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Karen Carney

Karen Carney
Science & Technology Policy Fellowships

2005-07 Diplomacy Fellow at the US Agency for International Development

Over the course of conducting ecological research over the past decade, I have had many unique views out of what were then my ‘office windows’ – I have looked out over lush tropical forests, temperate grasslands, and the glaciers and wildlife of Antarctica. Although I have traded these exciting views for the walls of a cubicle as a AAAS fellow, I still believe that taking the fellowship was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Why would I trade a life of adventure in exotic lands to join the US Government? While I loved certain aspects of academia and enjoyed most of the journey toward obtaining my PhD, I wasn’t entirely certain I wanted to dedicate my life to basic research and discovery. Much of my research was geared toward understanding how human activities were affecting natural ecosystems. For example, how does reducing the number of species in a forest affect its long term stability and productivity? How is climate change affecting the penguin populations over the long term? I really enjoyed finding creative ways to answer these questions, but I often felt frustrated that I wasn’t doing more to help solve the problems I was documenting. I wanted to actually use my scientific knowledge to do some real good in the world. Enter the AAAS fellowship.

Through AAAS, I was awarded a Diplomacy Fellowship and landed a placement at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). I work with a group that serves as a Washington-based technical consulting team for biodiversity and forestry conservation programs that are being carried out in developing countries around the world. Among other things, we inform international field programs about US policies that will affect their work, provide input to how conservation and forestry programs are designed, and help assess how well such programs are doing.

I knew soon after my arrival that the position at USAID was a great fit. Within a week, I was sent off to Brazil to represent our team at a meeting in which USAID, non-profits, and local Brazilians discussed what they were doing to address the major environmental issues of the country. Just a couple of weeks later, I was part of a working group that devised a quantitative method to determine which countries should be USAID’s highest funding priorities for biodiversity conservation. The interesting work continued over my entire first year as a fellow – I have participated in international working groups addressing illegal logging and reducing violent conflict over forest resources, reviewed proposals submitted to the USAID on biodiversity conservation and climate change, and helped improve the technical strength of USAID strategic and public outreach documents related to the environment.

I have found this kind of work incredibly stimulating and gratifying – I get to travel internationally, use my scientific background on a daily basis, and most importantly, use my scientific expertise to help solve real world problems. Rather than just report how humans are altering the environment for the worse, I am directly helping develop and implement programs that help improve both the environment and the quality of life of people around the world. While I do miss the views I was privy to on a daily basis as a field ecologist, I love knowing that my current work in science policy may directly contribute to preserving those views for future generations.