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Dr. Verosub goes to Washington

By Dave Jones on October 29, 2010 in University

Last February, on his first day at the State Department, Ken Verosub was told to prepare a briefing book on water issues for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

A few weeks later, on World Water Day, Clinton drew on Verosub’s material as she gave a speech at the National Geographic Society, announcing that water would be a foreign policy imperative for the United States.

Verosub, a distinguished professor of geology at UC Davis, spent six months at the U.S. Agency for International Development and then six months at the Department of State — with both assignments comprising his one-year of service as a Jefferson Science Fellow.

The State Department established the fellows program in 2003 as a means of bringing state-of-the-art science into the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. The National Academies of Science administer the program.

Verosub described his year in Washington, D.C., as "transformative."

"I'm not the same person I was when I started," he said. The year changed his understanding of how Washington works — and the kind of science that the government needs.

Pakistan's water problems

The 2009-10 fellowship year began with Verosub and the other nine fellows interviewing with several different offices at the Department of State and USAID, "rather like a fraternity rush," Verosub said.

He worked on climate change issues at USAID, then moved to the water team at the State Department. His team leader reported to Undersecretary Maria Otero, who reports directly to Clinton.

At the State Department, Verosub spent much of his time studying Pakistan's water problems. Even before this year's catastrophic flooding, Pakistan faced major problems in managing its scarce water resources — and those challenges are now even greater, he said, with an already poor infrastructure that is likely to require billions of dollars in repairs. The recent floods are beyond anything Pakistan has had to deal with as a country, he said.

Pakistan's water comes from a mix of Himalayan meltwater, monsoon rains and pumped groundwater. Almost all of it is used for farming, and there is very little left to meet the needs of the country's rapidly growing urban population. The country’s irrigation methods are wasteful, the distribution system is old and deteriorating, and groundwater is rapidly being depleted.

"When I started working on Pakistan’s water issues, I quickly realized that neither the State Department nor the World Bank was adequately considering groundwater usage in their calculations about water in Pakistan," Verosub said. In fact, rather than price water to encourage conservation, the government provides free electricity to farmers for their wells, which become increasingly expensive to operate as more and more water is pumped and the groundwater table drops lower and lower.

To address these issues, the State Department is helping the government of Pakistan to develop its national water policy as part of the United States’ Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan — a strategy that includes some $7.5 billion in nondefense foreign aid. Verosub played a key role in assembling the briefing documents for Undersecretary Otero’s conversations with the Pakistanis on water issues.

What the government wants — now

Verosub said working in Washington changed his understanding of what kind of science the government is looking for.

"The government needs solutions now for problems that it is currently addressing, not solutions that might be available in five or 10 years. These solutions are much more applied than the ones that university faculty normally address, and they are not always high tech; sometimes, little, simple solutions can make a big difference," he said.

For example, as much as 90 percent of the crop that a small farmer in Africa might grow will be spoiled by heat before it reaches market. Providing farmers with tarps or swamp coolers to keep the harvested crops cool can make a big difference, he said, as will better roads to bring crops to market more quickly.

Verosub also said that the science model pioneered by Vannevar Bush in the 1940s — putting government money into curiosity-driven basic research with the expectation that it will eventually result in practical innovations — is falling out of favor in Washington. Instead, there is strong interest from both the public and private sectors in challenges and prizes that set carefully defined goals for solutions to specific problems and award cash prizes to the winners.

Large-scale examples include the privately-funded X-Prize for space launch systems, the Department of Defense's Grand Challenge for autonomous robotic vehicles and the Department of Education's Race to the Top for school reform and many smaller challenges and prizes are now being established. (For a look at what the government is offering, click here.)

The concept of driving innovation through challenges and prizes implicitly assumes that solutions can come from anyone living anywhere in the world, not just scientists at U.S. universities and research institutes, Verosub said.

"In order to continue to be players in this game, universities need to restructure the way that faculty do research and that students are trained to think about innovation," he said.

Institutional knowledge lacking

The State Department also needs to have more scientists within its own ranks, Verosub said. There are few science majors among the foreign service and civil service professionals in the department, and much of the scientific work is done by fellows and student interns with the American Association for the Advancement of Science — all of them relatively young and rarely staying for more than a year. As a result, there is not a great deal of institutional knowledge on scientific issues, he said.

The Jefferson Science Fellows program helps resolve this by bringing in tenured faculty in science and engineering, nominated by their universities. The fellows serve for a year at the State Department or USAID, and serve as consultants for an additional five years.

Verosub completed his term in July and is spending the rest of the year as a visiting scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va. There, he is working on using satellite imaging to settle disputes over water use where two nations share a major river basin and basic hydrologic data is either withheld by governments or impossible to obtain.

"It was a fantastic year, a very exciting place," Verosub said. "I would love to have been able to stay on for another year."

On the Web

Jefferson Science Fellows


Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,