“I knew FAS is a group that really seeks to do good”: A Conversation with Dr. Rosina Bierbaum

Trying to sum up a varied and impressive career can be an impossible task – especially when that career is still going strong. But as Rosina Bierbaum steps down from her position as Vice Chair of FAS’s Board of Directors, Jonathan Wilson sat down to find out more about how her science career began, and to glean just a few pearls of wisdom that she’s picked up during her time at the forefront of science policy in this country.

Jonathan Wilson: I know that you started off early on with an interest in marine biology. Where did that come from? 

Rosina Bierbaum: Well, I think it was because my dad had a small boat store. And the family  went water-skiing, canoeing, and sail-boating on the rivers and small lakes in Pennsylvania. I grew up in the smoggy steel town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, so visits to these pristine lakes and waters were special and close to my heart. And then I read Rachel Carson’s book, The Sea Around Us. And that really made me want to preserve the waters of the planet and especially got me excited about the oceans. It exposed me to this amazing example of women and science – and even now, there are still some antiquated ideas about women [not belonging] in science. 

On that note, I’m curious about when you were coming up early on, whether you got any kind of discouragement or pushback on pursuing a career in science or even studying science? 

Well, not really. Both my parents had not gone to college and really wished that they could have. And so they encouraged all of us to do so. We would wake up for every NASA space launch, no matter what time of day or night it was, to watch ‘science in action’ on our little black and white TV. My parents were always very interested in science. They encouraged me to enter the science fairs. My older brother did. My older sister did. And I did. So, I felt exactly the opposite – science was cool. And then in high school, I was lucky enough to have freshmen and sophomore science teachers who encouraged me to do after-school work with them to help prepare labs. In fact, they also encouraged me to take summer courses in math at Lehigh University, which was only six blocks away from me, but at that time didn’t yet enroll women. I actually never felt the discouragement that I know a lot of women have. My older sister is an atmospheric chemist. And she definitely felt it was much harder for her than I think it is for ecologists like me, because there were already more women in biology. When I think back on it, though, the two high school teachers who encouraged me were women in my crucial teen years. But most of my mentors in college and graduate school who also believed in me and encouraged me to go further were men. 

It’s interesting because you have a sister who’s a chemist. You have this glittering science policy career. It strikes me that your parents must have had this kind of innate curiosity about the world. Do you ever think, Okay, if my dad or my mom had gone to college, this is what they would have done,? Do they have scientific minds? 

Yes, I think so. My mom actually did become a nurse before the five children showed up. And so she was fascinated in all things medical for the rest of her life, and other disciplines of science, too. And Dad followed in his father’s footsteps initially, which was as a grocer and a butcher, in small-town Bethlehem. You had populations from all over the world who would walk to the steel plant near us and buy things from the store on the way home. For example, he had ultraviolet lamps to keep down bacteria. And so he was always thinking about, ‘Why does this work? How does this work?’ And he was very intrigued with our science experiments. So yes, I think he had an “engineering” mind. He did say he wished that he had been able to go to college. In his 70s, he actually took chemistry courses at the local community college, intending, of course, to impress my older sister! And I remember being in graduate school myself and we would often talk about homework assignments and the design of my experiments together. 

Reading about your early career and your education, it’s clear that pretty early on you set yourself apart. Of course, being a woman in a field dominated by men at the time, that’s one element. But there’s also the element of the tension back then between scientists and government policy workers. You’ve said that some of your scientist colleagues were very negative about you going to do a Congressional Fellowship – they weren’t crazy about you working with politicians. I’m curious if these tensions ever grated on you – being one of the few women in some of these scientific environments, and then being one of the few scientists eager to go work on Capitol Hill. 

Well, first of all, I was very lucky that I went right from graduate school into the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, the late great “OTA”, which is only defunded [meaning, Bierbaum says, Congress could vote to fund it again and resurrect it].  But was done away with in the [Former Speaker Newt] Gingrich Congress. There I was able to learn how to work in a policy domain in a less scary or startling fashion, how to take what had been sort of a narrow and deep science PhD and expand into learning about politics and economics, the social science aspects, and the engineering aspects with a team. 

But it was true that I was exceedingly shocked the very first day that I was a congressional fellow. I went to a House Science Committee hearing, and it was on ozone depletion in the stratosphere. And there were eight men who were wonderful academic leaders in this field trying to speak to one member of Congress who was, of course, a lawyer, as most of them are – and it was a terrible conversation. There was really no information shared between the two sides. And then that whole team of experts from a ‘great University in the Northeast’ got offstage. And one of the environmental groups’ lawyers got up and talked to a lone member of Congress who was there and they were able to exchange real information. 

It was one of those epiphanies. I realized that all the hard and good scientific research and accomplishments out in the ivory towers that aren’t translated into usable information simply won’t get used. That made me think for the first time that maybe this shouldn’t just be a one-year congressional fellowship to learn how policy works, but to actually work to bring science into the policy world, and – equally important – to bring the policy needs back out to the academic world. 

Did it ever become frustrating or old to you – the work of translating between these two communities of politicians and scientists?

It was actually very exciting. What was surprising in conducting the first congressional assessment on acid rain was how little the scientific uncertainties stopped the Congress from deciding what to do! There were huge questions in the 1980s of which pollutants to control, over how big of a region, how much to reduce, and what ecological endpoints even exist. And they answered those questions fairly quickly: let’s go for sulfur dioxide first, and let’s tackle a big region of the country. About a 50% decrease in the loading of hydrogen ions in the Eastern lakes could come from about 50% emissions reduction from the Midwest. After quickly deciding that, then Congress spent 10 years arguing over who pays and the political aspects. 

My first boss, Bob Friedman, asked me to draw a diagram of how we were going to do this assessment, how Congress should think about the impacts of climate change, and how they could build it into the Clean Air Act of 1990. So, I drew one a very linear diagram – start by thinking about the sources. You should think about reactions as they’re moving through the atmosphere. You should think about deposition products. What will the impacts be?  And out of that, will fall the solutions. And he burst into laughter. Somewhere I still have that diagram today. To me, science was driving everything, and the miracle happens, and [the answer] falls out the bottom. He redrew it so that science was in the bottom right of the box, surrounded by societal concerns and interests, which were surrounded by, of course, the political exigencies and possibilities.

I learned that science is never the loudest voice in the room, but it must be in the room. And what it says and how it can guide regulations or legislation is something that became a principle that I tried to abide by in the years in the Congress and then in the White House. And so, it never got old, because it was really interesting to figure out how to be scientifically accurate, but also politically expedient, and translate things into usable information. This is very obviously very important, and very key to what FAS is trying to do these days. 

I’m curious how over the course of your career working in science policy and watching how science interacts with government policy – how you’ve seen that change. Have you seen science on the Hill and in the White House more often just following the winds of political trends? Or do you see real progression with how the government interacts with scientists and hard science? 

Well, I certainly would say in the 1980s, during the era of the acid rain bill and the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act, it was an interesting time because the federal agencies were not particularly helping the Congress think very hard about this. It was the time of [former Environmental Protection Agency administrator] Anne Gorsuch. And so this little congressional agency [OTA] was very useful. We actually analyzed 19 different acid rain bills in the course of three or four years. I do think, though, also there were more statespeople in the Congress than I feel there are today, and there was definitely more collaborative work. And one of the things that OTA required was that both the chair and the ranking member of committees had to ask for assessments, so it belonged to both sides. Then there was also a Technology Assessment Council of Democrats, Republicans, House, and Senate people who reviewed the process of producing it. So reports were considered relatively apolitical when completed. But I do think that it was a different time. 

I mean, the main thing that Congress has done on climate change was pass the 1990 Global Change Act. And thank goodness they created that because it requires an annual research plan. It requires an assessment every four years or so of the impacts [of climate change] on the U.S. And the 5th National Climate Assessment that just came out has very strong indications of impacts already being felt: the issues of inequity, the issues of extreme events, costs to livelihood, regional impacts, etc.

So I think you’re right. There are political winds that blow. And timing is everything. Sometimes issues are more relevant, and sometimes they are not. But I feel that the steady collection of information that used to happen in the 1980s – and somewhat into the 1990s – from real debates, and committee hearings on topics, has changed. I would say back then in the Science Committee, the Democrats’ and Republicans’ staff would meet together to figure out who they were going to bring in as people to testify. And they would work on questions together. If the questions didn’t get asked by one side, they’d get asked by the other. I think partisanship has really diminished that, and I think the frequency of science-based committee hearings has decreased a lot too. You’ll often see, depending on whether it’s a Republican or Democrat committee chair – there might be just one person who defends a scientific point of view lined up against three or four people arguing against it, as opposed to a rigorous debate. 

So you spent two decades at the intersection of science and policy, serving in both the legislative and executive branches, and you even ran the first Environment Division of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology. Along the way, you were introduced to the Federation of American Scientists. So what made you want to serve on FAS’s board?

I knew about the Pugwash conferences – FAS came into being in response to nuclear weapons and seeking to prevent their use. So the same advisor – Bentley Glass – who urged me to do that Congressional fellowship, had been very active in Pugwash and speaking out against future arms’ races. And he got me involved in student Pugwash. I did that for many years, too, during my times at OTA and OSTP and even beyond, when I came to [the University of] Michigan. But over the years, John Holdren (former Chair of FAS and winner of 2 of its awards) had talked to me about FAS’s value. Henry C. Kelly was the President [of FAS], and he had worked with me at OSTP. He asked me to join the Board because FAS was thinking about energy and climate, and how to expand their mission into that area. I think I was added early on as a kind of “other”, for expertise in things slightly tangential, but within the orbit of future FAS work. 

I knew FAS is a group that really seeks to do good. And we were hoping we could engage more young scholars and stretch the confines of FAS into other security issues like climate change, energy, et cetera. 

It strikes me again – here you are at another point in your career where you’re unafraid to be a little bit of a pioneer, or different from everyone else at the table. You have this organization that is very historically nuclear-focused: FAS. And you’re not afraid to jump into that room with all these nuclear scientists and try something new. What was that like at first?

