Lessons from a Career Serving the Public

November 30, 2021
Chris Hume/Unsplash
Kathleen Rest
Former contributor

As I wrap up my 17 years as executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and ready myself for my next chapter, I am buoyed by the energy, commitment, impatience, and yes even the outrage of young people around the world. They are demanding that elected leaders wake up and take urgent action on climate change, environmental and social injustice, and the other profound threats to their future and to life on this planet.

With early career scientists and young activists top of mind, I offer some reflections on the many paths for engaging in the fight for science-based policies in the public interest, policies that protect and promote the public good. Reflections gleaned from my own career path that has included years in different sectors – academia, the federal government, and finally in the non-governmental, non-profit sector.

There are so many paths, options, and venues for using your expertise, energy, and passion to make this world a better place – one that is safer, healthier, more equitable, resilient, and sustainable – one in which everyone has the opportunity to grow and thrive. The good news is that the boundaries between and across these paths are fluid and ripe for engagement in different ways and at different levels.

You are not a pigeon (how to avoid pigeonholes)

With the considerable time (often accompanied by some blood, sweat, and tears) devoted to getting the necessary degree, training, and then experience in a chosen field, it is easy to get pigeon-holed – by our own selves and by others – and to think of ourselves in narrow roles.

Perhaps like me you’re in public health and environmental policy. Or in science, health care, engineering, economics, or the humanities. Perhaps you are based in academia, the public sector, a labor union, the private sector, or in a non-profit or community-based organization.

But you are more than your field, profession, and locus. None of those affiliations limit your ability to understand science-based reasoning or to contribute your voice, energy, talent, and expertise on societal issues outside your specialty area. Speaking out on these issues and expressing your values does not mean that your “objectivity” or the rigor of your research is compromised. We are all more than our professions and our day-to-day work. We are members of society, our communities, and constituents in this democracy. We have other muscles to flex.

If you’re a student or very early in your career, your voice is particularly needed. You are the future.

You can find a path for public service in any career

I share my own career experiences below not because they are the right or the only path, but because it has been a highly rewarding path. When I reflect on my journey, I want you, especially those of you early in your careers, to see that the borders in service of the public good are not set in stone. They are porous. You can move in and out of different sectors and contribute in all kinds of ways.

Whatever your path(s), you can:

  • Make your voice heard locally – as a constituent and emerging expert. Write letters to the editor or op-eds in the local paper (and then send them to your elected official). Real-world stories are hard to beat. 
  • Request and organize a meeting with your elected officials when they are in district.
  • File public comments on emerging policy and legislation. You can offer to testify.
  • Nominate yourself for membership on federal/state/local agency advisory committees. They don’t necessarily take a lot of time and can benefit immensely from your expertise.
  • Offer your assistance to local groups or national NGOs. (Shameless plug: You can join the UCS Science Network.) 

Here’s what I hope you will avoid doing:

  • Don’t think that today’s societal challenges are someone else’s to worry about. 
  • Don’t think that publishing academic papers, teaching courses, conducting research is all you have to contribute.
  • Don’t hold yourself apart from the public sphere and not speak out on public policy.
  • Don’t think your engagement in this sphere somehow diminishes your training, talent, passion, or creativity.

And I hope you don’t think your current work is limiting and the only area option open to you. Because even as science progresses, so do our societal challenges – from climate change to democratic reform. From inequity to pandemics. I hope that my final takeaway at the end of this post helps inspire you onwards from here.

My journey: Finding public service in my career

My own path is illustrative of the varied opportunities to engage in public service – some as a result of my position and some as a volunteer (which were a source of considerable learning and great fun to boot.) 

As a student, I took advantage of every opportunity – from the courses I took, the papers I wrote (sometimes completely off the assigned topic), and the projects I engaged in. My initial foray into graduate school provided opportunities that shaped my professional future, in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I seized on an internship requirement to make the leap from a College of Public Administration to the university’s medical school. That gave me the eye-opening experience of working with physicians who specialized in occupational medicine and were vocal advocates for worker health and safety, sparking my life-long passion for this issue. Which, upon graduation, led to a position coordinating a national faculty and curriculum development project in occupational and environmental health. Which, in turn, led to a lectureship position in the medical school and started me on the road to academia.

Next stop, a move cross country to a Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at another medical school, as an adjunct assistant professor – teaching medical students and residents and working hand-in-glove with a physician colleague who wanted to create a clinical occupational health program for workers. Focused outreach to labor unions and provision of required worker screening and surveillance programs paved the way to a successful launch. I even learned how to do spirometry in the process!

The stories I heard from these workers spurred my after-work activism and engagement with the local Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. (Be sure to check out this national organization, which has a broad network of volunteer technical, research, training, and organizing experts who provide technical assistance, training, writing, policy, and research analysis to advance worker health and safety.) 

These experiences and the visibility they afforded led to some unexpected and highly rewarding opportunities to have some influence on public policy and in the broader academic community. I was appointed Chair of National Advisory Committee on Occupation Safety and Health (NACOSH) – a statutorily-created committee to advise the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). I was invited to serve as a committee member on several NAS Institute of Medicine committees – on environmental medicine, on toxicology, and on the responsible development of nanotechnology.

This collection of experiences helped me identify some knowledge gaps that I wanted to fill, like public health law and policy, epidemiology, and health care economics. An interdisciplinary PhD program – 10 years post my master’s degree – did the trick, along with a job managing a federally-funded project on risk communication and community right-to-know. And that provided the grist for my PhD dissertation on public participation in environmental decision making.

OK – so jumping over a 10 year+ stint as a faculty member at yet another medical school and a sabbatical as a visiting researcher at an academic medical center in the Netherlands – I took a leave of absence from my academic appointment to answer the call of federal service – which changed my academic career and the future of my professional life forever. In a good way.

At the invitation of the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – a colleague and previous academic herself – I went to Washington, DC, as a senior advisor for policy, planning, and evaluation, then deputy director for program, and finally, upon her departure, as Acting Director of the institute. What followed were national crises one could never imagine – the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and shortly thereafter the arrival of anthrax-laced mail in post offices and in the halls of Congress. The worker health and safety challenges were enormous, and it truly felt like trial by fire. I found myself moving from the quiet halls of academia into a place in the national spotlight – with a legion of dedicated health and safety professionals by my side. Friendships and connections were made that remain to this day.

With a change of administration and five years of long-distance weekend commuting under my belt, it was time to go home. And with the fire of policy and public service in my belly, I decided to enter the world of the non-profit and non-governmental sector. I’ve now spent 17 years as the executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) – twice as acting president – leading an organization that centers science and science-based solutions in addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems. It also opened pathways and a way back into academia via guest lectures seminars, publications, and presentations at professional societies. The rewards, accomplishments, and challenges of this position deserve their own telling, but that will have to wait for another time and venue.

And now I’m embarking on a new phase. I’m calling it “non-retirement.” I will continue the fight for progress on the issues that have been central to my professional life and my personal passion. I expect this new phase will give me more time, flexibility, and creative energy – without the administrative and operational responsibilities of managing this hard-working NGO. So stay tuned.

One final takeaway

The opportunities for meaningful engagement in public policy and service are there for the taking. My story is just one example. Look around you; there are so many others. So create a path for yourself, or a series of paths, and don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. The world needs you.