Hello everyone! This post is part of the Paleo Policy Profiles series which will showcase paleontologists who are currently science policy professionals. For this interview, we talked with Thomas Olszewski, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analysis’ Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI).
This interview was compiled by Stephanie Plaza-Torres and Lyndsey Farrar, Paleontological Society / AGI Policy Interns.
Where do you currently work?
I work at the Institute for Defense Analysis’ Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI), which is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center.
STPI is a non-governmental entity established by Congress to provide objective evidence-based analysis of science policy. We are only allowed to work for the federal government, and although the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is our primary sponsor, we also do work for other federal agencies.
What are you working on at STPI?
Currently, I am part of a STPI team providing support to the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections to update the “Green Report”, which was a 2009 report about the status and policies that govern federally-owned scientific collections. I get to talk with people across many agencies about their scientific collections, which is really fun. Talking to these people is great because they are excited about collections, they want others to use them, and they want to share them. I stepped up for this project because I’m a paleontologist, and, obviously, collections are a big deal for any paleontologist! It is exciting to be able to provide support and help to the people who are managing these collections.
Another short project I have worked on addressed which federal agencies might have authorities on a future United States civil base on the Moon. Currently, the goal of the United States is to have an American land on the Moon by 2024 and to establish a sustained presence at some point in the future. Starting to determine potential agency contributions and authorities at this point is part of the long-term planning process. Some agencies are already dealing with space and others are not, but they may have to consider their obligations with respect to a sustained lunar presence (who is responsible for delivering the mail to the Moon? Do OSHA rules apply to lunar workplaces?) Thinking about these scenarios helped inform this project and I got to think like a futurologist. The wilder threads did not get incorporated into the end product, but they helped us explore which agencies, even ones we never considered before, might have experience or statutory responsibilities that policy-makers need to consider as the U.S. presence on the Moon expands in the future.
How did you become interested in science policy?
I started my career like most young scientists, especially paleontologists: I was all about the fossils and the analyses. I still definitely get excited about that stuff, but I was also getting to a point in my career [as full professor at Texas A&M] where I was seeing things a little more broadly. I lived in a state [Texas] where we had vocal Creationists on the State Board of Education, and although their most extreme ideas did not get incorporated into the state science curriculum, they did influence the national-level science education through their influence on textbook publishers, and the state curriculum determined the readiness of students coming into the university. That increased my awareness of issues that were happening outside of academia.
I also participated in several congressional visits organized by professional societies, which entirely changed my perspective on how scientists can interact with policymakers. For family reasons, I ended up moving to the Washington D.C. area, which gave me the opportunity to try something different than an academic career.
I spent two years in the State Department as an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, working primarily on issues of energy security in central Europe, which was totally different than the academic science environment that I was used to. It gave me the chance to experience something totally new and forced me to view what I could contribute differently. By the time my fellowship was ending, an opportunity at STPI appeared, I applied, and that’s how I got to where I am today. Changing jobs mid-career was scary, but it has also been a chance to learn new things and develop new skills, which has been fun and energizing.
What advice would you give to someone that is interested in science policy?
My general advice can be summed up in one thing: get involved. Do your science but be aware that it exists within a larger American social context. If there are social issues that are important to you, as a young person you can make a difference. Don’t expect change to be fast, but that doesn’t mean you should stop and give up on advocating for what you think is right. The values of science—openness, accountability, transparency—go far beyond research. As a scientist, your knowledge is critical to inform good policy, but the scientific mode of thought that you practice every day is also consistent with a just society.
Talk to policymakers. Do congressional visits. March for Science. In your local school district election, if a candidate needs understanding of science concepts, volunteer. Participating and getting involved at the local level will help you meet non-scientists, which will help you learn to talk to people outside the scientific community.
Learn how to communicate to and be aware of the broader population. Most people don’t know about the science relevant to policies that are important to them, but it doesn’t mean they are unable to understand it. You have to put the effort in helping them understand the concepts. Those are skills you can hone and can get better at; and the payoff can be enormous. A lot of policymakers are looking for help and they know they have knowledge gaps. They are hungry for someone to help walk them through the science they need to make sound policy decisions.
All that said, it is also important to remember that political, social, and financial constraints are all factors in play in policy, in addition to facts and science. The optimal solution is not always viable, but you shouldn’t be disheartened by that. The scientific knowledge you contribute will help turn policy in the right direction; even if the change is small, it can make things better for people.