Following their term in Washington, DC, many alumni put their experience to use with careers in
fields. Read profile of a distinguished alumnus who has gone on to make a difference in health policy below.
Alumni Spotlight: David Michaels, Ph.D., M.P.H.
If you want to learn how to use health policy to improve public health and change lives, become an RWJF Health Policy Fellow, advises David Michaels, Ph.D., M.P.H., whose advice reflects his experience as a fellow during President Clinton’s first term in office.
Health reform was the hot-button issue at the time, and Michaels was the only fellow assigned to the House in more than a decade. He served in a House committee that had no expertise in health care delivery, so Michaels became the resident expert.
“Being an RWJF Health Policy Fellow dramatically changed the trajectory of my career,” said Michaels, who is now Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health in the U.S. Department of Labor. “I arrived and immediately was thrown into health reform. I helped staff the committee in a number of hearings and activities,” said Michaels. “Congress didn’t pass anything that year, but I received an unmatched education in the political process.”
Before Michaels became a fellow, he was an epidemiologist “crunching numbers.” He was always curious about how those numbers were used, and how they could help shape health care policy. This curiosity led him to an RWJF Health Policy Fellowship, which laid the groundwork for an influential career in environmental and occupational health policy.
After his term as an RWJF Health Policy Fellow, Michaels returned to teaching epidemiology, but became more involved and well known for his work on the intersection of policy and science. In 1997 he received a call from the White House inviting him to become the Department of Energy's Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health. They were looking for someone with a technical background, experience in Washington, D.C., and an understanding of how policy is made. Michaels was a perfect fit, and he became responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers, neighboring communities and the environment surrounding the nation's nuclear weapons facilities.
His first task was to meet with a group of sick workers in Oak Ridge, Tenn., who believed their illnesses were caused by exposure while making nuclear weapons. Once in Oak Ridge, it became clear to Michaels that the workers needed a fair adjudication of their cases without the Department of Energy’s involvement. “I really understood that legislation was needed to help these workers.”
Michaels developed a policy solution that Congress enactedas the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, which provided more than $5 billion to sick workers and their families. He also issued a standard for workers’ exposure to beryllium that was 10 times stronger than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard. “One of the things I looked at was that people were producing science to support their advocacy needs rather than to determine policies in an objective way. When I left the administration in 2001, I continued to look at those issues. I put together a group of scientists, including the former head of OSHA, and created a working group on this issue,” said Michaels.
Since his fellowship, Michaels has been widely recognized for his work with awards, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, the American Public Health Association's David P. Rall Award for Advocacy in Public Health, and the U.S. Department of Energy's Meritorious Service Award. Most recently, Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, named him the winner of its John P. McGovern Science and Society Award.
In his current role as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, Michaels continues to employ the skills he developed as a fellow to identify and frame solutions so they are understandable and appealing to different stakeholders and to members of Congress in both parties. He has found that his past experiences in Washington, D.C., have helped him as he continues to testify before Congress. “I know how to describe an issue in a way that engages members of Congress.”
Michaels meets with new RWJF Health Policy Fellows each year to discuss his experiences, and remains in close contact with his cohort. “You develop a very close camaraderie with fellows in your cohort, and that network is an invaluable resource that lasts long past the fellowship. I found the fellows who came before me phenomenally helpful,” said Michaels.
The health policy training and experience he received as an RWJF Health Policy Fellow enabled Michaels to improve the health and safety of workers and communities in a way that might not have been possible otherwise. Michaels reflects, “Being a fellow allowed me to expand the impact that I could have on improving the health of Americans.”