The important work of a science policy director

Kyla Bennett was referred to me through Kerri Mullen because of her unique role as a Science Policy Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an environmental whistleblower group.  I wanted to get some interviews with scientists that have unconventional careers so that young students in the sciences get a sense of what they can do with their degrees.  If you would like to read my previous blog posts with other scientists, you can find them here!  Balancing work and family life as a part-time college instructorWorking in the science industryLife as a postdoctoral researcherThe business side of scienceFrom professor to entrepreneur.

Kyla received a B.A. in Animal behavior and a Ph.D. in Ecology and evolutionary biology with a J.D. and a certificate in natural resources and environmental law.

Kyla works with clients that are all public employees that bring her cases where the government is doing something wrong or illegal, she goes on to say:

 “…we try to address the underlying issue, and help the employee stay in their job (because often, the government tries to “shoot the messenger.”) On a daily/weekly basis, I talk with clients; research legal issues; research scientific issues; write Freedom of Information Act requests; review documents that are leaked to me; write comment letters; collect water samples; interpret lab reports; assist in drafting legal complaints; assist in drafting press releases; and talk to a lot of reporters.”

I asked Kyla what she likes and dislikes about her current role:

“The parts about my job that I like the best are exposing corruption and illegal/anti-scientific actions that governments take. The thing I like the least is that sometimes we cannot help, and the underlying issues go unaddressed.”

Kyla’s ideal career when she was in college was to work for an animal welfare/habitat non-profit and she did for two years.  However she decided to leave that position for two reasons:

“1) the company I worked for underwent changes I did not like, so I quit; and 2) I needed the flexibility/less travel that I have with my current job.”

Kyla had several thoughts on the current climate of obtaining a position as a scientist:

“I think it is very difficult for people graduating with Bachelor’s degrees to find meaningful work in the environmental arena these days. Graduate degrees and/or law degrees are preferred. I definitely think that networking is essential to getting a job in the sciences today. If you know someone who can help you navigate the current job market and vouch for you, it is so much easier. I do think there is a lot of politics involved in the hiring process, which is unfortunate.”

Kyla’s advice to current students thinking about a career in science is this:

“Do it…science is SO important. But, they should also get a degree – or at least a minor – in policy, government, or law. There is a real disconnect between the policy makers and the scientists, and we need to bridge that gap.”

Lastly, I asked Kyla if there is any piece of advice she wished she had gotten when she was a student:

“Yes – I wish someone had told me how important PR is. I think scientists are AWFUL at promoting their causes, and it has resulted in people feeling as if their Google searches are just as valid as a peer-reviewed study conducted by a PhD. Scientists need to work harder at demonstrating to the public that: 1) science is real; 2) if they ignore science, they do it at their own peril; and 3) science can be manipulated, so finding unbiased, good, peer-reviewed science is key.

In the next 5-10 years Kyla hopes to retire!  She had these comments about her future

“I am exhausted from fighting the same fights that I had 30 years ago. I feel like we take one step forward, and two steps back (particularly under the current administration).”

That I most certainly agree with Kyla!  Thank you for your excellent advice!  Now, more than ever, we need scientists in the government and as policy advisers.

Stay tuned for more interviews!