Of categorical superlatives, the United States federal government earns top marks for complexity and scope. Efficient, effective and accurate flow of information among agencies and leadership is akin to food for an organism: without it, the government simply could not function.
At the executive level, in the White House, the synthesis and relay of information takes on an additional urgency. And throughout the body that is the National Security Council - the principal forum for national security and foreign policy decision-making - a sizeable group of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship alumni work to keep the taps of information running clear and smooth for the President, Cabinet members and other decision-makers responsible for maintaining the nation’s security and readiness.
No fewer than six alumni serve on the NSC staff. This includes Elizabeth Cameron, who was tapped by President Joe Biden to resume her leadership as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of the newly reinstated Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense in January 2021. Cameron was an STPF fellow in Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s office from 2000-2001 and the State Department Office of Proliferation Reduction from 2003-2004. In addition to other parts of the NSC, two former fellows work on Cameron’s team.
“Some of the things we all tend to have in common is our ability to communicate with a wide range of audiences, do the really tough job of reaching consensus across government agencies on different issues, or outcomes that collaboratively advance our national security,” said Megan Frisk, the Director for Biotechnology Risks and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation. Frisk served as an Executive Branch Fellow in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State from 2016-2018, and is now on Cameron’s team.
The National Security Council’s diversity of coverage areas provide many niches where policy-oriented scientists can contribute. Disciplines include the expected subjects, such as economics, health, international relationships, and counterterrorism, but also more surprising arenas including space, emerging technology and climate security.
Frisk’s background in chemistry and biomedical engineering flowed naturally into her work at the State Department, where she worked on foreign policy issues related to emerging biotechnologies like genome editing. There, she had to think about science and technology in a slightly different light, but the experience set her on her trajectory toward the NSC.
“Science and security aren’t often natural bedfellows,” Frisk said. “Many scientists on the NSC have done research and know the immense benefits science has for energy, environment, health. But they can also think about how science can be misused or how there can be accidents, think about the potential impacts, and develop policies to mitigate against the different risks.”
Mark Lucera, the Director for Countering Biological Threats and Global Health Security on the NSC (also with Cameron) was an Executive Branch Fellow in the Office of International Health and Biodefense at the State Department from 2017-2019. A virologist by training, his experience with infectious and zoonotic diseases informed his foreign policy work at State related to infectious disease outbreaks abroad, which gave him the opportunity to collaborate frequently with NSC staff.
At the NSC, Lucera says the role he and other Directors’ have is to pull agency stakeholders together, identify a problem set or policy objective, and empower agencies with the expertise to come up with options for how to develop and implement policies. In his case, this concerns strengthening the global health security architecture to prevent outbreaks and improving global health governance and financing.
A significant proportion of Lucera’s work involves making sure senior leadership—the President, the Vice President, the National Security Advisor, and others—are well-equipped with the latest facts on his subject area. Lucera said he sharpened the succinct communication skills required to perform that formidable task outside the lab: speaking at symposia, taking advantage of science communications training opportunities and serving as a volunteer subject matter expert at the Outbreak exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
“You need to be able to explain how a virus you can’t see with your eye has an impact on national and economic security, and you also need to translate how we can take specific actions to prevent the next crisis. That’s a broad scope of issues that you must be able to communicate,” Lucera said.
Three other STPF alumni also serve on the NSC: Michelle Rozo, the Director for Technology and National Security (2017-18 Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow and 2018-19 Executive Branch Fellow in the Biosecurity Engagement Program at State); Matthew Sharp, who works in nuclear arms control (2009-10 Executive Branch Fellow in the Office of Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs at State); and Chris Cannizzaro (2008-10 Executive Branch Fellow in the Office of Space and Advanced Technology at State).
Cannizzaro initially thought he’d return to a faculty position in biochemical engineering after his fellowship. But he was captivated by global issues in nanotechnology and other emerging technologies, as well as improving cooperation among international partners—on Earth as well as in space.
The space element also enabled Cannizzaro, now Director for Critical Infrastructure Policy at the NSC, to contribute to technical and policy discussions related to space environment hazards.
“Space cuts across all sectors, including critical infrastructure,” Cannizzaro said. The word infrastructure is very much on the minds and agendas of many people—he referenced the recent Colonial Pipeline cyberattack, the Florida condo building collapse tragedy, and hurricane impacts—and that his office’s role is to consider how current and future architectures take into account threats both human-made as well as natural.
Cannizzaro echoed Lucera’s advice for policy fellows interested in pursuing careers at the upper levels of government: draw on your analytical basis of scientific thinking, but also learn how to write and communicate with crystal clarity. And ideally, be able to do that really fast.
“Things can come up really quickly and need to be elevated rapidly, even to the level of the President,” Cannizzaro said. “Everyone, everyone appreciates a well-thought out, well-grounded memo.”