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Patricia Gruber on science advice in the US state department

Patricia Gruber on science advice in the US state department

Science for Policy podcast episode

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About this episode

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26 February 2024


Show notes

Dr Patricia Gruber is the science and technology advisor to Antony Blinken, President Biden's secretary of state. In a wide-ranging conversation with Toby Wardman from the SAM, she discusses how she got her job and what it's like, how science advice is relevant to international relations, what a science advisor can and cannot do, and the wisdom (or folly) of withholding scientific collaboration as a diplomatic measure.


The transcript below was generated automatically and may contain inaccuracies.

Toby: Hello, welcome to the Science for Policy podcast. My name, as always, is Toby, and today I'm joined by Dr. Patricia Gruber. Dr. Gruber is the Science and Technology Advisor to the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. She has a background in marine sciences. She previously worked as Director of Research for the Office of Naval Research, coordinating outreach and education, as well as managing the US Navy's fundamental research programmeme. And she's worked as the Technical Director for the global wing of that office. So, Dr. Gruber, welcome to the podcast.

Patricia: Thank you very much, Toby, happy to be here.

Toby: I have to admit that until we were first in contact, as an ignorant European, I didn't actually realise that the US Secretary of State would have a Science and Technology Advisor. If I understand Mr. Blinken's role, he's basically in charge of President Biden's foreign policy. In which case, the most obvious jumping off point for our conversation, I think, has to be, what part does science play in that? What's your role as Science and Technology Advisor to Secretary Blinken?

Patricia: So, this position was actually created in 1999 by then Secretary Madeleine Albright, with a recognition that science and technology really needed to be considered in, you know, foreign policy discussions and decisions. So, the reality is that science and technology pretty much touches every aspect of our lives. And so, it's really not, should not be surprising that it also touches almost every aspect of foreign policy. Because obviously, the role of foreign policy is to foster economic prosperity and security for our citizens. So, the role of the Science and Technology Advisor Office is basically threefold. First of all, we try to anticipate the impacts of emerging science, technology, and innovation on foreign policy. We build capacity in the department to make sure that science and technology is spread across the whole building. And a big part of the way we do that is that my office runs our fellowship programme. So, in any given year, we have close to 60 science and technology fellows through various vehicles who sit in particular offices and work on specific problems. So, they bring that expertise. They're here for one to two years. So, it's kind of a rotating flow of science and technology expertise, which is great. And third, we connect with our domestic and international science and technology stakeholder communities to advance department priorities. So, one key way we do that with our international partners is through our Regional Technology Officer programme. That's where we have foreign science officers sitting in, right now, six embassies across the world. And their role is to track and assess and energize the emerging technology ecosystems in their regions. So, they're not just focused on the country in which they sit. They have multiple countries that they're responsible for. And to promote US technology policies and values, and also to kind of raise the awareness of science and technology as a vehicle for partnership and diplomacy across our embassies. So, to sort of build that science and technology capacity within the various embassies that we have around the world. Now, there are a lot of people in this building. They're working on day-to-day issues that are coming up across the world and across the board. Our office has the charter, and I might say the luxury, to actually focus on kind of longer-term technology trends. So, we're trying to look out on a little bit further horizon.

Toby: That's great. It sounds like you have a very broad portfolio, so there's lots for us to talk about. If I can just ask you about one thing to start with. You mentioned that you have about 60, you said, science and technology fellows embedded in the State Department. 60 sounds like a lot to me, but can you put it in context? How big is the State Department?

Patricia: Well, just within the Washington DC area, the State Department has over 14,000 employees. And the fellows sit in the offices in the Washington area. So, when you look at it in that context, and really across the globe, the State Department has 78,000 employees. So, 60 fellows doesn't really sound like all that much in that context.

Toby: Yeah, I see what you mean. So, it's 40,500 employees in Washington, 60 fellows, and one science and technology advisor. (laughing)

Patricia: Yeah, we're pretty busy.

Toby: Yeah, no kidding. And who are these fellows?

Patricia: So, our largest fellowship programme is the AAAS Fellowship programme. And so, they, I assume you've heard of the AAAS.

