Herding Scientists: A Story of Failed Reform at the CDC

In the age of COVID, public health issues and management are at the forefront of the national consciousness, with many calling for reform of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

With fortuitous timing, SPIA Professor Andrew Whitford has just published a book with important guidance on the subject. Herding Scientists: A Story of Failed Reform at the CDC, with Cambridge University Press, examines the agency’s unsuccessful post-Amerithrax reorganization efforts, called the Futures Initiative.

In 2001, one week after 9/11, government and media offices received mail containing anthrax spores, killing five people, infecting 17 others, and raising mass fears of further bioterrorism. Its disorganized response left the CDC open to accusations of mismanagement that left the national public health at risk. Then, like now, the panic led to political pressure to “solve” the organization’s problems, whether real or perceived.

“Agency reform is one of the things that presidents have a good deal of control over,” said Whitford. “We know that, in some cases, it’s actually to try to make things more efficient, but at the same time, there’s always a political narrative. It doesn’t always match up with what the agency might need to do from an organizational perspective.”

Politicians, as well as experts and analysts across sectors, called for reorganization, to improve the agency’s communication structure to better respond to emerging threats. In 2003, CDC Director Julie Gerberding organized a team to identify and solve these communication issues through a massive reform effort, built around a business organizational structure called matrix.

In 2006, Whitford taught an MPA class at the Gwinnett campus, which historically attracts CDC employees. One such student mentioned the reorganization in class, and Whitford followed up, connecting with the AJC reporter covering it and applying for grants to pursue further research.

“CDC was seen as having a bunch of silos: each group of scientists was working in their own silo, with not a lot of conversations across them,” said Whitford. “Matrix pushes anything that triggers a concern up to the leadership level. CDC was notable because most of those leaders were scientists, unlike in a company. Scientists generally don’t want to spend their time managing or leading a reorganization.”

Scientists bridled under this administrative burden, and many left, affecting CDC’s ability to monitor and respond to future threats. After a series of events documented in the book, the changes were rolled back and the reorganization was deemed a failure.

“If they had pulled it off, it would’ve been a really impressive piece of organization,” said Whitford. “But as I was writing it, it started falling apart. So it ended up being a documentation of a failed reorganization, as opposed to a success.”

Whitford was left with a project report for a grant, which he decided to adapt into a book. The result was Herding Scientists, a unique offering both in the academy and in the field of public administration. First, it is written in narrative form, making it accessible for practitioners and the general public as well as scholars. Secondly, its topic is failure.

“Typically when we document reorganization in government, we document successes, and we throw away about information around failures,” he said. “My sense is that failure information is as important, if not more important, so you don’t repeat the same mistake.”

Anthrax, of course, was followed by Zika, H1N1, and the bird flu, Whitford added; the agency must continuously react to emerging concerns while trying to anticipate what comes next. To meet these threats effectively, he argues, agencies must avoid creating organizational stressors that cause scientists to leave.

“If scientists, engineers, [or] technical professionals wanted to spend their time organizing, they would’ve become a manager,” he said. “Most of the time they get promoted to a level of manager not because they are the best managers, but because they are the best scientists, respected by their peers and the individuals working on their teams.”

These professionals may struggle with traditional organizational issues, like budgeting, finance, and especially structural reform, lack management training or experience, or simply resent the work and long to return to their core identity as a scientist.

“Professionals in government organizations have creeds, or obligations to bodies of evidence that exist outside of government,” Whitford explained. “So a biologist working for government sees [themselves] as a biologist, not as a government employee. In the book, I talk about how professions outside the CDC turned on it because they saw these changes as damaging to scientists.”

This tension between administrative pressure and scientific talent exists in other federal agencies as well, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of the Interior. When vital scientists or professionals, who have many other professional options, leave under these circumstances, they take years, or decades, of institutional knowledge with them.

“Whether it’s scientists or professionals, you’re losing the people who had the experience of the last war,” he said. “When they exit, you lose the body of knowledge about how to handle that past failure. As a consequence, there’s no organizational memory, cultural base, or safeguard against repeating mistakes. Given the way that society is moving in terms of the role of technology, science, scientific information, and expertise, it’s inevitable that any organization will face such concerns in the future, when there are differences of opinion between the scientists and the managers, or technicians or technologists and managers, about the direction of the agency.”

Whitford, whose CV includes work in health and environmental policy, has shifted his immediate research agenda to science and technology policy, including surveillance (think Ring cameras, body-worn police cameras, and apps that monitor driving behavior), robotics and crime labs, and expert systems/artificial intelligence. His next book will be on the moral hazards of deploying technologies, in any sector, that might pose substantial risks to citizens, and how these issues affect implementing organizations and the people who manage them.

“William Gibson, the science fiction author, has this famous saying that ‘The future is already here––it’s just not evenly distributed.’ The genie’s out of the bottle, and we will always be playing catchup trying to figure out these risks.”

While the conclusions from Herding Scientists have critical implications for agency reform, the process also taught Whitford important personal and professional lessons.

“In public administration classrooms, student collaboration is incredibly valuable,” he said. “I had students from CDC in the room, especially in Gwinnett, and they were telling me what was happening in their organizational lives. I recognized that it was some of interest, got funding to pursue it, and, as a consequence was able to eventually turn it into a book.”

“Also, this process taught me patience. Sometimes research takes a long time. This project’s been going on for decades.”