Dirty bombs, antimicrobials, and conservation

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R. Scott Nolen

AVMA/AVMF Congressional Science
Fellows cover a lot of ground

Veterinary medicine and public policy coalesce in the AVMA/AVMF Congressional Science Fellowship.

Eight current and former fellows shared their experiences with AVMA Executive Board and House Advisory Committee members this April during their visit to Washington, D.C.

Each fellow spoke about the value of the program for advancing the interests and goals of veterinary medicine. Placing veterinarians in the offices of lawmakers or on the staff of congressional committees is an opportunity to influence a host of policies related to animal health and welfare.

Moreover, the visibility of highly skilled veterinarians working on Capitol Hill enhances the credibility and importance of the veterinary profession. Other science-based professions are represented through similar programs in Washington.

Some fellows have gone on to careers with the federal government. Five former fellows who spoke to the AVMA officers at the April 7 dinner currently work for a federal agency or a congressional committee.

Dr. Curt Mann is special assistant to the secretary of the Department of Agriculture; Dr. Karen Becker is a senior health adviser in the Office of Public Health Preparedness in the Department of Health and Human Services; Dr. Joe "Chip" Wells works in the Office of Risk Assessment and Cost Benefit Analysis in the USDA; Dr. Elizabeth Parker is professional staff for the majority with the House Agriculture Committee; and Dr. Mark Abdy is professional staff for the majority with the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards.

The 2001-2002 fellow, Dr. Michael Chaddock, works for Sen. Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana. Drs. Niall Finnegan and Dean Goeldner, director and assistant director, respectively, of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, are former fellows themselves.

Dr. Mann, who served on the House Committee on Agriculture from 1991-1992 as part of his fellowship, characterized the program as a "door-opening event." After his fellowship, Dr. Mann worked as a professional staff member on the House Agriculture Committee, dealing with issues including food safety, biotechnology, animal welfare, and livestock health.

He would become executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, and later, a special assistant to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. Dr. Mann's original task was to coordinate activities among USDA undersecretaries, but after September 11, his responsibilities shifted to homeland security.

"I'm in meetings now I never thought I would sit in," he said, with discussions ranging from "dirty bombs in downtown Chicago" to national security.

Dr. Abdy shares Dr. Mann's assessment of the fellowship. "I really believe that this fellowship was the best career move I ever made," he said, emphasizing the connections, friendships, and knowledge resulting from the program.

From 2000-2001, Dr. Abdy served in the office of Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, chair of the House Science Committee, which has oversight of all federal research. Dr. Abdy has remained on the committee staff, working on biotechnology, conservation, and animal welfare.

Dr. Abdy noted that the chairman is becoming interested in identifying areas where scientific understanding of antimicrobial resistance is lacking.

In her role with the House Agriculture Committee, Dr. Parker is responsible for a range of areas, including consumer programs, fruits and vegetables, and marketing orders and promotion. She served her fellowship from 1999-2000 on the minority staff of the House Agriculture Committee working with Democratic Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas on antimicrobial resistance and emerging infectious diseases.

Because of Dr. Parker's background, congressmen on the agriculture committee occasionally call her with questions about animal health or veterinary medicine. For the past few months, she has been deeply involved with the $111 billion farm bill. The bill, which emerged from conference committee May 1, addresses U.S. agriculture policy for the next six years, but contains several animal health and welfare provisions of interest to the AVMA. Conferees often asked Dr. Parker for her assessment of the provisions.

Dr. Chaddock was the state veterinarian in Michigan prior to beginning the fellowship last year. He had wanted to work in Washington, D.C., on agriculture issues, but after September 11, Sen. Landrieu assigned him to biological and chemical warfare medicine. "[The senator] actually said, 'Mike, I want you on this 24/7'," he said.

The senator wants to establish the state of Louisiana as the nation's preeminent center of expertise in biological and chemical warfare medicine, Dr. Chaddock said. This entails bringing together human and veterinary medicine, and crop and livestock agriculture production, and involves teaching, research, response, and outreach components.

Dr. Chaddock is the only veterinarian among the current class of approximately 35 congressional science fellows. They include people with advanced degrees in animal science, aeronautics, molecular biology, neuroscience, clinical psychology, medical chemistry, and astronomy.

Like the other speakers, Dr. Chaddock said the fellowship has changed his life, and added that the decision to expand the program will greatly benefit the veterinary profession.