Culture Clubs: Academia and Government

Jim Borgardt, Juniata College and US Department of State

Each year formal government and professional society programs bring a few hundred academics and professionals into the United States government (USG) allowing individuals with expertise to share their knowledge. Such Fellows represent a broad range in age and career stage, and come from a wide array of sectors including academia, government labs, non-profit enterprises, and private industry. They have existing professional relationships and subject-matter expertise, and these competitive fellowships provide an introduction to government and policy, and function as potential inroads for those exploring longer term service in this capacity.

I have been fortunate to have the opportunity for such an experience as the 2012-2013 American Institute of Physics (AIP) Executive Branch Fellow. While the AIP annually sponsors one Congressional and one Executive Branch Fellowship, the main player in this arena, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), places Fellows in a wide spectrum of USG agencies and offices, including, among others, NASA, NIH, NOAA, NSF, USAID, DoA, DoD, DoE, DHHS, DHS, DoS, EPA, USGS, and OSTP, as well as in Congressional offices.

As an individual coming from academia with a desire to better understand the mechanics of government and policy formation, it was important to recognize and acclimate to some fundamental cultural differences in the USG. As there is certainly not a single monolithic government culture, I solicited insights and perspectives from about two dozen current AAAS Fellows in various federal agencies and Congressional offices regarding some of the cultural differences they have noticed to give broader representation beyond my experience. For any academic considering a Fellowship, in many ways it can be likened to a study abroad experience where one is very often immersed into a culture that can be foreign to your own. This contrast in culture between government and academia is not meant to insinuate in any way, shape, or form that one is “better” than the other. Rather, it is intended to highlight some of the differences between the two worlds in the hopes that readers from the academic realm who are considering a transition or foray to the government side might find some of these cultural observations useful.

While the emphasis placed on comments in different thematic areas varied with the agency the Fellow was associated with, some well-defined themes emerged. The most frequently mentioned centered on issues of the nature of time, offering input and receiving feedback, and subject matter expertise.

The Nature of Time
Einstein established that time is relative for observers in reference frames in relative motion. In the reference frame of the government timelines can be very different than in academia. Deadlines can be quite short, with as little as 5-minutes to pen a brief on a bill in a Congressional office. “Short fuse” is a common email subject line or header, and deadlines are stricter. As one Fellow noted, “writer’s block is not an option.” Whereas academics may dote over a particular word or specific phrasing, in the fast-paced world of government work sometimes “good enough” must do in order to “move the ball forward”. However, such frenzied events comingle with longer term endeavors. For example, if one is part of a US team in an international group working to deliver a position paper, there are interagency clearances required domestically to ensure all principles are “on board” and that the paper accurately represents all aspects of the USG position on an issue, in addition to the international negotiations that can take time as foreign counterparts work through a similar process on their end. Discussions can go through many iterations, and as a result such papers can take years to bring to fruition.

Test for Echo – Offering input, getting feedback, writing and speaking
The process by which by input is proffered in the USG is unlike the academic route. In general, input is more hierarchical, an observation noted by many Fellows. In academia, you might feel comfortable making suggestions to your College President, questioning the scientific methodology of a luminary in your field, or directly contacting an author if you want to resolve some confusion on a published paper. However government agencies to varying degrees can be more established, rigid, and restricted. There is a “chain of command” that must be followed in promoting ideas and initiatives. If an offered idea is rejected by your leadership, it can be harder to move it forward. This is not to say that the government has no room for creativity, for there are many inspired ideas that can have a large impact, but rather that one may not be aware of all the implications of an idea, or its consistency with established policy, among other related issues. In government, communication generally occurs more through established channels, and circumventing this process can create problems and introduce challenges. As one Fellow put it, “Intellect is valued and invited to the table, but it does not trump rank.”

The process of bureaucratic feedback can be novel to an academic as well. In academics, we are habituated to give and receive criticism – it’s expected, and welcomed, and we don’t take it personally. We expect students to take a “you are capable of more” comment as a challenge to improve, and not a personal affront. In government you are often part of an assembly line on position papers and briefings where you might write the first draft and pass it up the ladder for revisions and subsequent rewrites which occur at increasingly higher rungs, and beyond your view. As such, you do not receive structured feedback on your work. It moves up the chain, receiving edits at each successive step as it is passed on and moves through any required interagency reviews. The main formative feedback is indirect – you compare the final product to your early submission and glean how an initial draft might look better in the future.

Due to the writing process not being a solitary or “research group of peers” effort, there is a lot of “group-write” in government where, unlike academics, names are not attached to a product and there are many eyes checking to ensure the paper reflects established policies and positions. This also leads to another cultural difference that can make many academics squeamish. In academics failing to cite a source is viewed as a major professional indiscretion that can cast a permanent pall over a transgressor’s career. In government, using text from prior documents is approved and even encouraged. This “cut-and-paste” ethos makes sense in this culture as the work, as noted above, is often a collaborative process where the entire office may make progressive and substantive contributions. Even more importantly, prior documents have been previously cleared, and thus accurately reflect official doctrine and contain very specific language which precisely captures the views of the organization on a particular issue. Using such key sentences or phrases verbatim gives one cover and speeds up the writing process, as it is “preapproved language”.

The gravity and impact of speech in a forum is also fundamentally different in the USG. Academics are used to their communication being a reflection of their own ideas. Speech in a federal capacity represents the position of your agency, and hence your government, and as such is more conservative and guarded. It takes a little acclimation to realize the full implications of this, and understand that in speaking openly you must stay within those confines and not imply any stance or promise that is not explicitly sanctioned, as others will view your statement as an official USG position. As in an academic conference, there are numerous side conversations that occur on the margins of meetings where one can speak a little more openly and forward leaning in private, while still reflecting USG points.

Specialist vs. generalist
A final cultural difference noted by a number of Fellows is that in academics we often burrow down the rabbit hole, specializing in a narrow niche or specific subfield. Outside of this realm, we may feel uncomfortable speaking definitively or with authority. In government, a civil employee must be a skilled and knowledgeable generalist, a sort of jack-of-all-trades with broad familiarity with a wide range of subjects, and maintain a vital network of colleagues to call upon to “come up to speed” on a topic. Adept at quickly extracting the essential elements of this new topic, they are comfortable making decisions and recommendations based on this cursory understanding.

Individuals in the academic community represent a great reserve of ability, skills and subject-matter-expertise that can be of immeasurable benefit to the country when paired in an appropriate government agency. I have personally been amazed by not only the talents, but the tenacity and dedication to mission on behalf of our country of the individuals in the office I am contributing to, and many other Fellows have shared similar observations regarding their placements. These partnerships between academics and government facilitate a better understanding of policy formation and implementation for academics, and provide a potential conduit for such individuals to transition to government while providing valuable knowledge to the government office or agency involved. I feel fortunate to be a part of this philosophy of governance that realizes the value of such interactions, and encourage those who believe they have something to offer to explore such an opportunity.

Jim Borgardt is the William W. Woolford Professor of Physics at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He has collaborated on research with radiation portal monitors, deployed at border crossings to intercede illicit nuclear material, with Pacific Northwest National Laboratories over the past decade. He has won several teaching awards, and is active in the Central Pennsylvania section of the AAPT. He serves as the 2012-2013 AIP Executive Branch Fellow in the State Department's International Security and Non-proliferation bureau in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism office.

Disclaimer–The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.