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Stendebach Leaves Rich Legacy
Departing DG program manager helped forge new multidisciplinary research culture with strong ties between government, academia
DGRC Communications Manager

Sue Stendebach

Video interviews were taken during the dg.o2003 conference in Boston in May:
" DG Program Overview (2.9MB)
" How gov't benefits from DG (2.4MB)
" NSF Cyberinfrastructure (2.5MB)

Quicktime required

Bridges between government imperatives and academic research are not easily built.

While academic IT research can offer radical improvements in tools and methods needed for government efficiency, its deliberate pace rarely synchs comfortably with government's political pressures and annual results-oriented budget cycles.

Yet in her two years as a Digital Government program manager, the EPA's Sue Stendebach has narrowed that cultural gap significantly by building partnerships, fostering collaboration and changing bureaucratic perceptions of science's value to governance.

"Already, we're seeing some tangible results in terms of partnering with other government agencies," says Harvard DG scientist Cary Coglianese.

"What she's been able to bring is much more than just an immediate delivery on some joint funding, but a higher-level ability to help us in framing a research agenda that will be of relevance to government agencies in the shorter term, while advancing the longer-term vision of the Digital Government Research Program."

Adds USC researcher Eduard Hovy, who has worked alongside Stendebach on numerous panels, workshops and even research projects, "Sue Stendebach exemplifies what's best about the DG program.

"By effectively and without fuss bringing together people from EPA and the NSF, she helped create a whole new branch of research, in an area--environmental protection--where IT can make a big difference," says Hovy, whose team at the Digital Government Research Center is using machine-learning techniques to develop parts of a global air quality database. "Her quiet, knowledgeable, and highly dedicated style made her a pleasure to work with."

For her part, Stendebach has greatly enjoyed her 2-year tour of duty with Digital Government, which ended this month when she returned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Air and Radiation.

"A lot of my time has been spent trying to make connections between myself and different people at the EPA and the research community, but also making connections between the two groups," Stendebach says. "It's a great challenge, and we've had a lot of workshops where we have been very successful by the second or third day at having people really understand what the others are doing and how they can work together."

Among the projects Stendebach has helped lead:
  • Workshops on e-rulemaking: A January, 2003 workshop convened at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government to develop a research agenda for studying the way IT affects - and effects - government policy. Stendebach was part of the executive committee that planned and executed the workshop and served on the panel itself, says Coglianese, who helped design and lead the event. "Sue brings this wonderful blend of background in actually writing regulations, as well as a familiarity with and knowledge of digital government research, so she's been the ideal partner on this project," he adds.

  • The Networked Environmental Information System for Global Emissions Inventories (NEISGEI): Several DG grants, including the one at USC and another at Washington University in St. Louis, are developing a series of tools and protocols for combining, standardizing and making accessible the vast array of air pollution data - a project that grew out of a small working group Stendebach helped assemble. "The idea is to start integrating some of the efforts that are already ongoing," says Stefan Falke, an assistant research professor in Washington University's Environmental Engineering and Science Program. Falke and his colleagues are building an integrated, nationwide system for tracking pollution caused by natural and manmade fires - anomalies which can confound accurate monitoring of manmade pollution from local to global levels. "One of Sue's key roles is identifying areas where the environmental field can benefit directly from the IT research that's being conducted in Digital Government projects." Falke says.

  • "Responding to Unexpected Events," a post-9/11 workshop on catastrophe preparedness, has helped spark a new field of multidisciplinary research and initiate similar research efforts to explore IT solutions for disaster response. USC has even established the Center for Research on Unexpected Events, building on the work done at the initial workshop for which Stendebach recruited panelists and participants. "We had a lot of social scientists and engineers and IT people, and the social scientists had a difficult time understanding the IT people" at the 2002 workshop initially," says Stendebach. "What was really rewarding in the second day was they realized, 'Oh, yes, we have to understand the implications of this on the people who are going to be using the systems, and the responders."

Stendebach has not only brought government expertise to the program and facilitated important projects, she has established relationships and ways of collaboration between government and academia that will continue to serve the discipline of Digital Government long afterwards, says Valerie Gregg, her fellow DG program manager and longtime friend.

"She's built relationships that will be sustained in her absence, so there could be any number of collaborations that could happen down the road based on the relationships she's built with the EPA," says Gregg. "She just brought a vibrant energy to a domain that neither (program manager) Larry Brandt nor I have expertise in, and that's the domain of environmental science, and she certainly had patience and did due diligence in terms of building relationships with the research community."

Gregg says that she and Brandt are working on recruiting someone from a different domain in hopes of further strengthening a different, equally significant subdiscipline of digital government research.

Government program managers who question the benefits of lending valued employees to the Digital Government program on a long-term basis like this should find confirmation in the EPA's experience:

"I guess when I first heard about the Digital Government program, I was skeptical about what sorts of contributions the research community could make to our day-to-day activities," says Terry Keating, an EPA senior environmental scientist and liaison between Stendebach's work and the Office of Air and Radiation.

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"What I learned through Sue being there and facilitating connections with people is that the information technology research community can contribute much more to some of the analytical and scientific needs that we face in the air program, and that's what I've been really excited about."

Stendebach's ambassadorship also showed EPA officials that the National Science Foundation can offer "tremendous resources" in the way of practically-focused technology to aid government work Keating says.

Falke says of Stendebach's contributions to the field, "Her strength is in being able to see how the technology fits in, and what it will reap ... and then being able to communicate that and discuss it effectively with government managers who may not have the IT know-how and not yet see how it all fits together."

Adds Falke, "it's unfortunate that she's moving on back to EPA, but I think she has laid the foundation and provided the connections, and brought everyone together so the environmental link won't die. She's set it up in a way that it will flourish."