Science Policy IRL: Quinn Spadola Develops Nanotechnology With Soft Power

Since 1984, Issues in Science and Technology has been a journal for science policy—a space to discuss how to best use science for the benefit of society. But what is science policy, exactly? Our new podcast series, Science Policy IRL, explores what science policy is and how it gets done. “Science” is often caricatured as a lone person in a lab, but the work of science is supported by a community of people who engineer its funding, goals, coordination, and dissemination. They include people in legislative offices, federal agencies, national labs, universities, the National Academies, industry, and think tanks—not to mention interest groups and lobbyists. In this series, we will explore the work of science policy by speaking to people who have built careers in it.

This series is made possible with support from Arizona State University’s Knowledge Enterprise.

Quinn Spadola

For the first episode in this series, host Lisa Margonelli is joined by Quinn Spadola, the deputy director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, a unique office that coordinates the development of nanotechnology across the entire federal government. Spadola, who has a PhD in physics from Arizona State University,  now uses “soft power” to bring groups together to coordinate their efforts so that taxpayers get the most from their investments in science. In practice, she brings all of her life experiences to bear on the task of shaping a technology so that it benefits society. 

Is there something about science policy you’d like us to explore?  Let us know by emailing us at [email protected], or by tagging us on social media using the hashtag #SciencePolicyIRL.

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This is an uncorrected transcript and may contain errors.

Lisa Margonelli: Hello and welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology, a quarterly journal produced by a partnership between the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues.

Since 1984, Issues has been a magazine for science policy, a space to discuss how to best use science for the benefit of society. But what is science policy, exactly? Back in 1964, Harvey Brooks, a physicist who gave science advice to presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, explained that science policy is “science for policy and policy for science.”

And then over the years, there’s been a general sense that the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health set science policy by funding it. That’s all true, but it doesn’t begin to describe the myriad ways that the federal government encourages and shapes science and sets policy for its use.

Science policy is now a community of people who include legislative staffers, people at federal agencies and national labs, universities, the National Academies, industry and think tanks—not to mention interest groups and lobbyists.

So the popular image of a scientist is someone in a white coat working in a lab, but that person and the science that they do is supported and influenced by a vast hidden landscape of people. The best way to see this landscape and to really understand it is to talk directly to the people who make it happen.

And so we’ve started a new series called Science Policy IRL—Science Policy In Real Life—where we’ll interview dozens of people about science policy in their real lives. This series is perfect for anyone who wants to learn more about what science policy is and how it gets done or to learn about how people build careers in science policy. And also, we’re interviewing some really cool people.

Today in our first episode, I’m talking with Quinn Spadola. Quinn is a public servant. She works in the federal government in an office that has a unique responsibility to coordinate the development of nanotechnology all across the federal government. First, I’ll ask Quinn about what science policy is and how she does it in her job, and then I’ll ask about how she found her way into science policy.

Quinn, thank you so much for joining us.

Quinn Spadola: You’re welcome.

Margonelli: The first question I want to ask is, how do you define science policy?

Spadola: I think about science policy in terms of the people that I work with who are working in science policy, and the first thing that comes to mind is service. I think the people who are involved in the various funding agencies across the US government in science and technology, they really do it because they feel like they’re serving the country.

And in terms of science policy, it comes down to thoughtfully allocating the resources that we have in order to match whatever the mission is the agency has. So some people are really invested in basic research and pushing forward those questions. Others might have more mission specific areas that they have to focus on like the National Institutes of Health.

And so it’s being thoughtful and thinking about the areas of science and technology that they can highlight, push forward, support, all for the improvement of people’s lives.

Science policy to me is people in service to the government and to the people of the United States, in order to make thoughtful investments in science and technology, in order to meet their agency’s missions and mandates, but really always with this idea of it being done responsibly as much as science and technology can improve lives of people.

Margonelli: So that’s a really interesting answer, because you work in a really key place in the government for coordinating science across different agencies. You work for the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, which is in charge of coordinating nanotechnology, research, and other things all across the government, all of these initiatives. So explain to me exactly where the NNCO sits within the government and give us a little sense of where the National Nanotechnology Initiative came from.