Well, one thing, Jonathan – I think you started by asking about being a woman in science. And I have to say for almost all of my career in the policy world, I hardly thought about that I was only the only woman in the room. But that was often true. It was in the policy world, where I was going to be the only scientist in the room. And I think again being undaunted by that it goes back to my parents, who believed in me, and said you could do anything you wanted to. But with FAS, I was in a room with scientists. They were different scientists than me. But it was fascinating. 

It was a world that was a bit alien. But again, it was trying to figure out what the role of FAS can be in these new and emerging issues and how to communicate it. So it actually didn’t feel as alien as it did being in the policy world [in government]. It was fun thinking about how FAS could move into these areas. And of course, I think the world of Gilman [Louie – current FAS board chair], who is just a fabulous chair and a joy to work with, he’ll be impossible to replace. 

I’ve been very happy to serve. I’m so happy about where it is now with the expansion into science policy, the issues of artificial intelligence, technology, and innovation, etc.. You’re in a great place to tackle emerging issues. I think of all of these as relevant to security issues, expanding the scope of FAS.  And, being a central place in D.C. with access to the Congress and the executive agencies and the NGO world is just fabulous. 

What are you going to be up to now? I mean – you’re not retiring. So you still have a lot of other stuff to do. So what interests you the most right now? 

I’m on many other boards. I’m on the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Board. And as you know, they do a huge amount of work on the environment and on basic science. I find that really interesting: to think about how you can effect change both in practice and advance science research. 

The most time-consuming duty is my work as chair of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility. The Global Environment Facility exists to implement the environmental treaties in the less developed countries. And so my little team of scientists screens every project of $2 million or greater, and tries to make sure that there’s a sound theory of change, that the outcome desired can be achieved, and that they’ve thought about climate risk screening, both the effect of the project on climate change, but also if the outcome will persist as the climate changes. 

I’m also on Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, and we train thousands of young climate scholars all around the world. I serve on the Environmental and Energy Study Institute Board that briefs the Congress on key environmental issues. I’m on the Board of the Wildlife Conservation Society working to save wildlife and wild places around the world. I’m on the Global CO2 Initiative board at the University of Michigan and on an advisory board for Colorado State, developing an environmental program for undergraduate and graduate students. I teach both at the University of Michigan, mainly on Climate Adaptation, and at the University of Maryland on Science Policy with new FAS Board member and another member of the former Obama PCAST, Jim Gates, who’s a fabulous string theorist. And we’re able to pull in graduate students from the sciences, because he’s a physicist, and graduate students from public policy – because that’s the school I’m in at Maryland. And we do create a wonderful clash of cultures. We require that the students write policy memos. And each year, some of the students then decide, ‘Hey, maybe this is a noble profession – going into science policy!’. 

As you step down from your time with FAS, what excites you about what FAS can accomplish in coming years? What would you like to see FAS either expand into or do more of? 

Well, I think one of the things that they now have the capability to do is to work with the next generation of FAS scholars. I think FAS has an incredible potential to do convenings on a variety of topics, also potentially at a variety of universities. I think this generation hasn’t had to think about the core of FAS, nuclear security issues, as much as they should. Certainly with us celebrating Oppenheimer [at 2023’s FAS Public Service Awards], the time is ripe to do that. But I also think holding convenings on other particularly contentious issues makes sense.  I think FAS can be seen as a neutral facilitator to bring together both sides of an issue – whether it be on artificial intelligence or other science and technology topics – and bring together academics, the NGO community, and people from the Hill or the agencies to talk through some of these things. It certainly has proven that FAS, being where it is and being led as it is, has its ear to the rail, as it were, for upcoming topics. I think that being an enabler of wise discussion and communication on emerging topics is so much needed, especially in this time of both polarization and an increase in misinformation.  

I was both horrified and heartened that the World Economic Forum listed misinformation as its fifth most worrisome risk over the next decade. The first four were all environmental, but misinformation was the next one, and then misuse of AI was the sixth one. And so all the security issues – environmental security, et cetera – are, I think, squarely in FAS’s domain. I think it’s a time of incredible growth and potential for FAS. And I just can’t wait to see what it becomes in this next generation.

The Importance of Standards for the U.S. Bioeconomy & National Security: A Conversation with Congressman Jake Auchincloss

The U.S. bioeconomy, the sector of the economy that is touched by biology, is valued at ~$1 trillion and predicted to grow to over $30 trillion in the next two decades. With such enormous potential, ensuring the U.S. bioeconomy’s continued economic growth and global leadership has become a matter of importance for national security. Despite this massive potential, the U.S. bioeconomy, and specifically the biomanufacturing industry, is currently limited by the lack of standards in place for the sector. 

The need for standards within the biomanufacturing sector has been discussed at length by experts, and the U.S. government has acknowledged and prioritized the establishment of standards by creating a National Standards Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technologies. Both the CHIPS & Science Act of 2022, and the Visions, Needs, and Proposed Actions for the Data for the Bioeconomy Initiative (2023), highlight the need for standardization as critical to the advancement of our domestic biomanufacturing sector. Furthermore, the National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology (NSCEB), a commission tasked with reviewing advancements in biotechnology and its nexus with national security, stated in their interim report the importance of creating standards for this sector as a matter of national security.

Most recently, The Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Community Party (Select Committee on the CCP), held a hearing, “Growing Stakes: The Bioeconomy and American National Security”, that focused on the threats posed by adversaries in the industry. During the hearing, Congressman Jake Auchincloss (D-MA, 4th District), entered into the record a bipartisan letter that contained recommendations around developing and implementing standards for the bioeconomy that urged action from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). 

To get a better understanding of how Congress and the Select Committee on the CCP view the need for standards for the bioeconomy, FAS interviewed Congressman Jake Auchincloss.

FAS: In your opinion, why does creating standards for biotechnology and biomanufacturing boost economic competitiveness and national security? What benefits does this pose for different regions across the nation?

Congressman Auchincloss: Standards are important in every industry to solve coordination and collective action problems, and the government plays a critical role in establishing them so that markets can work more effectively. Standards provide concrete benchmarks for individuals and companies within American industry, all of whom need a stable environment to make long-term investments. This sentiment is echoed in the National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology’s interim report which has noted that “biomanufacturing faces barriers to innovation because of…lack of standardization.” 

With standardization, more time can be spent innovating, researching, and building instead of compensating for uncertainty due to a lack of definitions that carry the weight of the federal government. Establishing standards will only increase productivity. As I stated in the letter I entered into the record during the Select Committee on the CCP’s hearing around the bioeconomy, “standardization will help advance industrial biomanufacturing, create a more resilient and dynamic supply chain, and establish a durable, competitive U.S. bioeconomy. In turn, strengthening the U.S. bioeconomy will improve Americans’ well-being, promote well-paying jobs, and create a competitive and advantageous U.S. science and technology enterprise to achieve our national and societal goals.”

What is the role of international collaboration in creating standards for biotechnology and biomanufacturing in light of increased tensions with China?

International collaboration is critical to the success of biotechnology, but we must ensure we are working with reliable and responsible partners. For the U.S. to remain a leader in the bioeconomy, the U.S. must ensure its domestic standards become the international benchmark. 

As we standardize the bioeconomy, we must also set standards for ethical intent and conduct. As such, there are some companies whose loyalty does not side with responsible science. We shouldn’t partner with companies like BGI, whose technologies have clear ties to the CCP’s repression and ongoing ethnic cleansing of its Uyghur communities. The increased tensions are a direct result of President Xi Jinping’s disregard for human rights, and excluding the CCP from projects that could be weaponized against their own people is the correct response.

Where does the U.S. bioeconomy stand in comparison with China or other countries?

China isn’t currently ahead but they are neck-and-neck with the U.S. because of the rate at which they are investing in their domestic bioeconomy. That’s already showing up in their patent and publication volume. The CCP’s R&D investment in biotechnology increased from $26 million USD in 1986 to $99 million USD in 2005. From 2008 to 2020, their investments increased to $3.8 billion USD. China’s spending on research and development overall climbed 10.3 percent to 2.44 trillion Chinese yuan ($378 billion USD) in 2020, according to the nation’s National Bureau of Statistics. Further, according to the health care information company IQVIA, China was the world’s second-largest national biopharmaceutical market in 2017, worth $122.6 billion USD. 

The 117th Congress and Biden Administration edged science and technology funding upwards, but Republicans have proposed slashing federal R&D funding. We are moving in the wrong direction with this self-defeating approach. Congress must prioritize basic science: the curiosity-driven, peer-reviewed research that the private sector won’t fund and the public sector under-funds. We can start by expanding NIH funding and fully appropriating the $170 billion Science portion of the Chips and Science law that was authorized throughout the next ten years.

NIST has been directed to create standards and metrology for the U.S. bioeconomy through the FY24 appropriation bills, the FY25 Presidential Budget, the Bioeconomy EO, and from the letter that you submitted into the record during the hearing “Growing Stakes: The Bioeconomy & American Security.” Given all these priorities, what needs to happen in order for NIST to fulfill their directives for the bioeconomy?

There needs to be continued pressure applied to ensure NIST is prioritizing this important work. Congress can further support NIST by appropriating more funding for them to achieve the work laid out in front of them, as I have advocated during the current appropriations process.

The recent AI EO also directs NIST with many different tasks. Is the AI EO overtasking NIST and making bioeconomy related efforts an afterthought for them?

The AI EO can be implemented simultaneously with standardization efforts, if NIST is appropriately resourced. But those who think that AI is more important than biotech are wrong, and should not point NIST in that direction. Care should be taken not to duplicate work unnecessarily, but all of these tasks assigned to NIST will take time and labor. Again, NIST needs to be adequately funded to do all the work it is being asked to do.

In the letter, you suggest NIST collaborate with Manufacturing USA institutes, NIIMBL & BioMADE. However, in the Department of Commerce’s FY25 budget request, they ask for $37M for the Manufacturing USA program, the same amount that they have received since FY23. Should Congress prioritize and raise funding levels for programs like Manufacturing USA and why would this be important for ensuring a competitive edge for the U.S. bioeconomy?

