The U.S. Department of State has selected Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Robert Butera as one of seven Jefferson Science Fellows for 2008–2009. Butera will work full-time on a project with the State Department or the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) for the next year in Washington, D.C. Since the program’s inception in 2003, Butera is Georgia Tech’s first professor chosen as a Fellow.
Built on the premise that science, technology and engineering programs (STE) are integral to the foundations of modern society, the fellowship was established to foster partnerships between tenured scientists and engineers from U.S. academic institutions and offices within the State Department and USAID.
During his initial two-week visit to Washington, Butera said he and other Fellows were provided 21 two- to three-page project descriptions. After visiting the various offices sponsoring the projects, the Fellows decided amongst themselves their project selections.
“The projects were diverse, ranging from bureaus who wanted a technical person to be involved in science outreach, partnerships and/or serve as a ‘science officer’ for an entire region, to functional bureaus that serve specific tasks, such as international ocean agreements and climate change treaties.” Butera elected to work within the Office of Chemical and Biological Weapons Threat Reduction in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, “which is the lead policy office within the U.S. government for foreign policy issues related to chemical and biological agents.”
A week of American Association for the Advancement of Science workshops helped to acclimate the Fellows to the interaction of various government offices from a science and policy perspective. “Another topic of emphasis was contrasting the thinking and decision-making priorities [between] scientists and engineers and policy-makers, and how to bridge that gap,” he said.
But Butera’s work will not just provide him with more experience working on treaties and negotiations regarding the destruction and non-proliferation of weapons. His two “dual-use” projects will aid both his research and the Institute. “I chose the office and the projects because they directly relate to ongoing programs that exist at Georgia Tech.”
“One [project] involves collaborating with foreign counterparts to develop educational tools and professional awareness strategies related to defining, recognizing and solving dual-use issues that may arise in the course of biological research,” Butera said. “A second project involves working with other federal agencies to develop strategies for dealing with the dual-use issues that may arise from the de novo synthesis of gene sequences.”
With his past experience as graduate program director, Butera had to deal with export control rules impacting student visas. “My experience this year is directly relevant to all of these areas,” Butera said. “While I am officially representing the State Department in my position for the next year, I hope that my time can both provide input to these processes from an academic perspective, as well as serve as a resource to the relevant offices when I return to Tech.”
He also refers to his dealing with the Institute’s Office of Research Compliance as a bioengineering researcher. “I hope that my participation and my specific activities regarding dual-use biological research can help improve our campus-wide research ethics training, as well as contribute to the ongoing activities of the Sam Nunn Security Program and the Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy.”
Butera’s research is primarily in the fields of neuroengineering, physiological modeling and real-time instrumentation. He received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Tech in 1991, and received his master’s (1994) and doctorate (1996) from Rice University in Houston. He has been a member of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty since 1999 after conducting postdoctoral research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. He also is a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering and the associate editor of the Journal of Theoretical Biology.
Originally funded by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jefferson Science Fellows has been funded by the State Department since 2008. The program is administered by the Fellowships Office of the National Academies.
Jefferson Science fellowships are awarded by panelists selected from the National Academies. Nominations are limited to scientists, technologists and engineers with tenured faculty appointments at U.S. colleges or universities.
Nominees and applicants were chosen based upon the abilities to articulate science and technology issues to the general public; to quickly understand and discuss work and advancements outside their discipline areas; to maintain an open mind regarding public policy discussions at the State Department or USAID; and their “stature, recognition and experience” in the scientific or engineering community both in the United States and abroad.
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