Dr. Tanya Das (BS EE 2011) received the 2022 ECE Rising Star Alumni Award for her work helping to shape science policy nationwide. Das is the Associate Director of Energy Innovation at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and she previously served the Biden Administration as the Chief of Staff of the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy.
“I think of science policy as policies governing how science and technology is funded, conducted, supported, and advanced by the government,” Das said during her award seminar on October 7th on campus. “It’s about deciding: what do we as a nation want to prioritize and invest in for our science and technology future?”
A Michigan native, Das was passionate about cars and originally planned to go into the automobile industry. As an undergrad at Michigan, she joined the Solar Car team and spent many hours working in the Wilson Center.
“I remember how exciting it was that we built this thing from the ground up,” Das said. “We started with nothing, and at the end of the year, we had this entire solar car that we had put our hearts into.”
Das also landed an internship at General Motors (GM) as an undergrad, but right before she was set to begin, the 2008 financial crisis hit. GM declared bankruptcy, and Das’ internship was cancelled.
“Who knows? My life may have gone down a very different path if I had gotten to do that internship,” she said.
Having enjoyed the upper-level EECS courses, Das decided to continue her education. She earned her MS and PhD degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her PhD work focused on metamaterials and how different polarizations of light interact with different surfaces. The work was highly theoretical, and Das realized she preferred more practical applications of her expertise. She also had to deal with a lot of rejection from academic programs, fellowships, and publications.
“Rejection taught me how not to be afraid of failures, and to learn to embrace them and understand that they’re part of the process,” Das said.
After completing her doctorate, she took a one-year appointment as an American Association for the Advancement of Science legislative fellow in the Office of U.S. Senator Chris Coons.
“I completely fell in love with the work,” Das said. “I loved the impact we could make, I loved talking and interacting with people on a regular basis – there were just lots of things that fit with my personality and were the types of problems I wanted to solve.”
Das was then hired into the U.S. Congress on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology headed by Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson. The committee oversees non-defense federal scientific research and development and presides over the Department of Energy (DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
“I covered everything from commercialization programs to manufacturing emissions to the electric grid to cybersecurity,” Das said.
Das worked on the committee for three years, and was then appointed as the Chief of Staff of the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy by President Biden. There, she helped implement Biden’s priorities for the Office of Science, with a major focus on diversity and inclusion efforts and environmental justice.
“In the policy world, you have a set of tools in your toolkit,” Das said. You can spend more money on research, you can create tax credits to incentivize the private sector to invest in the problem, you can ask the Federal agencies to collaborate with each other. So then, it’s a question of which tools does this policy problem need? Which of those are politically viable and have enough support to pass through Congress? With that mind, we develop a framework for a bill.”
Science policy affects all of us in real ways, and there are many different ways that you can get involved.Dr. Tanya Das
She joined the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) last year as the Associate Director of Energy Innovation. BPC is a Washington D.C. based think tank focused on policy research, and it strives to build bipartisan support for a variety of science and technology policies.
“We are living through some wild times, where there is a lot of polarization in the political sphere,” Das said. “But having grown up in Michigan where people have all sorts of political affiliations, it was always important to me to help people come together to advance ideas instead of focusing on our differences.”
Das also encouraged everyone to think more about how their engineering work intersects with the policy world.
“Science policy affects all of us in real ways, and there are many different ways that you can get involved,” Das said. “You can develop interdisciplinary research questions to apply your engineering focus to something that incorporates social science. You can get involved in local politics. If you think that we should be spending more on research, you can also talk to your member of Congress and advocate for that. You can make your voice heard.”