Absolutely. Many federal R&D programs are continuously underfunded, even as they are tasked with more responsibilities. The programs we fund reflect our priorities. We need to be prioritizing science, technology, and centers of excellence for manufacturing to gain that competitive edge. Increasing funding would give these agencies and programs the resources they need to set standards and increase R&D. That’s why I sent a letter to the House Committee on Appropriations asking for a 10 percent increase above FY24 enacted funding levels for NIST, Manufacturing USA, and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

Lastly, in your opinion, what potential does the U.S. bioeconomy have that we are not capitalizing on and what would you like to see occur for the U.S. bioeconomy in the next year.

I would like to see standardization, or at least the beginning of standardization, within the next year. With standardization for industrial biomanufacturing in place, the U.S. bioeconomy will be able to reach new heights and enable our talented citizens to delve deeper into their research without being hindered by the lack of baseline definitions. Fully appropriating the $170 billion that was authorized for the Science portion of CHIPS and Science would be the step in the right direction to maintain U.S. innovation and competitiveness in biotechnology and biomanufacturing. Furthermore, we need state capacity and funding for R&D; which includes the staffing and programming for regulation and standardization and also the funding for peer-reviewed basic research. Finally, we need to expand the productive capacity of the bioeconomy through workforce development compacts that bring together employers, educators, and trade associations together; through skilled immigration pathways; and through technology-agnostic tax credits that are transferable for R&D and biomanufacturing. In the next year, I am working towards legislation that advances all of these different components to strengthen and secure the U.S. bioeconomy.

The Federation of American Scientists values diversity of thought and believes that a range of perspectives — informed by evidence — is essential for discourse on scientific and societal issues. Contributors allow us to foster a broader and more inclusive conversation. We encourage constructive discussion around the topics we care about.

Building Health Equity: Grace Wickerson

By their own account, Grace Wickerson was always an organizer and activist for societal progress. As early as high school, Grace educated peers about interpersonal violence, even convincing their school board to require high school students to complete a violence reduction class. 

But what attracted them to FAS’ Day One Project three years ago was the possibility of pushing for change at the federal level.

“I think the federal government is like this daunting kind of conglomerate that is very confusing to navigate,” Wickerson says. “It’s very hard to know where you can actually make a substantial impact.”

Wickerson was a few years into their doctoral work in material science and engineering at Northwestern University when the prospect of learning how to write a policy memo with FAS cropped up at a National Science Policy Network virtual conference.

Like Christopher Gillespie – they became part of Day One’s Early Career Science Policy Accelerator and published their policy memo “Combating Bias in Medical Innovation”, which highlighted the ongoing lack of diversity in federally-funded clinical trial pools, and the downstream impacts of that lack.

Wickerson then went on to become a Policy Entrepreneurship Fellow with FAS, and used the time and mentorship to meet with lawmakers and federal officials. Their work even led the University of Maryland Medical Systems (UMMS) and medical-records corporation EPIC to commissioning studies to explore the connection between COVID-19 deaths and inaccurate pulse oximeters (pulse ox) due to racial bias in current pulse oximeter technology.

Wickerson says one thing that most academics – and even many others with an interest in policy – don’t understand is that no matter how great an idea is, it won’t make a difference if it isn’t seen by the right people.

“I think the thing that’s often missing is the platform for that policy recommendation,” Wickerson says. “You need a place for your recommendations to live – a place through which they will be seen and regarded.”

Another thing that FAS helped with, Wickerson says, is a complicated thing that can be summed up in one word: confidence. 

“I think there was a lot of necessary confidence building in terms of being ready to reach out to a lot of different stakeholders – and just getting the chutzpah to just go for it,” they say. 

Wickerson is still very interested in fighting for change in the way the government regulates medical devices – but they’ve also expanded their portfolio to different types of health policy as FAS’ first full-time Health Equity Policy manager. A particular focus now is the health impacts of extreme heat.

“There are a lot of people with great ideas,” Wickerson says. “But often, the actual route to implementation is a much harder and more committed path. I think the framework of policy entrepreneurship is really about making ideas happen, and finding all the different routes to seeing something to fruition. It provides that framework that often doesn’t exist for folks wanting to make a change in the world but don’t know how that happens. That’s how it’s impacted my life: it gives me the hope and belief that things can actually change. There’s just a need for a person behind that change.”

Dr. Omer Onar, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Moving the Needle on Wireless Power Transfer

The Office of Technology Transfers is holding a series of webinars on cutting-edge technologies being developed at the DOE National Labs – and the transformative applications they could have globally for clean energy. We sat down with the people behind these technologies – the experts who make that progress possible. These interviews highlight why a strong energy workforce is so important, from the lab into commercial markets. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE. Be sure to attend DOE’s next National Lab Discovery Series webinar on wireless power transfer technology on Tuesday, April 30.

Dr. Omer Onar was always interested in solving mechanical problems. From his initial engineering degrees in Turkey to his selection as a Weinberg Fellow at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dr. Onar has been pushing forward the field of power electronics and electromagnetics for almost two decades. His work today may enable faster, more secure wireless charging for electric vehicle fleets, mobile devices, household appliances, and more.

Beginnings at the Illinois Institute of Technology 

After completing both an undergraduate and graduate degree in electrical engineering in his home country of Turkey, Dr. Onar chose to pursue his PhD at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Although he received offers from multiple prestigious universities, he chose to attend IIT because of its personalized approach to research and study. “They had a young and energetic team who all loved working together. I was basically told that if I went to one of the larger institutions, I wouldn’t see my advisor for the first few years.” 

Because of the standards of the program, its strong pace, and the quality of the professors and advisors, Dr. Onar was able to publish multiple journal articles and receive several citations of his work, all before completing the degree. 

Throughout all of his degrees, Dr. Onar cultivated a lifelong passion for understanding the mechanical side of engineering. “In high school, I wasn’t as much interested in electrical engineering, things like magnetics and optics that are more virtual – I liked the mechanics and being able to touch and see the things I was working on.”

A Weinberg Fellow at Oak Ridge 

Before he even graduated from IIT, Dr. Onar had an offer from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to become a Weinberg Fellow. The Weinberg Fellowship, named after the former director of the Lab, is targeted at exceptional researchers and is only offered to two or three scientists lab-wide. It not only gave Dr. Onar his start at the Lab, but also allowed him to spend 50% of his time pursuing independent research in his first few years – an invaluable experience for any engineer. 

“Since [joining the Lab], I have been so enthusiastic about working here – I’ve never looked at any other opportunities because the Lab offers such a great research environment. We work with academia, industry, and research, so I have the ability to reach out to all flavors of work environments.” 

After 14 years of working at the Lab, Dr. Onar has had the opportunity to work on a number of different projects related to electrical engineering and power systems. His research led him to focus primarily on wireless power transfer technologies and especially the wireless charging of electric vehicles. 

The Power of Wireless Transfer

Dr. Onar’s research has massive implications for a decarbonized world – not just in how we charge electric vehicles, but also in terms of fuel efficiency, health and safety, human capital planning, critical minerals, and internet access. He’s been working on developing technologies for wireless power transfer – more simply, tech that would allow for wireless charging of electronics. 

More advanced wireless power transfer will open up what’s possible for entire industries. It will allow individual consumers to charge their electric vehicles through the surface they drive or park on, without plugging it in – which is a great convenience. But more importantly, the tech could be used to improve employee safety. Drivers for companies with large vehicle fleets are contracted for just that – driving. When companies use electric fleets, it requires an entire additional set of infrastructure for charging that those drivers are not qualified to use safely. This requires additional employees whose sole responsibility is to unplug and plug in vehicles at the beginning and end of the day. Wireless charging automates the whole process and reduces costs while retaining productive and safe jobs. 

Wireless charging will also allow for more efficient charging overall. A common concern with electric vehicles is the lack of available charging infrastructure and the long time it takes to fully charge. The technology that Dr. Onar is working on will allow cars to pull off the interstate, into a charging area, charge for 20 minutes without having to plug the vehicle in, and keep driving. This could be extended to commercial heavy-duty vehicles as well – replacing heavy emitting diesel trucks with electric ones and enabling frequent, opportunistic, and ubiquitous wireless charging systems. Wireless charging would allow drivers to load and unload deliveries while continuing to charge, without exposure to harmful pollution. 

The Future of Power Systems

Dr. Onar is shaping the technology horizon as well – working with wide bandgap semiconductors and electric motors that no longer require rare earth minerals in their construction. Using materials other than silicon in semiconductors, like silicon carbide or gallium nitride, could enable more applications for wireless power transfer, such as long distance wireless charging, possibly using one transmitter and multiple receivers on each device. For example, imagine walking into a coffee shop and your phone or laptop begins to charge just like the wireless internet connection. In future, this concept could allow for entire homes with refrigerators, washers and dryers, and entertainment systems that are all powered wirelessly. 

One barrier to expanding the use of electric vehicles is the lack of reliable access to critical and rare earth minerals used in manufacturing magnets in their motors. The U.S. lacks mining and recycling facilities at the price point and scale needed to increase construction. But Dr. Onar’s team has been researching how to design wound rotor synchronous machines that will eliminate the use of those permanent magnets and help shore up domestic energy security. 

“We don’t want to have to rely on another country’s resources in our transportation systems… we’re applying our experience in wireless power transfer systems into the wound rotor synchronous motors, developing and validating enabling technologies to address the challenges in these motors – each one brings us a step closer to commercialization.”

Some of these applications are several years away, but they are a glimpse of what could be possible with the research currently underway in Dr. Onar’s office. 

Strengthening the Engineering Community 

Dr. Onar has had the opportunity to work with exceptional teams over the course of his career thus far – and some of his proudest accomplishments are the recognition they’ve received on a national level. As a grad student  Dr. Onar received two scholarships in addition to his Weinberg Fellowship, and as a Lab employee has received a number of awards for his performance. In 2016, his team received an R&D 100 award – a highly prestigious award recognizing outstanding research and innovation – for their work developing the world’s first 20 – kilowatt wireless charging system for passenger cars. While most systems were designed for 6.6 kW power rating back then, their 20-kW system meant 3 times faster charging with very high efficiency that exceeded 94% – a huge step forward. In addition, his team has received awards from UT-Battelle and the Department of Energy, in addition to several best paper and best presentation awards. 

“The R&D 100 awards are the Oscars of research and innovation – it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to receive one,” he said, with understated pride. Americans should applaud; his work today to improve technologies from our phones to our vehicles will be instrumental to how we live tomorrow. 