Toby: American Association for the Advancement of Science, right?

Patricia: Correct, okay. They are typically early to mid-career science and technology professionals. And they're coming from a variety of fields. Earth science, economics, social science, physics, math. We've got a lot of engineering disciplines, civil engineers, industrial engineers. So, it's really across the board. Every year, we bring in 25 new fellows, and that's a two-year fellowship. So, at any point in time in a given year, we usually have 50 AAAS fellows running around the building. And I will say the other beautiful thing about that programme is they really build a cohort, and they really build a network. And so, that's a network that they carry for the rest of their careers, and also a network that we, as the State Department, can tap into on an ongoing basis when we need some insights into science and that sort of thing. So, that's actually a key part of our network. We also have the Jefferson Fellow programme, where we bring tenured faculty in. So, that's a one-year thing, because they basically take a sabbatical year, and they come and spend that time again. We do a matching process, right? We try to match the candidates and their interests with problem statements that the offices have submitted. And so, those folks are very deep technical experts, right? And they only have a year, so they kind of have to dig in. But again, they've become a resource to us then, even after their tenure here.

Toby: Okay, and this sounds like a well-established programme. You've got people embedded all across the institution.

Patricia: Well, it's a process we do every year. It's the recruiting. We always have more offices who want fellows than we have fellows that we can bring in. So, they go through an initial vetting process, and then the candidates set up a number of interviews with the offices, and then we just try to come up with the best matches that we can.

Toby: Yeah, so it's good to know that there is that demand for science and technology within the department. I also found it interesting. So, your roles in office, it sounds like is partly internal, so bringing science into the work of your colleagues in the State Department. But also then, you described external work promoting U.S., I think you said policy and values in other countries. So, essentially, you have an interest in how science and technology are addressed in other countries.

Patricia: Oh, absolutely. The balance of inward versus outward obviously changes from week to week. So, when I first got here, I obviously spent a lot of my time meeting basically with my State Department peers and counterparts, and I confer with them on regular issues. But my deputy, who was the acting Stas before my arrival, really did a great job of keeping the programmes going and really kind of cementing our relationships inside the building. So, since I've been here, I've been focusing more of my time on outward-facing roles. So, I've had a lot of meetings with international counterparts, both in Washington and on trips abroad. I've met with several domestic professional societies, like the American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, and various universities, and I've participated in quite a few science policy and STEM events. So, it's really about fostering those collaborations and partnerships and, you know, sharing sort of U.S. values and views on science and technology and its impact.

Toby: Okay, and why is that a policy priority for you or for your department? I mean, to put it very bluntly, why does the U.S. care about that?

Patricia: So, I'm gonna go back to when I had my positions at the Office of Naval Research. I oversaw the domestic and international fundamental research portfolios, as you noted, and through that experience, I really internalized some basic principles. First of all, science and technology absolutely will continue to drive the future of economic prosperity and national security, and good science happens all around the world. No one country has a lock on technology. If we're gonna be effective in addressing big societal issues like climate change, food insecurity, global health, and so on, we have to support international science and technology collaboration as absolutely critical. And finally, science diplomacy, I've found in my experience, is an excellent, mutually beneficial tool for strengthening and creating international relationships. It's interesting, Secretary Blinken gave a town hall and he said at one point, our greatest strengths is our partnerships, and I would extend that to say that that includes science and technology, and we really need to make sure that we are building those partnerships. And that's something you have to continually work on. It's not a one and done. And so that's why this role is attractive to me. I think that's why this job is so important, and I'm honored to do it.

Toby: Hmm, and how did you get appointed and why?

Patricia: Why me? Well, I can tell you what the process was. The State Department basically collaborated with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to come up with a list of candidates that they thought would be well-suited to this role. And then that was followed by essentially a series of several rounds of interviews with senior department officials. So it was a pretty involved process. The why me? I think probably because of the background that I mentioned in working in fundamental research. I also have experience, I've worked in academia and industry, so I think it's really valuable to be able to kind of bring all those perspectives together and also that network. Because as I said, a big piece of this job is really about building the network.

