The career of Debra Knopman ’75 didn’t go quite the way she’d planned. When she arrived at Wellesley, she thought she was going to major in economics. But she didn’t. After she settled on a chemistry major, she thought she was going to become a science writer. But she didn’t. Instead, she embarked on what has become a more than 30-year journey at the intersection of science and policy, working on solutions to some of the world’s toughest challenges. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I realized that I wanted to do [science and policy] together, that I didn’t want to choose,” Knopman says. “What interested me most was how good decisions can be made, especially decisions that depend on understanding how the world works.”
Oddly enough, it was the simple decision of which class to take to fulfill a distribution requirement at Wellesley that set her on this path. Knopman elected to take a chemistry class for non-majors on water quality in the Charles River. “It was just this fantastic experience,” she says. “We went and collected water samples from the Charles River and brought them back to the lab and analyzed them. It was just a way to learn basic chemistry, but it had this kind of topical focus to it that ended up turning into my career.”
Not that she planned it that way. “I describe my chemistry major at Wellesley as a liberal-arts version of a chemistry major,” Knopman says. “We were required for the major to take eight classes, and I took eight classes. I did not take more.” Instead, she delved into all the College had to offer: history, philosophy, photography, and more. “I just tried to squeeze as much as I could out of everything else that was being offered at the College, so by the time I was ready to graduate, I never envisioned myself going on for a Ph.D.” But she did.
First, however, she took steps toward her plan of becoming a science writer. Knopman interned at Science magazine while at Wellesley and did some freelance work for the periodical post-graduation, but she didn’t have a full-time job lined up after graduation. Professor of chemistry and former dean of the College Nancy Harrison Kolodny ’64 invited Knopman to accompany her family to Israel over the summer, working as an au pair. Knopman ended up staying on after Kolodny’s family left and got work as a science writer and editor. “I had a chance to read a lot about Israel’s water problems and water-resources management in the Middle East, and that was the first inkling I got that engineers did really interesting things,” she says.
That was when she decided to apply to graduate school—in engineering. “I decided that if I was going to do anything, it wouldn’t be in the writing,” Knopman says. “I actually wanted to learn how to solve problems, not write about how other people solved problems.” She earned her master’s degree in civil engineering from MIT in 1978. Knopman was then chosen as a Luce Scholar and used the year-long experiential fellowship to learn about water-resources management in a rural setting in Taiwan. “That was an amazing experience,” she says, but she wasn’t sure what she was going to do next. She put out feelers, and one of her MIT professors knew of an opportunity working with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York on energy and environmental issues.
“So I just fell into this job on the Hill as Moynihan’s energy and environmental legislative assistant,” Knopman says. With the Senator’s office, she worked on everything from an acid-rain research program to the West Valley Demonstration Project for nuclear waste clean-up. After several months, however, Moynihan became chair of the Senate Water Resources Subcommittee, and Knopman moved to the committee staff. “It was a remarkable chain of events, none of which fall into the category of planned, or even imagined, for that matter,” she says. Her interest in and knowledge of water-resources management came into play as she worked on the water-resources development program of the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as amendments to the Clean Water Act. After several years, however, Knopman felt like she was no longer learning new things—her signal for when it’s time to move on—so she applied to graduate school to get that Ph.D. she never envisioned.
“Johns Hopkins was what I’d consider a multidisciplinary engineering program. So it was not just focused exclusively on engineering and sciences, but it included social sciences. It included economics,” Knopman says. It was “policy oriented, and I had come to recognize that I was going down this path of trying to bring science into policy in useful ways for policymakers.”
While studying for her Ph.D. from the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins, Knopman began working at the U.S. Geological Survey as a student assistant. After she graduated, she stayed on at the USGS and focused on just the scientific side of water resources and water-quality issues while she started her family. “I really loved it there. I was far, far away from policy,” she says. “I only wanted to do science, and I just wanted to kind of shut out the rest of the world.”
