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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 at CBACI.

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 is astounding.

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