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My journey from lab to policy

Image: Courtesy of Salome M Guchu

A Kenyan chemist shares lessons from her decade-long transition

For a young scientist, the transition from research in an academic setting to policy is a big adventure. 

As a Kenyan who has gone on this journey from a research work environment to my current post of dealing with science policy issues in research and innovation management, I can attest that it’s challenging; frustrating at times, but also, ultimately, satisfying. 

I share here a few insights into what I have learned over a period of ten years working as a scientist seeking to influence policy. The experience can be nerve-racking, leading one to either sink into a void of low moments, or to rise, engage, learn, and contribute effectively to experience mountaintop highs. 

There is usually no formal preparation for transitions from the laboratory to the policy room. So how does a young scientist make the transition? 

It’s normal to feel confused

My own story started when I, as a fresh PhD graduate in chemistry from the University of Nairobi in Kenya working as a research student at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), joined the Department of Research Management and Development in the then Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology to deal with science policy issues. 

Having had no formal preparation to make the transition, my initial feeling was confusion; I felt I underutilised my research skills, while also being inadequately prepared to influence policymaking.  

This sense of confusion worsened when I met and explained my next career steps of exploring the policy world to a scientist I greatly respected. The scientist outrightly discouraged me, saying: “What a waste. You should have pursued a postdoc to progress in research or pursue a position in the university.” 

This led to a period of emptiness, when I felt I had to make a choice to either get a way out of policy or stick with my decision. 

At first, I remained open to both options. I checked out opportunities to get back to academia, while exploring the best ways I could contribute effectively and derive satisfaction from causing positive influence in the policy world. To fulfil the academia option, I submitted applications to be a university chemistry lecturer. 

Then, like an explorer embarking on a discovery expedition of the policy world, I developed an interest in, and increased my attention on, three broad programmatic areas: enhancing participation of girls and women in science and technology; building collaborations and partnerships in science and technology; and strengthening research, innovation and entrepreneurship as essentials for socio-economic transformation. 

During this period of keeping my options open, I was invited for an interview, considered, and granted an appointment letter to be a chemistry lecturer in a local university. However, my interest in my chosen programmatic areas had led to a desire for further exploration, engagement and contribution, which in turn led me to decline the chemistry lecturer position and continue my explorer’s journey in science policy. 

I never looked back.

Lessons from the two worlds

From my journey, I have learned a lot about the differences between the worlds of academia and science policy.

In the natural sciences a young scientist is expected to demonstrate her craft through often solitary, laboratory-based work procedures and data collection. Engaging with people is often limited to scientific forums where the scientist can share research outputs, engage with peers, and learn from other experts in related areas. 

Compare this to work undertaken in science policy that involves lots of interactions and engagements with researchers from various disciplines, industry players, policymakers and the general public. Such interactions and engagements are on broad programmatic matters in research and innovation, and on emerging areas in science and technology. 

The rewards systems are also different. Achievements in research within an academic setting mainly come in the form of published peer reviewed journal articles, registered patents, and other related contributions to the scientific community. It is satisfying to have one’s name inscribed in a publication, get recognition from peers and contribute directly or indirectly to solving socio-economic challenges. 

By contrast, achievements in the world of science policy are in the form of contributions to successful programmes and activities that support other scientists and innovators. They include effective advancement of directions and areas that other scientists can take advantage of, and engaging and establishing collaborations and partnerships for new programmes and projects. 

In science policy, unlike in academia, the scientist’s name does not appear on the established successful programmes, activities, collaborations and partnerships. You derive satisfaction from the positive influence caused, support attained by other scientists and innovators, and the ultimate contribution to solving socio-economic problems.

Knowing about these differences can make it easier to navigate the transition and manage your expectations of what your journey into policy will look like.

Not an easy journey, but exciting

A decade on from making the switch, I can say that my journey in science policy has been exciting, but not easy. The policy world can be messy and frustrating, and requires a lot of patience, especially in a country where there are many challenges and science is not accorded the necessary attention in policymaking. 

I have, however, realised that being in science policy is not a waste, as I was being led to believe by the researcher I respected at the start of my journey. Certainly, scientists are needed to influence policy in science and science in policy. As a nation, Kenya has some way to go to get there, but it is a continuous learning, unlearning, and relearning process that is satisfying to take part in. 

I have derived satisfaction from contributing and actively participating in successful programmes and activities that positively influence the science, technology, and innovation sector. I’ve also faced disappointments, in the form of both intentional actions and unintended delays in processes that slow the needed progress.

A decade on from starting my journey, I am no longer in transition. Nor am I young in the area of science policy. I am glad to have been granted the responsibility of setting up and spearheading the operationalization of the Kenya National Innovation Agency (KeNIA). KeNIA was established under the Science, Technology and Innovation Act, 2013 and began its operations in 2016 to develop and manage the national innovation system. 

For the past four years (2016-2020), I have had the challenging and exciting responsibility to lay the foundation for KeNIA as its team leader. It has been fulfilling to successfully initiate and coordinate implementation of programmes to nurture innovators and strengthen the Kenyan innovation system, including the national innovation award programme and international partnerships to develop innovation capacity. I have learnt a lot about how to make things happen; how to deal with delay tactics from those who oppose change, as well as administrative challenges. 

My science policy journey continues as a work in progress. I am still growing and evolving as a scientist in science policy, a researcher, and a policy adviser. I know I will find joy in seeing institutions grow strong, and in fostering dynamic interactions between key players that in turn will support robust integration of research, innovation, and entrepreneurship processes. 

Let us continue engaging and developing!

Salome M. Guchu is a Deputy Director of Research at the State Department of University Education and Research, Ministry of Education, Nairobi, Kenya. Email: muthonisg@gmail.com.