Q&A with Maureen McCarthy

Maureen McCarthy, director of the Office of Research and Development in the Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate, was interviewed by Federal Computer Week senior reporter Dibya Sarkar following the announcement of the 2004 Homeland Security Scholars and Fellows program. McCarthy came to Washington, D.C., as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow in 1997. She worked as a defense policy analyst in the Pentagon and later went to the Energy Department. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.

FCW: How was the Homeland Security Scholars and Fellows program created?

McCarthy: One of the challenges that we had in setting up the Science and Technology Directorate was understanding what our engagement was going to be with the academic community. If you read the Homeland Security Act of 2002, you will see in there a section about engaging the academic community.

I had a concept that we wanted a fellowship program modeled after the AAAS fellowship program and potentially a feeder pool into AAAS. The association takes people past their degrees, usually in midcareer, and brings them back here. I had a discussion in early 2003 with the officials at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. At that time, they were managing the National Science Foundation fellowship program.

They came to my office to discuss what they did and asked me if there was any interest. They came in with a well-meaning pitch, and then I said, "Here's what I want. I want a fellowship program. I want it to be the best in government. I want it to be modeled after AAAS, and I want the first class here in September."

FCW: Why AAAS' model? Aren't there other fellowship programs in the federal government that would have served just as well?

McCarthy: There are. The most important thing about AAAS is that it isn't simply about selecting people and getting the best and brightest and writing checks and hoping they do great things with their lives in the future. This was an opportunity to develop a group of young people who understand what homeland security is all about. We don't place any expectations on them. They don't have to come and work for us. We go through a very vigorous selection process.

At the end of the day, I know we have the best brains in the business. But what is different about this fellowship program is that I don't want only their brains. I want their hearts. It's about their understanding of what homeland security is, how that fits into their everyday life and how that fits into their academic life. I'm hoping to win them over and have them be emissaries for us in a local environment and able to communicate the homeland security mission, which is important nationwide.

We've been successful. We had 101 in the class of 2003. We have 105 in the 2004 class. And 69 members of the 2003 class are second-year members of the program. Right now, we have 174 students. The scholarship program for undergraduates is for up to two years, and the fellowship program for graduates students is for up to three years.

FCW: What do you look for when selecting applicants?

McCarthy: We look at a variety of things. We look at their academic achievements. They have to write a piece that explains why their interest area is relevant to homeland security. We want to maximize our engagement with the academic community. We want to maximize our engagement with minority-serving institutions. We want to have the class be as balanced as possible because we think the best fellowship experience involves diversity -- diversity of disciplines, people and location.

FCW: What happened to members of the class of 2003 who did not renew?

McCarthy: Most of them graduated. We had a handful, about 12, who went from being scholars as undergraduates to being fellows. They are now graduate students. There was a continuity. They had to reapply to be selected for the graduate student program. That's been very effective.

We had close to 20 students at the California site who all lived together. They met interns from other intern programs when they were at the laboratories, and they developed strong friendships. Many of the students have established working groups and fellowship meetings at their universities to communicate with their fellow students about homeland security. Many of them have gone off to speak at conferences. They've been engaged in other activities. They've been asked to participate as student members of task forces. Two or three of them have already been hired by the federal government and are working for us.

FCW: Is the program addressing the science and engineering deficit in this country?

McCarthy: The directorate has a responsibility to provide leadership in science and technology for the nation, and so we do view this as a fundamental element of our leadership. But I would caution you not to think of scientific and technological leaders simply as scientists and engineers. Our program has a large number of people from the social sciences. We expanded our social science base this year because we recognize that homeland security isn't only about physics and chemistry and engineering.

Homeland security is also about understanding privacy. It is about the social and behavioral aspects of terrorism. It is about the social and behavioral aspects of deploying technology into society. It requires language specialists. It requires people who understand how to translate between social issues and science. One of the really exciting things about this program is multidisciplinary studies. We have social scientists working with physicists on projects. We have people working closely with the offices of privacy and technology, and that's been really important. That is one aspect of our program that is different than other fellowship programs in other parts of the government, many of which are specifically for the technical community.

FCW: How does the students' university education experience mesh with the DHS program?

McCarthy: We're not into the curriculum business. We figure that the things they get exposed to here they will take with them for the rest of their lives, so we're really not forcing or requesting any curriculum. What we found as a result of stimulating their interest and winning their hearts is that they tend to seek out opportunities at their own academic institutions that align with things they recognize. Some of the students, for instance, have said to me they learned that they had a certification program in public safety or emergency preparedness at their university. And they were interested in talking to their professors to see whether they could participate.

FCW: Has your program spurred some universities to develop homeland security programs?

McCarthy: We have representation from 38 states, and one of the things we'd like to see is representation from all 50 states and U.S. territories. We're getting the students, but we're also encouraging the faculty and administrators to pay attention. We have found academic institutions have a tremendous amount of pride in these students.

FCW: Are you satisfied with the number of applicants?

McCarthy: We're satisfied. It's a very competitive program. This isn't a numbers game. What we want to do is maximize exposure. You're seeing a part of the fellowship program -- the scholars and fellows program -- that we started last year. This year we're expanding our program to include the first class of post-docs. We hope to have that in place by summer. We're establishing a faculty internship program to get additional engagement from the faculty. Last year, we awarded six high school students a single fixed price award of up to $20,000. They were seniors in high school who are now freshmen in college. Four of those students attended our orientation, which we conducted during a science and engineering fair in the state of Washington last year.

We also have the Centers of Excellence, which have both research and educational components. The centers of excellence directors attended the orientation, and they have been good about including the scholars and fellows as part of their educational and research programs.

FCW: Why not require the fellows and scholars to go into government service after the program?

McCarthy: There's nothing wrong with that kind of a process, but you get different people interested if you do that. If you make that a requirement, you limit yourself to those people who have already made their minds up that that's what they want to do. On a personal level, I respect those service programs. They have a significant impact on the country. We're targeting a different audience. I want to get at the kids who didn't even know they were supposed to make up their mind up about a career related to homeland security. You reach them by offering a general internship program. We received an awful lot of interest, and that internship made a huge difference to people.

FCW: You originally wanted this program to be a feeder program to AAAS?

McCarthy: That's still my dream. My dream is that these kids learn not only about their technical areas of expertise but about bringing science and technology and awareness into government. I would love to see these students graduate with Ph.Ds and at some point apply for an AAAS fellowship.

FCW: What about computer science interest?

McCarthy: This year, we have about 24 students who come from either computer science or scientific engineering. I've noticed in the kids an interest in cybersecurity. Many of them have associations with Sandia National Laboratories, which has a cybersecurity internship program. Students are interested in the technical issues of cybersecurity and in how you manage this in an era of maximizing information exchange and all the other issues that go along with life on the Internet. It's fun to watch because the students are taking on challenging problems. I like to think of myself as fairly young and technically savvy. These kids have lived and breathed their entire existence on the Internet.

They have a different perspective on problems and what it means to balance information exchange and privacy. I've been really pleased at the energy that I've sensed in my conversations with them. They're exploring areas that we in the federal government didn't even realize were big-deal issues.

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