Pushing the envelope on science with Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young

By Jane Coghlan, Swette Center Student Worker

After an early morning of professional headshots on the fourth day of the immersive, everyone felt a little sluggish as we sat down to hear Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young speak. That changed rapidly as Dr. Jacob-Young’s high energy and enthusiasm for science lit up the room and grabbed everyone’s attention as soon as she began talking about her career. It was immediately easy to see that she loves her work and loves to educate and inspire the next generation of leaders.

Dr. Jacobs-Young has been the Administrator of the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) since 2014. At the time of our meeting, she was also serving as the Acting Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE) and the Acting USDA Chief Scientist. Most recently she was nominated by President Biden to fill in the role. Previously, she served as the Director of the Office of the Chief Scientist at USDA and was a senior policy analyst for agriculture in the White House Office of Science and Technology. She is the first woman and the first person of color to be the Administrator for the ARS, prompting an overdue paradigm shift in the agency.

Dr. Jacobs-Young had everyone listening intently as she described her passion for conducting risk-based scientific research that pushes the envelope on science with new innovations and advanced tools. She explained that in order to feed 9 billion people by 2050 and protect our environment at the same time, we will need to take risks in our research to develop new advanced tools and technologies. Dr. Jacobs-Young went on to emphasize that right now is the perfect window of opportunity to expand the boundaries of science because President Biden and USDA Secretary Vilsack have made science a huge priority. President Biden has even lifted the Office of Science and Technology Policy into a cabinet level role for the first time in history. With climate change causing uncertainty and anxiety about the future, it is extremely encouraging to learn that the Biden Administration recognizes how important science and innovation are to solving current and future challenges. 

According to Dr. Jacobs-Young, simply conducting research on the land or in the lab is only half the battle. The other half is tied to the study of behavioral economics. She gave us an example of a research study done in a low food access area. Economists found that you can put a grocery store in the middle of a low food access area, but people will go into the store and buy the exact same items they were buying at the corner store. This showed that if you don’t do anything to modify behavior, people are not going to just turn around and do something drastically different because you put the store there. The change has to come with education, outreach, and training. That is why the extension service, universities, foundations, and organizations are so important. They reach people and provide them with an understanding of why and how they may want to change their behavior to improve some aspect of their lives, like access to greater varieties of food in this particular study (Understanding Low-Income and Low-Access Census Tracts Across the Nation: Subnational and Subpopulation Estimates of Access to Healthy Food (usda.gov) . We must do a better job of communicating and informing people about the risk, the data, and the science behind our decision-making.

Dr. Jacobs-Young shared with us that something that she’s currently prioritizing at ARS is creating an innovation ecosystem of scientists and team members with an entrepreneurial spirit that pushes the envelope on science. In the past, some of the biggest agricultural transformations came from people who were way outside the box. Dr. Jacobs-Young wants to create space for people to be free to fail. She explained that failing is a necessary part of the innovation process and we need to have an environment that accepts a certain level of failure. When all our rewards systems are built on success, then we’re never encouraging people to try new things and possibly fail. 

Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young ended her time with us with a kind sentiment that meetings like these make her hopeful for the future. She finds reassurance that we, as rising food and agricultural leaders, recognize the importance of science and innovation in solving the challenges of our future. After this meeting, I think everyone in the room felt inspired to go forth and push the envelope on science with Dr. Jacobs-Young as a superlative role model.

This blog is part of a series from the July 2021 Washington D.C. Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House and other agencies, Congressional leadership, industry leaders and other important policy stakeholders.