Spadola: The initiative was announced by President Clinton in 1999, recognizing the potential of nanotechnology to really revolutionize society. Then in 2003, there was an act signed into law by President Bush, the 21st Century Nanotechnology R&D Act, and that act codified the National Nanotechnology Initiative and also created the office that I’m in, the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office.

It outlined the responsibilities for our office. Every year, we have to publish the supplement to the president’s budget around nanotechnology, federal investment in nanotechnology. At the time, there are four, and now there are five goals that the NNI, the National Nanotechnology Initiative is striving to meet. They are to advance research and development, to commercialize that research and development into products for society, to support the physical and cyber infrastructure necessary to work at the nano scale, to support and develop the workforce, and to do education and outreach to help the general public understand more about nanotechnology. We want an informed citizenry so they can better adopt those nano enabled products that I mentioned.

And then lastly, to responsibly develop nanotechnology. So this is where the environmental health and safety falls in. The ethical, legal, societal implications as well as inclusivity, belonging, accessibility.

And so everything that the office does is in service of those five goals. And because there is that law, we enjoy a little bit of independence. We are not a part of any one agency. We have agencies that are members of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, and are members of the subcommittee that we help to host and organize and run. But we don’t fall under any agency and we are connected to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). For example, the director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office is the associate director of nanotechnology in OSTP, but we’re also not fully a part of OSTP either.

So we and the other coordinating offices enjoy this place where we can create these long-term relationships with the different agencies and the different representatives. We enjoy bipartisan support we like to say, as different administrations come in and maybe there’s people from OSTP come and go, the leadership in our office is pretty stable. So we’re connected to agencies, we’re connected to OSTP, but we sit outside of all of that in a little bit more of an independent place.

Margonelli: Can you give me a sense of what you might do in a day that is your science policy lifestyle?

Spadola: There are only three coordination offices like ours in the federal government, so we’re in a really unique place. I happen to think it’s one of the most interesting places to work in the federal government, because we do work with people from so many different agencies. And nanotechnology is the common theme, whether it’s research, or commercialization, or the responsible development.

And so in a day, for example, right now our office is working on refreshing the nano environmental health and safety research strategy. The last strategy was published in 2011, and now we’re working on updating that because a lot of things have happened since then.

And so I might exchange emails or have meetings with people from the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, all in one meeting, and of course the National Institutes of Health for example too. And they’re all working together, these different federal representatives, to develop this strategy. And so all of their different perspectives have to be represented, and concerns around environmental health and safety.

We might be coordinating or convening a meeting between different people around a topic that’s gaining a lot of momentum. For example, nanocellulose. And nanocellulose you can make from pretty much anything with a cell wall.

Margonelli: Nanocellulose, as I understand it, it’s an amazing material that can be used in everything from food, to medical products, to concrete, to bio-based electronics. It’s also sustainable and biodegradable, and I’ve heard that it could help build low carbon infrastructure too.

Spadola: So this is a topic that a lot of agencies are interested in because the United States has a lot of biomass that can be turned into nanocellulose. The Department of Transportation is interested in it. The FDA is interested because it could be used for food packaging.

So I might have a meeting where we’ve got five or six different agencies represented talking about the challenges of manufacturing this nanomaterial nanocellulose, to the regulatory pathways that a researcher would have to follow to get something made out of nanocellulose on the market, to the concerns around trade if the US starts putting it in their concrete and maybe other countries are considering putting it in their concrete as well. So that’s another thing that I might do in a day.

Margonelli: So this is really interesting, because when we talk about getting new materials to mitigate climate change, for example, we are often talking in very theoretical terms. When we talk about biodegradable packaging or when we talk about the safety of new materials in our lives, all of these things are extremely abstract. And yet you are having meetings on them last Tuesday, where you’re pulling everything together. You’ve got the Forest Service in the room with the FDA, in the room with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. All of these different agencies are working together, and you’re also talking about how do you commercialize really very basic research that comes out of university labs or national labs. How do you bring that into the marketplace?

So you’re right in the middle. It’s like you’re the ringmaster or something of this huge circus that we call the US process of government research and bringing things out into market.

Spadola: I’ve never been called a ringmaster, but I kind of like that term. But that’s why I said it’s so unique, these coordinating offices, and why I like being in the NNCO, the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, because you’re absolutely right. We get to convene and bring together all of these different perspectives around a topic of interest.

