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From Science To Statecraft

Bruce Averill considers a leap from tenured chemist to government policy adviser

by Lois R. Ember
March 20, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 12

Assignment, Washington
Credit: Photo by Peter Cutts
The Jefferson Science Fellows program at the Department of State was launched in 2003.
Credit: Photo by Peter Cutts
The Jefferson Science Fellows program at the Department of State was launched in 2003.

Just a few weeks back, a prominent Indian scientist was refused a visa because a low-ranking U.S. consulate officer seemed to conflate his expertise in organic chemistry with chemical warfare.

Serving in a consulate office is the entr??e to a foreign service career, so understandably, junior consulate officers are an extremely cautious lot, intent on doing nothing that will harm their careers. Most days, they spend their time interviewing hundreds of people seeking U.S. visas, and you can bet that they are wary about admitting the next terrorist.

These prudent junior officers, like their more senior brethren, are likely to be more conversant in economics than in science because the Department of State has no career track for scientists. To compensate for this recognized deficiency, the department, over the years, has hosted a fair number of short-term fellows with scientific expertise. These scientists have often been freshly minted Ph.D.s seeking alternative career experiences. They have tended to work hard on fairly narrow tasks and, as a consequence, have had relatively little influence on foreign policy.

George H. Atkinson, a tenured chemistry professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the second science and technology adviser to the secretary of state, quickly recognized an unfilled need at State. Early on, he became increasingly convinced that senior academics with expertise in science and engineering could fill that void by helping to inform policies across a myriad of pressing geopolitical issues. Indeed, the same 1999 National Research Council (NRC) report that launched Atkinson's position also pointed out that about two-thirds of the top 15 long-term diplomatic problems had significant science and technology components.

Taking his cue from the NRC study, Atkinson created the Jefferson Science Fellows program to bring greater scientific literacy to the State Department. As he conceived it, the program would enlist five tenured university professors each year to serve as policy advisers. These senior fellows, he believed, might have more impact in helping to formulate and implement policy than their more numerous counterparts, the junior fellows.

The Jefferson program is named after the first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, who had a fondness for agricultural science and paleontology. The only other secretary of state with a science background was Colin L. Powell, who holds a B.S. in geology. Atkinson served as Powell's science adviser and continues in that capacity for the current secretary, Condoleezza Rice.

In welcoming the first group of fellows in May 2004, former secretary Powell said, "In the 21st century, American foreign policy must have a sound scientific foundation." A plethora of problems, including proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, the spread of infectious diseases, and energy resource issues, call out for scientific understanding. "Now, more than ever," he said, "American science must enlighten American statecraft."

Atkinson agrees that the department can artfully use the expertise and skill base that professors of science and engineering can offer. But, he insists, "it's not just being an awfully good scientist and engineer that's important." The Jefferson Science Fellow needs to be articulate, open-minded, and able to deal easily with complex scientific issues. But most of all, the fellow has to be a competent translator, able to clearly explain complex science-infused issues in a language that policymakers can understand.

Making a Point
Credit: Photo by Susan Morrissey
Averill says his academic skills served him well and were transferable to the challenges at the State Department.
Credit: Photo by Susan Morrissey
Averill says his academic skills served him well and were transferable to the challenges at the State Department.

Bruce Averill, 57, one of the first five senior academics chosen as Jefferson fellows and the only chemist in the group, possesses all those traits. Averill is a bioinorganic chemist and a tenured professor at the University of Toledo, in Ohio. Previously, he was a professor of biochemistry at the University of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, for seven years, which gave him an understanding of cultural differences in science. Under an agreement with the State Department, his current university agreed to pay his salary and retain his tenured position during his yearlong fellowship from August 2004 to August 2005.

Andrew W. Reynolds, deputy science and technology adviser to the secretary of state, describes Averill as "a gregarious person, certainly not a wallflower, and a risk-taker." He's "energetic, quick thinking on his feet, and brought a can-do attitude" to the job; assets, Reynolds adds, possessed by the four other fellows as well.

"Averill," Reynolds says, "did a superb job of integrating himself in the experimental phase of the Jefferson program. Don't forget: He was in the first cohort of Jefferson fellows."

Jefferson fellows have to operate in what for them is an alien culture. Their clients, the policymakers, are consumers of the fruits of scientific and engineering research, not researchers, and the modes of communication they employ are vastly different from those used by researchers for journal articles or grant proposals.

Averill quickly became deft at using the instruments of communication. "Within a couple of months, he was mastering statecraft very well," Reynolds says. Well enough, Reynolds adds, to operate "at a high level very quickly." Indeed, Averill rather early in the fellowship year had routine access to people up to and including an assistant secretary.

Several weeks ago, Averill spent a few hours with C&EN discussing his experience at State. During that freewheeling conversation, Averill explained why he believes he had ready access to a high-ranking assistant secretary when most of the hierarchy at the State Department didn't—and still don't. "The foreign service is almost a military organization, very hierarchal, very rank driven, and I was basically a civilian contractor," he says. As such, "I could talk to the majors and the captains, and I could also talk to the generals."