Toby: Yeah, that makes sense. And so how well prepared were you when you started the job? Did you find that your experience helps you to get your feet under the table?

Patricia: I think that I am very, very comfortable operating in the science and technology community. I understand the principles of scientific research. I've lived through research and development, product commercialization. I think having all those experiences are really valuable. I will say the policy aspect of it was new to me. It's a different perspective. I guess it's, again, one of the reasons I was really interested in taking this job because I believe in the science and technology, but this was an opportunity for me to use my skills but also learn something new, which was the policy side. So happy to be here.

Toby: Yeah, good. I think other science advisors I've spoken to have said something similar and they often say they see themselves not so much as experts to be consulted, but more as a kind of bridge between the scientific community, where the expertise is, and then the policymakers who need that expertise. If it's not too much of a leading question, and if it is, of course, feel free to disagree. Is that how you see things as well? Is that how you envisage your role?

Patricia: No, that's fine. I do think you said it very well. I think science advisors ultimately, and I'm saying this broadly, are translators, right? So it's being able to take that technical background and that experience, but it's also really important that you have good communication skills. You have to be proactive and willing to collaborate. You have to be able to gather and synthesize a lot of information in order to make that translation from technology to, why does the person you're talking to care about it, right? If it's a policy maker, it's what are the potential impacts of that technology on the economy or security or human rights? And so you have to be able to make that translation to come up with actionable advice.

Toby: Great. I think it would be helpful if you could, bearing in mind that you're speaking to an audience, a global audience, perhaps you could give us a kind of whistle-stop tour or roundup of the science advice systems that exist, well, as broadly as you'd like, really, but for instance, within the US executive, within your department and so on, and then an idea of how you and your team fits into that overall infrastructure.

Patricia: Okay, so let me start at the top. You know, in the White House, you have the science advisor to the president, you have the Office of Science and Technology Policy, you have the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Science and Technology Council. So that's at the executive branch level. There's also the National Security Council, the National Economic Council, Council of Environmental Quality, and other bodies that advise on particular issues, policy issues.

Toby: Right, and each of those then draws on scientific evidence themselves, I guess.

Patricia: Yes, and probably more frequently, each agency that funds or performs research in the US government has a chief scientist or something like me, right? In other words, some equivalent of a chief science advisor or a chief scientist. And so for cross-agency issues, which most are, oftentimes that group will be convened, typically the National Security Council is doing that. Sometimes it's OSTP directly, but basically they're drawing on the expertise of kind of the folks at the agency level, if that makes sense.

Toby: Yes, it does. And so then within your team, do you have hands-on experts that work directly for you? I mean, beyond the fellows that you've already talked about?

Patricia: Yes, I have a small team, admittedly. We're small, but we are very engaged across the building because we're not working on every science and technology issue, but we essentially see every technology issue, if you will. In other words, we go to a lot of meetings across the building, some cross-agency. We look at, we see all the documents that are going through and provide feedback on those. So it's actually a pretty big load that my team does. But in addition to that, I mentioned the fellowship programmes, I mentioned the regional technology officers, but we're also specifically working on smart communities projects. And we are a research and education networks in Africa. And I have actually just sort of recently started looking at biotech and biomanufacturing.

Toby: Okay, interesting. If it's not too much of a diversion off topic, would you mind just kind of quickly summarising each of those hot topics that you just mentioned? I think it would be interesting to understand the kinds of things that you're working on and thinking about.