In addition to his professional recognition, Dr. Onar is actively supporting the next generation of scientists. He contributes his time to the engineering community, serving as the general chair of the Institutes of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Applied Power Electronics Conference and Exposition (APEC) in 2022 and the general chair of the IEEE Transportation Electrification Conference and Expo (ITEC) in 2017. His continuous dedication to advancing technology and his contributions to the field at large have already had an impact far beyond his individual research, and will continue to for decades to come.

Building Environmental Justice: Alexa White

Alexa White, the 2023 recipient of the FAS Public Service Policy Entrepreneurship Award, says her journey into the world of science policy started back when she was earning her undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry at Howard University.

She says the gulf between her scientific studies and her lived experience began to gnaw at her more and more.

“It kind of felt like I was in an ivory tower,” White said on stage at the FAS Public Service Awards ceremony. “It took me a long time to relate the science that I was doing to the background that I come from – my identity as a Black woman.

“I was an ecologist that studied lizards, so I was chasing lizards around the deserts of Arizona and trying to understand their habitats. When I would talk to my parents, they would be like, ‘Oh, that’s so fun. What does that really mean? How does that translate into our lives and what it means to the people around you?’”

Conversations like that one led White to start thinking about environmental justice and the role that data can play in sound – or unsound – science policy. She and a friend came up with the idea for the AYA Research Institute – the subject of the policy memo that emerged from White’s participation in FAS/Day One’s Early Career Science Policy Accelerator.

“The AYA [name] stands for the African Adinkra symbol for resilience,” White explained, “and so we really thought that that was a good representation of what we thought about environmental justice and how we came to be environmental justice leaders. The work that we do handles technology as well as the policy aspects of what environmental justice can bring to the field.”

White’s journey as an environmental justice leader was just getting started. She followed up her policy memo by joining the first cohort of FAS’ Policy Entrepreneurship Fellows (PEF). During her time as a PEF, White joined with FAS staffers conducting a thorough assessment of the Biden Administration’s progress living up to its promises in the Justice40 Initiative. The analysis helped identify areas where progress was on track and others where it was lagging. Most notably, it helped identify yet untapped areas in clean transit and transportation, urban forestry and urban greening, which could yield greater progress than anticipated. White, together FAS staff, had an opportunity to brief both the Director of Environmental Justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, as well as the leadership of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (WHEJAC).

“I’m really glad to see that environmental justice is becoming a thing,” White said. “[Two years ago] it was not something that anyone knew about, and the Biden administration has done a really good job with Justice40 and pushing the language, pushing the funding, and now it’s a question of how to use [the data].”

Now White is completing her doctorate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan and plans to defend this spring. Her dissertation research focuses on biophysical indicators of sustainable agriculture and international climate governance pertaining to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #2: To End Hunger.

White was awarded the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Conservation Leadership Award in 2020 for her research and profound discoveries in food sovereignty and food justice, and in 2023, FAS honored her with its first ever Policy Entrepreneurship Award at its FAS Public Service Awards ceremony, where she joined fellow 2023 honorees filmmaker Christopher Nolan, Senators Chuck Schumer and Todd Young, and former OSTP interim director Alondra Nelson.

“I come from a family of sharecroppers, so within Texas and North Carolina, my grandparents were working the land, and I didn’t really pay attention to that when I was younger because I didn’t really understand the relevance of it,” White told the audience at the awards ceremony. “I didn’t understand the history and how it connected to the science that I practice today. And that alongside of, I’m from Newark, New Jersey, and so there’s a lot of factories there, a lot of different kinds of problems with the water pollution and lead. It wasn’t until I was in my Ph.D at the University of Michigan that I understood that I was empowered. I had the ability to make changes through my work, and through a critical analysis of data. So I definitely think that I’m kind of carrying on the work of my family as well as my peers.”

Dr. Rebecca Glaser, Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, Energy Storage (for the People) and Policy Expert

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE. Discover more DOE spotlights here.  

Dr. Rebecca Glaser started her career as an engineer in academia. But her interest in the field’s applications for clean energy drove her to take a chance and join the Department of Energy. Now at the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, Dr. Glaser is paving the way for cutting-edge energy storage and battery technologies to scale up. With experience in research, commercialization, and delivering clean energy directly to communities, Dr. Glaser’s background makes her an exceptional example of a clean energy champion. 

Discovering the Environmental Application of Materials Science

Dr. Glaser grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and was no stranger to the world of public service. Surrounded by an environmentally conscious community, she volunteered throughout high school. She had an early interest in math and science, born of a desire to learn more about the world – but was not sure how to turn it into a career. 

In her first year of college, Dr. Glaser ended up in a seminar series focused on the technology of energy that was full of senior undergraduate and graduate students who were all involved in materials science research. Although it was a new field to her, it combined her interest in chemistry and physics with obvious applications – sparking her love for that work. “I realized that all of the people teaching [the seminar] whose research I found interesting were all in materials science, and most of the energy applications I was looking at were being done through that field.”

But even with a field of study in mind, Dr. Glaser was unsure of where to take her passions. She pursued a PhD to dive deeper into batteries and concentrate on one area of technology. “I knew exactly what technology I wanted to work on, but I didn’t know where I wanted to put those skills, whether it was industry or academia. But I didn’t know government was an option.”

Applying the Research

In grad school, however, she explored roads less traveled. While peers were doing internships at Intel and Tesla, Dr. Glaser applied for a position at Resources for the Future, a policy research and analysis organization. As part of the internship, she gained insight into how her work was connected to real-world issues. 

“We were writing a case study about coal communities that were working through energy transitions – I focused on one in Ohio, where they were losing or about to lose their coal-fired power plant. We were looking at the effectiveness of government intervention.  I was interviewing economic development officials in counties across Ohio about their experiences with federal grants and the communities that benefit from those programs. All in the middle of my very technical battery PhD.”

It was a valuable experience for Dr. Glaser. When she was finishing her PhD and applying for government fellowships, it gave her additional perspectives on how she could use her expertise to make a difference. 

Battery Research and Development at  the DOE

Dr. Glaser started her work in government as a ORISE Fellow in DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) – maybe on the surface an unlikely choice for someone interested in batteries, but not to Dr. Glaser. “You can’t really go forward with solar without energy storage – you can only get to a certain point, and I wanted to be that storage expert for them.” 

She credits the experience with giving her a lot of learning opportunities, acting as a resource for storage issues, working on program development in topics like recycling, siting, and more. “I learned a lot about how government works – all of its intricacies. It gave me a broader appreciation for the issues behind the science and really helped direct me towards what I wanted to do next.” 

Dr. Glaser moved into a position as a Project Officer at the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations last March and then to a position as a Project Manager, focusing full-time on her passion for energy storage. “It’s an exciting time to be in DOE – it was really cool to graduate in 2021 and then have legislation passed that created the office I now work in.” As a project manager, she helps steward these new programs, select projects for the office to fund, and support award negotiations. There’s a long road ahead, but she is excited for their potential impact. 

OCED handles a wide range of burgeoning clean energy technologies – and Dr. Glaser feels privileged to be on the cutting edge of what’s possible in energy storage. “Energy storage is so diverse and interesting – I’m excited to see how the different technologies play out and interact with each other, and what I’m able to learn about them.” The office has a hefty mandate, but its ability to respond to support the energy storage needs of the present as well as the decades to come will make a huge difference in achieving a net-zero future.

Stiff Competition to Apply Skills that Make Impactful Contributions

But an office is only as good as the staff that run it. Too often, the world-class talent that keeps the mission going are not recognized for their high-level expertise. Dr. Glaser emphasized that getting to support this vital work is because of years of hard work on her part – and that’s one of her biggest accomplishments. 

“The transition I was able to make [into government] is a really hard thing to do It’s giving up the expected path – to go into industry, into a lab, or into a postdoc.”

It’s important to note that SETO, the office Dr. Glaser did her fellowship in has a competitive application pool. She credits her success making the transition to the work she put in conducting informational interviews, taking on work like her internship at Resources for the Future, attending conferences – what she calls the “slow systematic work of understanding this new path and how to get yourself there.”

DOE employees like Dr. Glaser put in that effort because they know the potential for impact is so great. “I am doing the most I can be doing with my job, with the skill set I have. This is the most impactful thing I can do with my skills.”

Building a Digital Justice Framework: FAS Policy Entrepreneur Fellow Monica Sanders

What is policy entrepreneurship? It is the practice of recognizing a problem and proposing a solution through policy. It is central to our work at FAS and our Day One Project, which presents actionable plans to every presidential administration, ready for implementation starting on “day one.” Submit your policy ideas to one of our ongoing idea challenges.

Monica Sanders is a FAS policy entrepreneur fellow (PEF) originally from Louisiana. Her stellar career of service includes work as a lawyer, scholar, and founder of The Undivide Project. Undivide is an organization dedicated to the legal and policy changes needed to address the intersections between digital and climate equity. One Undivide initiative uses IoT (internet of things) to build climate resilience solutions in disaster-impacted communities. It was through this work that she originally connected with FAS.

Building a Digital Justice Framework

“Since I started my organization, I have been pondering this concept of digital justice and what it means in a world that is increasingly digitized and climate-impacted at the same time. Broadly, I decided that the components would be: democratized access to information, economic opportunity, and training for future and equitable access to resilience-building resources,” she explains. 

This realization brought her to the FAS Day One Project, where she formalized her ideas into a policy memo titled Using A Digital Justice Framework To Improve Disaster Preparation And Response. In it she outlines both the needs for this framework in the context of climate-driven weather disasters, and proposes solutions for implementation.

The memo development process introduced Monica to scientists and technologists who agreed with her thesis and saw similar needs in the disaster-relief capacity of the government. The result was a second policy memo, jointly authored with Shefali Juneja Lakhina and Melanie Gall:, Increasing National Resilience Through An Open Disaster Data Initiative. It advocates for enhanced data-sharing across government to more quickly and effectively respond to emergencies.

“Green Jobs”: Ever-Growing Yet Invisible Classification

After joining as an FAS Fellow, Monica continued her digital justice work with a focus on “green” technology-focused jobs and opportunities. While “green jobs” are an ever-expanding growth area, the government’s official “green jobs” classification in the Bureau Labor Statistics (BLS) was frozen after 2013. In effect, she argues, these jobs are invisible.

