In the laboratory of science policy: an interview with Richard Aragon

A “completely random” encounter with a former classmate propelled Richard Aragon from a postdoc to the world of science policy. He now works for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the Chief of the Office of Program Planning, Analysis, and Evaluation at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).
Richard Aragon
Richard Aragon. Image credit: The National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

What first inspired you to study biology?

I’m sure that a lot of people have a very concrete answer to that question, but my answer is truly random. Until my junior year in high school I did not like science. I remember studying Mendelian genetics in my honours biology course during my sophomore year and I absolutely hated it. I didn’t want to know what heterozygosity was, neither did I care. Come my junior year, however, I took my very first chemistry class and I loved it. I don’t know what clicked, but something clearly did, and from then on I became very interested in science.

And what attracted you to research?

It was the idea that I could ask any question that I wanted to ask, regardless of how valid or silly it was, and that I could pursue an answer to that question in a way that I thought was meaningful. In other words, the capacity for self-determination existed, as opposed to being told what to do. That recognition was a very powerful concept for me in my early days.

So given all that, why didn’t you choose to stay in research?

When I was a postdoctoral fellow an opportunity came that allowed me to explore the realm of science policy. I was returning to the laboratory after lunch and I ran into a classmate of mine whom I hadn’t seen since graduate school. He had been doing some work in the science policy arena and they needed somebody to assist them as an analyst in their efforts. He asked me if I would be interested in talking to his boss, and I said “sure”. That random encounter turned into the opportunity that allowed me to go into the Office of Science Policy at the NIH. It was completely random – I was just coming back from lunch and the timing was simply there.

What appealed about science policy?

At the time I started, I had absolutely no experience in the field of science policy whatsoever. My rationale was that I could always return to the lab if I did not like working in it. I have to admit that the first year I was in science policy I had a recoil reaction where I did not like it at all, but I developed a greater appreciation and love of it over time, particularly the impact it can have on multiple areas of science and the lives of people.

You’re now the Chief of the Office of Program Planning, Analysis, and Evaluation at NIGMS. What are your main responsibilities?

Well my first responsibility is really mentoring. That might sound unusual but the truth of the matter is that I have phenomenal staff who I try to mentor on a day-to-day basis so that they can develop professionally and personally to their fullest extent. That brings me back to something that occurred several years ago when I was working in the office of then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. She asked me how I managed my staff given that we had accomplished quite a significant amount in a short period of time. I told her that I don’t manage my staff – I mentor my staff, and I manage expectations.

And what are the more formal aspects of your role?

I serve as a Senior Advisor to the Institute Director, particularly with regard to the strategic direction that the NIGMS takes, and also with regard to the Institute’s legislative, congressional and government-related functions. I also oversee all of the strategic planning and enterprise risk management aspects of the NIGMS. It is my responsibility to ensure that that our five-year strategic plan is implemented appropriately, that it is tracked properly, and that the goals in the plan are achieved on time and on budget. On top of those things, I am also responsible for all of the evaluative activity that occurs at the Institute, both at the program level and policy levels. I also serve as the Legislative Director of the Institute, and I direct all of the activity associated with our interactions with members of Congress.

Sounds like you’re kept busy! How do you manage to balance all of those different aspects of your role?

Well part of it is understanding that the environment in which we operate is not an independent one – it’s an interdependent one. Building trust and credibility, and mentoring the people around you are important, because you cannot single-handedly achieve all of those things by yourself. Therefore relationship building is extremely important, and so is building a common frame of reference, without which you cannot arrive at consensus.

Is that similar to working in research – where sometimes it’s important to work on your own, but then it’s equally important to have collaborations?

Yes absolutely. My work is very much like research in a variety of ways. The types of things that I do use the same skills that you learn in a laboratory, except that the laboratory that I operate in is the laboratory of government and science policy. So instead of publishing in academic journals, I publish better-informed policies that are no less driven by data and that achieve things through scientific programs such as those sponsored by the NIH.

What kind of research skills do you use on a day-to-day basis?