Patricia: Yeah, so in the smart communities, you know, that's actually a collection of technologies per se, right? But it's almost more of a philosophy. And it's really gotten a lot of traction because there's a lot of interest in many countries, but also even at the subnational level on implementing these technologies. And we wanna make sure that they're being implemented, not just as surveillance tools, right? But they're being implemented in a way that includes the community stakeholders so that governments and municipalities are actually delivering value-added digital services to their communities. So for example, you could think about a digitized municipality where there's a maintenance issue. So there's a very simple way for citizens to report it. Then that gets linked to the maintenance crew and maybe even linked to their procurement chain so that, you know, all of these things can be kind of done in a very efficient manner and solve problems quickly. That's just one example. So the research and education networks, you know, basically internet too, right? And what we really wanna do is try to build our interactions with the African S&T ecosystem and essentially try to connect that better to the U.S. academic enterprises. So it's in part building that infrastructure, but we also in the last year have coordinated four trips where we've gotten vice presidents and associate vice presidents of research from six to eight U.S. universities to go to Africa. We've gone to Namibia, South Africa, Morocco, and Algiers to basically meet with their peers in African universities and really talk about, not specific projects, but what are the mechanisms for collaboration? What things need to be put in place so that we can have more research projects together we can have student exchanges. And so I'm happy to say that out of those excursions, we actually have some universities right now negotiating MOUs to basically start projects together.

Toby: Okay, well, congratulations, that sounds very promising. If I could ask then more broadly, what are your overall priorities for this role and for your office?

Patricia: So one big focus obviously is to continue the good work that this office has already done. I've already mentioned several of those programmes. In particular, our regional technology officer programme is six people right now. We wanna grow that to 12 to 15. So that's a big objective for us in the next year or so. From a technical perspective, I think that the work on smart communities is really promising. It's fostered a lot of goodwill and collaborations and interest. We have, for example, we're right now looking, we've put out a request to U.S. municipalities to submit proposals to basically be paired up with municipalities in Singapore. It's kind of like almost a sister city thing, you know, to create a workshop and share best practices and that kind of thing. We also keep an eye on semiconductor R&D. I'm sure you know that our chips and science programme is making a huge investment in building up, you know, supply chains and vendors and that sort of thing. But we're really very focused on making sure that some of that investment goes into R&D for the next generation of semiconductors. And I also mentioned the research education networks in Africa work that we're doing. And we keep an eye on the longer term horizon things, as I said. We have the luxury of looking a little further out. So quantum computing is obviously on that list. And I've just started looking at bio manufacturing. As far as the bio manufacturing goes, I have not crafted my advice yet. However, I've done enough digging to realize that it's really not too soon to start having that conversation with our international colleagues about opportunities for collaboration, values, possible security risks, that sort of thing. Again, I'd like to be out ahead of this before it does become a policy issue.

Toby: Yeah, that's really interesting. And that prompts then in my mind another question, which is about the balance between, as it were, bottom up and top down advice. So the extent to which you're able to set your own agenda and say to Secretary Blinken, for instance, here's the stuff I think you ought to know about, as balanced to get the extent to which he or others can come to you and say, okay, Dr. Gruber, we need advice right now on this topic because we're facing this challenge. How is that balance in your role?

Patricia: Yeah, that's an interesting question because time and resources are always limited, right? If I get a request, I will respond to it because that is my job. I would say internal requests versus kind of that longer scale thing, I would say right now is 70% near term, 30% kind of looking further out strategically. But that can vary week to week, month to month.

Toby: Yeah, it sounds challenging. I don't know if you have any immediate thoughts on where are the big challenges in this role? What's tough about it?

Patricia: Well, I think time and resources, right? You do have to kind of choose where you're gonna put your time and your energy and what you're gonna have your folks focus on. I mean, for example, my staff is very small. If we wanted to pick up something new, like neurotechnology or something like that, we either have to hire someone else or we have to drop one of the other projects. So it's always doing that balance. I think for this type of role in general, I think that the pace of technology and innovation has really picked up so rapidly that one of the biggest challenges is just trying to stay on top of everything. And that's where you really have to rely on your network. I haven't had time to read the literature or even do a literature survey since I got here. So I really have to count on my network and people that I know and trust and that I know who are really credible in their fields to synthesize and understand what's going on in the science. I think the other challenge is in general, and I saw this in my last job as well, I think that science and technology folks, we struggle to tell our story, right? I think we always struggle to try to talk about why science and technology is important. And I'm always trying to think of ways to do that better, but that's why I think a podcast like this is really, really useful because it's a good way to articulate why we do what we do and the importance of it.

