“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.