31 August 2008

New Job, and Possible Radio Silence

I'm about to start a new job, and that may delay my future posts a bit.

For the past two years, I've been an AAAS Science Policy Fellow working at the US Department of Energy's Office of Science. More details on what I did there can be found here.

On 2 September 2008, I'll start my most intriguing position yet. Again I'll be a Science Policy Fellow, but this time I'll be working at the US Department of State's Office of International Labor and Corporate Social Responsibility (ILCSR). There, I'll have responsibility for coordinating US Government efforts in and with the countries of South Asia and maybe a bit more besides. Since I've gotten a lot of questions from folks, here are some FAQ's:

Q: What's this about South Asia? Weren't you there before?

A: Yes, I was. In this job I'll be covering the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and India. I may have some responsibility over Afghanistan and other countries of Central Asia, but it's really uncertain at the moment.

Q: What does the State Department have to do with labor rights?

A: In many of our agreements with other countries, trade treaties and otherwise, there are labor and human rights conditions. The basic idea is that we try not to import goods made with slave labor, forced labor, child labor, etc., so trade sanctions are the "stick". We also want to help countries improve their labor conditions, so we work with them to train labor advocates, government officials, and even executives in private companies on how to do that (the "carrot").

Q: Wait—Why do we care about labor rights in other countries, again?

A: I don't know about the US Government, but I care for a few reasons. First, supporting labor rights for all humans is one of my values, so I would prefer to advance those values when and where I can. Second, I care about US workers, and don't want them to have to compete with slave labor, because that's not fair. Third, isolated injustice breeds global violence, and we can't afford any more of that. Fourth, well-paid workers overseas make great markets for US goods, and that helps US workers, also.

Q: What part will you play in the State Department's work?

A: Right now, I'm not entirely sure. I know I'll play a role in coordinating labor programs in South Asia funded by the State Department, the US Department of Labor, and others. I'll also play a role in the writing of the annual Human Rights Report—the highest-profile document that the State Department puts out.

Q: What would you like to do in this position?

A: I have a few ideas:
  1. I'd like to put my science training to work, and raise the profile of the scientific components of labor issues. These include the environmental, safety and health effects associated with labor. You can think of the recycling of e-waste into heavy metals that end up contaminating our imported toys and jewelry, as one example.

  2. I'd also like to look at the way technology can assist in monitoring labor standards. From the statistics of forensic accounting to GIS mapping techniques, the possibilities for multiplying the force of labor rights monitors are tremendous. I could imagine such technology helping to detect, deter and disrupt anything from child soldiering to sex trafficking to ... well, you name it!

  3. I'd like to use my previous transparency and anti-corruption experience to push for better governance and accountability mechanisms. For example, unions can be effective as advocates for their members only when they are open, democratic, and accountable to those members.

  4. Similarly, I think there's lots of room in the region for supply-chain transparency and accountability. This is where the corporate social responsibility comes in. Even well-meaning US multinationals have a hard time making sure that their overseas partners are living up to global standards. Independent and rigorous evaluation bodies are desperately needed to coordinate between the businesses as well as labor and government players.

Q: Will you get to travel to the region? How often?

A: That's unclear, as yet. It's likely that I'll make at least one trip, and likely two. At the very least, I hope I get a trip long enough to get some personal time to visit my friends in Delhi and Ahmedabad, as well as to refresh my professional wardrobe. If there is a major relevant conference in the area, that might be a determining factor.

Q: They let someone like you do this job? What ever happened to standards?

A: A Secret-level Security Clearance is necessary for this job, as I'll have to look at diplomatic communications of a somewhat sensitive nature. I had to go through the process, which is an especially big pain for immigrants, even for the child of immigrants.

Q: How long before they are able to correct this obvious hiring error?

A: I'm planning for this temporary position to last at least a year. Beyond that, it's up to AAAS and my bosses at State to decide whether they want me to stay. Here's hoping I do well!

Q: What will you do after this position? Why did you take (yet another!) temporary position? Aren't you tired of being a "Fellow"?

A: I've been aiming my career toward traditional science policy for a while, and have gotten a decent taste of it over the last few years. It's exhilarating. But my interests are much broader than that, and have leaned heavily in the human rights realm. This position offers a great opportunity to bridge the worlds of science and human rights, much as I was earlier attempting to bridge the academic and government worlds. Besides, like many folks in DC, I'm not planning on being here for too much longer.

Q: So what's this about delayed posts?

A: Well, I don't want it to appear that this space is speaking on behalf of the US Government. That puts all of my publications in an interesting spot. I'll try to keep writing with caveats before and after each post, and hopefully that will be enough. If not, I may have to delay future entries until after this position has ended.


  1. Does this mean that you are still in DC?

    What about the issue with medical trials done in places like India? I read somewhere that a lot of big pharmaceutical companies run drug trials without letting people know that they are using experimental drugs.

  2. Yep, still here.

    I haven't heard too much about that, except that drug trials in developing countries are both crucial (because of local drug/food/behavior interactions, among other reasons) and extremely problematic. The ability for anyone to make informed consent is a debatable topic in public health circles, and the typical economic asymmetry in developing country trials could only exacerbate that.

    Which is to say, I don't know much about the subject. What have you heard?

  3. My opinion was probably colored a bit much by the BBC documentary mentioned here.

    This was more interesting.

    This didn't make it sound as one sided as the BBC thing did.

  4. Interesting. It seems ripe for CSR intervention. Oftentimes, I'm told, there are a few companies that have more stringent practices in place and are keen to promote industry-wide standards to capitalize on their advanced position. So there might be an ally or two among the drug companies.

    A lot of what State does is convening the relevant players from the rest of the US Gov't. In this case, I could imagine NIH, CDC, and HHS all wanting to have a say.

    Thanks for the heads-up, Sepideh. I'll keep it in mind!

  5. What a useful summary to send to friends the next time I'm asked what exactly you are doing in D.C.

    Learned some things, myself.

    Thanks, Kohl!