Ed Liebow

 Applied anthropologist, Battelle


Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month the studio features  Ed Liebow, applied anthropologist at Batelle, whose work is primarily in medical epistemology .

(1) What are you most passionate about–in work? in life?

My family matters most to me. My wife, Erin Younger, is Associate Director of the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. We have been together 35 years, since the first week of graduate school, and I can’t begin to list the ways in which my world is better because of her. Our daughter, Nabina, will graduate from college this spring, and she is our light. In my work, I am fiercely committed to crafting better public policy, policy that makes public investments in the pursuit of social justice. And I feel fortunate to lead a team of talented, compassionate scientists who share this commitment.

(2) When you did first imagine yourself becoming an anthropologist?  Do you remember where you were, how old you were, or even what you were doing at the time?

First term as an undergraduate, I took an introductory seminar from Paul Riesman, and I was hooked. He was a new prof, had just finished his dissertation from the Sorbonne, and had it published as Freedom in Fulani Social Life. He had written this manuscript, in French, exploring the concept of freedom and the relationship between the individual and society among a group of pastoralists of Burkina Faso. I had never been exposed to such careful, thoughtful discussion; we read 10 autobiographies in 10 weeks, all chosen from different settings. I loved the vocabulary, the problem sets, the alternative points of view.

(3) How would you describe the kind of anthropology you do?  Medical? Applied? Practicing? Social/cultural? General?

It is definitely “applied,” and the principal application is in medical epistemology; I have been working my entire career on research projects that have at their core the central problem of how people from different backgrounds view the credibility of evidence of health hazards, risks, and effective diagnosis and treatment modalities. Ethnographic research settings have ranged from the frontier outback of Australia where the British tested nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s to communities throughout North America, and among healthcare facilities including community clinics and clinical laboratories.  I don’t quibble with the terms “applied,” “practicing,” “public,” “engaged,” and so forth; although I have taught courses from time to time, I have never had a full-time academic appointment. I can recall when I was wavering about completing my graduate studies back in the early 1980s, Micki Crespi came through town on her way to see some of the National Park Service sites that had just come into her province as the founder of the Park Service Ethnography program. I think it was a set up from her fellow Ecuadorianist (and my wife’s then colleague at the Heard Museum), Louisa Stark, but it was Micki who took me on a road trip, in the course of which she told me: “get the strongest theoretical and methodological training you possibly can, because you may well find yourself our discipline’s only representative in whatever non-academic setting you land, so you better be prepared to represent us well.” My mentors at Arizona State, particularly Jim Eder, Don Bahr, John Martin, and historian Bob Trennert, were tough but fair, and helpful guides. The exposure to these intellectual traditions – ecology, literary criticism, social demography, quantitative history – could not have prepared me better for my career.

(4) You have worked for Battelle for a long time.  How and when did you first start working there?  What drew you to the job?  Who do you work with?  Is it a mix of anthropologists and people trained in other professions?

I was first hired at Battelle in 1986, the year I finished my degree. We were looking for possible places to move, and I applied for a position at the University of Washington. I came for an interview, and while I was in town I met someone I had known in Phoenix who was now working at Battelle. After an initial discussion, they were quite interested in having me take part in a project that was just getting started. The University received many applications from much more senior scholars, and changed the position from a tenure track job to a temporary teaching appointment, so they could re-advertise and hire a more senior person. The more I compared the two work environments, the more attractive the temporary Battelle project seemed. It was even more attractive because my wife is from Seattle, so moving there meant we would be closer to her family.

At first, it was a project-specific hire, a bit of a gamble on both Battelle’s part and mine – I was the first anthropologist Battelle had ever hired, and the job didn’t come with any promise of longevity for me. I had to try to make myself indispensable – find a way to contribute to the organization’s success. The initial assignment actually involved two projects, one to examine the social and economic impacts of storing spent fuel rods from nuclear power deep underground where the surrounding basalt rock formation would prevent the radioactive material from contaminating the biosphere (the nuclear material would remain toxic for 10,000 years, and we generally trust rock to remain much more stable over such time periods than government institutions). The rock formation being examined was on the Hanford site (southeast Washington State) in the heart of treaty-protected territory for several tribal groups, and I was asked to work with the tribal groups to assess long-term social, cultural, and economic impacts of nuclear waste storage. At the same time, the historical weapons production activities at the Hanford site were coming to light after a court-ordered release of secret documents, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was asked to examine the health effects of weapons production activities. I was asked to devise a process by which the 9 tribal groups that were downwind and downstream from the Hanford site could participate in the assessment of health effects among Indian people from these environmental releases. My colleagues at Battelle included health physicists, epidemiologists, economists, social psychologists, biostatisticians, and health educators. My colleagues among the tribal collaborators included public health researchers, natural resource managers, and tribal elders. Other anthropologists were involved in these Hanford health studies from the University of Washington (Gene Hunn), Colorado University (Deward Walker), and special studies on historical agricultural production were done by rural sociologists from Washington State University and applied anthropologists working in the private  sector (Niel Tashima, Cathleen Crain, and their colleagues at LTG Associates). Related studies were conducted by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington. At the same time the Hanford site was being considered as a permanent storage repository for spent nuclear fuel rods, a cadre of anthropologists from the University of Arizona were also involved in related work in southern Nevada, and a group from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory was looking at interim storage solutions while the search for a permanent storage place dragged on.

