Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, November 7, 2016

Andrew Merluzzi, MPA

Andrew Merluzzi, MPA

Sudbury, Vermont

Undergraduate education
Bachelor’s degree in psychology, American University, Washington, D.C.

Professional/research interests
Science policy; public health

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship

Expected graduation date
MPA, May 2017; PhD, December 2018

Why the Neuroscience and Public Policy program at UW-Madison?
I joined the Neuroscience and Public Policy program because I have always been interested in science and scientific research. There’s something amazing about discovering something, considering why you might be wrong, and then amending your techniques to get even closer to the truth. But one of the things that motivated me to join this program was that I wanted to make the whole enterprise of science better. There are a lot of problems with the way that grants are awarded and therefore how careers in science are made (particularly in the biomedical sciences). The incentives aren’t always in the right places, which means that money is sometimes wasted and the science is sometimes rushed. I want to be in a position where I can fix those incentives, improve how science is done, and ultimately improve public health and public trust in scientific research.

Why the La Follette School?
La Follette has incredible faculty who have provided me insight into the ways in which science can be changed – whether through economics, management, or incentive structures. Those are all possible levers to be pulled when thinking about policy change, and without the faculty and La Follette it’s hard to imagine understanding the true breadth of possible policy routes to take.

Summer internship
I worked part time for about a year at the Wisconsin Medical Society, which is a member-based organization representing more than 12,500 physicians in Wisconsin. The Medical Society plays several important roles in the medical field. First, it advocates for physicians, including lobbying for physician-focused policies at the state level, conducting job satisfaction studies, providing continuing medical education opportunities, and seeking to improve the day-to-day experience for physicians.

Second, the Medical Society seeks to improve the healthcare system in Wisconsin more generally. This entails crafting evidence-based policy and lobbying at the state level for improved coverage, access, and delivery of healthcare; securing funding for local or statewide public health initiatives; and responding to growing public health problems by choosing teams of expert physicians and scholars to brainstorm and implement solutions.

My internship was in the health policy domain. I was responsible for several projects: Overhauling policy on HIV/AIDS to match the most recent evidence, updating outdated policies and cross-referencing with Wisconsin state laws, writing a grant to secure funding for a study on the effectiveness on Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, and crafting policy in response to emerging public health issues, including the emerging opioid epidemic.

In addition to gaining a more thorough understanding of how policy is written, I was exposed to the routes by which policy can influence legislation, and vice-versa. I also have a clearer picture of the role of research and evidence in this bidirectional relationship. Moreover, I learned valuable skills in grant writing, and specifically in demonstrating a clear problem, proposing a feasible solution, and garnering coalition support.

Which experiences and skills helped you get the internship?
A group paper that my fellow students and I wrote for The Policy-Making Process was instrumental in my securing this internship. It was a retrospective analysis of recently passed legislation aiming to solve the opioid epidemic. In particular, we wrote about the confluence of factors that opened up a policy window for this legislation, including rather uncharacteristic bipartisan support, a rallying presence from one lawmaker in particular, and the dearth of medical treatment programs for opioid addiction. The Medical Society was just in the planning stages of a task force devoted to this issue, so my expertise in the area was useful to them.

Volunteer activities
I participate in a lot of science outreach programs for kids. This usually involves showing children how the brain works with realistic models or games, and then how diseases of the brain can affect behavior. In addition, I volunteered at a local middle school as a science mentor. It was fun to watch the students form the germ of an idea and then challenge them to think critically about how they could test that idea.

Career goals
There are several career paths I envision for myself. The first is conducting research at the National Academies or for a nonprofit organization – somewhere that I feel I could let the facts and the science speak for themselves. Second, I could also see myself taking a science writing route, perhaps for a general audience or to inform policy-makers. Third, I think it would be interesting to be on the grant-awarding side of things – to actually decide what kinds of scientific questions are most worth answering, and encouraging the bench scientists to come up with the best methods for answering those questions.

Advice for prospective La Follette School students
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a generalist. If you stay interested in a lot of things, you’ll have more opportunities to be successful.

Anything else?
Knowing that I was going to be locked in to graduate school for four to five years, I took a cross-country bicycle trip in the summer of 2014. It wasn’t all “fun” in the traditional sense – breaking a wheel and having no replacement parts in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas, for instance, isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. But I was routinely astounded by the kindness of strangers on this trip. Fully solidified my faith in humanity.