Margonelli: So the position of the coordinating office then is, I mentioned the ringmaster, but it’s also really thinking about how do you take this giant ant hill of industry, of the government. And you’ve also got industry itself, but you’ve got a giant anthill that involves everything from science, to regulation, to supporting the workforce. And you try to figure out how to bring it together, because one of the aspects that’s interesting about coordination offices is that you have convening power. You can bring people together, but you don’t regulate. You’re not the FDA. And you don’t fund, you’re not the NSF. And you don’t go after a specific purpose the way, for example, the National Institute of Health is specifically developing biomedical approaches to disease. So give me a little sense of what it’s like to figure out how to convene people.

Spadola: Everything that our office does is around what I would think of as soft power. As you said, we’re not a funding agency. We’re not going to support research. So if I meet an academic at a conference and as soon as he understands what we do, he or she usually loses some interest because we’re not future program managers. We don’t regulate, as much as working with companies and we try to help companies understand the researchers that are available to them. What we do is present people with opportunities that will benefit them as well as pushing forward those goals that I mentioned that we strive to meet in the office.

So we’ve been doing this for 20 years and we have these long-term relationships with different agencies and different representatives from different agencies. And what that allows us to do is to really understand someone from the Department of Energy, for example, is really interested in the materials that could improve the transmission of electricity and make it more efficient.

And maybe we hear from someone from the National Science Foundation that they’ve got a researcher that’s working on this new nanomaterial that’s amazing and could do this really well. Because we’ve been talking to these people for so long, we can then say, “Hey, so-and-so from the DOE, you need to talk to so-and-so from the NSF.” And because they’re sharing that with us, we can then provide them with those opportunities to connect, and maybe there might be a joint call in the future or some other form of collaboration between those different agencies.

That soft power and that convening power allows us to bring different people to the table than a single agency would be able to. And so our ability to bring together basically different federally funded facilities, which the DOE would probably never do, which the NSF would never do, but we could put them all together. It I think will have a really great impact, not only in the short term because now they know each other and they didn’t before, and they have a better idea of how each other works. But we’re coming up with different ideas of how we can strengthen that overall ecosystem, and the fact that we’re a coordinating office that isn’t a part of a single agency and can bring together all of these people just around nanotechnology and show them that it’s valuable to them lets us do so much more, I think, than one agency could.

Margonelli: This is great. There’s a cartoon of how research and market development happens in the US, that we sort of put money into academic labs, and basic ideas are developed. And then along comes a venture capitalist maybe who helps an idea out into the marketplace.

But in fact, there’s a terrific amount of architecture all working behind the scenes that pulls all the parts together and makes sure that no research is wasted, and that everything is working and coordinated.

I want to back up a little bit. Did you imagine that you would have this job when you were a kid? Where did you start? How did you get into science policy? What’s your path?

Spadola: No, I had no idea that I would end up where I am. I actually, up until about 2014, had no idea that anything like a coordination office even existed. I did not come from a family with scientists or engineers, or really professionals in that way. And looking around, the plan became, “Alright, she’s good at science and chemistry is something she was good at in school. And pharmacists need to know chemistry.” And pharmacists, you can get a job at Walmart making a really good living as a pharmacist.

So based on what my family knew about it, what we were exposed to, and what I was good at, I left for college to be a chemistry major so that I could eventually become a pharmacist. Because that was an idea of what a good science job would be.

And when I got to undergrad and I started as a chemistry major, I had to take some physics classes, and I had a great physics professor and discovered that I was really good at physics and really enjoyed it, and became a double major in chemistry and physics because it was something I was far more interested in, but I’d made it so far in chemistry, I wasn’t going to drop it.

Then I was back at this place. Well, what do you do with a physics major? I was looking around, and what I knew of physics was you became a professor. That was kind of what I’d been exposed to at that point. I saw the other physicists around me were all my professors.

So I decided to go to graduate school to get a PhD. I think people are a lot more savvy now than I was back then, but that’s what I thought the next step would be, that whole traditional career path.

And I got into Arizona State University. That’s where I went for my PhD. I was in the physics department, and I was also accepted into an NSF IGERT. And IGERT is Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship.

And what that allowed me to do was not just be a physics graduate student and take physics courses, but I was in a cohort of other students. There were 10 of us in a year, and we got to take other classes in addition to our department or our major classes.

