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Promoting Science Through Policy: An Interview With Kathie Olsen


Had you told Kathie Olsen (pictured left) years ago that she, a neuroscientist, would be chief scientist at NASA and, eventually, assistant director for science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), she "would have started laughing!"

Olsen's career started in the typical way. She earned her Ph.D. degree at the University of California, Irvine, did a postdoc at Harvard Medical School, and set up her own independent neuroscience laboratory at the State University of New York (SUNY), Stony Brook. She did the typical PI things--she taught her allotment of courses, advised students, and submitted her first grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which was funded.

Four years into her tenure-track career, something atypical happened. "Out of the blue, Dr. Alan Leshner, who was then the deputy division director for Behavior and Neural Science at the National Science Foundation (NSF), called me," Olsen remembers. "He said, 'Would you like to consider coming down to be a program officer in psychobiology?' " At the time, she felt that this was an opportunity she just couldn't ignore. She says, "This was something I was very excited about because in your own laboratory, you're focused on your research question. You are narrowly focused." Overseeing a wide range of neuroscience topics was a new and exciting prospect.

Olsen packed her bags and headed south to NSF in Arlington, Virginia. Although she had a full plate of NSF duties, she still maintained her lab at SUNY-Stony Brook and attended to her teaching duties. "I was down there about 6 or 7 months and I loved it," says Olsen. She wasn't forming policy, but "it was a way of promoting science, more than I could do with my own lab." NSF officials asked her to stay on for a second year and during that time, her scope expanded to include integrated neural systems in addition to psychobiology. Women's issues were also on Olsen's radar screen, and she used her experience to assist in developing two new research programs. One was targeted toward women beginning their independent research careers, and the other focused on women who were already established researchers. But when NSF offered her a third year, she declined and returned to Stony Brook to run her research lab.

But NSF didn't forget Kathie Olsen, and a year and a half later, officials lured her back with the opportunity to start a new neuroscience grant program. Olsen saw this as her chance to give the fledgling field of behavioral neuroendocrinology a home, both within the government and within the scientific community. At the time, scientists like Olsen who worked in the field did not have funding programs that specifically addressed the questions they wanted to research. If the work was developmental in nature, applications would be submitted to developmental neurobiology programs, and if the work used molecular techniques, proposals would go to molecular and cellular programs. Thus, she started a program in behavioral neuroendocrinology at NSF, which "brought a community and money together. It was an example of how the government and researchers--from well established scientists to those just beginning their careers--can work together to foster scientific opportunities in laboratories across the country."

Don't tell Kathie Olsen that science policy is an "alternative" career!

Olsen: "The word I hate most is 'alternative.' I say it's an '11-letter word.' There's no such thing as alternative. There are career opportunities in science. Going into an academic setting is one, going into industry is another, going into science policy is another, going in as a science writer is just as critical, and for all of those, it's important to have a strong science and technology background to be successful."

Working for a government agency like NSF, Olsen says, gives you the chance to influence science: establishing activities and/or programs to support emerging new areas or underrepresented groups. "You can do so much to advance directions and fields that other scientists can take advantage of." But she warns that the rewards are internal. Unlike making a discovery in a laboratory, there is no resulting publication with your name emblazoned along the top when you set up new programs and workshops. "Nobody knows that you do it, except for you," she says.

Eventually, Olsen realized that "I couldn't do everything" and admitted to herself that her calling was to promote science from within the government, instead of from the ivory tower. She accepted a permanent position at NSF and started her training in science policy by attending courses.

Then there was the sabbatical! Olsen originally intended to use her NSF sabbatical to dive back into bench science and reacquaint herself with hands-on research, but officials at NSF had other ideas. "I was told that for my training I needed to go to [Capitol] Hill," she says. Olsen recalls that she didn't want to work on the Hill "because I'm not political and had never even taken a political science course," but once she was there, she "loved it!" She explains that "if I were young and knew about the opportunities on the Hill, I always tell people, that's where I would have gone first."

Working for Senator Conrad Burns of Montana opened Olsen's eyes to the legislative process. Because legislation ultimately affects the regulations and policies that scientists must follow, as well as the amount of funding available to scientists through support of the science agencies such as NIH, NSF, DOE, and NASA, Olsen says, "it is so critical to have a person in those offices who has a strong science background. They are looking for that." And likewise, Olsen says that it is important for scientists who decide to remain in academia to follow the larger issues and try to understand how Washington works.

On returning to NSF from her 2-year sabbatical, Olsen took on the challenge of overseeing the funding for the agency's science and technology centers. She points out that with each new position within NSF, her scope grew in breadth. At this juncture, Olsen was dealing with programs in social and behavioral sciences, geosciences, engineering--all of the areas covered by NSF.

Olsen's breadth increased to new heights when one day, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin called to ask if she would be interested in the chief scientist position at his agency. "When he called me, I was shocked because at that point, I don't think I could remember the order of the planets!" Undaunted, Olsen accepted the challenge and excelled, overseeing NASA's space, earth, and life and physical sciences programs.

After 3 years as NASA's chief scientist, Olsen's name began making the rounds at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) as a candidate for the associate director for science. She was confirmed by Congress and joined OSTP in August 2002. In her current position, she has become a powerful voice for science. Olsen is the advisor to the director of OSTP, John Marburger, who is the president's science advisor.

"What's fun about this job is that my portfolio is physical sciences, life sciences, behavioral/social sciences (including anthropology), economic sciences education, the environment and the international components, and the globalization of science," Olsen says. "My portfolios grew and grew and I love it. What happens is that you know a little bit about a lot of things. And it's just incredible."

Every day is different for Olsen, something she relishes. She meets with the public and with members of the academic and industrial science communities. Another aspect of her job she's excited about is the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Science that she chairs along with Elias Zerhouni, director of NIH, and Rita Colwell, the director of NSF. They have set up subcommittees to examine education and workforce issues and to determine how to facilitate the transfer of scientific knowledge between the federal government, industry, and universities.

Opportunities abound for scientists interested in getting some policy experience, says Olsen. OSTP brings in scientists to assist both with general policy issues and, at times, on particular questions. Currently, two AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellows work in Olsen's science office and are assisting with a forum OSTP is planning on science education. AAAS and other professional societies offer fellowships for scientists who have recently earned their Ph.D. or who are postdocs. Olsen points out that only PIs are eligible for the type of positions she has held at NSF, however, because the agency wants scientists who have experience of obtaining grant funding.

What advice would Olsen give to prospective policy wonks? "It's really important to get [the] Ph.D. because the Ph.D. trains you to think," she says. "It trains you to look at issues. I still use that kind of training in everything that I do." She also recommends that if scientists have the desire to work in policy, they need to get out there and try it. Says Olsen: "The advice I would give is that you are going to be changing your directions and your careers throughout your entire life and you need to be open to it and look forward to the opportunities."