Albert Hinman, PhD, joined as the 2022-2023 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow in August. ASHG and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) co-sponsor the Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship to give early-career professionals the opportunity to explore a career in science policy. We recently spoke with Dr. Hinman to learn more about how his background and interests led him to the fellowship.
ASHG: Why did you apply for the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship?
Dr. Hinman: I think of science policy as similar to that of a genetic pathway. Like in genetics, you have several upstream factors (advocacy) that ultimately dictate the expression of a product (policy implementation), which can be subject to different forms of regulation (policy management and governance) or new entities altogether (gene editing). Like in genetics, these components must work together to execute an optimal system. And like the experimentalists who study genetics, policy wonks and analysts can play with different levers in this system to create new, effective ways to transform science.I wanted to pursue opportunities that can train me to think comprehensively about the political, advocacy, management, and policy landscapes that shape science – thus leading me to the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics and Public Policy Fellowship. It is one of the only policy fellowships to give you experience in government agencies that execute policy, congressional offices that create policies, and ASHG to learn about nonprofit advocacy roles. And with 20 fellows coming before me, I knew that the fellowship had a rich history of training its fellows for diverse careers in policy.
ASHG: How did your background lead you to science policy?
Dr. Hinman: As a mixed-race Chicano, I was a beneficiary of an NIH Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD) undergraduate program led by Dr. Ed Smith at Virginia Tech. The VT IMSD program was planned and executed to create a family-like structure of mentors to support young researchers at the university; its presence made me realize the power of science policy and effective administration in enhancing research education. During my graduate studies at Stanford, I attempted to recreate some of these family structures during my leadership with the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) Chapter at Stanford and with the Stanford Science Policy Group. Both of these experiences led to assisting my department and the schoolwide efforts in issues relating to increasing the diversity of the student population, inclusive treatment of underrepresented students, and hosting seminars of policy leaders who gave their perspectives on the current state of federal science research.
I began to receive more formal education in science policy from the Public Policy Program at Stanford University in the middle of my doctoral training. To get graduate students more versed in public policy, the Public Policy Program created a Graduate Certificate that gave graduate students coursework critical to understanding public policy, access to any of their programs/events, and a supportive peer network of policy students. There I took a course on Science and Technology Policy taught by Patrick Windham. He illuminated the fascinating political, policy, and social dimensions that deeply affect our scientific enterprise and inspired me to pursue a career in the field. After my Ph.D. studies, I then did a short science policy postdoctoral position with the Engineering Biology Research Consortium, where I assisted with biotechnology assessment, bioeconomy planning, and inclusive economic development projects.
ASHG: Why do you think is it important for scientists to get involved in policy?
Dr. Hinman: There are many reasons why scientists should be involved in policy, a primary one being that public policy can have a big impact on the direction of research. By getting involved in the advocacy and policy process, scientists can help ensure that research is aligned with society’s needs and goals. Additionally, policymakers are often tasked with difficult decisions that may require scientific input or perspective; by engaging with policymakers, scientists can provide valuable expertise that makes government decision-making more practical and effective. Lastly, by engaging with the policy process, scientists can better ensure the knowledge and technologies they create are used carefully and appropriately.
ASHG: What are some policy issues related to genetics and genomics research that you think will be important to address?
Dr. Hinman: Given CRISPR’s rapid rise with recent clinical trial success in curing diseases, an incredibly important policy issue is to ensure that opportunities to develop CRISPR-based therapeutics are not limited by commercial viability or market-based mechanisms. There are many diseases caused by inborn errors of immunity – genetic mutations that result in increased susceptibility to different forms of diseases – that are potentially treatable by CRISPR-based therapeutics but lack commercial viability for private enterprises to work on. We need to ensure that there are scalable development platforms and safe-but-efficient approval pipelines for nonprofit/academic actors that wish to investigate how to develop gene editing therapies for these rarer diseases. Given these therapies’ incredible potential to solve health disparities, I think scientists should especially be proactive on this issue.
Given the vast amounts of valuable data that genomicists can produce, we must also determine the best ways to share genomic data. Although there are many factors to consider, including patient confidentiality, intellectual property rights, and transparent open access, genomic-data stakeholders collectively want to maintain a safe, innovative ecosystem where scientists have the freedom to pursue curiosity-driven research to better societal health. Under that shared vision, we can begin to determine what are the necessary resources, policy actions, and discussions to create the best sharing system moving forward.
ASHG: Do you have any advice for fellow scientists interested in science policy careers?
Dr. Hinman: One of the most critical elements in transitioning towards science policy is finding a community that supports you. It is difficult to prescribe one true universally inclusive community that will work for everyone, though I think the best communities tend to share these characteristics:
- The people in the community genuinely care about your well-being.
- The community encourages you to develop your career in a way that is concordant with your identity.
- The community will find a way to incorporate, rather than dismiss, any esoteric interests you have.
- The community will meet you where you are.
- For the number crunchers out there, you generally have five positive interactions for every negative interaction.
I’m happy to report that I consider the folks in the ASHG/NHGRI fellowship firmly under the definition of a wonderful community.