But that didn’t last long. After the birth of her second child in 1992, Knopman was eager to return to the policy world she had left behind. She applied for and became the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Department of the Interior under Betsy Rieke, who was looking for someone with a science background. “The Office of Water and Science had oversight of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Reclamation, which is basically the federal water agency for the Western U.S., and then something called the Bureau of Mines, which doesn’t exist anymore. We had three federal agencies, with a total of about 17,000 employees within those three agencies combined, [and] a couple billion dollars’ worth of funding,” Knopman says. “It was a pretty big leap upward.”
Because she had two young children, Knopman wanted to stay close to home in Washington, D.C. “I ended up doing mainly management, because the assistant secretary was traveling almost nonstop,” Knopman says. “That was a very, very steep learning curve, but I did learn a huge amount about how large organizations function, or not, as the case may be.”
Knopman spent two years in the role, but when Rieke left in 1995, so did she. And she left her government work behind her, but not her passion for policy. She became the director at the Center for Innovation and the Environment at the Progressive Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank. “I basically ran a project for five years where I was working with a group of Republican and Democratic members of the House who were all interested in environmental policy reform,” Knopman says. “What that project was about was anticipating how environmental laws would need to change over time to meet new challenges, like climate change, which was starting ever so slowly as an issue, and to deal with the kinds of water quality problems that aren’t particularly well regulated under the Clean Water Act.”
But if her time at the USGS had focused too narrowly on research, the balance was now shifting too heavily to policy. “I did a fair amount of short writing, but I wouldn’t say anything rose to research,” Knopman says. “I tried to find my voice on policy issues, and I really enjoyed that.” But she missed the science, as well.
In 2001, Knopman was offered a position at RAND Corporation, another nonprofit but this time one that focused on research and developing solutions to world issues and policy challenges. “When I finally got here, it was like coming home,” she says. “I understood that I did not have to choose between science and policy and oscillate between different organizations to get my fix of either one, that I could do both here, that I could do the kind of science-informed policy that I had always loved.”
A few years after joining RAND, Knopman was offered the opportunity to head up a new research division. “At the time, we called [it] Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment. It was basically RAND’s division of everything else,” she says. “We ended up changing the name to Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment (JIE). We built out and developed a lot of lines of work that RAND hadn’t really been doing.” Knopman expanded their work into water area and coastal protection and established an office in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, working with the state of Louisiana on its coastal protection and restoration plans. In addition, they started a transportation program, and Knopman took the lead on new work in China (an interest she’d maintained since her days as a Luce Scholar).
After 10 years heading up JIE, Knopman decided it was time to return to research full-time, and she is now a principal researcher at RAND and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. “The bulk of the research that I’m doing now,” Knopman says, “has to do with helping cities [and] urban areas cope with the uncertainties of climate change, while still making major decisions that they need to make to modernize their infrastructure, to manage their water, to control floods, to reduce inequality, to do all these things.”
And her work is still tied to her goal of trying to solve problems, not just write about them—even if it means working on the same challenge for many, many years. As a legislative assistant to Senator Moynihan, Knopman worked on the issue of nuclear waste disposal, and in 1997, she was appointed by the President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which reviews the Department of Energy’s program for managing and disposing of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel, where she served until 2003. And in 2012, she and her RAND colleagues presented further research on the subject, but no solution has yet been reached. “Is it edifying to have to wait 40 years to see progress? No. Certainly, the nuclear waste issue is incredibly frustrating for anyone who’s worked on that,” Knopman says. “But it’s the tough problems that linger. I’ve come to recognize that you have to hang in there and see some things through.”
It’s that work ethic, and that refusal to give up on a problem, that has helped Knopman carve out a space at the intersection of science and policy. “I didn’t ever think I was this great scientist. I’m not sure I’m the greatest policy analyst, either,” she says. “But I think I function pretty well in that boundary space, and from having worked in government and been in scientific institutions, and been in policy oriented institutions, I think I have a pretty good perspective about how to draw the best out of those environments. Our motivation—it sounds a little corny—but it’s to make the world a better place, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Even if it wasn’t in the original plan.