The classification needs updating, she says, to include a broader range of federal jobs that are essential to fighting climate change and which are evolving rapidly with the advent of technology. Updating BLS job classification is crucial for measuring effectiveness of government programs to deploy job opportunities more equitably across the country. Though BLS is largely known for publishing the unemployment numbers, the agency is doing a lot of work critical to fighting climate change.

“These are important to resource allocations at the state and local level and to send signals about the contours of certain jobs and industries to stakeholders outside of government,” she explains. She details why updating the BLS to define “green” and “tech” jobs are necessary to deploy job opportunities at scale in Revitalizing Federal Jobs Data: Unleashing the Potential of Emerging Roles. 

Policy Entrepreneurship a Path to Change 

Monica’s work as a PEF involves a lot of research and outreach. “For me, two of the most important aspects of the fellowship were the engagement and learning opportunities. I had never thought about policy in an entrepreneurial way, nor had a deep dive into how to manage some of these nuanced relationships. I worked in the legislature, but my role was mainly about looking at the constitutionality and legality of certain issues, not in designing interdisciplinary and inter- and intra-governmental initiatives.”

She encourages people to consider policy entrepreneurship as a path to change.

“Litigation can take years if an issue even makes it to court. Administrative orders and rulemaking are often retroactive — meaning the solution comes after a harm has happened. With policy entrepreneurship there is an opportunity to 1) be proactive, and 2) make an impact in a reasonable amount of time. Given the number of existential crises we must collectively confront, I have found policy entrepreneurship to be a fruitful avenue towards doing some of that work.”

Dr. Adria Brooks, Grid Deployment Office,
Transmission Champion

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the U.S. Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

Dr. Adria Brooks’ journey to the Department of Energy has been a winding road. From the forests of Western Massachusetts, to the desert mountains of Arizona, to the frosty fields of Wisconsin, she has made a career out of teaching others why they should care about clean energy.

From Felling Trees to Harnessing Sunshine

Dr. Brooks’ pathway to clean energy began as an undergraduate when she took time off from her Bachelors degree to work on a forest trail crew. She spent nine months on a trail crew in Western Massachusetts. “I was trained to be a lumberjack, basically, but for conservation purposes – so felling trees to build bridges or trails and things. I loved that job; it was really fun and helped me connect with the environment.” Interacting with the environment in such a physical, tangible way encouraged her to change her course of study from space sciences to climate change and energy issues. 

Soon after switching her academic focus, she found work at a solar test facility managed by her alma mater, the University of Arizona. Very quickly she got hands-on experience in every facet of solar energy, from installation of modules and inverters to running experiments, collecting data, doing analysis, and writing reports. In addition, she honed her science communication skills by giving tours to visiting audiences – ranging from Girl Scouts to the late Senator John McCain.

Understanding how solar and its supporting power systems worked on the ground illuminated a new lesson for Dr. Brooks: “Solar [was] not the problem – the power grid is the reason we can’t get more clean energy.” With this new understanding, Dr. Brooks pursued both a Master’s and a PhD in electrical engineering, with a certificate in energy analysis and policy.

“I loved the policy piece of it, because it brought together economists and engineers and policy folks,” she says. This cohort of people came from different disciplines into  the energy analysis and policy program at University of Wisconsin. “It was a really cool program; I loved it.”

State Government Service

While pursuing her dissertation Dr. Brooks started working at the Wisconsin Public Service Commission as a transmission engineer. This demanding state government role proved to be a valuable training ground, building on the communication skills she honed in Arizona. As an engineer she worked across two different administrations, explaining electrical transmission systems, their challenges, and how different policies might impact reliability and clean energy goals. The key to effectively engaging her audience? Understanding their specific goals and meeting them where they were.

“The information [on power systems] I was providing was essentially the same. The question became: What lens am I using? Am I focusing on reliability and consumer cost? Am I focusing on decarbonisation? From my view, it didn’t really matter. The solutions wind up being pretty similar, but it was eye-opening for me to learn how to communicate the science to folks that don’t have that background, but who have the ability to make big decisions affecting the power grid. I thoroughly loved that job. And that’s what set me off wanting to do more policy work at the federal level.” 

Joining DOE and the GDO

Setting her sights on the federal government, Dr. Brooks joined the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)in 2020 as a AAAS Science Technology Policy Fellow in the Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office. The position was meant to be research heavy and focused on maximizing taxpayer investments in different investigative projects. But when a new administration came in with a long list of renewable energy goals and a serious focus on transmission, Dr. Brooks found herself reassigned to the Office of Electricity, and later hired into the newly created Grid Deployment Office (GDO).

GDO, which is tasked with investing in critical generation facilities, increasing grid resilience, and improving and expanding transmission and distribution systems to provide reliable, affordable electricity, needed internal folks who understood the science of renewable energy and grid deployment, and who could translate it to cross-cutting program teams and leadership who weren’t mired in the details day-to-day. Dr. Brooks found her groove  by bringing in skills from her days at the solar test facility and the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. “My job became a lot more policy focused, trying to explain the science to stand up new programs related to the transmission and the power grid,” she said.  Dr. Brooks’ communications skills combined with her technical background are hugely important because the science of electrical transmission – and how that impacts what clean energy development can occur and how quickly – is often an incomprehensible thing for people, including policymakers.

Communication remains a crucial part of Dr. Brooks’s role and contribution at DOE.

A big win for Dr. Brooks and GDO was the October 2023 release of the National Transmission Needs Study. This study is a useful planning reference to efficiently and effectively deploy resources to update and expand the nation’s transmission grid infrastructure. Conducted every three years, this most recent study is more expansive in scope than previous versions. “Future policy decisions that the Department makes are going to be based on the findings of this report. It also provides a lot of valuable insight for utilities, developers, and other decision makers across the country, so that’s very big,” Dr. Brooks said. Although modest, she played a major role in planning, analyzing the data for, and rolling out the report.

The journey that brought Dr. Brooks to DOE seems almost preordained, as she is bringing her specific knowledge to bear on the urgent problem of climate change.

“Now I feel more impactful being so close to the policymaking, getting to have one foot in the engineering analysis and one foot in policy development. That is really exciting. I do think a lot of that is a very specific opportunity that matched the specific skill set that I had. I have felt very lucky in that regard, to be seen as an expert around the Department. Lots of different offices will reach out, or policymakers will reach out to try to get clarity on the transmission system, and that is exciting. But I also know that it’s luck that I stepped in at the exact time to make that opportunity for myself.”

Looking Ahead

While the transmission issues she works on can often feel insurmountable, Dr. Brooks feels optimistic about the future.

“I am hopeful about how much transmission we’re going to be able to build over the next 10 to 15 years. The word ‘transmission’ is now a common term; people understand it. A couple of years ago,  I would talk to folks about my job and they would say, ‘I don’t understand what the power grid is.’ Now, more people at least understand what the grid is, and that it is a bottleneck to getting clean energy online. That’s huge.  I think we’re going to make a lot more progress than I had any hope of us making even a couple of years ago.”

More than just the policy implications of her work, Dr. Brooks is impressed by how many young professionals want to join government service to play an active role in fighting climate change. Starting in Tucson, continuing in Wisconsin, and now from her home in Boston, she’s volunteered in a variety of roles unrelated to energy systems and grid work that facilitate climate discussions. “I’ve always found kids to be super eager and curious to learn”, she said, providing even more hope that the work will continue with the support of future generations.

Dr. Olivia Lee, Grid Deployment Office (GDO),
Fighting for Resilient Communities

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the U.S. Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

From the rugged snowbanks of Alaska to the tropical seaside of Hawai’i, Dr. Olivia Lee Mei Ling has sought to improve the access to, and delivery of, energy. To understand her journey to the Department of Energy and her work today, our story begins in Alaska.

Women in Polar Science

After obtaining her PhD in Wildlife and Fisheries Science from Texas A&M University,  Dr. Lee headed north to accept a teaching position at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She spent ten years there, first in the Geophysical Department and later in the International Arctic Research Center. While there she developed future energy scenarios for Alaskans, working with federal, state, tribal and local governments, expert stakeholders and non-governmental organizations. Those conversations were sometimes difficult – bringing together a wide range of perspectives and personalities and asking them to align on a plan – but were vital to the state’s future.

“Building those relationships [between energy stakeholders], and helping those conversations continue to happen was a fantastic opportunity to delve into how policy and science can co-occur.”

While at the university she did a short stint with the National Science Foundation as an IPA [Intergovernmental Personnel Act, a temporary position in the federal government] supporting researchers doing work in the Arctic. There she was involved in interagency programs, with a lot of emphasis on developing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives across agencies. 

During this time Dr. Lee supported growing outreach for a group of scientists, Women in Polar Science. She identified a need for this group after submitting an article to a geophysical journal about the group’s work – which was rejected because it ‘wasn’t of interest to a wide enough audience.’

Dr. Lee said it was “appalling to think that the science community is not interested or doesn’t believe there is enough value in sharing what we’ve learned about the women who face adversity doing research in polar environments. And so I co-founded the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee’s (IARPC) community of interest on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.” The group has grown and since taken off, bringing more scientists together to work on DEI within arctic research.

Dr. Lee’s work in Polar Science led to more social ties within Alaska’s Tribal communities, and a deeper understanding of their unique needs. These experiences showed the value of skills beyond traditional scientific training. Empathy quickly became her guiding principle; as an oil-rich state, it became clear that any energy plan in Alaska needed to address community needs first.  “In some areas, like in Alaska, diesel will have to continue to be a part of the energy mix until they’re able to support something more reliable year-round than renewables can offer right now. We need to push clean energy, but not at the cost of livelihoods and safety of communities.” says Dr. Lee. To non-scientists, this statement might be surprising – isn’t the goal to eliminate all fossil fuels? No, the goal is to support a just transition in every region.

Moving States, Territories and Tribes to Clean Energy As Quickly As Possible at DOE

When the Department of Energy began ramping up hiring through the Clean Energy Corps, Dr. Lee was immediately interested. When she interviewed with the Grid Deployment Office, the office recognized her knowledge and skills were unique and vital to their work, and in particular, her combination of scientific expertise and knowledge of the needs associated with Tribal communities.