And that was how I got exposed to science policy for the first time. Up until that point, I really hadn’t been thinking about it much at all. And I got to take science and technology and society classes at Arizona State University. I was able to become involved in the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, which was an NSF funded program, and get exposed to an aspect of science that I had never known before.

That was when I really started to realize how many questions and solutions around science that you think are just purely scientific and they aren’t. That you started to look at the societal aspects, that even if you have the best solution in the world from the science side of things, if people aren’t willing to use it or adopt it, then it’s not going to help.

It’s when I started to realize every day, there are so many decisions that are made both in the lab and in your daily life, in government, in the office that I’m in now. And if you’re aware of those decisions, you are able to make better decisions in my opinion.

And if you just go about working in a lab and doing what the person before you did or following exactly the protocol that someone else worked out, if it works, that’s great. But if you’re doing research, then you’re trying to optimize, you’re trying to find new things. And really being thoughtful about the questions that you ask. That was more the STS classes than anything I did in my purely physics classes to sort of make me realize that as well, the whole existence of science policy in DC, and the different agencies, and the people who are working there making decisions about which programs they’re going to support.

Even something like that IGERT that I was a part of, this idea of creating an interdisciplinary cohort of graduate students, that was a decision that someone had to make that it’s a good idea for science to bring together these students and train them in this way. So that was an aspect that I really hadn’t even thought of until I got introduced to all of these things while in graduate school at ASU.

Margonelli: So in a sense, you started in physics with thinking about your professors as a model. It’s like, “My professors are physicists, they work for universities, so that’s what I’m going to do.” And then after that, after you got exposed to some of those science and technology studies ideas, and some people doing science policy, you realize that there were all these other options for a career path. But also, other ways of thinking about science itself.

Spadola: I would point to that experience in those classes that really made me rethink the path that I thought I was going to take. Questioning whether or not I really want to be a professor, and instead, learning about this idea that you’ve got scientists and engineers working for the federal government, making different decisions than I had ever even thought anyone worked on, learning about and staying aware of what’s going on at the national level in order to help improve the quality of lives of people through science and technology. I’m just going to keep going back to that, because I really think that’s what motivates people who work in these different agencies.

I was really motivated by a desire to provide good quality opportunities for the general public. To not just learn about the science that they are supporting through their taxes, but to also ask questions of and have conversations with the scientists and engineers that they’re supporting.

So I organized science cafes while I was at Arizona State University. But when I finished, I knew I didn’t want to be a professor, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next.

So then I went on to film school, and I got an MFA in science and natural history of filmmaking from Montana State University to continue to learn more about science communication, how to tell a good story. So I have a lot of sympathy for the editor of this podcast. Hopefully, they’ll make it look like I know how to tell a good story. But I did that, and always in the back of my mind was that science and technology policy fellowship through AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Margonelli: Tell us what those fellowships are like or what they consist of.

Spadola: The point of these fellowships is to put scientists and engineers with terminal degrees in government offices. And the short answer is it’s to help both to improve science policy, but also the science behind different government policies.

So having these people with the specific education in these different offices, all the different agencies that I mentioned. I think the Department of Justice takes some fellows, the Agency for International Development, the State Department. There’s also one position on the hill. You can work for a congressperson or a senator or for a committee.

And they’re up to two years long, and you really learn about what people do wherever that office is. And you understand that you’re going to become a generalist to some extent. All of your PhD education is very focused. You become an expert in a very, very narrow thing. But while you’re working on that, you also gain these skills that are valuable in a more general way. You learn how to do research, you learn how to synthesize information, figure out what the key points are. You learn to judge the quality of where that information is coming from. And those are the types of skills when you move into the fellowship, and you realize they didn’t hire you because you are an expert in a very narrow chemical synthesis that makes a specific molecule, but because you went through that training and you are a PhD level chemist for example. But now, you should be able to use those skills to answer questions about, is this greenhouse gas capture method viable? Are these vertically aligned carbon nanotubes as great as they sound like? And if something happened in the news and your representative needs to know something about earthquakes, suddenly you have to become an expert in that as well.

So that deep knowledge and all of that training, and then this fellowship allows you to become a generalist and to really learn what it’s like to work for the federal government.

