Alumni Profile: Greg Koblentz | 2020 | News
1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?
I received my PhD in political science from MIT in 2004. The title of my dissertation was “Pathogens as Weapons: The International Security Implications of Biological Warfare.” Stephen Van Evera was the chair of my dissertation committee.
2) What is your current position/title?
I am an Associate Professor of Government and Politics and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
3) As is often the case for SSP alums, when you finished your dissertation you had an important choice to make between a position in the policy world and an academic career. What inclined you toward the option you chose? Do you have any advice to share with current SSP students as they weigh their career choices?
When I started my graduate education, my ambition was to work in the policy world but then my goal changed to pursuing an academic career. I started off in the MPP program at the Kennedy School of Government with a plan to apply to the Presidential Management Internship to start a career working on national security policy. As part of that plan, I interned in the office of the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security during the summer between my first and second years in the MPP program. The summer of 1998 was a particularly interesting time to be working in that office since it was only a few months after India and Pakistan had conducted reciprocal nuclear tests. This put nuclear nonproliferation at the top of the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy agenda. In addition, the United States was engaged in intense diplomacy to stem the flow of missile technology from Russia to Iran. Following Al Qaeda’s bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in August, the United States bombed a suspected chemical weapon production facility in Sudan. Given my strong interest in issues related to weapons of mass destruction and the unusually high workload for the office, I was able to participate in meetings and activities that were beyond the remit of the typical internship.
While the work was fascinating and the people were fantastic, I realized then that I was more interested in a career in academia than in government. While I was still very interested in policy, I realized that I preferred to have the time and flexibility to conduct in-depth research and analysis on topics of my choosing rather than having my agenda be determined by current events and my timeline dictated by the crisis du jour.
Once I made the decision to switch from the policy track to the academic track, my first choice for a PhD program was the Security Studies Program at MIT. Not only did SSP have a great reputation for being rigorous yet policy-relevant, it also had a strong emphasis on WMD issues which was my particular area of interest. During my second year at the Kennedy School, I took several classes offered by SSP faculty which only reinforced my desire to go to MIT for my PhD. Upon graduating, I knew that I wanted to stay in academia in order to continue my research on the causes and consequences of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. I was lucky enough to obtain a visiting assistant professor position at Georgetown and then a tenure-track position at George Mason University. Being based in Washington, DC has allowed me to build relationships with policy-makers and the think tank community. As a result, I’ve been able to pursue a fulfilling academic career and still scratch my policy “itch.”
As far as advice goes, I think it’s important to understand how the academic and policy worlds interact. The membrane between the policy world and academia is semi-permeable. Being in academia doesn’t mean you are consigned to being stuck in an ivory tower. Even as a full-time academic, you can still get involved in policy, but it takes significant additional effort. Even after you’ve written a brilliant article in International Security with a conclusion filled with policy recommendations, don’t expect policy-makers to come calling. Instead, you need to take the initiative to translate your research and findings into a more concise, policy-relevant format and find the right audience for it. That is much easier now with the proliferation of online forums, such as The Monkey Cage and War on the Rocks, that make a conscious effort to “bridge the gap” between academia and policy. Indeed, there is no reason not to magnify the impact of your academic research by finding online publications that might be interested in the more policy-oriented details of your work.
4) Would you say that your experience at SSP has continued to influence your current position? What key concepts or values from SSP have served you well in your current position?
It’s safe to say that SSP has had a profound influence on my career. My research and teaching methods have been heavily influenced by what I learned from Stephen Van Evera about folk theories and the societal responsibilities of social scientists, from Harvey Sapolsky about the politics of national security policy, from Barry Posen on how to conduct rigorous analysis, and from Tom Christensen and Ken Oye on how to think theoretically. The SSP faculty were strongly supportive of my work and were great mentors. SSP’s emphasis on the value of both theory and practice for understanding how the interaction of technology and policy affects security was the template for the Biodefense Graduate Program that I run at the Schar School. SSP’s influence on the design of the Biodefense program shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since the previous director, Trevor Thrall, is also a proud SSP alum. The Biodefense program is an interdisciplinary education and research program offering masters and PhD degrees. The program is designed to prepare students to bridge the gap between the scientific and policy communities and work on issues at the nexus of health, science, and security at the local, national, and international levels.
5) One of the primary premises of the MIT SSP is “War is an extension of politics. Politics causes wars. Policy must be the governing force.” Can you explain how, in your experience, this has been true or false? What has been your own experience?
