There has been much talk lately of President Obama’s efforts to enhance education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, referred to as STEM. These fields are important for helping our government fulfill its critical missions and for fostering America’s global competitiveness. Recently, Tom Fox spoke with theoretical physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, about her career path in science and how federal leaders can overcome obstacles to recruiting STEM employees. Jackson has held senior positions in government, industry, research and academia. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What motivated you to follow a career path in scientific research, education and public service?

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute/Marvin Jones Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute/Marvin Jones

A. I was interested in science from an early age and also in making a difference in the world. I credit my parents with nurturing my passion for education. But two critical external events affected the arc of my career. One was the Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating the public schools and, around the same time, the nation's reaction to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. Once the schools were integrated, there was more competition and more exposure to accelerated programs. The Sputnik launch and ensuing “Space Race” riveted the nation's attention on science, engineering and math. These events, along with my natural curiosity in science and math, opened up a lot of opportunities.

Q. What is essential for fostering innovation?

A. We operate in a data-driven, supercomputer-powered, Web-enabled and globally interconnected world.  Federal workers must be prepared to use all of the new tools available to drive innovation. Collaboration among business, government and academia is essential to generate the scientific discoveries and technological advances that have driven our economy, prosperity and well-being for decades. A strong “innovation ecosystem” requires strategic focus, game-changing idea generation, translational pathways to bring discoveries into commercial or societal use and capital—including financial, infrastructural and human capital. As resources shrink, getting people to collaborate using new tools and data analysis is essential. One has to encourage and enable employees to propose new ways of doing things.

Q. How can federal leaders overcome obstacles when recruiting STEM talent?

A. We need to excite, invite and prepare young people for the extraordinary STEM careers in federal service. Reach out early to engage young people in questions the government wants to solve. Address financial aid barriers so students can afford to pursue these opportunities. Create internship programs, summer jobs and other options. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we have programs for students to work with the national labs, NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for example. STEM students are in such demand, especially by the private sector, that government leaders must start early and expose them to public service opportunities.

Q. How can future generations make an impact?

A. The government provides opportunities for future generations to lead change and serve in key areas that affect millions, if not billions, of people. Think of the work in human health, defense and energy efficiency. All of these arenas are critical, where some very exciting questions need to be answered. If people understand the magnitude of the questions and the scale at which the government can make a difference, the government can continue to recruit top-level talent. Talent goes where opportunity exits. Agencies must also support university research. Universities are a training route for scientific, engineering and mathematical talent.

Q. What are the challenges and opportunities in leading in the public sector as opposed to other sectors?

A. In any sector, leaders have a responsibility to constituents, but there are unique things about the public sector. You are more in the public eye in a leadership position, so you must always think about how you comport yourself.  You have a deep responsibility to the American people. The challenges of political polarization and fiscal austerity are formidable, but the opportunities are still there to make a big difference in key areas.

Q. What are the core principals essential to the success of federal leaders?

A. You have to be mission focused and committed. You must lead with integrity and have a lot of energy, courage and tenacity. It also is important to have empathy and communication skills, be committed, believe in what you do and be able to set priorities and motivate people.

Q. How would you advise federal leaders to keep employees engaged?

A. Communication is so important. Talk to people and remind them why their work is vital. Relate it to the organization’s overarching mission. Given the austerity and downsizing, it is essential to have a strategic focus, and have employees working to plan and prioritize the budget accordingly. This will bring a lot of clarity about what is critical for the agency, and it creates a framework for articulating what is critical to Congress and those who make funding decisions.

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