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Where Science Meets Public Policy

New McClure Center Director Katherine Himes brings her ‘muddy boots’ policy to the University of Idaho

Katherine Himes is curious by nature.

She enjoys learning about different topics and translating them to the general public and policymakers. Her professional path has led her to explore different areas of interest, travel around the globe, work with university leadership and practice what she calls “muddy boots” science policy.

“There is a distinction between the people who want to get their feet dirty, with ‘muddy boots,’ and those who stay in the office and do things from afar,” Himes said. “Often a project site is actually a muddy field — you have to hike — and someone would say, ‘I’m wearing my nice shoes,’ and stay by the bus. And they miss a lot. They miss the chance to see what’s happening in the field and the social engagement with the water managers, for example.

“It is important to me that I wear my boots and that I am out there in the field.”

That’s the philosophy that Himes brings with her as director of the University of Idaho James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research. Her background includes natural resources, international development, science diplomacy and university administration. In particular, she has developed programs and policies in the areas of water, energy, forest management, rangelands, fire, disaster risk reduction, higher education, research partnerships, women in science, technology transfer and economic growth. Her work spans local, state, federal and international levels.

Himes joined U of I in September 2017. Based in Boise, the McClure Center conducts and oversees nonpartisan, science-based, public policy research that seeks to inform public policy dialogue and engage students in learning about public policy.

Himes holds a bachelor’s and a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Minnesota and an MBA in entrepreneurship from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Himes serves on grant review panels for the National Science Foundation, National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. State Department. She also is associate editor of the journal Science & Diplomacy.

Q: How does a neuroscientist end up working on public policy? What’s the connection between the two fields?

A: There is definitely a connection between neuroscience and what I do now. The most obvious is approaching problems and big research questions. The method that you use as a scientist has guided all my work in university administration and in the U.S. government. As a scientist, you think differently — you have a specific way of approaching and solving problems. Understanding what you don’t know is critically important, and what I learned as a Ph.D. students was, “I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know. Here it is how I am going to figure out the answer to what I don’t know.”

Communicating research results is important in both fields, and I was fortunate to be in a doctoral program where translation was really emphasized — taking a technical concept and thinking how others need to know that information. I also believe that community is really important to scientists, deepening the understanding of how your research is part of the international landscape.

Q: In your opinion, where does science meet public policy?

A: There is a concept called science diplomacy that has been practiced for a while now. The U.S. has diplomatic relations between countries and sometimes they work really well and sometimes they get stalled. A great example is the U.S.-Soviet Union relationship. There were a lot of challenges during the Cold War: The strict diplomacy, men in suits, we all have those images. However, scientists and engineers were cooperating, and it became clear that often diplomats can’t make headway where scientists and engineers can make great progress in policy and programs. There is this idea that science can help diplomacy and diplomacy can help science and that’s were the two intersect. And it’s not something that just happens at the international stage; you can practice science diplomacy city to city, state to country, you can observe this at many different levels.

Q: What is the role of public policy in society, and how does the McClure Center support that?

A: Public policy impacts everyone. Decisions made at the federal level, state level and local level have repercussions for everyday life. The great thing about living in a democracy is that every citizen can inform policy. We can write letters to the editor, meet with decision-makers or run for office.

Our democracy is based on having an informed and educated citizenry, and the McClure Center should be playing a part to help people, regardless of how they want, engage in policy.

The McClure Center offers lots of resources on how to be more engaged. For example, the McClure Center website includes links to those resources for people who are curious. Also, we are going to be on the road more, with events in the Magic Valley, Wood River Valley and eastern part of Idaho.

Q: You have traveled quite a lot and even lived overseas. What were your experiences while abroad?

A: Indeed, I have traveled a lot internationally. When I was based in D.C., I would travel two or three weeks at a time to Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan and South Africa. Then I lived in Kazakhstan for two years and traveled across Central Asia to the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. And I also worked in Afghanistan, specifically on water.

Since I was a muddy boots scientist diplomat, I really wanted to get into the field as much as possible; I wanted to see the projects on the ground.

What I learned is that, no matter an individual’s income or a country’s income, everyone wants the same things for their children: They want education, job security and good livelihoods.

