Friday, March 25, 2016

Event Recap: Dr. Sarah Rhodes, Health Science Policy Analyst

by Chris Yarosh

PSPG tries to hold as many events as limited time and funding permit, but we cannot bring in enough speakers to cover the range of science policy careers out there. Luckily, other groups at Penn hold fantastic events, too, and this week’s Biomedical Postdoc Program Career Workshop was no exception. While all of the speakers provided great insights into their fields, this recap focuses on Dr. Sarah Rhodes, a Health Science Policy Analyst in the Office of Science Policy (OSP) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

First, some background: Sarah earned her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Cardiff University in the U.K., and served as a postdoc there before moving across the pond and joining a lab at the NIH. To test the policy waters, Sarah took advantage of NIH’s intramural detail program, which allows scientists to do temporary stints in administrative offices. For her detail, Sarah worked as a Policy Analyst in the Office of Autism Research Coordination (OARC) at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). That experience convinced her to pursue policy full time. Following some immigration-related delays, Sarah joined OARC as a contractor and later became a permanent NIH employee.

After outlining her career path, Sarah provided an overview of how science policy works in the U.S. federal government, breaking the field broadly into three categories: policy for science, science for policy, and science diplomacy. According to Sarah (and as originally promulgated by Dr. Diane Hannemann, another one of this event’s panelists), the focus of different agencies roughly breaks down as follows:

This makes a lot of sense. Funding agencies like NIH and NSF are mostly concerned with how science is done, Congress is concerned with general policymaking, and the regulatory agencies both conduct research and regulate activities under their purview. Even so, Sarah did note that all these agencies do a bit of each type of policy (e.g. science diplomacy at NIH Fogarty International Center). In addition, different components of each agency have different roles. For example, individual Institutes focus more on analyzing policy for their core mission (aging at NIA, cancer at NCI, etc.), while the OSP makes policies that influence all corners of the NIH.

Sarah then described her personal duties at OSP’s Office of Scientific Management and Reporting (OSMR):
  • Coordinating NIH’s response to a directive from the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy related to scientific collections (think preserved specimens and the like)
  • Managing the placement of AAAS S&T Fellows at NIH
  • Supporting the Scientific Management Review Board, which advises the NIH Director
  • Preparing for NIH’s appropriations hearings and responding to Congressional follow-ups
  • “Whatever fires needs to be put out”
If this sounds like the kind of job for you, Sarah recommends building a professional network and developing your communication skills ASAP (perhaps by blogging!?). This sentiment was shared by all of the panelists, and it echoes advice from our previous speakers. Sarah also strongly recommends volunteering for university or professional society committees. These bodies work as deliberative teams and are therefore good preparation for the style of government work.

For more information, check out the OSP’s website and blog. If you’re interested in any of the other speakers from this panel, I refer you to the Biomedical Postdoc Program.


  1. Dr. Sarah Rhodes, Health Science Policy Analyst

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