1999-00 Defense Policy Fellow at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency
“Are you coming back?” was one of the first questions I heard from a faculty colleague after I told him I was going to spend a year in Washington, DC doing policy work. Several thought I must be abandoning science and starting a new career.
Let me say now, there is life after DC! I didn’t go to Washington because of any dissatisfaction with my life in academia; quite the opposite. I have a very satisfying professional life teaching physics at the University of Richmond and doing research in nuclear physics at Jefferson Lab. I’m considered a mid-career scientist. What got me going into the policy world was a long-time interest in the intersection of science and society that started in college (the joys of a liberal-arts education!). The AAAS Defense Policy Fellowship was a way for me to do science policy instead of just reading about it in the newspapers.
As a Defense Policy Fellow I worked in the Department of Defense in a small think tank called the Advanced Systems and Concepts Office (ASCO). ASCO is part of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency which is charged with deterring, reducing and countering weapons of mass destruction. They were doing homeland security before homeland security received much recognition. Among the challenging array of projects I was involved in was investigating new ways of enhancing the security of nuclear-weapons materials (plutonium or highly-enriched uranium) in Russia. This is the now-infamous nuclear smuggling problem (we published our ideas in Science and Global Security in December, 2001). I was also on the oversight committee to assess the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty after the treaty was rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1999. In addition, I managed projects that took me all over the government, from the Pentagon to the State Department to the national labs.
Policy research is broader than typical lab work and you have to learn quickly about many disciplines. I had to evaluate the chances that a technician in a Russian weapons lab could steal plutonium or chemically purify uranium. You need your technical skills. I found myself calculating how a nuclear smuggler could shield his radioactive prize from radiation monitors. You need organizational skills. Contractors have a habit of working on the problem they want to solve instead of the one you ask for (not unlike many of my students). You have to keep them focused on the goal.
Since returning to academia, I have continued with much of the work I was doing before my fellowship. I am still involved in nuclear physics and am trying to come up with new ways of making physics interesting and exciting to my students. But, I am not completely cured of “Potomac Fever.” I’ve worked as a consultant for ASCO and have given talks about both my fellowship experiences and new expertise gained that year. I’ve found more than a few scientists interested in getting involved in policy and, more importantly, the public hungers for an understanding of how science is affecting our lives. This has been especially true since the September 11 attacks. I am also serving on a task force of the American Physical Society to investigate ways for Society members to contribute to countering terrorism.
My year in Washington was rewarding and stimulating. My professional life is now broader and my biggest problem seems to be choosing among an array of exciting opportunities. Even though I came back, I didn’t leave Washington behind.