My work on environmental health issues and judgments about risks and hazards branched out from the Hanford site to other consequences of ‘living better through modern chemistry,’ and about 8 years ago, I left the environmental research unit within Battelle that originally hired me to become a part of the public health unit with which I am now affiliated. Same policy-related work, just a different organizational subdivision within the Battelle Memorial Institute.

(5) What might a fairly typical work week look like for you?  Do you travel most weeks?  Do you lead a team of researchers who do fieldwork for you?  Do you spend a great deal of time analyzing data, designing research projects, writing reports, or doing public speaking?

I now manage a public health research organization that has about 70 staff members. I spend about 40% of my time doing administrative tasks (purchasing, hiring, performance reviews, committees, helping staff solve problems, and all the daily stuff that keeps a research organization running). I spend about 60% of my time leading research projects, perhaps two or three at a time; these are all contract-supported projects rather than grant-supported projects, and this is a key distinction. With grants, the investigator thinks up the problem and has a great deal of autonomy in pursuing its solution. With contracts, the problem originates with a client, who has sought out our research services to help solve it. In contract-supported research, a good deal of time is spent working with clients on understanding the context for the problem, and also the real-world operational constraints on a range of appropriate solutions. It doesn’t serve the public interest to propose solutions that cannot or will not ever be implemented. Because of this client-focus, I travel a fair amount to Atlanta, national headquarters for the CDC, and Washington, headquarters for most of the other agencies of the US Public Health Service.  We also do a fair amount of primary data collection, and up until recently, I liked to reserve for myself at least some small bit of fieldwork. In the past two or three years, with additional management responsibilities, I have been able to let more junior staff members have more of the fun. I do a great deal of public speaking – one project that I lead having to do with improving clinical laboratory operations will have me making at least half a dozen presentations this year alone on our evidence-review methods and findings to date.

In addition, I serve on the boards of the American Anthropological Association, the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, and a Seattle-based arts organization called the Jack Straw Arts Foundation. In the past two years, I also have gotten involved in the Washington Global Health Alliance’s Global Nexus 2012 project to celebrate Seattle as an emerging hub for global health work, and this past year have been involved in local arrangements for the Society  for Applied Anthropology’s Annual Meeting (March 29-April 2, 2011). These activities also take up some of my waking hours, and allow me to stay in touch with colleagues over an eclectic range of mutual interests.

(6) What makes you smile?

Clever use of language; colleagues and staff showing their appreciation for one another; practically anything my wife and daughter do; a cold beer after a long run; a day out on Puget Sound in my sailboat.

(7) What drives you crazy?

When someone says they are going to do something and then don’t do it.

(8)  Does your job allow you to publish your research results, or does Battelle consider Battelle employees’ research results to be property of Battelle?  Is publishing, in fact, only a secondary part of your job?  Is this a source of frustration (at times) or not at all an issue?

We are encouraged to publish. We reward our staff for publishing. We recognize that our professional standing depends on our publication record. However, I do not have nearly the robust publication record as friends from graduate school who took an academic career path. It is frequently a challenge in contract-supported research (in contrast with grant-supported research) to translate a technical report into a publishable manuscript. The client often contracts for detailed technical report, but does not provide additional funds for the distilled publishable version. This is not always the case. Indeed, some clients specify in contractual terms that publishable manuscripts must be produced. All the same, it is a self-compounding phenomenon, as grant-supported publications beget more grant support, while the cumulative effect of contract-supported technical reports is to push careers along a different path.

(9)  You have been enormously active in the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists (NAPA) over the years.  You were President of NAPA before being elected to the Executive Board of the AAA and then being asked to be Treasurer of the AAA.  Are there aspects of these roles that you especially enjoy?  Can you give us a couple of examples of activities, changes, events, or moments for which you take a good amount of credit and of which you are especially proud?

