New Voices recently interviewed Dr. Kathie L. Olsen. A neurobiologist by training, Dr. Olsen has spent most of her career working in science policy. She has held several positions at the National Science Foundation including serving as Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer. She has also worked as Associate Director and Deputy Director for Science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Additionally, she was Acting Associate Administrator for Biological and Physical Research and Chief Scientist for NASA! Dr. Olsen received her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California in Irvine and her B.S. in biology and psychology from Chatham College. Her postdoctoral fellowship was at Harvard Medical School.
How did you first become interested in science policy?
It was an evolutionary process. In high school I didn’t even like science. When I got to college, I took a general biology course, mostly because it fit into my class schedule. Well, I loved it- so I decided to major in biology and psychology. From there, my career followed the typical route for a research scientist. I got my Ph.D. in neuroscience and did a post doctoral fellowship before getting a position as an assistant professor with my own lab and NIH grant.
I enjoyed what I was doing but I still had some nagging feelings about my career path. For one thing, I’m extroverted and enjoy interacting with people. There were times when I would spend the entire day in lab and never talk to anyone. Also, in your research lab, it’s all about you-your projects, your grants, your publications. Going to the NSF was a great opportunity to see the field more broadly and get a lot done behind the scenes.
Given the many demands placed on early career scientists, how important is it for them to become involved in science advocacy and policy?
It’s critically important. There are a lot of little things that scientists at all stages of their careers can do to get involved. You can work through your professional societies. You can also work through your university to reach out to members of Congress- maybe invite them to your lab. I sometimes speak at grade schools, museums and rotary clubs about science. People have an idea of what a scientist looks like. Researchers can show them the truth. It’s not like what you see on TV. Scientists look just like them.
What advice would you give someone who is interested in science policy?
Stay up to date in your field. In order to be effective in policy, you should go to meetings, read journals and understand the newest technologies. The more research experience you have, the better you will be at explaining what is important. You don’t need to know everything, but you should know who to ask. Also, if you don’t know something, don’t give the wrong answer. Instead, offer to get the information from an expert and then follow through.
What was the biggest challenge for you when you entered the policy field?
More than science goes into policy decisions. Policy makers have to look at a lot of factors when deciding how to prioritize. One of those factors is and should be science, but it’s not the only one. As a scientist, that can be challenging.
What is your outlook for the future of research?
I’m optimistic. America has thrived because of innovation. It drives our economy and improves our health and well-being. We need to prioritize, and the public and Congress understand that research is critical in addressing the challenges of today and tomorrow, and essential in maintaining an acceptable standard of living into the future. They recognize that an investment in research and education is an investment in our future.
New Voices would like to thank Dr. Olsen for speaking with us. Are you feeling inspired to get involved?