Ashton Carter Urges Young Researchers to Embrace Sense of Public Responsibility

At an informal luncheon at AAAS with scholars from the Emerging Leaders in Science & Society program, the Defense Secretary mused about his early career and encouraged his audience to consider careers in security affairs.
ELISS Fellows
Ashton Carter (center) with the 2015 class of ELISS scholars. | AAAS

For Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who has a distinguished record of governmental and academic service, the road ahead was not by any means clear when he was starting out. As an undergraduate at Yale University, he did a double major in physics and medieval history.

"I had kind of a right-brain, left-brain thing, where I couldn't decide," Carter told the 2015 fellows of the Emerging Leaders in Science & Society (ELISS) Program, including his daughter, Ava, who invited him for a Saturday afternoon chat with the group at AAAS. 

Carter noted that his passion for medieval history continues to serve him well, helping him to understand the origins and operation of many institutions that arose during the Middle Ages, from universities, monastic orders, English common law, and the nation state, to Islam and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Ashton Carter
Ashton Carter | AAAS

But he fell under the wing of Robert Adair, an engaging particle physicist at Yale, and decided eventually that physics was the way to go. "I liked the 'cleanness' of physics, the mathematical nature," Carter said.

He told the fellows about the serendipity and good fortune that marked his career, encouraging them to embrace the sense of public responsibility he had derived from his association with a generation of physicists that came of age before and during World War II.

Public responsibility is a force as well for ELISS, a pilot project hosted by AAAS that prepares graduate and professional students to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries on tough societal problems. This year's 14 students come from four participating schools: Purdue University, Stanford University, the University of Washington, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Melanie Roberts, a founder of the program and its director, said she was unaware of Ava Carter's family connection when she was accepted into the program. With the fellows scheduled to assemble in Washington for one of their training sessions, Ava — who is in a Stanford doctoral program on stem cell biology and regenerative medicine — asked her busy father if he could recommend someone to speak to the group. His response: "How about me?"

Stephanie Carter
Ava Carter
Stephanie Carter (above) and Ava Carter | AAAS

And so, accompanied by wife Stephanie (a marketing and investor relations professional who also chatted with the fellows), a Pentagon press aide, a security detail, and the family poodle, Carter spent a relaxed two hours with the fellows on 13 June. He was introduced by AAAS CEO Rush Holt, who called him "an outstanding public servant and an old friend." The two have known each other for three decades.

In opening remarks, Carter praised the fellows' determination to make a difference in the world by taking on big problems. "It really makes me feel good to see such bright people and dedicated people going into science and applying what they know to society's needs," he said.

As for his own early career path, Carter told the fellows: "I didn't really know, any more than you probably know, what's next. I was feeling my way along. A lot of things that turned out to be influential in my life and steered me in one direction or another kind of happened to me."

Perhaps the most important happening: Carter caught the notice of Adair, who arranged a summer fellowship for him at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago. There Carter met and interacted with some of the leading particle physicists of the day, working long hours on an experiment with Adair and others at what was then the world's most powerful particle accelerator. The next summer he was at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, working again with Adair on an experiment at the lab's Alternating Gradient Synchrotron. His embrace of physics was complete. He went on to earn a doctorate in theoretical physics at the University of Oxford while studying as a Rhodes Scholar.

Carter was impressed by the generation of physicists who had been associated with the Manhattan Project during World War II. The experience gave them "a very commendable sense of responsibility," he said. "These people felt they had done something of enormous moment." Work on the atomic bomb brought a life-long sense of purpose, he said, and many of the key players became deeply involved in national security issues and efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons.

After earning his Ph.D., Carter began a traditional academic career as a post-doctoral research associate at Rockefeller University. But one of his advisers asked him to take a leave of absence to work for the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment, where he researched ways to protect U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles from a first-strike attack by the Soviet Union. That reinforced his growing interest in public policy and national security.

"I hope, at least for some of you, that you’ll take an interest in security affairs. We desperately need scientists to give themselves to this mission."

Ashton Carter, U.S. Secretary of Defense

"I caught the bug," Carter said, and he undertook a series of posts over the years — both in and out of government — where he has grappled with how best to ensure national security in a free society. "I fell into all of this, and I've never really looked back," he said. Part of the satisfaction, he said, was being "part of something that bigger than myself" and in a position to make a real difference.  

As both a scientist and a policy specialist, he said, he often found himself in a room where he was the only one who really knew the technical details of how a particular system worked. That sense of usefulness "was magic to me," Carter said. He made a pitch for some of the fellows to consider a similar path. "I hope, at least for some of you, that you'll take an interest in security affairs," Carter said. "We desperately need scientists to give themselves to this mission." 

In a question-and-answer session, Ava Carter asked her father how he pursues the sort of collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach that the ELISS program emphasizes. He said he is "very intent" on reaching beyond the Department of Defense for expertise and counsel. "In today's world, it is complicated enough and varied enough that you have to be open" to outside voices, Carter said. And to ensure that decisions are effective, he said, it is essential that those who must carry them out also are involved in the policy deliberations from the outset.

Carter also spoke of a need to keep changing as the times and the issues change. He noted the challenge of dealing with global terrorism, something that did not exist when he started his public career during the Cold War era. It is likely only a matter of time before an engineered pathogen becomes a bioterrorism possibility, he said. And in the hands of a few rogue individuals, he said, the probability of a deliberate release of a harmful agent goes up. He also acknowledged that public officials will "need the understanding and forbearance" of the public if increased security measures are needed to protect against such threats.

Ava Carter said in an interview that she would like to stay in a university environment, with her own research lab. But she shares her father's interest in engaging with the public and said it is important that scientific findings be widely and effectively communicated. She described her father as "my biggest cheerleader."

Michelle Munyikwa
Biswajit Paul
Michelle Munyikwa (top) and Bish Paul | AAAS

Michelle Munyikwa, a fourth-year student in the M.D./Ph.D. program in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, said the collaborative focus of the ELISS program appeals to her. She is interested in community health, both as a practitioner and as someone who wants to find ways to distribute health funds and resources more effectively. Thanks in part to the ELISS program, Munyikwa said, "I'm expecting that there will be very little about my career that will be traditional."

Biswajit (Bish) Paul, a Seattle-based community leader who is pursuing a doctorate in molecular and cell biology at the University of Washington, asked Carter how best to move beyond advocacy to a more direct role in decision-making, particularly for immigrant communities and LGBT communities. Carter said one of the strengths of the United States has always been its openness to successive waves of immigrant communities. "I lean very much on the side of openness," he said. He said advocacy and decision-making can go hand in hand, a point Rush Holt made as well. Governmental decisions in the United States often emerge because of advocacy by interest groups — such as those supporting same-sex marriage — that spur politicians to follow the public's lead, Holt said.

Paul was enthusiastic about his ELISS experience, which he said has been "giving me an experience and an opportunity to learn skills that I would never learn" in cell biology graduate studies. He said those skills include how to work in collaborative groups, frame good questions, and obtain the access needed to deliver queries to key policy-makers.  "You need to find the right mentors and connect to the right people, and ELISS is definitely helping me do that," he said.

The current ELISS fellows, who started with the program during the recent Ebola outbreak, will focus in the coming months on ways to help communities prepare for epidemics, Roberts said. They are organizing a series of forums to explore how to communicate accurately and effectively during an epidemic. They will present a wrap-up forum on the topic in Washington, D.C., on 4 Dec. Recruitment for the 2016 class is underway, with fellows to be selected from the following partner campuses: University of Washington, Purdue University, Duke University, University of California, Irvine, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.