Geography Professor Headed to State Department
As the Earth’s climate continues to change, humanity is learning to grapple with the impacts of a warming planet—forcing us to reassess how and where we live, how we get from place to place, and how we feed an ever-growing population.
Associate Professor of Geography Mike Urban (who recently stepped down as department chair) is an expert on this topic, publishing and teaching classes. In September, Urban will take his expertise to the U.S. Department of State, where he will serve as a foreign affairs officer for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs for the next year.
“A lot of the stuff I’ve been doing professionally has been associated with climate, and the more classes I teach in climate science, the more I realize that a lot of the issues associated with climate and climate change are not really scientific issues,” he says. “They are perceptual issues. And they are public policy issues. So I want to concentrate more explicitly on public policy and how science can relate to public-policy issues.”
A New Opportunity
About a year ago, Urban applied for a position as a science and technology policy fellow through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
After nine months of interviews and visits to various federal agencies in and around the D.C. area, Urban was awarded the AAAS fellowship. He will concentrate on food-security issues related to climate change, although he says he won’t really know what his job entails until he begins his new post in September.
“One of the things they said over and over is these organizations are interested in you because of your background as a scientist and what you can bring as far as investigative tools, methodological tools, and an understanding of deep issues that not a lot of policymakers really have,” he says. “My placement is a good fit because anything associated with agriculture and food security is going to have some climate and water component associated with it.”
Urban says the State Department is a good fit for him because the organization and the intelligence community are the two sectors of the federal government that employ the most geographers. The career officials at the State Department approach issues similarly to the way geographers approach them—every action has multiple ripple effects that might influence other systems or other decisions or other actors in unforeseen ways, and those effects must be taken into account when developing policy.
“I think the diplomats at State are very good at thinking through the political realities, but they are not as good at thinking through the scientific realities, and any kind of public policy has to be sensitive politically and also grounded in science,” he says. “If it’s not grounded in science, you can make the perfect compromise between two countries, but it won’t matter,” he says.
Food Security in a Changing World
Urban defines food security as the idea that the distribution of food is not always even, so even if enough food is being produced, it doesn’t always get to those who need it. For example, in the United States, we have what are referred to as “food deserts,” neighborhoods or locations where it is difficult to find fresh produce or non-processed food.
“If you don’t have access to healthy food but just empty calories, that’s going to affect your health; and if it affects your health, that’s going to affect your ability to make a living or to do the best work in the classroom,” he says.
Urban says food security also includes food safety. He once spent a year in China, and he says a daily source of stress was not knowing whether everything he was eating was safe, which he says is something most Americans do not have to worry about thanks to oversight by agencies like the Food and Drug Administration or the Department of Agriculture.
“Food security runs the gamut from shortages to the complexities associated with growing the food, and climate change is going to be a big factor,” he says. “We know certain areas of the world are going to experience this kind of climate stress more frequently, and when that happens, the production of their agricultural goods is going to be in trouble. When we talk about food production and food distribution—these things are not academic concerns, they are life and death for a lot of people in the world.”
Providing a New Perspective
Urban says the integration of science with public policy is a fraught proposition because scientists are reluctant to get involved in the policy implications of their research.
“Most scientists go through their training getting beat over the head about sticking to the science and not making recommendations,” he says. “As scientists, we do our work and publish it and then have this unrealistic expectation that people are going to take these results and use them, but it doesn’t work like that. You have to become engaged, but a lot of scientists feel uncomfortable engaging in public policy because that pulls them away from the objectivity they find so valuable as a scientist.”
Urban says to be an effective public intellectual who can contribute solutions to some of the large-scale problems we face, such as climate change, you have to be comfortable in both the scientific and public policy arenas. He is very comfortable with the world of science but less so with the public policy side. Urban hopes his new position will give him a better understanding of how science is translated to policy.
“My goal is to get in there and see if I can influence some things and affect change in some small way,” he says. “If I can affect change in some corner of State Department foreign policy and have it be more science-based, that’s a win. I will take that and be proud of that.”