His crashing the glass ceiling was a fortuitous happenstance. Regional bureaus, where foreign service officers reside and policy is made, are sometimes described as feudal baronies where assistant secretaries are gods, and few people talk to the gods. Averill, however, selected a project, energy, that was a special interest of Roger Noriega, then assistant secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA), the regional bureau Averill selected to work in.

Noriega was particularly interested in stimulating sustainable economic development among U.S. neighbors and, Averill says, Noriega realized that policies favoring job creation and alleviating poverty would have to depend on the spin-offs of science and technology. Averill, in turn, was able to identify problems that were of immediate importance to Noriega's bureau and to which he could make a contribution. "That in a nutshell was responsible for whatever success or access I had," Averill says.

How a chemist chose to work on energy problems deserves some explanation. Before the five fellows came to State, Atkinson had asked the various bureaus to put together short descriptions of projects they would like the fellows to work on. About 25 bureaus, including some functional or advisory bureaus, complied with what Averill calls "needs and wants" summaries.

None of the summarized projects called for a fellow with chemical expertise, none "was at all close to anything I'd ever worked on academically," Averill says. But, he "noticed that about six or seven had the word energy in the title." One project on geothermal energy from the WHA Bureau intrigued Averill. The fact that it was in a regional, as opposed to functional, bureau also satisfied Atkinson and Reynolds, who thought it was important to get senior scientists into regional bureaus.

The project's aim was to "see what the U.S. could do to enhance the utilization of geothermal energy in Central America and in the Andean nations of South America, where it is highly abundant and, if developed, could be cost-effective as well as environmentally sound," explains Averill. Although the geothermal resources of these volcanic countries are substantial, they remain relatively untapped.

Averill thought the geothermal project "interesting, a no-brainer. It's so obviously important and should be done, but in terms of a scientific or technical challenge, it didn't seem to me that it would necessarily be a full-time project," he says.

Once Averill began working in the WHA Bureau's Office of Economic Policy & Summit Coordination, he learned that Noriega had been thinking about a broad, strategic energy policy for the Western Hemisphere. Although he was still tracking geothermal energy issues, Averill's portfolio rapidly expanded to include other energy issues.

Soon, he became involved in the policy coordinating committee of the National Security Council and the State Department that dealt with developing a strategic energy policy, and "pretty quickly I was one of the major contact points with the NSC for energy issues," Averill says. He also became the face of his bureau at energy-related meetings held throughout Central and South America, where he made many important contacts and picked up valuable information.

He swiftly mastered the communication tools employed at State: one-page information memos, briefing memos, and action memos. He documented any relevant information he picked up in signed one-paragraph summaries that found their way into the assistant secretary's daily activity report (ASDAR). Each day, these paragraphs were compiled into a single report that circulated through the bureau and eventually landed on the assistant secretary's desk.

"I was putting out three or four of these little ASDAR paragraphs weekly, and soon people began to realize that there is this guy Averill who was telling them something that they thought was interesting and maybe even important," Averill says. He was soon being asked to sit in on meetings with the bureau's deputy assistant secretaries and with assistant secretary Noriega himself.

His duties transcended technical issues to include political and economic factors. So how could someone educated as a chemist address political and economic issues? "I'm a quick learner" and a fast reader, Averill responds.

As an academic, he sat on many review panels for which he had to read 50 to 100 proposals and/or manuscripts. "You learn to read fast, and you learn to be able to distill out what is important. Clearly, those are skills useful not only in academics," Averill notes.

At one point, Averill used those skills to quickly pull together a summary of the investment climate for the energy sector in all petroleum-producing countries in Latin America. That summary impressed his office director and "established the fact that I could do something useful, and even though I was a chemist, I had some skills that were transferable to their problems," he says.

Having useful skills is fine, but, Averill says, being "sociologically sensitive to one's environment" is equally important. Becoming one of the tribe, becoming assimilated into the culture of State without losing identity, meant dressing like a diplomat and ditching the professional title. Gone was campus fashion-khaki slacks and casual shirts-to be replaced with pin-striped suits and proper ties. Averill is convinced that had he not dressed the part, "none of the people at the higher levels would have taken me seriously."

Apart from dress, Averill believes that what also helped him was not using his hard-earned title, doctor. He relishes telling this story: When he was introduced to a person who covered geothermal energy issues for another bureau, Averill's office colleague introduced him as Dr. Averill. "I put my hand on his shoulder and said, 'Ed, I hate to break this to you, but when I was born, my mother had to fill out a birth certificate, and on the first line she put Bruce, not doctor.' " That, he says, "set the tone."

Freshman Class
Credit: Courtesy of te Department of State
Then Secretary of State, Powell welcomes the first group of Jefferson fellows, from left: Kalidas Shetty, David Eastmond, Melba Crawford, Powell, Averill, and Julian Adams.
Credit: Courtesy of te Department of State
Then Secretary of State, Powell welcomes the first group of Jefferson fellows, from left: Kalidas Shetty, David Eastmond, Melba Crawford, Powell, Averill, and Julian Adams.