Inquiry, critical thinking, the pursuit and analysis of data, communication, coordination, and collaboration – all of those things come into play in the science policy arena. And that includes communication and collaboration with people outside the scientific field. At least here in the United States, a significant portion of our ability to conduct science is dictated by individuals outside of the scientific arena, who may or may not have the same type of quantitative background that we have in the scientific community. It is positively incumbent upon us to ensure that we communicate effectively with those individuals, so that they understand why we do what we do, why it’s important, and what the returns on investment are or could be.

What do you find most challenging about your work?

Attempting to change culture. It’s funny because in the sciences we try to be as objective as possible. It’s an important characteristic of what we do on a day-to-day basis. But organizations are composed of people, so there is also a behavioural component to what we do. Understanding that behavioural component is not only critical to your success in the realm of science, it’s critical to what you do in the realm of both leadership and policy. Being able to understand it is one thing, but then what do you do with it once you have an understanding? You have to apply it.

Do you find there are any particular methods that are a particularly good at changing behaviours?

It’s a balance between listening and educating. People in the policy arena often talk about “buy-in”. It’s a term that I’ve never quite understood and don’t really believe in. I believe in educating people, and I believe in being educated by people. The “buy in” usually comes as a natural product of these things.

It has to be a two-way process.

Absolutely. You cannot force people to do something that they do not want to do. You know, it strikes me that a lot of people often talk about the difficulties of trying to change the direction of an organization. We talk about this in evaluation a lot – why is evaluation so difficult for a lot of people? Well if you take it down to the individual level, introspection is very difficult for most people. We often talk about the scientific method, but how often do we actually take that scientific method and apply it internally to ourselves? If looking in the mirror is challenging for most people, why should we expect any different from an organization, given that organizations are comprised of people?

What part of your work do you find the most satisfying?

The most satisfying part of my job is being able to work with extremely dedicated, bright, service-oriented individuals from all aspects of the professional arena. That includes science and non-science. I also find it very rewarding to bring about positive change through dialogue, education, outreach, demonstration and the use of data. Rare is the day that what I do seems like work – it seems like an extension of my values and principles more than actual work.

That sounds like the attitude towards work that many people aspire to have.

Yes, because one can have a job or one can have a career. A career should be aligned with your values, your principles, your hopes, your aspirations. Without that, one might really only have a job.

How can early stage scientists develop their own career?

The traditional scientific paradigm is pretty much you go to graduate school, then you go right into a postdoc, and then you go into either academia or industry. Well that’s great, but that is only one aspect of the spectrum of opportunities that are available to scientists. Postdoctoral opportunities, while extremely important, should not be seen as a default pathway – they should be seen as a choice that people can make if their aspirations and their values and principles align with that direction.

What can help early-career scientists to decide on a career choice?

From my experience, one thing that they can do is truly think about what it is that they would like to do. What impact would they like to have? And how? And where? And when? Having that knowledge, and then basing your career choices on that knowledge and on an understanding of yourself, rather than the other way around, I would say is the way to go.

Richard Aragon CV

  • 2014 – present: Chief of the Office of Program Planning, Analysis, and Evaluation, National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • 2011 – 2014: Director of the Division of HHS-Wide Program Integrity Assessment, Improvement and Oversight, United States Department of Health and Human Services
  • 2011 – 2014: Director of the Division of Outreach, Communications, and Training, United States Department of Health and Human Services
  • 2007 – 2010: Health Scientist Administrator/Program Director, National Cancer Institute, NIH
  • 2009 – 2010: Executive Fellow in National Health, Science and Technology Policy, United States Senate
  • 2006 – 2007: Health Scientist Administrator/Technology Program Manager, National Cancer Institute, NIH
  • 2005 – 2006: Health Scientist Administrator/Technology Development Program Specialist, National Cancer Institute, NIH
  • 2005 – 2006: Planning, Progress and Performance Evaluation Officer, Office of Science Policy and Planning, NIH
  • 2004 – 2005: Research Oncologist and Fellow, Georgetown University Hospital
  • 2002 – 2004: Research Biologist, National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism