’s ‘Cancer Moonshot.’”

Importantly, the bill also provides pathways to expedite the FDA approval of critical medications.

The 21st Century Cures Act is a key example of scientists and medical experts explaining the importance of science to produce directed bipartisan legislation.

The focus of the 21st Century Cures Act on the Precision Medicine Initiative is relevant to UCSF.

Dr. India Hook-Barnard, the director of research strategy and associate director of precision medicine at UCSF, explained that UCSF has taken a leading role in explaining the importance of precision medicine.

As defined by the Precision Medicine at UCSF webpage, this initiative “aims to collect, connect and apply vast amounts of scientific research data and information about our health… to understand why individuals respond differently to treatments and help guide more precise and predictive medicine.”

UCSF was integral in forming President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, and has been key to showing that implementation of such a policy is effective at the university level.

UCSF has already started a pilot program to incorporate research and medicine into the precision healthcare platform with the ultimate goal of enhancing diagnosis and treatment.

This is one of many examples showing how UCSF has an impact on policy and implementation.

Understanding the inner workings of science policy everywhere from the local to national level, is important to all members of the scientific community.

As scientists, it is not only our responsibility to perform and report evidence-based experimentation, it is also our responsibility to make sure the public understands the importance of these discoveries.