Because I am not around other anthropologists all day long, my service to the AAA and its sections helps me stay in touch with discipline. That is my greatest reward for remaining active in service to the Association.

The NAPA Careers Video, originally made in 1993 under executive producers Elizabeth Briody and Dawn Bodo, has been phenomenally successful and has shown great staying power. While I was not directly involved in its production, I took on the role of planning for its marketing and distribution. Together with a long list of committed volunteers over the years, this video continues to introduce new cohorts of students to career possibilities outside the academy.

I also managed the NAPA Mentoring program for about 10 years, and found that activity to be remarkably rewarding. I am still surprised when I am approached by students who are looking for career advice, and who report that their faculty advisors feel ill-equipped to guide students towards non-academic career paths. The unmet need is great, and I am glad that the NAPA Mentoring program has been of service to so many.

Working with the Executive Board, the Section Assembly, and the AAA staff has been especially rewarding, as I think we have been responsible stewards of the Association’s resources, navigating some particularly tricky passages of financial market volatility, successfully negotiating the transition to a digital publishing platform, instituting an income-based membership dues structure, and providing the Association with a sustainable investment portfolio that will allow us serve the Association membership and the profession well into the future.

(10) Were you a model student in elementary school or more of a rebel?  What were you like in high school?  Would your family and closest friends at the time ever have anticipated your choice of profession or your place of employment today?

I was not much of a rebel. I was a good student, actively involved in athletics and theater, and moved easily among a number of different crowds. My parents expected me to prepare to go to law school. Many of my closest friends in high school aspired to change the world from positions of influence. I don’t think many of us were exposed to applied research as a world-changing path.

(11) What policy–at the federal, state, county, city, or international level–would you most like to affect, direct, change, or applaud?  Could you do this in the context of your current job or would it be something you could only imagine doing if you started your own foundation or NGO or ran for public office?

I spend all of my professional energies working on monitoring the implementation of various aspects of the current health care reform legislation (2010) and its companion provisions from the 2009 economic stimulus legislation that focus on promoting health information technology. This legislation, distilled to its simplest form, aims to do three things: (1) bring just about everyone into the health care delivery system through various means; (2) use improvements in healthcare technology to collect much better information on how people are diagnosed and treated, helping us understand what works and what doesn’t; and (3) use information about what works to improve care delivery. I know there are loads of other provisions in thousands of pages of legislative and regulatory language, but in its most basic form this is it, and I want to make it work. I believe we can contribute to its success through our current, fairly high-level access in the policy-making machinery.

I would like to have a chance, before I am too old and infirm to do so, to capitalize on the work we have done over the last six years with policies to improve clinical laboratory practices by applying this work in low-resource settings outside of North America. Laboratory tests are absolutely critical to accurate diagnosis and treatment in modern medicine, but do not receive adequate attention. If there is one area of international health and medicine where the opportunities for improvement are great and the costs for achieving these improvements are affordable, it is with laboratory medicine.

(12) The profession of anthropology in the U.S. and (at least) Europe is increasingly populated by people wanting to work for NGOs, health providers, policy-oriented organizations, government agencies, and other institutions not easily categorized as institutions of higher education.  Colleagues in Europe told me just months ago that they estimate that about 70% of anthropologists trained in Europe work outside the university system, and I have heard for more than a decade that over 50% of Ph.D.s trained in the U.S. also work outside the U.S. system of higher education.  Would you agree with these estimates?  Have the proportions grown over the course of your career?  Are you less unusual now than you were when you began your career?

Based on periodic tracking studies funded by NSF, these estimates for the US seem reasonable. AAA discontinued its own survey some years ago and I think we ought to consider renewing it. It is my sense that among PhDs trained in the US, the proportions have not changed that much over the past 25 years. However, I believe that even on the university campus, the proportion of anthropologists working outside of conventional anthropology departments (in health and medicine, environmental resource management, women’s studies, area studies, even business schools) has grown substantially.

What I believe has changed significantly over the last 25 years is the explosion in MA-level anthropologists, practically all of whom work outside institutions of higher education. The AAA’s Committee for Practicing, Applied, and Public Interest Anthropology (CoPAPIA) just finished analyzing the results of a fascinating survey that shows in depth the career paths of people who have a Master’s degree. These people are in responsible positions everywhere, and there also is a large cadre of community college teachers, who, in terms of contact hours, introduce many more students to the discipline than their counterparts in 4-year colleges and universities.



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