Kimberly M. Webb, STA Laboratories
As the first APS Public Policy Board (PPB) early career intern, I have had a unique opportunity to be involved in issues that directly impact my career as a young plant pathologist as well as to appreciate the role that plant pathologists can play in directly impacting public policy and public research funding initiatives. The APS PPB internship is an opportunity for early career members of APS (graduate students, post-docs, or APS members within 10 years of receiving their degrees) to gain hands-on experience in public policy that relates generally to agricultural science and specifically to matters of interest to APS. The internship provided an opportunity for me to learn early in my career how scientific societies, nongovernmental organizations, and executive branch agencies can directly interact and influence public policy. The internship was a year-long lesson on how to communicate effectively with all interested shareholders on an issue, formulate clear action plans, and articulate a well-developed message on policy decisions that relate to the science of plant pathology.
Before the PPB internship, as a relatively new researcher/scientist in an industry position, I was thrown directly into public policy issues that affect my everyday job. From ensuring USDA-APHIS compliance, understanding phytosanitary regulations, and becoming involved in the public dialog regarding the agricultural industry’s role in biosecurity and free trade, I frequently was asked my stance on policy questions that I didn’t know much about. Even so, when I applied for the PPB internship, I had little idea of exactly how important this opportunity was going to become. In the fall of 2006, shortly before I joined the PPB, the leafy vegetable industry had a significant outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 in bagged spinach. Fresh spinach was recalled from grocery store shelves across the country and significant numbers of spinach production fields were destroyed. After the recall and the public cry for guaranteeing the safety of the U.S. food supply, my company (STA Laboratories) started receiving calls from government officials, seed industry representatives, and grower groups requesting a diagnostic test for the seed-borne incidence of human pathogenic strains of E. coli. However, since little information was available about whether E. coli was even seed borne, developing a diagnostic test for it was very challenging.
The E. coli experience showed us how important it was for the plant pathology community to address research issues related to the interactions of human pathogens and food crops. It also was important for APS, through the PPB, to advocate for additional funding for research on the epidemiological impacts of the plant-borne nature of E. coli 0157:H7. Because of my own intense interest in these issues, I was encouraged to play a leading role as the PPB launched an intensive exploration of plant pathology-relevant food safety issues and worked to bring attention to them in the policy arena. The PPB internship has allowed me the opportunity to meet representatives with U.S. governmental agencies, trade organizations, policy makers, etc. that are directly involved with tracking outbreaks, safeguarding our food supply, and developing public policy in regards to our food production. I now have a better understanding of how the system works and therefore how to better work with it as a scientific professional. I also now understand how highly respected the membership of APS is within the different federal agencies and that we can play an integral role in developing U.S. agricultural policy and funding decisions. I strongly encourage other early career members of APS to take advantage of the internship opportunity as I found it to be such a rewarding experience personally and professionally.
First published in the December 2007 issue of Phytopathology News.