Toby: So here it sounds we're talking about, yes, another dimension of your role, which is kind of science communication, right? Is that a formal part of your mandate to communicate with the public more broadly about science and technology?

Patricia: Well, I get invited to give a lot of talks, but I will say it varies, right? Some of them are just government to government. Some of them are more public, like the STEM events are very public, and I love those by the way. It's sort of by invitation. Maybe I could be more proactive about saying, "Hey, I wanna go talk to this audience," but something to think about for the future.

Yeah, sure. Well, as you said, you can't do everything. Did you see your advice as having had an impact on ongoing impact, like a concrete effect on policy or on society, I suppose?

Patricia: Well, I'll go back to, and I can't take any credit for this because it happened before I got here, but the smart communities thing was, I think, an initiative that we took on, not because leadership said, "Hey, we need to be looking at this," but it was something that, again, my deputy was astute enough to realize not only involved a lot of technologies, but addressed a particular policy issue that we were concerned about, which is human rights and privacy. And as I said, we didn't want smart communities to become immediately connected to a surveillance state. I can say that that's been embraced in the building. It's also been, I've gotten feedback from our regions. Our Latin American colleagues have said that it's gotten a lot of attention and a lot of appreciation from our partners. And in fact, there was a smart communities, actually it was a smart cities meeting in Denver about a year ago, maybe a year and a half ago, that Undersecretary Fernandez spoke about. So the leadership has embraced it and realized that it really is a good mechanism.

Toby: Yeah, on that, in general, how political is this role? So do you interact closely with political priorities? Are you steered by the current debate? I guess, do you engage with really contested issues in the public eye, you know, hot potatoes?

Patricia: Well, first of all, I am a nonpolitical Schedule B appointment. So I am not a political appointee. This position was intentionally established to be a nonpolitical position, to bring scientific expertise into the building and expand the vision. To that extent, I mean, clearly, if I am out speaking or interacting, I need to make sure that what I'm saying is consistent with US policies. And so to the extent that those policies shift, we need to stay on top of that. However, I also think that, again, this is a luxury. You know, science and technology is, as you said, pretty insulated from political issues. Not always. (laughs) But, you know, and that's what makes, actually that's what makes it such a great science diplomacy tool. Because it's a very non-confrontational, mutually beneficial way to communicate with people. You know, they are willing to talk to me, maybe before they're willing to talk to a congressional staffer, right, or whatever. So, and that's one of the, really, one of the nice things about this job that was a pleasant surprise. This role, people really view us as the gateway to the State Department. So anyone in an international community who wants to interact with the US enterprise, you know, this is an entryway for them in a science and technology world. And it has really pleased me to see how much desire there is to collaborate with the US.

Toby: All right, good. Well, since I have you here, then let me ask you a science diplomacy question, a question about US science policy abroad. Because there's been a lot of discussion, as I'm sure you know, about the involvement of science and research in the international response to the Ukraine invasion by Russia. And I know this concern among parts of the scientific community that have traditionally interacted quite closely with Russia. So I have in the front of my mind, the Arctic science community, just because I was recently at a big conference called Arctic Frontiers, where those people were strongly represented. So this idea of cutting off scientific collaboration, withholding collaboration as part of the broader package of, you know, things we're trying to do to persuade President Putin to back off. What's your view on that way of using science, that kind of, as it were, science diplomacy hard measure?

Patricia: So, you know, we maintained science and technology collaboration through the Cuban Missile Crisis. We maintained science and technology collaboration through the Cold War. We have a science and technology agreement with China. As I said, good science happens all around the world. We would be foolish not to take advantage of that. And as a society, we must take advantage of that if we're going to solve some of our global problems.

Toby: Yeah, so that is kind of the practical argument, or the self-interested argument, if you like. And I believe you. I think the counter argument to that, though, is when you feel like you have a strong moral imperative to do something about something. And so from a European perspective in particular, but I guess also from a US perspective, when it came to the invasion of Ukraine, you had world leaders casting about trying to find stuff to throw, as it were, at Putin to get him to change his path. Taking stuff out of reach, like science, can look a little bit distasteful.

