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Biology and Security
Careers in Science From the Field
Michael J. Powers is Senior Fellow at the Chemical
and Biological Arms Control Institute. His areas of expertise include
the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, terrorism
involving weapons of mass destruction, homeland security, and counterterrorism.
Mr. Powers has served as a commentator for BBC, CNBC, CNN, Fox News
Channel, and USA Today on issues relating to the threat and response
to chemical and biological weapons. He has also directed several
projects focusing on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear
threats. Prior to joining CBACI, Mr. Powers has held several positions
in industry and at the State Department, where he focused on arms
control, nonproliferation, and national security.
How would you define your profession?
I am an analyst working on issues relating to chemical and biological
weapons and the threat thereof. I am focusing primarily on homeland
security, counterterrorism, and non-proliferation.
Can you describe a typical work week at CBACI?
It is difficult to say that there is a typical work week. Most of
the work tends to focus on projects on the various topics I mentioned
before, usually involving research, writing, analysis, etc., or
managing the individuals working on those projects.
How has your previous professional experience helped you
with your current job?
I think it provided a solid foundation for many of the issues that
we work on. It also helped provide me with an analytical framework
I tend to use on a regular basis, given the research that we do
here at CBACI.
What part of this job do you find most satisfying?
Several interrelated things--one is the opportunity it provides
to work on a set of issues that I personally find extremely interesting
and challenging. It also provides an opportunity to help influence,
or have an impact on, public policies and programs as they relate
to reducing the threat. So in my own way, I feel I have an opportunity
to contribute to helping the nation be more secure against this
particular security challenge.
What is the most challenging part of working at CBACI?
Many of the issues which we work on are, in essence, cutting-edge.
The organization as a whole, and to a large extent my participation
and work within the organization, requires me to look at the issues,
complete analyses, and provide policy recommendations that are new
and cutting-edge. In many situations, these recommendations run
counter to commonly held ideas, conceptions, or policies that the
government is currently promoting. So I frequently find myself confronting
or challenging commonly held views or policies by the government.
Would you call it an uphill battle?
I would not say that. That would be categorizing the entire set
of things that we do and all the research analysis that we do as
being counter to what is commonly held. But at times I sometimes
find myself in a position where the analysis and the research leads
me to a conclusion or a set of recommendations that are drastically
different than what people are thinking or what the government is
actually doing. That can be challenging in and of itself, but again,
it also provides additional opportunities to have an impact on policies
that the government is carrying out to reduce this particular threat.
What skills are most important for your job?
There are three primary skills I think are most important. One is
a sound understanding of the set of issues- how the government works,
how the policy process works, and how the process works in the context
of this particular challenge. It can be difficult learning how the
process works and how at times it does not work--not to say I am
an expert at that. I think everyone is learning on an ongoing basis,
but I think that is a centerpiece of the skills that I use.
I think another key skill is communication- both oral and written
communication abilities. It is important to have the framework--to
have done the research, to come up with the analysis, to come up
with the conclusions and recommendations--but doing that is only
half the process. The other part is communicating those thoughts
to the broader community, in order to have impact. Without good
communication skills --both oral and written--you can come up with
the best recommendations, the best conclusions, the most innovative
and insightful analysis, but if that is never communicated, it is
not available to the people you are trying to impact.
The third vitally important thing is basic interpersonal skills.
Part of this process is networking--interacting with both government
officials in the United States and foreign officials, experts and
researchers from organizations similar to CBACI. That networking
takes place on a regular basis. The ability to form relationships,
partnerships, and professional friendships is quite important. It
is the mechanism for getting out the thinking and the learning here
What kind of education would you say is most important for
a student interested in this field?
From my own personal background, I have an undergraduate degree
in political science and computer science. I studied national security
studies in graduate school and received a master's degree.
At the same time, I would not necessarily say that I recommend or
discourage anyone from going down a similar path. There are a number
of different educational backgrounds among the people working in
this field. That includes people with strong public policy and political
science backgrounds, people with more technical backgrounds- chemists,
biologists, etc. For bioterrorism in particular, people with strong
public health backgrounds or medical backgrounds are increasingly
involved in this field. I think there are a number of different
opportunities and educational pathways one can take to get involved
in this field. At a minimum, I think it comes down to a strong interest
and passion about international affairs and security issues and
a willingness to learn.
How do you remain up-to-date in the field of biological
safety? Do you recommend any magazines, websites, etc.?
I think a lot of what we do comes down to a strong research team
we have been able to put together at CBACI. They go out and look
at various sources of information for us, and help to pull out the
better sources, highlight those sources, and recommend them to us.
The number of different places that are doing work on his issue
Among the better sources of information I can recommend- on the
government in particular- is the General Accounting Office (GAO).
They do a number of different studies and analyses on a number of
different topics- in particular, those topics relating to arms control,
nonproliferation, and counterterrorism. GAO is a pretty critical
source of information for the work we do here at the Institute.
I think another very well-regarded and very comprehensive source
of information--sort of a one-stop shop, especially when it comes
to issues of homeland security and counterterrorism--is the website
for the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism
in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. It is the living element of the memorial
to the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. That organization has become
one of the leading organizations working on issues related to terrorism
and counterterrorism; their website has a very extensive list of
links, studies, analyses, etc. on this particular set of issues.
Another good source of information is the scholars at the RAND Corporation,
a non-profit think tank with researchers and analysts working on
a set of issues similar to CBACI's. Especially in the area of terrorism
and the threat of terrorism, the work done at the RAND Corporation
is among the best in the world.
Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing a career
in this field?
I think people that are interested in this field need to be interested
and feel passionate about international affairs and security studies.
I think anybody thinking about going into this field as a profession
needs to begin with that basic passion for this set of issues. I
think having an interest and familiarity with both policy and political
science, and also the scientific and technical side of things, is
also very helpful. I am not saying that people have to be both a
political and natural scientist, but I think a familiarity and an
interest in the natural sciences is both helpful and useful.
In general, in my experience, education is key and is a necessary
prerequisite for getting into this field. However, I think for people,
especially for young students who are trying to break into the national
security community writ large--even if it is not in the narrow set
of issues that CBACI works in--job experience counts for as much,
if not more, than your educational credentials. For students out
there either in undergraduate schools or doing graduate work, my
primary recommendation would be to get as much job experience as
you possibly can, and to do as many different internships as possible.
Take some research assistantships, and try to get that work experience
at the same time as completing your undergraduate and graduate careers.
Submitted by: William Yoon, American
University, spring/summer 2004 intern