But also, I think one of the most powerful parts of the fellowship is bring in your experience. I think a lot of fellows come into the fellowship because they’ve experienced something that they feel like they could address at the level of policy. Whether it’s an underrepresented minority in STEM, and they want to work in an area where there are more programs to help support people who look like them, or they are really interested in climate change, and they want to work in an area that helps to understand how better to communicate climate change science. We’ve got a lot of science, but how do we get people to acknowledge it and to take action based on it?

And so bringing in a different cohort each year with their different experiences going through the system I think helps inform the directions that the system might take in the future.

Margonelli: So you applied for and got AAAS science and technology fellowship in 2014. And where were you assigned?

Spadola: I was assigned in the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. That’s how I discovered it existed is when I interviewed for that spot.

Margonelli: And that also brings up the point that the AAAS fellowships are in some ways a pathway. They’re like a very fancy internship into these very specific types of federal jobs that are available.

Spadola: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. It’s a great way for the government to kind of learn about and understand the different talents someone brings, and maybe they fit nicely into the organization in two years.

Margonelli: That’s a very interesting career path of how you came to end up in the very center of this very exciting, developing field for science and policy of nanotechnology. What are the big questions that motivate you to do this work or that keep you awake at night? What are the big things that drive you?

Spadola: For me personally, and I touched on this already. Part of what drives me is education, communication, outreach. As I said, I didn’t really come from a family that knew very much about what it was to grow up to be a scientist or engineer, what those different pathways looked like. So I take every opportunity I have or I’m given to talk to students about how there is this path towards working in the federal government, and that you can serve and help to guide policy.

So that as well as just communicating, having that good quality information out there for the general public. Not everybody wants to grow up to be a scientist or engineer. Not everybody needs to grow up to get a PhD. But I think everybody should, if they want to learn a little bit or a lot, have access to that information. It shouldn’t be hard for someone to learn that the US government is investing so much money in nanotechnology each year, and what that means for them. And so I was motivated by that. And what keeps me up at night is thinking about providing those opportunities.

I don’t think that there are talent gaps in the US. I think there are certainly still opportunity gaps, and how do we reach that. The National Science Foundation, the director uses the term missing millions, and I think that’s a great term. There are plenty of people in the United States that aren’t given the opportunity and they should. We should all be given that opportunity. So how do we close those opportunity gaps? How do we reach more people and make sure they feel like they belong? Because I think the quality of science in this country would benefit from having as many different voices and having all of those voices feel like they belong.

So that keeps me up. And then in terms of nanotechnology specifically, we’ve been doing this for 20 years. Nanotechnology has moved from being an emerging technology into something that’s really foundational. A lot of new fields are grounded in what was developed in nanotechnology. Quantum information and science is an example of that. Even the hardware that’s going to enable AI is going to be developed in those user facilities, and using those tools and instruments that were used to work at the nano scale.

And how do we continue to coordinate activities across the government with that shift from emerging to foundational? I think it still needs to be there, because there are so many different agencies that are involved in nanotechnology. And bringing those opportunities to them, I believe improves the direction of nanotechnology, research, and development commercialization as well as the responsible development. But how do we shift to a foundational science now that can support and foster the next emerging technology?

So that’s another thing I think about for our coordinating office, is how are we going to make that shift to still serving the broader community, still bringing together and convening all of those people? But now those conversations might be a little bit more against what’s the next thing, and what does nanotechnology have to share to help support that?

Margonelli: That’s interesting. It’s a good problem to have, because 20 years ago it wasn’t at all clear that this was all going to come to so much. I mean, it was clear that it was necessary, and it was clear that the coordination office was really important, but we didn’t know what it would do. So you’ve been working into the unknown for years and years, and now are coming to another stage of being foundational.

Well, this has been a really interesting conversation about your career, and it’s been an interesting conversation about the soft power of convening, I think, and the role that plays in the development of technology and scientific research. Thank you very much, Quinn.

Spadola: Thank you. I enjoyed chatting with you.

Margonelli: To learn more about Quinn’s work, please check our show notes at Thank you for tuning in and kicking off our Science Policy IRL series. Is there something about science policy you’d like to know? Let us know by emailing us at [email protected] or by tagging us on social media using the hashtag #SciencePolicyIRL. And please subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks to our podcast producers, Kimberly Quach and Sydney O’Shaughnessy, and audio engineer Shannon Lynch. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues in Science and Technology. Thank you for joining us.