From the bench to the beltway—a scientist’s journey to public policy

By February 1, 2020

My path from bench science to public policy was set in the spring of 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq.

At the time, I was a graduate student in the Molecular Biology Department at Princeton, learning cell and developmental biology from Eric Wieschaus, who had helped revolutionize embryology and was awarded the Nobel Prize. His instruction was simple yet powerful – ask interesting and important questions and devise experiments to answer them. Wieschaus spent most of his days in the lab, generating fruit flies with unique genetic backgrounds that his students and postdocs could experiment with, helping us interpret results, and providing us with ideas and inspiration for future experiments. I didn’t grasp it at the time, but this training in the scientific method turned out to be just as valuable outside the laboratory and in my future public policy career.

As we were pursuing truth in the laboratory, something troubling was taking place in foreign policy and national security circles. The invasion of Iraq followed months of disinformation by the White House, its prowar allies in Congress, a disappointing swath of the media, and numerous ’experts’ throughout Washington DC think tanks. Even academia played its part — our own Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School penned a piece in the New York Times titled “Good Reasons for Going Around the UN” and argued how ” … Soldiers … would find irrefutable evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime possesses weapons of mass destruction.” and how “even without such evidence, the United States and its allies can justify their intervention if the Iraqi people welcome their coming and if they turn immediately back to the United Nations to help rebuild the country.”

We now know the war was one of our biggest foreign policy blunders, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, thousands of U.S. service members, and costing taxpayers trillions of dollars – all while making America less popular and the middle east more dangerous. That’s not all. Destabilizing Iraq also enabled the rise of ISIS and other terrorist groups, further destabilizing the middle east and contributing to a mass exodus of migrants to Europe which in turn exacerbated anti-immigrant and anti-muslim sentiments and empowered the far right and white nationalists.

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