I also noticed the less people have financially, the more they value family and community. I saw this as I worked with lower-middle and middle-income countries with rural areas that had a lot of poverty; you could see this cultural divide between the urban areas with wealth and less interest in community and family and the rural areas, which were emphasizing access to education, equality for women and so forth.

Now I want to travel around Idaho. I started immediately, because I want to see the geology, water, rangelands and economic development; I don’t want to be studying policy from my office. I’ve been to Boise, Moscow, Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls, McCall, Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Rexburg and the Morley Nelson Birds of Prey Snake River National Wild Refuge — and for fun the Wood River Valley, Craters of the Moon, Sandpoint and Stanley.

Q: How do other countries compare to Idaho?

A: Believe it or not, Idaho has a similar geography to parts of Central Asia. The arid landscape is quite comparable in some areas. And, sometimes, when you see a geography that’s similar, the challenges are also similar. Central Asia has a lot of rangelands, as does Idaho. Education is also a major challenge no matter where I go, as well as access for girls and women. Job creation is a huge issue worldwide and I often analyze: What are the economic drivers, and how can we incentivize growth?

Q: How have your experiences prepared you to lead the McClure Center?

A: During my four years working for the government, living overseas and in Washington, D.C., I focused on the federal and international levels. Most recently, in Washington State, I expanded into local and state policy. I have seen the wide range of challenges facing governments, citizens, universities and industry, and how they fit together down to the local level. I think all these experiences prepared me well to lead the University of Idaho McClure Center.

I read the job description for this position and immediately I was intrigued. I was excited about the non-partisan approach and Senator McClure’s support of bipartisan collaboration and his use of evidence to inform policy. I was really excited that there is this focus not just on the state, but the region, nation and world and how what happens in Idaho impacts other locations through the ripple effect. I felt like being at a university and working on policy was a very interesting opportunity. Often when you are in the government working on policy, you have to pursue certain approaches; being at a university with academic and intellectual freedom, as well as opportunities for exploration and direct work with students, staff and faculty are very exciting dimensions to the work.

Q: Do you have any plans for the future of the McClure Center?

A: The McClure Center has a very strong publication series, Idaho at a Glance, which is asked for, by name, from decision-makers at all levels in the state. As I’ve met with decision-makers, talked to different universities, Extension educators and industry, it is clear that they look to the McClure Center to do research and translate their research into digestible pieces.

I think there is opportunity to expand that work, which has been very useful to Idaho. We might move to the “return on investment” type of research question. For example, if there is a programmatic decision or a policy proposal, what will be the return on investment for tax payers?

The McClure Center also held some high-profile events in the Capitol and broadcast by Idaho Public Television focusing on accessibility and translation of policy. We would like to continue that format. And we have now launched a new event series called Policy Pub.

We also work with students. Undergraduate students have been part of the McClure Center since its inception. They have been covering the legislature for the local media through an internship with the McClure Center and the School of Journalism and Mass Media in U of I’s College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. We have another undergraduate program focused on international policy with U of I’s Martin Institute. We’d like to expand the number of internships and add different types of engagement, including opportunities for graduate and professional students. And finally, to include the translation piece of our work, we will be offering training for graduate students and postdoctoral associates to help them understand how to communicate with policymakers about their research. Down the road, I would like to support a faculty-in-residence program.

We want to be positioned as a thought leader for policy in the state. We want to be working at the regional, national and international levels and have all these pieces complement each other.

Article by Maria Ortega, University of Idaho Boise

About the McClure Center

The University of Idaho’s role in public policy originated in 1959 with the creation of the Bureau of Public Affairs Research. In 2007, the Idaho State Board of Education approved the renaming of this Bureau to the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research.

A champion for state water rights and a nationally recognized leader in energy and natural resource policy, Senator McClure earned the respect of his colleagues for his thoughtful pursuit and promotion of bipartisan collaboration leading to enactment and execution of sound public policy. The McClure Center’s collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to addressing society’s complex challenges sustains Senator McClure’s remarkable legacy.

The McClure Center's work is enhanced by the guidance of our Advisory Board members, the support from the Center staff and the energy and enthusiasm of its U of I student-interns.

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