Patricia: Well, using science and technology as a tool for retribution is probably not going to be very effective and really shouldn't be. I mean, the reality is it's not. And so, yes, leaders may choose to do it, but I think in the long run, they only hurt themselves. Again, it's sort of that if you cut yourself out of the S&T ecosystem, ultimately your ecosystem, and eventually your economy will suffer for it.

Yeah, and apart from that, you're also saying it doesn't work, basically. (laughs)

Patricia: Yeah, briefly, yes. (laughs)

Toby: Yeah, so such a broad portfolio. You're doing traditional science advice, as in answering questions and informing the political leadership about the stuff they need to know, at the same time as, by the sound of it, kind of advocating for science within the State Department and supporting its work in that arena, at the same time as working on US science diplomacy and providing leadership there and representing US policy abroad. I'm really starting to appreciate how broad this role is. And you've also hinted at connecting with academia and the scientific community as well.

Patricia: In my job description, it specifically says that I am to be the liaison between the State Department and US academia, which I love. And so, one of the ways that we leverage that is through our diplomacy laboratory, which is where we come up with hard problems, questions. And those kind of get farmed out to universities and they create teams of undergraduates, sometimes graduate students, undergraduates and graduates, who just, on a pro bono basis, will look at a particular question for a semester, basically, and they come back with a report. Like for example, one of them is looking at the connection of subnational policy to federal policy and how does one affect the other and vice versa.

Yeah, okay. We're coming towards the end now. I do want to ask you about constraints. I mean, we've talked about some, right? But are there things that you would have imagined you could do in this role or that you would like to be able to do in this role, which it turns out are not possible or more difficult than you thought?

Patricia: So basically, I'm resource limited, right? As I said, I go back to time and resources. I can't explore technology areas as deeply as I would like. At the end of the day, I am a scientist and I like that stuff, but there just isn't time to do that. So you have to rely on your network to understand the state of the art. I can't just fund a programme, right? We're not a programme shop, so I can't just say, you know what, boy, it'd be great to have a smart communities test bed and I'm gonna build that. Sadly, I can't do that. Or I can't just build the internet out in Africa. If I wanna do those sorts of things, then they're not impossible, but it means that I have to explore public-private partnerships, go through the mechanisms and the processes to actually start up a programme.

Toby: Yeah, so you can't do implementation, but also you can't do primary research.

Patricia: I don't have the time for it now.

Toby: Yeah, whereas in previous roles, if I understand it rightly, you were doing more of that. You were commissioning.

Patricia: I was, I was funding research. And so it was great when I was running the international science programme, I literally reviewed every grant that we issued and that was almost 200 grants a year. So that was a lot of fun. And I had very good technical scouts out there and I would have great discussions with them about, well, why this and why not that? And I really enjoyed that.

Toby: All right, so what's next for you? I guess being, as you said, a non-political appointee, this means your job won't be at risk automatically in the coming elections.

Patricia: We hope not.

Toby: I mean, sure, right? One never knows.

Patricia: No, I mean, well, my position is not necessarily tied to the outcome of the election. Let me put it that way.

Toby: Yeah, understood. So, but do you have ideas of where you'd like to go next or what you'd like to do next?

Patricia: I almost never take a job thinking that it's gonna be a forever job, right? And by the way, this is a term appointment and always has been. There's never been, there's never been a STAS that has stayed more than three years. So I knew that going in and that's fine. Honestly, I would like to go back to what I was doing before this. I was sitting on boards and for some small companies, being a technical advisor and that sort of thing. So more part-time consultative type work.

Toby: Well, that doesn't sound too bad, I have to say. I do really want to thank you. It's been an honor to speak with you and I felt increasingly guilty about it as you've described the pressures and the time limitations that you operate under. So I do appreciate that you've spent some of that much-coated time talking to me and to our audience. So Dr. Patricia Gruber, thank you very much. And I'll let you get back to your real job now.

Patricia: Oh my goodness. Don't apologise. This is a topic that I'm pretty passionate about and I'm really, really happy to have this opportunity to talk about it. Thank you.

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