Riding herd on science and policy issues

Before starting at Carnegie Mellon University as a professor of practice, engineering and public policy at the Scott Institute for Energy Innovation in September 2012, Deborah D. Stine worked at the National Academy of Sciences as a specialist in science and technology policy for the Congressional Research Service. 

From 2009 to 2012, she worked at the White House as executive director of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, where her first committee meeting focused on the H1N1 virus.

Q: How did you end up working as the executive director of the president's council?

A: I was asked if I would be interested in interviewing for the position ... in early 2009. PCAST is a group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers who directly advise the president and the executive office of the president. Its members make policy recommendations in the many areas where understanding of science, technology, and innovation is key to strengthening our economy and forming policy.

I had recently conducted an analysis of the activities proposed by the Obama administration related to science and technology, so knew the importance President Obama and his team placed on science and technology. [I] believed I could really make a difference in the position.

Q: What was the best thing you experienced working there?

A: The best thing I experienced as PCAST executive director was seeing an immediate response enacting some of the recommendations ... on which I worked. These reports were on a wide range of issues including advanced manufacturing, vaccine production, energy technologies, spectrum allocation, cyber security, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at the K-12 and college level.

PCAST reports did not sit on the shelf. They were discussed with the major leaders in each area at the cabinet secretary or agency head level. ... Some of the recommendations were immediately implemented either directly by the agency or as part of the proposed budget to Congress. 

In addition, PCAST met with President Obama several times to present the results of the reports and discuss science and technology policy issues. ... The meetings were with the president, on his own, unaccompanied by staff. I was very impressed by his thoughtfulness, understanding, and interest in the topics addressed.

Q: What would be your advice for those looking to find work in your chosen field?

A: First, you must have a strong basis in a scientific or engineering field. In my case, I have a degree in mechanical and environmental engineering. Second, you need to supplement that technical base with additional expertise in economics, policy analysis, and political science. ... You can also gain experience by taking classes focused in these areas, as well as participating in volunteer and internship activities. 

Although some might think engineering is harder than policy analysis, I believe the opposite is true. With engineering, you can do a calculation that will lead to an answer that may have some uncertainty, but still provides sufficient guidance for decision making. In policy analysis, you are predicting the future in terms of whether or not a policy will be effective, efficient, equitable and easily accepted.

People, however, are far less predictable than technical devices. ... You need real world policy experience to be successful. Carnegie Mellon University is one of the few universities in the country that has a department in engineering and public policy that brings together these two fields.

Q: What was/is more difficult, working at the White House or teaching college students?

A: Each has their challenges. Working with faculty and committees in general, is often termed “herding cats.” As I’m sure everyone knows, it’s difficult to get a cat to go the direction you wish and the same is true with committee members. When I was a PCAST, I used to say I “herded tigers” instead of cats.

At both the White House and as a professor, I’m still in the “herding cats” business. One class I’m teaching now is focused on non-market factors — policy-related opportunities and challenges that influence the ability of a product to get to market.

For example, CMU faculty have developed small robotic boats powered by an Android phone that can measure water quality. You could imagine, for example, a platoon of boats assessing the water pollution in a lake located near a hydraulic fracturing facility in Pennsylvania. The challenge is that EPA can’t figure out how to certify a robot (as opposed to a human). And without certification,  [persuading] industry to purchase the product is challenging.

So my job in this project class is to herd my engineering students into trying to figure out this challenge so this product can be more marketable. I have decided to call this “herding kittens." 

Both can definitely be a challenge, but both are also rewarding in terms of having an impact and learning from my committee members and students. The White House was more challenging as I was herding tigers, but herding kittens is not easy either!

Madasyn Czebiniak: mczebiniak@post-gazette.com

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