S&T Policy Fellow Is On the Air and "Armed With Science"


John Ohab

Neuroscientist John Ohab was looking for a career jolt—a "fish-out-of-water" experience, as he puts it—when he went to work in the Pentagon as an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. Still, he was surprised by the greeting he received from Lieutenant Jennifer Cragg as he walked in to the offices of the Emerging Media Directorate at the Department of Defense:

"We're going to start a science radio show. Want to be the host?"

As a Ph.D. student, Ohab spent six years in the labs of the Brain Research Institute at Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, trying to solve the mystery of how stem cells repair the brain after stroke. After receiving his degree, he worked for a year as a policy analyst at the National Institute of Mental Health. Could he make the switch to talking about nanotechnology and ground electronic warfare in a weekly podcast?

Fourteen shows later, the neuroscientist said he still "gets wound up and talks a mile a minute" when he interviews senior officials about the Defense Department's cutting-edge research. But as the voice of Pentagon Web Radio's "Armed with Science" program, Ohab is committed to sharing the Department's unique interests in research, applications, and public policy with a broader audience.

Since its debut in January, the 30-minute, weekly program has been downloaded by listeners more than 50,000 times. The show, first developed by U.S. Navy public affairs officers Cragg and Bob Freeman, covers science pertinent to modern military operations, such as new technology to avoid aircraft collisions and applications for sonar. But Ohab's programs also venture into less traditional territory, discussing the security risks of Facebook and Twitter and the environmental impact of future U.S Navy facilities.

"Some people think defense research is only about missiles and tanks and guns, but the Department of Defense invests in research that spans all scientific disciplines, including biomedical, environmental, and social sciences," he said. "I don't think you can accurately represent the work of the Department of Defense without discussing those interests."

"We knew that having a scientist involved would bring credibility to the show and more effectively unite Defense Department scientists and our civilian and military audience," said Cragg. "John brings a unique perspective that draws from experiences across government, academic science, and the emerging media space."

His interest in science outreach is not confined to the show; apart from his duties at the Defense Department, Ohab is working on a video blog that encourages science awareness among adults. And in the near future, he would like to continue working on ways to expand the use of social media such as Twitter, blogs, and wikis in the defense workforce.

Ohab and 162 other AAAS S&T Policy Fellows began working in the halls of Congress and nearly a dozen executive branch departments and agencies last September, 35 years after the first class of S&T Policy Fellows arrived on Capitol Hill. The fellowships provide scientific expertise and analysis to policymakers seeking solutions to increasingly technical issues, while preparing scientists to take a more active role in public policy.

"Careers outside academia are no longer 'alternative'—they are among the normal choices scientists make about how best to apply their expertise and skills," said Cynthia Robinson, director of the S&T Policy Fellowships at AAAS. "These fellowships highlight that there are many meaningful paths to successful careers in science and engineering."

Nearly 80 scientific and engineering societies and organizations and 20 executive branch agencies and departments have sponsored the S&T Policy Fellowships since their launch in 1973. One of the program's best known alumni is U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), a physicist who was a Congressional Fellow in 1982-83. In recent years, Fellows have attended the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in Bali, organized an ambitious forum on geographic information systems (GIS) and sustainable urban development in the Middle East, and created a virtual library for scholars at Iraqi universities and research centers.

Like many of the projects conceived by past and present Fellows, Ohab sees the podcast as a creative way to bridge the gap between the research and policy communities. Although he regularly scours the defense R&D institutes for innovative science to showcase on the program, Ohab devotes equal energy to finding guests who can speak articulately and broadly about the science and its impact on national security policy.

"It's not as simple as calling up a scientist to talk about his or her latest research paper," he explained. "We look for people who can explain science and technology in ways that are meaningful and accessible to the general public."

A podcast run by the Department of Defense comes with a few unique challenges. Many of the topics discussed on the program have national security implications, and more than once Ohab has had on-air guests politely refuse to answer questions related to classified information. Other topics, such as the effect of naval sonar on whale behavior, have already generated years of controversial coverage for the Department of Defense. But Ohab sees his show as an opportunity to highlight the military's research response to such issues.

"We discussed from a scientific perspective whether underwater sound affects whale behavior. There wasn't any slant," said Ohab. The program did not come to any conclusions about whether sonar is harmful to whales, he noted, but "our approach is not to avoid controversial topics, but to find the best people to talk about them."

Preparing for the program has given Ohab a strong appreciation for journalists who cover topics outside their expertise. "I'm still operating in the realm of science, which helps, but you still have to refresh yourself from topic to topic," he said. "You have to reinvent yourself every week."

Ohab's directorate is exploring ways to bring the program to science classrooms in Department of Defense schools on military bases, working with teachers to incorporate the show's topics into the curriculum. "That would be one way we can use the program to build awareness among high school and university students about the variety of ways that science impacts society," said Ohab, "and encourage them to pursue a career in science."

As for Ohab's own career in science, he said the fellowship has given him a chance to step away from seven years of brain research and "evaluate what I want to do with my life." For the moment, the positive experiences of the podcast and his other work at the Defense Department have him leaning away from the lab. "I hope to continue working with emerging media," he said, "and to encourage a culture of experimentation with these tools in the federal government."