I was getting my PhD at a particularly tumultuous and momentous time in history, between 2000 and 2004. Before entering the PhD program, I had worked for the Executive Session on Domestic Preparedness at the Kennedy School of Government. Domestic preparedness is what we called homeland security before 9/11. I was actually at a domestic preparedness conference in Florida, waiting for my turn to be on panel to discuss bioterrorism, when the first reports emerged of an airplane flying into a building in New York City. Between 9/11 and the anthrax letter attacks, bioterrorism was no longer some hypothetical threat. The next year, I watched the Bush Administration sell the war on Iraq on the basis of WMD and then saw the intelligence that purportedly supported that decision fall apart completely. So it’s safe to say that an appreciation for the interaction between politics, policy, and war—and the costs of getting it wrong—was baked into me during my time at SSP.
6) What is the part of your current position that you think allows you the most satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction and why?
What I enjoy most about running the Biodefense Graduate Program and teaching courses on biodefense and WMD is working with students who share my interest in and passion for these subjects. When I entered the PhD program at MIT, I already knew I wanted to write about the impact of biological weapons on international security for my dissertation. So I tried to write about some aspect of biological warfare in all of my papers for my different IR and security studies classes. It got to the point where Barry Posen told me to stop writing about biological weapons and broaden my horizons. Given the pre-9/11 international environment and job market at the time, it was good advice. But I now have the pleasure of telling my students that they can write about biological weapons and other biological threats as much as they want! Given the lack of scholarly attention to the intersection of public health and national security until the early 2000s, this field still remains underexplored. There are lots of fascinating questions that scholars have barely scratched the surface of or neglected altogether. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has demonstrated not only the importance of research in this field, but also how much more we have to learn about how to prevent, prepare for, and respond to pandemics. Being able to prepare the next generation of practitioners and scholars to tackle these issues is definitely one of the highlights of my career.
7) What in your career are you most proud of and has SSP been a part of that?
As I said in my previous answer, I’ve greatly enjoyed serving as a mentor to students in the Biodefense program. It is such a great feeling when your student gets a job that you encouraged them to apply to, gets into the doctoral program that you wrote a letter of recommendation for, or gets a book contract with a publisher based on their dissertation. At SSP, I was very lucky to have Harvey Sapolsky and Stephen Van Evera take an early and avid interest in my work and provide advice and opportunities along the way.
8) What, outside of SSP and your work here, has been the factor that has most influenced who you are now, and what your current research interests are?
My interest in all things WMD started in high school which coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. From strategic nuclear arms control negotiations to the threat of loose nukes to the potential for Iraq to use chemical or biological weapons, weapons of mass destruction were constantly on the front page of the newspaper. While it was a relief to escape from the threat of global thermonuclear war with the end of the Cold War, the Gulf War raised the risk that WMD would be used against US forces for the first time since World War I. I was a bit, shall we say, obsessed with the showdown between Iraq and the US-led Coalition during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I watched General Norman Schwarzkopf’s briefings on CNN every day and read everything I could get my hands on about Iraq and the US military forces assembling in the Middle East. While Iraq did not employ chemical or biological weapons during the conflict, later investigations by UN weapons inspectors revealed that Iraq had formidable arsenals of these weapons and that its nuclear weapon program was more advanced than previously known. All of these developments reinforced my interest in understanding how these weapons work, why countries want them, and what more can be done to prevent their use and proliferation.
9) Looking back, what, if anything would you do differently?
Knowing what I know now, I would have taken more quantitative methods courses at MIT. Those skills are even more valuable now with the advent of Big Data, are even more important on the job market, and provide the ability to engage in new avenues of research.
10) What is the key piece of advice that you would pass along to current SSP graduate students, or those just beginning their careers?
The best piece of advice I have is to ask good questions. When Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics was asked why he became a scientist, this was his answer: “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions -made me become a scientist!'” Social scientists, just like physicists, need to ask good questions about how the world works if we want to understand it. Asking good questions are the first step on the long road to conducting research that can lead to the adoption of smarter policies that make the world a more secure, just, and healthier place to live.
To read more about Greg’s most recent work, please visit The Washington Quarterly for “Emerging Technologies and CBRN Terrorism,” and the Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling for “Lists of Chemical Warfare Agents and Precursors from International Nonproliferation Frameworks: Structural Annotation and Chemical Fingerprint Analysis.”