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Kathryn L. Beers

Polymer chemist reflects on White House science-advising post

by Rochelle F. H. Bohaty
February 2, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 5

Credit: Rochelle Bohaty/C&EN
Kathryn L. Beers
Credit: Rochelle Bohaty/C&EN
Kathryn L. Beers

FEW CHEMISTS have walked the halls of the executive office buildings in Washington, D.C. But Kathryn L. Beers, a polymer chemist from the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) was free to do just that for more than a year while working in the Executive Office of the President.

Beers, 36, director of NIST's Combinatorial Methods Center and acting group leader in the Polymers Division of NIST's Materials Science & Engineering Laboratory, spent part of 2007 and 2008 working with President George W. Bush's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, who also served as director of the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP). On loan from NIST, Beers's major responsibilities included advising Marburger and others in the Executive Office on "the impacts of science and technology on domestic and international affairs," she explains.

Beers recalls encountering a "huge learning curve" when she walked through the doors of OSTP. "The scope of the information that you have to handle at OSTP is enormous," she tells C&EN. "You have to have confidence in your ability to grasp the big picture," and you have to do so without the technical details that you are used to relying on in the lab, she notes.

As the assistant director for physical sciences and engineering at OSTP, Beers was in charge of a portfolio that included the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Science Mission Directorate, and a significant portion of the National Science Foundation. Although she could not discuss the details of her duties at OSTP, she says her work focused on coordinating interagency and international cooperation and liaising with the physical science community.

The most exciting part about working at OSTP was having the freedom to call "preeminent scientists" to discuss concepts critical to government policy, she says. Conversation topics ranged from scientific details regarding a specific NASA mission to background information on a proposed project included in a budget request.

In addition to her scientific skills, Beers believes having a liberal arts education from the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., helped her tackle the range of challenges she faced at OSTP. For example, her education gave her the general skills necessary to read and write government documents.

Being a native resident of the Washington, D.C., area did not hurt either. She took in a lot of politics while growing up and often participated in political debates with her family, which helped her develop the ability to communicate effectively, she notes.

Although it would seem from such a childhood that Beers would be well suited for a policy career, she admits that she "never really thought about science policy." Actually, it was not until college that Beers took an interest in science at all.

When Beers left for college, she says, she was thinking about majoring in a foreign language, history, or international affairs. But her plans changed when she took a science class to fulfill a general education requirement. "I had too much pride to take the non-science-majors class, so I took the chemistry course for science majors and loved the class so much that I changed majors," she says.

Beers was so excited about science that after receiving a B.S. in chemistry in 1994, she went on to study polymer chemistry as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. Working with chemistry professor Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, she earned an M.S. in polymer science in 1996 and a Ph.D. in chemistry in 2000.

In addition to the experimental details that occupied Beers on a daily basis during graduate school, she recalls noticing challenges that scientists face outside the lab, such as securing grant money. That is when Beers began to link her interests of science and policy.

It was also in graduate school that she became more keenly aware of the effects of fundamental science on the community at large. This awareness caught the attention of her graduate school adviser. Beers was not only a gifted scientist but also had an extraordinary and natural ability to communicate important issues to a broad audience, Matyjaszewski recalls.

BEERS JOINED NIST in 2000 as a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow and was invited to stay as a research chemist in 2002. Soon after she accepted the job offer, she voiced her interest in taking time way from NIST to explore her interests in science policy at OSTP. At the time she didn't believe that the opportunity would arise. But in February 2007, Beers got her chance and took leave from NIST for a 13-month rotation at OSTP.

At the conclusion of her service at OSTP, Beers recalls hoping that the insights she gained would enable her to help NIST achieve its mission. She also recalls finding it a bit challenging to return to lab work. As she explains, she went through a complete "mind shift" from looking at the overall picture of the scientific enterprise to zooming back in on her niche.

Although Beers admits that working at OSTP is "not something that everybody in science is probably cut out for," she does encourage more chemists to give it a try.

"I don't think chemists are represented strongly enough in the policy community," she says. If more chemists were involved in policy, she explains, it would help nonscientists understand the societal benefits of chemistry while improving chemists' understanding of policy, which would be a huge value to the chemical enterprise.



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