“We work with a lot of tribes, and it’s a skill set that not everyone has – to take the time to self-educate on the history of colonization, to respectfully interact with tribes, understand that they are self-governing entities and continue to face a lot of challenges in developing their economies.

At GDO, Dr. Lee supports grid resilience projects. Her team thinks critically about what specific infrastructure investments could help communities be more resilient to impacts from climate change – and what resources or guidance communities need to implement those ideas. “We’re not just reacting to disasters as they happen, but thinking about 10 years, 20 years down the road, where do we need to be? How do we sustain energy access and what partnerships we can help build now to make sure that this is an ongoing process?

She continues: “It’s really exciting to know that you are a part of modernizing the grid in a way that will have tangible benefits in the near term – and in the long term as well, if we’re able to help states and tribes plan how [IRA funds] can shape their sustainability moving forward.”

There are lots of unknowns: what kind of infrastructure exists today, and what kind of  investment is required to hasten transition? What resources specific to that location are available now, and how can productive programs be amplified? The work involves measuring and modeling to ensure waste and harm are minimized, while maximizing positive environmental and economic opportunities across the lifecycle of any energy plan.

“In my particular program, we’re supporting projects that develop good resilience. And there’s a very strong emphasis on going beyond theoretical into implementation. Like: what specific infrastructure investments and projects are going to be done to make the electrical grid more resilient to impacts from climate change?”

Unsurprisingly, this work is more than spreadsheets of numbers. To deploy an energy upgrade so much more must be considered: a region’s history, its present day health, and how the region may evolve based on the impacts of climate change prediction models. How can the department meet communities where they are and at the same time prepare them for a changing environment?

Unexpected Opportunities to Build Grid Resilience

Dr. Lee shares one example of how her team did just that. One of the Alaskan tribes they work with requested funding for a project that seemed outside the bounds of grid resilience. They didn’t ask for wiring, poles or grounding, but for snow removal equipment for their wind facility. 

During a recent snowstorm, the community couldn’t access their wind facilities because they lacked updated snow removal equipment. Without ready access to those facilities, if anything had gone wrong, the grid would have had problems as well. “It’s so important to have energy in Alaska winters – it’s life or death. You can’t just say ‘I’ll put on an extra blanket.’ Responding to a request for something as simple as snow removal equipment is an actual, valid, small step that we can take to support grid resilience.” 

Dr. Lee’s ability to think creatively and understand the needs of remote communities are the skills that make her an exceptional team member. Without that level of understanding, that tribe may not have gotten support for equipment that at first glance, isn’t immediately related to grid resilience.

Advice for Those Seeking Roles in Government Clean Energy Work

Dr. Lee’s achievements underscore the importance of a strong federal workforce. She offered advice for those entering government for the first time: “Find mentors who can help you navigate how the government works, and be open to new opportunities and trying new things.” She adds that being open to learning and finding mentors in different offices and different career stages brings the most opportunities compared to a so-called “straight career path.”

She says another benefit is that the people working clean energy technology in the government are some of the most optimistic people. Her work at GDO – helping modernize and fortify the grid – is vital to the resilience and livelihood of communities across the country.

Big Issues for Science Policy in a Challenging World: A Conversation with Dr. Alondra Nelson

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) seeks to advance progress on a broad suite of contemporary issues where science, technology, and innovation policy can deliver dramatic progress. In recognition of her work in public service, FAS will honor Dr. Alondra Nelson with the Public Service Award next month alongside other distinguished figures including Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Todd Young (R-IN) for their work in Congress making the CHIPS & Science Act a reality to ensure a better future for our nation. 

In addition to my role as Senior Fellow in Science Policy for FAS, I have the pleasure of chairing Membership Engagement for Section X, a governance committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) focused on Societal Impacts of Science and Engineering. I had the honor of co-moderating a session featuring Dr. Alondra Nelson last week, titled Big Issues for Science Policy in a Challenging World—A Conversation with Dr. Alondra Nelson at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Washington D.C. 

The hybrid event was co-organized with Section K (Social, Economic, and Political Sciences) and co-moderated with Dr. Barbara Schneider, John A. Hannah University Distinguished Professor in the College of Education and the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University and Immediate Past Chair of AAAS Section K. We led a targeted Q&A discussion informed by audience questions in-person and online. 

The conversation focused on how scientific and technical expertise can have a seat at the policymaking table, which aligns with the mission of FAS, and provided key insights from an established leader. Opening remarks featured reflections from Dr. Alondra Nelson on the current state of key issues in science policy that were priorities during her time in the Biden-Harris administration, and her views on the landscape of challenges that should occupy our attention in science policy today and in the future. Dr. Alondra Nelson is the Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and a distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. A former deputy assistant to President Joe Biden, she served as acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the first ever Deputy Director for Science and Society. 

FAS is highly invested in ensuring that federal government spending is directed towards enhancing our nation’s competitiveness in science and technology. Dr. Nelson emphasized the idea of innovation for a purpose, and how scientific research and technology development have the potential to improve society, including through STEM education and the infrastructure necessary for research investments to be successful. She also discussed how science and technology can advance democratic values, and highlighted three examples from her time at OSTP that provide promise for the future, including: the cancer moonshot; expanding access to federally funded research across the country; and the need for bringing new voices into science and technology.

Public trust in science and public engagement. The moderated discussion began with the idea of public trust in science in order to set the stage for the current policy landscape. We are operating in a low trust environment for science, and we should make scientific data more accessible to the public. She also highlighted that we need to engage the public in the design process of science and technology, which is why the OSTP Division of Science and Society was initially created. On this point, Dr. Nelson also said that “science policy is a space of possibility” and that we need to expand these opportunities more widely.

FAS Fellow Adriana Bankston in conversation with Alondra Nelson at the American Educational Research Association.
“Science policy is a space of possibility”

FAS Science Policy Fellow Adriana Bankston in conversation with Alondra Nelson at the American Educational Research Association.

Scientific workforce, federal investments and international collaboration. Dr. Nelson described the need to make the implementation of CHIPS and Science a reality and to bring more young voices into science and technology. She remarked that the promise of the CHIPS and Science Act is the intention around investments, and that “we need the ‘and science’ part to be fully funded in order to support the future scientific workforce.” To the question of how we should target federal investments in science and technology, she emphasized the need for collaborative research, bipartisan opportunities, and continuing to study the ‘science of science’ in order to understand the best ways for improving the system, while recognizing that the ROI from the investments we make today may take a few generations to be evident. Relatedly, on the question of ensuring our nation’s competitiveness in science and technology while fostering international collaboration, Dr. Nelson reminded the audience that “national security is a concern around many STEM areas of research.” 

Including marginalized voices and technological development. A significant part of the conversation focused on ensuring that marginalized voices have a seat at the table in science and technology. Dr. Nelson stated bluntly that “you can’t have good science without diversity” and that we need to support institutions across the country and engage with different types of educational institutions that may have been traditionally marginalized. To this end, as an example, she emphasized that OSTP previously engaged indigenous knowledge in its work around science and technology governance. The field of artificial intelligence (AI) was also discussed as an example of an area where we need to elevate the visibility of ethical issues that marginalized communities face. The CHIPS and Science Act focused on key technology areas that could create jobs in fields such as AI, leading to a discussion on the need for better policy around emerging technologies, creating high quality jobs, and a stronger focus on workers in the innovation economy. 

The event concluded with a high level discussion on policy impact, to which Dr. Nelson remarked that “if you want your science to have an impact, you should find ways to elevate the visibility of your findings among policymakers.” She stated that this will necessitate expanding our current methods to include broader voices in science and technology in the future. We look forward to honoring Dr. Nelson’s impact in the field during next month’s FAS event.

Watch This Space: Looking at the Next Generation of Space Launch Technology

With the news that SpaceX’s Starship is nearing readiness for another test launch, FAS CEO Dan Correa has been thinking more about what its technology could mean for national security, space science, and commercial space activities. Correa believes policymakers should be thinking and talking more about the implications of Starship and other competing space efforts as well. He recently sat down with Karan Kunjur and Neel Kunjur, founders of space technology startup K2 Space, to find out just how big of a leap the next generation of launch vehicles will represent.

Dan Correa, FAS CEO:  Let’s start with reminding people exactly what SpaceX’s Starship is – and why it could be such a paradigm shifter.

Karan Kunjur, K2 Space Co-founder, CEO: Starship is a next generation launch vehicle and spacecraft being developed by SpaceX, and when operational will change the game in space exploration. It’s the largest and most powerful launch system to ever be developed (150+ tons of payload capacity to LEO) and is intended to be fully re-usable. 

A single Starship launching at a cadence of three times per week will be capable of delivering more mass to orbit in a year than humanity has launched in all of history. 

With Starship-class access to space, we’re about to move from an era of mass constraint, to an era of mass abundance. In this new era, what we put in space will look different. The historic trades that were made around mass vs. cost will be flipped on its head, and the optimal spacecraft required for science, commercial and national security missions will change. 

DC:  Can you be more specific about what types of economic sectors are likely to be affected by Starship and other similar next generation launch vehicles? In other words, is there a broader ecosystem of products and services that you think are likely to emerge to take advantage of Starship or similar capabilities from other companies?

Neel Kunjur, K2 Space Co-founder, CTO: Historically, almost every application in space has been constrained by something commonly known as ‘SWAP’ – Size, Weight and Power. Satellite bus manufacturers have been forced to use expensive, lightweight components that are specially designed for spacecraft that need to fit inside current rockets. Payload designers have been forced to pursue compact sensor designs and complicated, sometimes unreliable deployables. Brought together, these needs have resulted in lightweight, but necessarily expensive vehicles. 

A perfect example of this is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). In order to fit required mission capabilities within SWAP constraints, the designers of JWST had to 1) Develop a highly complex deployable segmented mirror to fit within the volume budget, 2) Use expensive and novel Beryllium mirrors to fit within the mass budget, and 3) Design low power instruments and thermal conditioning hardware to fit within the power budget. This kind of complexity dramatically increases the cost of missions. 

