Scientist Robert Smith, Ph.D. may be based in Washington D.C., but his work is driven by events that happen around the world, like the genesis of AI tools like ChatGPT and the development of quantum technologies that can help us discover new pharmaceuticals.
Smith is a chemical engineer and 2023-24 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. He has spent the past year working at the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Western European Affairs, where he focuses on building strong partnerships with countries like Germany, Belgium, Portugal and the Vatican to improve American people's lives and also the lives of people in partnering countries.
“One country may be very strong in one aspect of technology, while we might be strong in another,” says Smith. “We try to find ways to work together with these countries, to make both of us stronger overall.”
The Office of Western European Affairs briefs U.S. decision makers on all types of policy that pass through the U.S. Department of State. Smith says his fellowship has allowed him to learn about different areas of science and technology beyond the scope of his training as a chemical engineer. Every day is an opportunity to learn something new about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and semi-conductor chips—two of the most important technology policy topics in Washington today—as well as biotechnology, climate and digital developments and quantum computing.
In preparing policy briefs, meeting with foreign and domestic science and industry professionals and keeping a pulse on technological developments across the pond, Smith says the work has given him a deeper understanding of how American science and technology policy influences the United States’ broad relationships with other countries.
“It has also helped me see how these different technologies are relevant to different policy questions,” says Smith, whose office encourages different government parties to work with Western European countries. “If we’re talking about AI, it’s not just a matter of understanding what AI can do, but how policy should be reshaped in response to what AI can do."
Connecting the dots between scientific impact and the science itself has always been an interest of Smith’s. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, it was his high school science teacher, Mrs. Fritz, who inspired his love of chemistry. Fascinated by the connection between the microscopic and visible world, he followed the path to a university career in chemical engineering, earning his undergraduate degree at Florida State University and his Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon.
Before entering the realm of policy, Smith worked in research and development in the technology industry, where he engineered products like hard drives and memory cards to become more environmentally friendly. Part of that work was developing a green technology roadmap for reducing the environmental impact of hard disk drives and working to slice hard drive-related greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
Smith is also passionate about STEM outreach— Specifically, engaging with elementary and high school kids from underrepresented communities on potential careers in science and technology. He has worked with organizations like the Greene Scholars Program, which provides quality STEM programming for Black students in grades 3 to 12, and as a mentor for the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) Program, which helps Latino, Black and first-generation college students gain career skills.
In 2021, Smith worked with the AAAS Science in the Classroom (SitC) program to make primary scientific literature more accessible to high school and college students—a skill he gets good practice with in his policy career.
“Having to communicate to non-technical audiences, that’s something that is important in my current role,” he says. “A lot of people just need you to get to the point quickly.”
When asked how his science career prepared him for his AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, he credits his engineering training for his ability to deeply research technological topics and look at the evidence to form arguments.
“Technology can be intimidating, so having that technical background has made the technology more accessible to me,” he says.
Now entering the second year of his fellowship, Smith is looking forward to advancing technology policy within his department for people without strong technical backgrounds.
“I feel very fulfilled in this world,” he says. “I can see how all the different decisions we make and the ways we choose to engage with our partners really impacts the world around us. Going into the second year, I have a much better understanding of what I can do in policy. I’m shaping what I think I should do and being more strategic about what I want to accomplish.”