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Jefferson Science Fellowship Experience

December 3, 2014

By Helen Wright
CCC Blog

The following blog post was written by Dr. Stephanie Forrest, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Forrest recently completed a one year Jefferson Science Fellowship at the U.S. Department of State.

Over the past decade it has become evident that computer science and the Internet are on a collision course with larger society. What was once an esoteric technical field, pursued by most of us for its intellectual beauty and engineering adventure, is now at the forefront of the U.S. economy, our social interactions, and foreign policy. When a U.S. President steps to the podium to discuss a software bug called Heartbleed and the U.S. policy on “zero day exploits,” something is up. Catalyzed by the Snowden revelations beginning in June, 2013, international interest and concern about U.S. cyber policies has increased steadily. Examples include: concerns about where cloud computing companies are storing their data, fights over who should be in charge of Internet policy, questions about how the less-developed world can provide Internet access to all and help them cross the ‘digital divide,’ cyberwarfare, the right to be forgotten, and many more.

As the agency on the front lines of most issues with international scope, the State Department and its sister agency, USAID, plays a major role in today’s international cyberpolicy discussions and negotiations. This past year, three academic computer scientists worked as Senior Science Advisors to the State Department (one assigned to USAID) through the Jefferson Science Fellows (JSF) program, sponsored by the National Academies. We each came for our own reasons and were placed in different organizations working on wildly different problems, and we all found the experience invigorating, rewarding, and completely different from anything we had done before.

The Jefferson Science Fellows program provides thirteen science and engineering advisors to the State Dept. and USAID each year. The one-year fellowships are awarded to tenured professors from a broad range of science and engineering disciplines. Beyond the three CS representatives, my cohort contained two earth scientists, one environmental chemist, one physicist, one plant physiologist, two MDs, one veterinarian, and two engineers. The fellowship program pays a generous living stipend and small travel allowance, while the Fellows home institutions are expected to pay their salaries, for example, as part of a sabbatical. Once selected as a Fellow, I was invited to spend a week visiting the State Department to find a placement. The range of opportunities ran the gamut from intellectual property issues to the Columbia River Treaty, due to be renegotiated between Canada and the United States.

In the end, I decided to stick with my original mission and focus on cyberpolicy. I was placed in the Office of the Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy (EB/CIP in State Dept. parlance) but also assigned a project in the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues (S/CCI). During the year, I weighed in on a wide variety of issues, including Internet governance, botnet takedowns, cybersecurity, cloud computing, privacy and big data. I traveled to Japan as a delegate to a U.S./Japanese meeting on the Internet economy and to Germany to participate in a meeting on privacy and big data. One highlight of the year was the chance to participate in the inter-agency process that led up to the U.S. announcement of its intent to globalize responsibility for the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions. The idea is that responsibility for these functions should reside in a multistakeholder community rather than the U.S. Government, but it is not at all clear how such a community can be organized or how to ensure that everyone with a “stake” in the Internet is represented fairly. These discussions are now underway, and their outcome will help chart the future course of the Internet. A second project had the goal of reducing the risk of unintended cyber conflict between nations through a set of confidence building measures for cyberspace—actions or restraints that would reinforce peacetime norms and reduce the risk of unintended cyber conflict. Although the details of the proposals are still under discussion, they addressed potentially destabilizing actions against Internet infrastructure, critical communication links, information services, and privacy.

Turning to the other two CS Professors in our cohort, Dr. Ken Nygard, Professor of Computer Science at North Dakota State University, worked on the Data and Analytics Team within the Global Development Laboratory at the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The U. S. Department of State focuses on international policy, while USAID is concerned with development programs in low-income and disadvantaged countries. At USAID there are projects and programs in areas such as global health, food security, water and sanitation, poverty, climate change, environmental degradation, and civil disorder. Data science, analytics, and statistical analyses are important to USAID, particularly for understanding development needs and for evaluating projects and programs. One project he worked on involved countries in the Horn of Africa, particularly Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. These countries experience devastating drought regularly, and 2011 was a particularly damaging year. The project goal was to improve the resilience of these populations to drought conditions. Satellite imagery, analyzed across multiple spectral bands, in conjunction with ground-based data, was used to assess drought severity. The data must then be statistically associated with measures of household resilience, to evaluate the ability of populations to cope with disastrous conditions. Ultimately, results from this project can be used to prioritize projects and programs that are aimed at improving resilience. Prof. Kannappan Palaniappan of the University of Missouri worked on the Iraq Desk at the State Dept., promoting science diplomacy. He worked closely with Iraqi scientists from many branches of science to facilitate research collaborations in the U.S., help them improve their educational programs, host a visit of Iraqi scientists to the U.S., and arrange for a different group to attend a scientific meeting in New Orleans. These scientists are dedicated to their fields and to training students, but most of them had never attended a scientific meeting.

These are just a few highlights from what was a stimulating and rewarding year for each of us. People often ask: “Do you think you made a difference?” The workflows of diplomacy and democracy are completely different from the project-based deadline-driven work we know in computer science, so this is a difficult question to answer. I contributed a little bit to a huge number of different documents and meetings, adding perspectives and ideas that would not have occurred to the others on my team. In the process, I hope I changed the way some people think and convinced them that deep technical knowledge about computer networks and cyberattacks is a crucial component for policymaking in this domain and that the civilian viewpoint counts. I believe that more technical input to the political process could have helped avoid some of the international problems we face today, and it will be crucial to determining how future computational creations are integrated into economic, social, and legal frameworks. This is a time for our community to stand up and be counted, whether by spending a year experiencing the process firsthand as I did, or simply by working closely with the staff of our congressional delegations.

Additional information about the Jefferson Science Fellowship is available here. The application can be found here and the deadline for 2015-2016 JSFs is January 12, 2015 .