KK: Exactly. In a world with Starship, things will become significantly simpler. Instead of a complex, unfolding, segmented mirror, you could use a large monolithic mirror. Instead of expensive Beryllium mirrors, you could use simpler and cheaper materials with lower stiffness-to-mass ratios, similar to those used in ground-based telescopes. Instead of expensive, power-optimized instruments, additional power could be used to make simpler and cheaper instruments with more robust thermal conditioning capabilities.    

The potential for change exists across every type of mission in space. It will become possible to have a satellite bus platform that has more power, more payload volume and more payload mass – but one that comes in at the cost of a small satellite. In a world with launch vehicles like Starship, satellite-based communications providers will be able to use the increased power to have greater throughput, remote-sensing players will be able to use more volume to have larger apertures, and national security missions will no longer need to make the trade-off between single exquisite satellites and constellations of low capability small satellites.  

DC: Can we get more specific about what we think the new costs would be? If I’m a taxpayer thinking about how my government financially supports space exploration and activity, that’s important. Or even if I’m a philanthropic supporter of space science – it matters. So what are some “back of the envelope” estimates of cost, schedule, and performance of Starship-enabled missions, relative to status quo approaches?

KK: Here’s an example: the MOSAIC (Mars Orbiters for Surface-Atmosphere-Ionosphere Connections) concept, identified as a priority in the National Academies’ 2022 Planetary Decadal Survey, was a 10-satellite constellation to understand the integrated Mars climate system from its shallow ice, up through Mars’ atmospheric layers, and out to the exosphere and space weather environment. The study envisioned deploying one large “mothership” satellite and nine smaller satellites in orbit around Mars using SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Rocket. Development of these spacecraft was expected to cost ~$1B (excluding recommended 50% reserves). 

In a world with Starship, the same mission could cost $200M in spacecraft costs. With this next generation launch vehicle, you could launch 10 large satellites in a single Starship. Each satellite would be redesigned to optimize for Starship’s mass allowance (150 tons), allowing the use of cheaper, but heavier materials and components (e.g. aluminum instead of expensive isogrid & composite structure). Each satellite would have more capabilities from a power (20kW), payload mass and payload volume than the large “mothership” satellite envisioned in the original MOSAIC study. 

DC: You’ve told me that standardization and modularization possibilities with Starship as it relates to satellites and scientific instruments is crucial. Can you elaborate on that idea?

NK: Longer term, having mass will allow us to do interesting things like over-spec the SWAP capabilities of the satellite bus to meet the requirements of various space science missions – thereby driving standardization. With sufficient SWAP, we could start to include a consistent bundle of instruments (rather than selecting a few to fit within limited SWAP budgets) – reducing the level of customization and non-recurring engineering (NRE) required for each mission. 

Although there will always be some level of customization required for each individual scientific mission, the potential to standardize a large portion of the hardware will make it possible to mass produce probes, increasing the potential frequency of missions and reducing the potential cost per mission. Examples here include standardized build-to-print suites of spectrometers, cameras, and particle and field sensors.

DC:  What are the implications for the Defense Department?  What are some of the important opportunities to deliver capabilities to solve national security problems in less time, at a lower cost, and with greater resilience?

NK: In 2022, the Space Force made resilience its No. 1 priority. One of the ways it hoped to achieve resilience was through the use of cheaper, more quickly deployed satellites. Unfortunately, the only path historically to going cheaper and faster was by going smaller, thereby sacrificing capabilities (e.g. low cost satellites typically come in <2kW of array power). 

With Starship, and companies like K2, agencies such as the Department of Defense will have access to larger, more capable satellites that are built cheaper, faster and with lower NRE. Instead of a single exquisite satellite with 20kW of power, the DoD will be able to deploy constellations of 40 satellites, each with 20kW of power, all within a single Starship. With the rise of refueling and next generation propulsion systems, these high power constellations will be deployable in higher orbits like Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geostationary Orbit (GEO), providing a much needed alternative to a potentially crowded Low Earth Orbit (LEO). 

DC:  The NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (COTS) program used firm, fixed-price milestone payments to solve a problem (deliver and retrieve cargo and crew to the International Space Station) at a fraction of the cost of “business as usual” approaches.  NASA also gave companies such as SpaceX greater autonomy with respect to how to solve this problem.  What are some key lessons that policy-makers should learn from the NASA COTS program and similar efforts at the Space Development Agency?  

KK: The NASA COTS program and SDA have demonstrated that policy can be as effective as technology in driving positive change in space. The move towards firm, fixed priced models incentivized reductions in cost/time, and pushed commercial entities to be thoughtful about what it would take to deliver against stated mission requirements. The autonomy that was given to the companies like SpaceX was critical to achieving the unprecedented results that were delivered. 

Moving forward, other areas that could benefit from this approach include deep space communications infrastructure and space debris identification and remediation. 

NK: Take the communications capabilities around Mars. The current infrastructure is aging and throughput limited – we just have a collection of Mars orbiters that are operating beyond their primary design lifetimes. With the ramp-up of ambitious scientific missions expected to be launched over the next decade (including eventual human exploration efforts), this aging infrastructure will be unable to keep up with a potentially exponential increase in data demands. 

Rather than addressing this via conventional completed missions, where the end-to-end mission is prescribed, a new approach that uses mechanisms like data buys or Advance Market Commitments could fit well here. Assigning a price for throughput deployed on a $/Gbps basis – what the U.S. government would be willing to pay, but not actually prescribing how those capabilities are deployed – could result in a cheaper, faster and more effective solution. Companies could then raise capital against the potential market, build out the infrastructure and shoulder a majority of the risk, much like any other early stage venture.

DC: What new commercial capabilities might Starship unlock?  Would any of these capabilities benefit from some government involvement or participation, in the same way that the NASA COTS program helped finance the development of the Falcon9?

KK: Almost every new commercial space customer has been forced to operate with sub-scale unit economics. Given capital constraints, their only option has been to buy a small satellite and compromise on the power, payload mass or payload volume they actually need.  In a world with Starship, commercial players will be able to deploy capable constellations at a fraction of the cost. They’ll be able to multi-manifest in a single Starship, amortizing the cost of launch across their full constellation (instead of just 4-8 satellites). The mass allowance of Starship will make previously infeasible commercial businesses feasible, from large fuel depots, to orbital cargo stations, to massive power plants. 

As we think about development across the solar system, as future deep space missions increase the demand for data, the lack of comms capabilities beyond the Deep Space Network (DSN) is going to play a limiting factor. A concerted effort to start building these capabilities to handle future data demand could be an interesting candidate for a COTS-like approach.

DC:  For policy-makers and program managers who want to learn more about Starship and other similar capabilities, what should they read, and who should they be following?

KK: There are a number of great pieces on the potential of Starship, including:

DC: Great recommendations. Thanks to you both for chatting.

KK: Thank you.

NK: Thanks.

“The US needs to lean into an old strength”: Maintaining Progress and Growing US Biomanufacturing

The U.S. bioeconomy has been surging forward, charged by the Presidential Executive Order 14081 and the CHIPS and Science Act. However, there are many difficult challenges that lay ahead for the U.S. bioeconomy, including for U.S. biomanufacturing capabilities. U.S. biomanufacturing has been grappling with issues in fermentation capacity including challenges related to scale-up, inconsistent supply chains, and downstream processing. While the U.S. government works on shoring up these roadblocks, it will be important to bring industry perspectives into the conversation to craft solutions that not only addresses the current set of issues but looks to mitigate challenges that may arise in the future.

To get a better understanding of industry perspectives on the U.S. bioeconomy and the U.S. biomanufacturing sector, the Federation of American Scientists interviewed Dr. Sarah Richardson, the CEO of MicroByre. MicroByre is a climate-focused biotech startup that specializes in providing specialized bacteria based on the specific fermentation needs of its clients. Dr. Richardson received her B.S. in biology from the University of Maryland in 2004 and a Ph.D. in human genetics and molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 2011. Her extensive training in computational and molecular biology has given her a unique perspective regarding emerging technologies enabled by synthetic biology.

FAS: The U.S. Government is focused on increasing fermentation capacity, including scale-up, and creating a resilient supply chain. In your opinion, are there specific areas in the supply chain and in scale-up that need more attention?

Dr. Sarah Richardson: The pandemic had such an impact on supply chains that everyone is reevaluating the centralization of critical manufacturing. The United States got the CHIPS and Science Act to invest in domestic semiconductor manufacturing. The voting public realized that almost every need they had required circuits. Shortages in pharmaceuticals are slowly raising awareness of chemical and biomedical manufacturing vulnerabilities as well. The public has even less insight into vulnerabilities in industrial biomanufacturing, so it is important that our elected officials are proactive with things like Executive Order 14081.

When we talk about supply chains we usually mean the sourcing and transfer of raw, intermediate, and finished materials — the flow of goods. We achieve robustness by having alternative suppliers, stockpiles, and exacting resource management. For biomanufacturing, an oft raised supply chain concern is feedstock. I can and will expound on this, but securing a supply of corn sugar is not the right long-term play here. Shoring up corn sugar supplies will not have a meaningful impact on industrial biomanufacturing and should be prioritized in that light.

Biomanufacturing efforts are different from the long standing production of consumer goods in that they are heavily tied to a scientific vendor market. As we scale to production, part of our supply chain is a lot of sterile plastic disposable consumables. We compete with biomedical sectors for those, for personal protective equipment, and for other appliances. This supply chain issue squeezed not just biomanufacturing, but scientific research in general.

We need something that isn’t always thought of as part of the supply chain: specialized infrastructural hardware. This  may not be manufactured domestically. Access to scale up fermentation vessels is already squeezed. The other problem is that no matter where you build them, these vessels are designed for the deployment of canonical feedstocks and yeasts. Addressing the manufacturing locale would offer us the chance to innovate in vessel and process design and support the kinds of novel fermentations on alternate feedstocks that are needed to advance industrial biomanufacturing. There are righteous calls for the construction of new pilot plants. We should make sure that we take the opportunity to build for the right future.

One of the indisputable strengths of biomanufacturing is the potential for decentralization! Look at microbrewing: fermentation can happen anywhere without country-spanning feedstock pipelines. As we onboard overlooked feedstocks, it may only be practical to leverage them if some fermentation happens locally. As we look at supply chains and scale up we should model what that might look like for manufacturing, feedstock supply chains, and downstream processing. Not just at a national level, but at regional and local scales as well.