His instinct to not use his title was soon validated. A couple of weeks after the encounter, Averill attended a fellows' orientation session at which the instructor warned: "Don't let them call you doctor or professor. As soon as they do that, you are no longer one of them." Averill, of course, did not put doctor on his business card, but through meetings and memos, he became known as the Ph.D. scientist who was working on energy issues for the WHA Bureau.

Even though he thought the geothermal energy project that had initially caught his eye would not present a full-time technical challenge, he did end up doing a fair amount of work on the issue. For example, with a counterpart at the Organization of American States, Averill organized a workshop in April 2005 in Santiago, Chile, that helped identify the economic, regulatory, and structural barriers to developing geothermal energy. The workshop also raised the level of understanding about the possibilities of geothermal energy and facilitated better future communication among the countries that attended.


"If I can make my geothermal proposals work in Nicaragua and Guatemala, for example, it could potentially turn those countries into net exporters of energy in the form of electricity, in addition to bananas and coffee," Averill says. This could have "an enormous impact on the lives of millions of people, and I can't see how I can do that academically in my own particular field of metalloenzymes."

"No one in the foreign service cares about metalloenzymes," Averill comments. "I didn't use my chemistry much at all beyond the level of general chemistry." And so he cautions: Anyone who accepts a State Department fellowship "expecting academic kinds of intellectual stimulation is going to be disappointed."

Indeed, Averill jokingly says, "I'm convinced that the degree of interest at State in any given topic is inversely proportional to the academic interest in that topic." This is quite understandable given the disparate goals of diplomacy and research.

On the basis of his year's experience as a science policy adviser, Averill advised the incoming second group of Jefferson fellows to identify needs and determine how their expertise could be used to make valuable contributions. "If you want to do something important, you have to find out where you can blend in, where you have skills that can be brought to bear on something" that advances the goals of the State Department.

"To Atkinson's great credit, he has been trying to raise the awareness of what science and technology can do within State," Averill says. And, he adds, having scientists in their midst constantly reinforces that awareness among policymakers.

One benefit from his year at State, Averill says, is well-honed interpersonal skills. At State, he says, "no one person is irreplaceable, and no person alone can get anything done. It's all teamwork. It's all interagency operations."

Then, with self-deprecating humor, Averill continues, "I don't think I could have been successful in the foreign service if I had gone in as a younger person because I was a typical arrogant, obnoxious academic. No interpersonal skills." And, he notes, interpersonal skills are transportable, as "crucial to academics as anyplace else."

Averill received his doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973 under Richard Holm, who is now at Harvard University. Averill says Holm advised him to, every few years, reassess whether what he was currently doing was the best possible use of his talents, expertise, and experience. If it wasn't, Holm said, do something about it.

Averill has taken that advice to heart and is now reevaluating whether "academics at this point in my life is the best possible use of my experience and talents." His fellowship year—"a potentially career-altering experience"—made him pause to reconsider "whether I couldn't possibly get as much personal satisfaction by working on a much broader range of issues that affect a larger group of people."

To help him decide whether his felicitous experience as a Jefferson fellow was not a fluke, Averill was offered and, with his university's approval, has accepted a one-year William C. Foster Fellowship. He began this new fellowship in February in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and is focusing on critical infrastructure protection issues.

This time around, the State Department, not the University of Toledo, is paying Averill's salary. And though he is remote from the Toledo campus, he maintains a laboratory there that supports the research of several graduate students. Averill uses modern communication techniques to keep abreast of his students' research, primarily on copper(I) compounds for olefin separation and their dissertation efforts.

If, in the next six months, Averill finds that this fellowship experience is as enjoyable as his Jefferson year, and if he is having the same kind of impact, then, he says, "I think there is a strong message to heed." Maybe, he continues, "I should seriously be considering a substantial career change for the last part of my career."

Some might say Averill has contracted "Potomac fever." Maybe. But what is clear is that Averill is rapidly reaching a fork in the road. He'll soon have to decide whether to return to academia or explore opportunities in Washington, D.C.

As he did during his Jefferson fellowship, Averill lives on a 40-foot boat docked in Annapolis, Md. It takes him a little over an hour to commute from Annapolis to his State Department office in the Foggy Bottom area of Washington, D.C. The distance of less than 40 miles is considerably shorter than the distance, metaphorically, Averill may choose to travel from tenured professor to a government policy adviser.


From Science To Statecraft

Bruce Averill considers a leap from tenured chemist to government policy adviser

Tenured Professors Advise State Department Officials

Career Moves

Chemist Averill's Professional Stats


B.S., 1965, Michigan State University

Assistant and associate professor of chemistry, 1976-82, Michigan State University

Associate and full professor of chemistry, 1982-94, University of Virginia

Professor of biochemistry, 1994-2001, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, 2001-present, University of Toledo, Ohio

NIH Postdoctoral Fellow, 1973-74, Brandeis University

NIH and NSF Postdoctoral Fellow, 1974-76, University of Wisconsin

NIH Postdoctoral Fellow, National Cancer Institute, 1976

NSF Energy-Related Postdoctoral Fellowship, 1976

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow, 1981-85

NSF Special Creativity Extension, 1992-94

Jefferson Science Fellow, 2004-05, State Department

William C. Foster Fellowship, 2006-07, State Department



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