When psychologist Kathie Olsen, PhD, was in high school, she hated science.
"But there was this door that I always walked under that said 'What you are to be you are now becoming,'" she remembers. "You're constantly evolving."
Constantly evolving is an apt description of the high school student who eventually became a neuroscientist and assistant professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, directed the psychobiology and behavioral neuroendocrinology programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), worked on Capitol Hill for science-friendly legislation, served as chief scientist at NASA and now is a senior administrator in the Executive Office of the President.
"What you realize in the government is that you can do so much more than you can ever do in your own laboratory," she says. "Government service allows you an opportunity to make impacts in areas that are important to you." For Olsen, that includes her passions for promoting young people's interest in science and increasing the numbers of women and minorities in science.
"Kathie Olsen has been a tireless promoter of using the best science to ask important questions--whether in neuroscience or space research," says Merry Bullock, PhD, associate executive director in APA's Science Directorate. "And she makes it clear that some of the best science includes basic and applied behavioral research."
As associate director of the president's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Olsen and her staff help the various research and development arms of the government--from NSF to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS)--work together more efficiently.
"The range of issues is so incredibly exciting," she says, "from whaling to dolphins, to burning plasma, to looking at the problems where women and under-represented minorities aren't going into science.
"My job is to get people to agree and get energized on a goal," says Olsen, "to enable the potential of really good science to be carried out, to bring the agencies together so that they're complementary...to work with the Office of Management and Budget and the other parts of the White House to decide strategically what is the best way to make budgetary decisions so that [we] can enable new discoveries, promote health, welfare and our safety."
A science-friendly White House
Fueling Olsen's enthusiasm for her job is the Bush administration's positive attitude toward science and technology, she says. As evidence, she points out that the fiscal year 2003 science and technology budget was the highest requested by a president in 10 years. Also, she notes, OSTP has re-established the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Science, which she co-chairs with the heads of NIH, Elias Zerhouni, MD, and NSF, Rita Colwell, PhD. OSTP has also established three new working committees on education and the work force, facilities and infrastructure, and changing ways of doing business, such as university-government collaborations.
"We haven't really looked at our partnerships between academia and the government in years," she explains. "We are going to reopen those issues to see how we can really strengthen the ability to do good science.
"But we can't do that alone," she notes. "So every one of these committees is going to be turning to members of the academic community and industrial community for advice."
OSTP is also playing a key role in coordinating research on homeland security with other government agencies, she says. Such projects include everything from psychological research on the impact of a terrorist event to vaccine development, to securing bridges and dams.
"Immediately with the establishment of [DHS], they looked at OSTP as the arm to really coordinate the research and development component," she explains. As evidence, an OSTP staffer is chairing a National Science and Technology Council on homeland defense with Department of Defense and DHS officials. The group will bring together government agencies to set research and development goals. A subcommittee on social and behavioral factors is also planned, Olsen adds.
Behavioral scientists, she says, can play a key role since their research on risk management and decision-making under stress are particularly pertinent after Sept. 11, 2001.
Finally, Olsen uses her government position to urge students to pursue careers in science.
"When I was going to graduate school, I didn't know the range of career opportunities that was open to me," she explains. But her career is evidence that psychologists and other scientists can work at just about any level of government, she says--not to mention in industry and other settings.
Science, engineering and math, she tells young people, offer some of the greatest career opportunities: "Having a degree in science--whether or not it's a bachelor's, master's or PhD--just opens up doors for so many opportunities in your future that you don't even know what you'll evolve into"--including becoming one of the nation's top science advisers.