There are a lot of immediate policy needs for the bioeconomy, many of which are outlined in Executive Order 14081. How should these immediate needs be balanced with long-term needs? Is there a trade-off?

Counterintuitively, the most immediate needs will have the most distant payoffs! The tradeoff is that we can’t have every single detail nailed down before work begins. We will have to build tactically for strategic flexibility. Climate change and manufacturing robustness are life or death problems. We need to be open to more creative solutions in funding methods, timeline expectations; in who comes to the table, in who around the table is given the power to affect change, and in messaging! The comfortable, familiar, traditional modes of action and funding have failed to accelerate our response to this crisis.

We have to get started on regulation yesterday, because the only thing that moves slower than technology is policy. We need to agree on meaningful, aggressive, and potentially unflattering metrics to measure progress and compliance. We need to define our terms clearly: what is “bio-based,” does it not have petroleum in it at all? What does “plant-based” mean? What percentage of a product has to be renewable to be labeled so? If it comes from renewable sources but its end-of-life is not circularizable, can we still call it “green”?

We need incentives for innovation and development that do not entrench a comfortable but unproductive status quo. We need to offer stability to innovators by looking ahead and proactively incubating the standards and regulations that will support safety, security, and intellectual property protection. We should evaluate existing standards and practices for inflexibility: if they only support the current technology and a tradition that has failed to deliver change, they will continue to deliver nothing new as a solution. 

We need to get on good footing with workforce development, as well. A truly multidisciplinary effort is critical and will take a while to pull off; it takes at least a decade to turn a high school student into a scientist. I only know of one national graduate fellowship that actually requires awardees to train seriously in more than one discipline. Siloing is a major problem in higher education and therefore in biomanufacturing. What passes for “multidisciplinary” is frequently “I am a computer scientist who is not rude to biologists” or “our company has both a chemical division and an AI division.” A cross-discipline “bilingual” workforce is absolutely critical to reuniting the skill sets needed to advance the bioeconomy. Organizations like BioMADE with serious commitments to developing a biomanufacturing workforce cannot effectively address the educational pipeline without significantly more support.

Hand holding petri dish with bacterial striations.

MicroByre is working to advance alternatives to substrates currently favored by the bioeconomy.

When we emphasize the collection of data — which data are we talking about? Is the data we have collected already a useful jumping off point for what comes next? Are the models relevant for foreseeable changes in technology, regulation, and deployment? For some of it, absolutely not. As every responsible machine learning expert can tell you, data is not something you want to skimp or cheap out on collecting or curating. We have to be deliberate about what we collect, and why. Biases cannot all be avoided, but we have to take a beat to evaluate whether extant models, architecture, and sources are relevant, useful, or adaptable. A data model is as subject to a sunk cost fallacy as anything else. There will be pressure to leverage familiar models and excuses made about the need for speed and the utility of transfer learning. We cannot let volume or nostalgia keep us from taking a sober look at the data and models we currently have, and which ones we actually need to get.

What are the major pain points the biomanufacturing industry is currently facing?

Downstream processing is the work of separating target molecules from the background noise of production. In purely chemical and petrochemical fields, separation processes are well established, extensively characterized, and relatively standardized. This is not the case in industrial biomanufacturing, where upstream flows are arguably more variable and complex than in petrochemicals. Producers on the biomedical side of biomanufacturing who make antibiotics, biologics, and other pharmaceuticals have worked on this problem for a long time. Their products tend to be more expensive and worth specialized handling. The time the field has spent developing the techniques in the urgent pursuit of human health works in their favor for innovation. However, separating fermentation broth from arbitrary commodity molecules is still a major hurdle for a bioindustrial sector already facing so many other simultaneous challenges. Without a robust library of downstream processing methods and a workforce versant in their development and deployment, new industrial products are viewed as significant scaling risks and are funded accordingly.

There is fatigue as well. For the sake of argument, let us peg the onset of the modern era of industrial biomanufacturing to the turn of the latest century. There have been the requisite amount of promises any field must make to build itself into prominence, but there has not been the progress that engenders trust in those or future promises. We have touted synthetic biology as the answer for two and a half decades but our dependence on petroleum for chemicals is as intense as ever. The goodwill we need to shift an entire industry is not a renewable resource. It takes capital, it takes time, and it takes faith that those investments will pay off. But now the chemical companies we need to adopt new solutions have lost some confidence. The policy makers we need to lean into alternative paths and visionary funding are losing trust. If the public from whence government funding ultimately springs descends into skepticism, we may lose our chance to pivot and deliver.

The right investment right now will spell the difference between life and death on this planet for billions of people.

This dangerous dearth of confidence can be addressed by doing something difficult: owning up to it. No one has ever said “oh goody — a chance to do a postmortem!”. But such introspective exercises are critical to making effective changes. A lack of reflection is a tacit vote for the status quo, which is comfortable because we’re rarely punished for a lack of advocacy. We should commission an honest look at the last thirty years — without judgment, without anger, and without the need to reframe disappointing attempts as fractional successes for granting agencies, or position singular successes as broadly representative of progress for egos. 

Biomanufacturing is so promising! With proper care and attention it will be incredibly transformative. The right investment right now will spell the difference between life and death on this planet for billions of people. We owe it to ourselves and to science to do it right — which we can only do by acknowledging what we need to change and then truly committing to those changes.

Corn sugar tends to be the most utilized biomass in the bioeconomy. What are the issues the U.S. faces if it continues to rely solely on corn sugar as biomass?

History shows that low-volume, high-margin fine chemicals can be made profitable on corn sugar, but high-volume, low-margin commodity chemicals cannot. Projects that produce fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals see commercial success but suffer from feedstock availability and scaling capacity. Success in high-margin markets encourages people to use the exact same technology to attempt low-margin markets, but then they struggle to reduce costs and improve titers. When a commodity chemical endeavor starts to flag, it can pivot to high-margin markets. This is a pattern we see again and again. As long as corn sugar is the default biomass, it will not change; the United States will not be able to replace petrochemicals with biomanufacturing because the price of corn sugar is too high and cannot be technologically reduced. This pattern is also perpetuated because the yeast we usually ask to do biomanufacturing cannot be made to consume anything but corn sugar. We also struggle to produce arbitrary chemicals in scalable amounts from corn sugar. We are stuck in an unproductive reinforcing spiral. 

Even if commodity projects could profit using corn sugar, there is not enough to go around. How much corn sugar would we have to use to replace even a fifth of the volume of petroleum commodity chemicals we currently rely on? How much more land, nitrogen, water, and additional carbon emissions would be needed? Would chemical interests begin to overpower food, medical, and energy interests? What if a pathogen or natural disaster wiped out the corn crop for a year or two? Even if we could succeed at manufacturing commodities with corn sugar alone, locking out alternatives makes the United States supply chain brittle and vulnerable.

Gloved hands holding petri dish showing light green bacterial striations.

MicroByre is working to advance alternatives to substrates currently favored by the bioeconomy.

Continued reliance on corn sugar slows our technological development and stifles innovation. Specialists approaching manufacturing problems in their domain are necessarily forced to adopt the standards of neighboring domains. A chemical engineer is not going to work on separating a biomass into nutrition sources when no microbiologist is offering an organism to adopt it. A molecular biologist is not going to deploy a specialized metabolic pathway dependent on a nutrition source not found in corn sugar. Equipment vendors are not going to design tools at any scale that stray from a market demand overwhelmingly based on the use of corn sugar. Grantors direct funds with the guidance of universities and industry leaders, who are biased towards corn sugar because that’s what they use to generate quick prototypes and spin out new start up companies. 

The result of relying on corn sugar is an entrenched field and consequently we might lose our chance to make a difference. Without introducing low-cost, abundant feedstocks like wastes, we run the risk of disqualifying an entire field of innovation. 

What does the U.S. need to do in order for other biomass sources to be utilized beyond corn sugar? Are there ideas (or specific programs) that the U.S. government could supercharge?

Federal agencies must stop funding projects that propose to scale familiar yeasts on corn sugars to produce novel industrial chemicals. We must immediately stop funding biomass conversion projects meant to provide refined sugars to such endeavors. And we must stop any notion of dedicating arable land solely to corn sugar solely for the purposes of biomanufacturing new industrial products. The math does not and will not work out. The United States must stop throwing money and support at such things that seem like they ought to succeed any minute now, even though we have been waiting for that success for 50 years without any meaningful changes in the economic analysis or technology available.

Ironically, we need to take a page from the book that cemented petroleum and car supremacy in this country. We need to do the kind of inglorious, overlooked, and subsequently taken for granted survey of the kind that enabled the Eisenhower Interstate System to be built. 

We need to characterize all of the non-corn feedstocks and their economic and microbial ecosystems. We need to know how much of each biomass exists, what it is composed of, and who is compiling where. We need to know what organisms rot it and what they produce from it. We need to make all of that data as freely available as possible to lower the barriers of entry for cross-disciplinary teams of researchers and innovators to design and build the logistical, microbiological, chemical, and mechanical infrastructure necessary. We need to prioritize and leverage the complex biomasses that cannot just be ground into yeast food. 

We need to get the lay of the land so – to use the roadway analogy – we know where to pour the asphalt. An example of this sort of effort is the Materials Genome Initiative, which is a crosscutting multi-agency initiative for advancing materials and manufacturing technology. (And which has, to my chagrin, stolen the term “genome” for non-biological purposes.) An even more visible example to the public is a resource like the Plant Hardiness Zone Map that provides a basis for agricultural risk assessment to everyone in the country.

The United States needs to lean into an old strength and fund infrastructure that gives all the relevant specialties the ability to collaborate on truly divergent and innovative biomass efforts. The field of industrial biomanufacturing must make a concerted effort to critically examine a history of failed technical investments, shake off the chains of the status quo, and guide us into true innovation. Infrastructure is not the kind of project that yields an immediate return. If venture capital or philanthropy could do it, they would have already. The United States must flex its unique ability to work on a generational investment timeline; to spend money in the very short term on the right things so as to set everyone up for decades of wildly profitable success — and a safer and more livable planet.