Mad cow disease. Avian influenza. Tularemia. I never expected that a chapter in my professional career would be spent serving as an advisor to federal government agencies on these dangers in agriculture. During this time, on my way into the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington D.C. each morning, I walked past smiling photographs of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that beamed encouragement to do my best in service of the government’s mission.
One day I stopped, looked up, and asked myself, “How did I get here?”
I have always been captivated by the interwoven biological and geological cycles of our planet. Trained as an oceanographer, I studied the microbes that live in deep-sea volcanic habitats where superheated waters emanate from cracks in the seafloor. Among the fascinating things I investigated are the oceanic mountain chains that crisscross the planet like the seams of a baseball. Beneath this terrain, new layers of rock that form the ocean’s underlying crust are born through an eons-old cycle of eruptions, lava flows and tremendous releases of subseafloor fluids. These fluids contain unusual single-celled organisms and are also rich in nutrients that sustain other microbes that normally inhabit the deep sea. Some of these microorganisms live completely independently of sunlight and photosynthesis, defining an otherworldly niche in the abyss.
I was thrilled to become an ocean scientist and microbial ecologist during graduate school and as a post-doctoral fellow. It was incredible to dive to the seafloor in the underwater submersible Alvin to explore new volcanic sites over a mile deep in the South Pacific Ocean. However, something was missing. My curiosity and concern about our planet and the living things that call it home motivated me to achieve a more immediate contribution to society’s needs than I thought likely in academic research.
What happened next was not quite what I had in mind.
I entered the federal government sphere as a science and technology policy fellow through a program that the American Association for the Advancement of Science began in the 1970s and is going strong today. It places Ph.D.-level scientists in Congress, executive branch agencies, and most recently, with Moore Foundation support, the federal judiciary. Fellows bring needed scientific knowledge to their host offices for one to two years, and, just as important, they bring a scientific mindset to tackle pressing problems: analytical skills, hypothesis testing and a healthy skepticism.
I hoped to find a fellowship placement where I could work on environmental issues. But in 2005, the federal apparatus was in high gear and replete with funding to address bioterrorism concerns, so I joined an office at the EPA that I anticipated would provide a window into how the executive branch can operate at a rapid clip – with Congress anxiously awaiting answers about public safety and economic impacts if something were to go wrong. Homeland Security Presidential Directive #9 defined part of the EPA’s role with cleaning up after a disease outbreak. How would the government disinfect an area after the intentional introduction or natural emergence of fast-spreading, virulent livestock and poultry diseases? How would regulators define and measure “clean” when it comes to animal safety at an industrial farm? What should officials do with 1,000,000 cow carcasses or 10,000,000 diseased and potentially infected chickens? My host office was interested in my ecological knowledge of how long microbes persist in the environment; the introduction to my dissertation overviewed the many ways microorganisms withstand adverse, stressful conditions for extended periods of time. It was a match.
I attended meetings to learn the gaps in knowledge about disease transmission. I helped catalyze new research on the environmental persistence of the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus that was threatening to spread. I saw how decisions can be made quickly in government settings, often with less information than academic scientists are typically comfortable. I learned how consensus was built across government agencies to advance shared goals: alternative solutions were discussed and a course of action set. To try my hand at my burgeoning skills, I joked in the buffet line at a livestock disease conference that vegetarianism was a solution to the challenges. Lead balloon. I went to eat quietly in the corner.
At a carcass disposal symposium (hint: composting is usually your best bet for effective animal disposal, but you have to do it at the right temperature and level of aeration), the strangest confluence occurred. A suggestion had been brewing in the community that a solution for mass carcass disposal was to send the bloating tonnage out to sea. After consultation with scientists and attorneys about the laws, regulations and relevant science, I prepared my advice.
Raising my hand at the symposium, I said, “I may be the only oceanographer in the room. Here are some reasons why this might be a bad idea.”
I laid out the possible unintended consequences: microbial decomposition of the carbon- and nitrogen-rich carcasses would likely rob the local area of oxygen, killing invertebrates and fish that could not escape; and certain sea birds would feast on the floating mass, possibly carrying disease agents back to shore and, in the case of highly contagious H5N1 virus, could themselves become infected and transmogrify into flapping disease vectors. The suggestion was withdrawn.
My public service in Washington was a meaningful opportunity to make a contribution, effect change and broaden my skills, and the experience catapulted me and my fellowship colleagues in new professional directions. Afterwards, I was thrilled to join the Moore Foundation and return to ocean science through its Marine Microbiology Initiative.
But I have not left the science policy world. In 2008, the foundation, along with partner funders and the California Council on Science and Technology, created the first state-level science and technology policy fellowship program modeled on the fellowship in Washington, D.C. A recent article documented the positive influence the program has had on the California legislature. I have witnessed fellows making critical contributions to state legislation concerning health care, the environment and transportation by moving science-informed action forward and preventing incompletely formulated policy from proceeding. Some fellows have worked on agriculture issues as well. Although farm diseases have faded from the news recently, I am comforted to know that science fellows in Sacramento are at the ready to collaborate with policymakers should something dangerous crop up unexpectedly here at home.
Jon Kaye, Ph.D. is a program director in the Science Program at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.