Yeonwoo Lebovitz: Scientists in Government: Interview with Elizabeth Stulberg, PhD

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Yeonwoo Lebovitz, Anthony Franchni, Megan Duffy, and Celia Fernandez will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new posts.

Current position: PhD student in Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health
Program start date: August 2014
Institution: Virginia Tech

This past summer, Virginia Tech hosted the annual American Society for Virology (ASV) conference. While I do not study viruses, I signed up to be a volunteer anyway because it’s not often that national research meetings take place in Blacksburg, Virginia. Serendipitously, there was also a science policy workshop on the last day of the conference with Dr. Jo Handelsman, Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and Dr. Jessica Petrillo, Senior Health Security Officer at the State Department’s Office of International Health and Biodefense. Thanks to my volunteer status, I could attend for free!


Science policy panelists, ASV leadership, and my shoe. Dr. Jo Handelsman (second from left) and Dr. Jessica Petrillo (second from right). Photo courtesy of Dr. Kathy Spindler.

I was still wearing my ASV volunteer t-shirt when I popped by the science policy meeting. The workshop was only an hour long, but I found it to be profoundly eye-opening. First, I was completely unaware of the State Department as a possible career opportunity for scientists. I suppose I knew on some level that the State Department hired PhDs, but I always imagined them to be political scientists or economists. Nevertheless, it makes equal sense that the State Department would employ virologists, such as Dr. Petrillo, for projects concerning infectious diseases, epidemiological surveillance, and biodefense. In fact, this rather long list of bureaus and offices within the State Department demonstrates the extensive range of policy topics under the State Department’s purview.

Second, I never fully appreciated the impact that science-oriented political leadership can have on the direction of research. As a PhD student studying gut microbiome effects on the brain, I am perhaps unusually grateful for the BRAIN Initiative and extraordinarily excited for the National Microbiome Initiative. Both initiatives were borne out of the White House, meaning that they were the synergistic result of advocacy by OSTP and support by the president. President Obama has frequently called himself a “nerd,” but Dr. Handelsman added that his aides were loath to send him into science-related meetings because he inevitably stayed past the allotted time. Although such national research initiatives are not without criticism (i.e., they are “trendy” and unsustainable) and the vast majority of research funding in the U.S. is dependent on the Congressional appropriations process, both the BRAIN and Microbiome initiatives are nevertheless compelling evidence on what it means to have a strong science advocate in the Oval Office.

Finally, the ASV science policy panel made me consider the fine line between policy and politics. While one can readily work in science policy outside of politics, there must also be times when no amount of peer review and scientific consensus can compete against political will. Accordingly, many offices of science policy, such as FASEB’s Office of Public Affairs, maintain a separate group of analysts specifically for legislative affairs. Especially given the recent politicized climate, I’ve been wondering how scientists might work in political environments to guide science policy. I scrolled through the list of staff on the OSTP webpage and reached out to Dr. Elizabeth Stulberg, whose experiences span across both legislative and executive branches of government (and who also happens to be a former student of Dr. Handelsman). Dr. Stulberg is currently Agricultural Science Fellow in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS). On her comparative experiences in various science policy environments, Dr. Stulberg writes:

Each of my policy jobs, from Legislative Assistant to White House Policy Advisor to USDA Agricultural Science Fellow has been rewarding, and while there are many similarities, there are also some differences, the primary one being speed. There is VERY quick turnaround in a Congressional office. Congresspeople often make a name for themselves on a few key issues, some of which revolve around specific issues in their district and others that are national or global. When a new study, statement, or other event is publicized involving that issue, a Congressional office will put out a statement about it as soon as that same day.

For my AAAS Congressional Fellowship, supported by the American Society for Microbiology, I worked for Congresswoman Louise Slaughter of Rochester, New York. She invited me to work in her office because of her passion for public health and combating antibiotic resistance, which fit with my molecular and microbiology expertise (I had studied plant-soil-microbe interactions and antibiotic biochemistry at Yale). I just can’t tell you how much I enjoyed working on the antibiotic resistance policy issues. All those policy and opinion articles I’d furtively read as a graduate student (feeling guilty because I wasn’t just reading scientific papers) were suddenly not only important but actually part of my job, and synthesizing all of the science into compact statements was stimulating and fun. This part of policy work, the deliberative synthesis of science into briefs and policy statements or recommendations, has been consistent in each of my jobs. But if, for example, the CDC reported on a new outbreak involving an antibiotic-resistant bacterium, you can bet the Congresswoman would need to be briefed and the office would issue a statement within hours.

OSTP is also often thought of as a “quick turnaround” kind of place. It’s true that the President often needs to make timely statements regarding important events that have a scientific underpinning, for example with the Ebola or Zika outbreaks. But while an immediate statement may be issued by the West Wing, OSTP generally had a little bit more time to put together a more comprehensive scientific briefing.

The timeline for documents or statement releases at the USDA is much less compressed. A House of Representatives policy office rarely employs more than a half dozen people, and statements need to be cleared only by a few people (e.g., the policy and communications directors) before being released. At OSTP, more eyes may need to look at the same statement before it can go public because more people are responsible for its content. Since USDA comprises 17 agencies and 18 offices, for a statement to go out that reflects all of USDA, effort must be made to touch base with many of those whose work includes that issue. For antibiotic resistance, for example, you can bet that’s more than one person!

On the whole, it’s wonderful to work in a place like the USDA where the technical knowledge runs so deep. It’s really incredible that I have all these experts on science and policy whose email addresses are literally at my fingertips. In a Congressional office, the experts are more often outside organizations each with their own agendas one needs to sift through. To clarify, though, unlike OSTP or a Congressional office, OCS does not make policy or advocate for policy decisions. We help make sure that government decision-makers are informed by data produced with the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity.

I found Dr. Stulberg’s assessment of the varied pace and focus of science policy issues among different areas of government incredibly valuable. It’s the kind of perspective that is generally not accessible to PhD students, especially those who are grappling with yet another set of puzzling results from a mouse behavioral assay. In particular, Dr. Stulberg’s answer generated much food for thought for me as to what type of science policy work I might find appealing. As I continue this blog series, it seems that the world of science policy grows a bit clearer, albeit much broader than I anticipated.

Special thanks for Dr. Stulberg for her willingness to work with me and the USDA Communication Team to grant me an interview. She provided numerous other insights, which will be included in future blog posts.

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