Richard Bissell, Director of Policy and Global Affairs Division

Richard Bissell

What first brought you to the Academies?

I got to know the Academies well before I ever worked here, through an Academy collaboration with the US Agency for International Development, where I was Assistant Administrator as head of its science and technology programs.  We commissioned workshops, consensus studies, and co-hosted meetings on S&T breakthroughs for the developing world through the then-existing NRC Board on Science and Technology in International Development.  After I had been out of government for four years, I was recruited by Bruce Alberts in 1997 to join the Academies as executive director of the Policy Division, which allowed me a non-governmental perch from which to contribute to the same issues I addressed while in government. And to be able to do so with the most interesting and positively-motivated group of people in Washington (and maybe the entire country) was too good an opportunity to pass up.

What’s the most interesting or surprising thing you ever learned from your Academies career?

Early on in my career at the Academies, I was amazed by, and am still sometimes shocked by, the volunteer commitment of the thousands of eminent people who make the entire enterprise possible.  I had certainly experienced volunteerism before my Academies work, but the scale of the time and attention given by thousands and thousands of the top people in America (and increasingly from around the world) to serve on committees is astounding.  If I am ever stuck for a definition of “invaluable,” I describe the contribution of volunteers at the Academies.  Our formal records show appointments each year of about 6,000 committee members.  I know, if you count all those who also serve without pay on our fellowship review panels, on our research peer review panels, on our technical panels scattered across all the divisions, the total is somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000.  This draws on a tradition in American science, engineering and medicine that cannot be equaled anywhere else in the world.  When I walk into a new study committee’s first meeting, I am repeatedly amazed by the talent assembled to serve the nation, and all I can do is thank them.

Share a few of your division’s current priorities and new projects.

We have a wide range of new growth areas in PGA, each responding to extended discussions with a wide range of expertise in the Academies and with stakeholders outside the Academies.  In each case, our priorities in PGA reflect the need for interdisciplinary approaches involving all three major sectors:  government, private sector, and academia.  For instance, we have launched a national and international program in synthesizing approaches to risk, resilience, and emerging disasters.  This program has drawn significant support from agencies from federal to local governments that are struggling to find ways to mitigate the clearly growing scale of extreme natural events.  This winter in the northeast US has been an object lesson.  But we are also receiving unsolicited offers of collaboration from around the world to try to manage this particular arena of risk.  A second broad PGA initiative, across many Boards, is to force collaboration between the fields of higher education, capital investment and labor economics.  We raised strong interest in aspects of these issues in “Rising above the Gathering Storm” and in “Future of the Research University.”  We have now begun to convene influential leaders at the national and at the local level to see how scientific/technical job markets, investment plans and educational options can create a virtuous cycle to meet the needs of all three.  PGA has a growing portfolio of studies and workshops to create hope for young people and for entrepreneurs by enabling them to work together.

Where do you see the biggest issues for the nation in the next several years to which the Academies can make a contribution?

It is fundamental for the Academies to understand and explain more effectively to policymakers how to plan for a world with constantly changing science and technology.  Some of that research and communication will focus on a specific change in our lives – just to take one example: the emergence of self-administered DNA testing.  The public and the regulators equally needs to understand the various aspects of such a new technology.  But likewise, the Academies need to address the overall S&T enterprise, finding ways to understand and convey to policymakers how the scientific, engineering, and medical communities maintain the quality, social value, and ethical context of their work overall.  Skepticism about a specific technology or scientific discovery can easily evolve into a broad anxiety about the worlds of science, engineering and medicine.  The Academies need to be sure the nation’s leaders have the best possible understanding and information to address those anxieties honestly and proactively.

What are some key areas where Presidents’ Circle members could assist you?  What skills either currently within the Presidents’ Circle, or potentially in The Circle in the future would be most useful to you either in defining or responding to the most important issues?

The members of the Presidents’ Circle can do a major service to the nation and to the Academies by helping us understand the vulnerabilities of the science and technology enterprise.  The Academies should not wait until a science-skeptical cover appears on the Economist magazine, but the Academy leadership and staff cannot be proactive if the needs are not articulated as early as possible.   The Members of the Presidents’ Circle are leaders in their own spheres of life, and drawing on those contacts, help the Academies, including the Policy and Global Affairs division to better meet national needs where science, technology and medicine will inevitably play an important role.