August 26, 2016

Q & A with Tammy Dickinson, Principal Assistant Director for Environment & Energy at OSTP

Posted by bwebster

Did you know? Today is Women’s Equality Day! To celebrate, AGU fearured several female scientists on social media throughout the week. We posted Q&A’s on The Bridge, asking geoscientists about career advice, the work they do, and why it’s important to get involved in science policy. Today’s featured scientist is Dr. Tamara Dickinson. Dr. Dickinson is the Principal Assistant Director for Environment and Energy at the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President.

Who or what has inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I was always interested in learning how things work and form. According to my father, as soon as I could talk, I wanted to know why and how, and I was an avid collector of things – rocks, bugs, shells, critters. My father, who was patient with my inquisitive nature as well as my acquisitive one, took me camping, and I would collect butterflies and rocks.  When I cleaned out the attic in the family home when my father passed away, my butterfly collection was still there. The butterflies were not in great shape, but they were well organized with good labeling.

Even though I spend most of my time in an office these days, I still love to list and observe. I scratch this itch now by watching birds and maintaining a life list of those I have seen. I travel the world to see new species. I even dragged my husband bird watching in Ecuador on our honeymoon. I love to spend my spare time on my deck in Chincoteague, VA, watching and documenting the birds I see and the changes in their habits.

Why do you think it’s important to get involved in science policy?

It is important to have people who understand science and how it is conducted, and who have experimental and research experience managing our Nation’s science enterprise, making funding decisions, and setting our science policies. Otherwise there can be unintended consequences of our policy decisions.

When I had the opportunity to move from the lab into science management at NASA, most of my colleagues advised me not to do it.  They didn’t admire managers; they admired scientists.  They thought I was ruining my career.  It felt like I was taking a huge risk by trying something so different at such an early stage in my career. Even though I thought science management would be a good fit for me, I was worried I would lose the respect of the scientific community.

But, it turned out that I was a great fit for science management and policy.  Once I made the leap to the policy side, I also realized that managers make huge contributions to science. Without managers who appreciate what it takes to do science well, and who fight for the right conditions and policies, the funding agencies, universities, and policy-setting bodies make suboptimal decisions; so, the science suffers.  The United States has the best scientific enterprise in the world as much because of people like Vannevar Bush— who was so smart and creative about science policy—as because of people like Barbara McClintock— who was so smart, creative, and brave about her science.

Did you have any important mentors in your career, and how did they impact you?

My Father was absolutely key to all my career decisions.  He always made it clear that I could do anything I wanted to do, at a time when not all fathers said that to their daughters.  I also had an uncle with whom I was close, who also encouraged me to aspire when I was young.  Having two men who I respected encouraging me to look beyond some social patterns that might have discouraged other girls set me on a path to find a challenging and interesting career for myself.

I believe formal and informal mentoring are important to individual personal and professional growth.

I have had many excellent mentors throughout my life both professionally and personally. Some have been long lasting and some shorter in duration.  They all have several qualities in common: they believed in me both professionally and personally. Provided constructive feedback. Were good listeners. Nudged me in the right direction when I needed it and pulled me back from the edge of the cliff when I was too close. And sometimes helped pick up the pieces.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to work in science and science policy?

I would offer three pieces of advice. First, with respect to science policy, I think it is important to be a scientist before starting a career in science policy.  By immersing yourself as a full-fledged member of a scientific community, you will develop a real appreciation of the challenges of funding, publishing, tenure processes, mentoring students, university governance, and the like.  That kind of rich and deep appreciation of the realities of the scientific enterprise will help you make better decisions about how to manage it, protect it, and how to change it. It will keep you from making naïve decisions and help you tell valid claims from facile ones.  I didn’t spend a long career as a research scientist, per se, but I draw on what I learned as a scientist virtually every day at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Second, don’t be afraid to take risks even if your peers aren’t supportive. Follow your heart and passion. Be willing to jump into jobs that sound exciting for you. Also, don’t be afraid to leave a job that isn’t a good fit. But, never burn a bridge. You will be surprised what a small community we work in.

And last but definitely not least, your soft skills are at least as important as your hard skills. This is true in science policy in particular, but also in life in general.

What should be the future priorities for scientific research in the U.S.?

We need to solve our climate issues.  We have to protect this planet; it’s the only one we know of that is habitable.  We have to do it not just for humans but also for the all the other creatures who can’t do it for themselves.  Scientists and technologists have especially important roles to play in saving the planet; we have sounded the alarm and we are working to find solutions. But we need to up the ante in developing innovations for emissions mitigation, increase research in how the planet is reacting, and understand how non-human life will evolve or die out in response. I’m really pleased to see that so many smart, young scientists are taking up this challenge.  They give me hope.

How can the U.S. ensure that it continues to play a leading role in scientific discovery?

The scientific processes that have served us well for centuries can serve us well into the future.  This includes both the scientific method of research but also the peer review processes for funding and publishing. Peer review is an essential arbiter of scientific quality, validating the promise and quality of research.

Most government budgets are justified based on efficiency and foreseeable benefits, investment by investment.  That can’t be the only consideration for a cutting-edge, scientific enterprise.  Some of the best basic science happens when people pursue their best ideas, even if they are risky or don’t make sense to many nonscientists, and even if we don’t know exactly where they will lead us.  No one knew early on that studies of atomic physics would lead to the Global Positioning System or that studies of the nature of light would lead to lasers and, through those, to much of modern electronics.

As a whole, American scientific investments have yielded the greatest payoffs and the best scientific enterprise in the world.  That didn’t happen by predicting the practical payoff of each inquiry; it happened by funding the best scientific ideas as recognized by other scientists, and understanding that some would not work.

There’s a flip side to this.  Scientists can’t just preach that non-scientists need to leave them alone.  That won’t build trust.  In fact, it builds suspicion; it makes us seem arrogant.  And, it makes people think that we just want their money and no accountability.  We need to engage, participate.  Talk about our work with our neighbors.  Join community groups.  Allow people to question us.  Run for office.  The ethos of science is service and truth.  We need to hew to that and not isolate ourselves from the society we serve.

What discovery do you hope is made in your lifetime?

I’m selfishly hoping for cures for Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, which have devastated so many of our friends and loved ones.

Thank you to Dr. Dickinson for her time and answers! Be sure to follow her on Twitter @tamara44.