Jeffrey Warren is the acting executive director at the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, headquartered at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Warren earned his bachelor’s in geosciences and master’s and doctoral degrees in geological sciences. During his graduate program, he transitioned to science policy through local internship opportunities, which prepared him for a high-profile job as the science and energy advisor to the North Carolina Senate. Warren has found that being a scientist who is determined to offer expertise in the policy arena, while both valuable and rewarding, can also be politically polarizing. He has directed research at the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory since 2017.
DR: When did you first decide to go into geology?
Warren: When I was in college at the University of Arizona, I took a geology class my first semester and then signed up for an astronomy class my second semester, which I didn’t really like the feel of. Then I ran into my geology professor, Peter Kresan, who asked why I wasn’t taking his next geology course. It was full, but he did an override to enroll me, which turned out to be life-changing.
DR: How so?
Warren: I found out that I really loved geology. I wanted to be outside, rather than in a lab. Taking geology in southwestern Arizona was amazing. We went on field trips to northern Mexico, where I got to see the Gran Desierto, the largest sand sea in North America, juxtaposed with the northern tip of the Sea of Cortez.
DR: What aspect of geology did you become most interested in?
Warren: I took a paleoclimate course and got interested in Milankovitch cycle, the orbital forcing that drives Earth’s movements around the sun and, in turn, affects climate. I wanted to understand “climate forcing,” which has to do with the balance of solar energy that reaches Earth from the Sun.
DR: It’s such an important topic today. Did your interest propel you to graduate school?
Warren: It did. At Auburn University in Alabama, geologist Chuck Savrda was working on Milankovitch cycles in the Demopolis Chalk. I had never been to Auburn, but loved the area when I visited my brother at Fort Benning nearby. For my master’s degree, I worked on paleoclimate, Cretaceous chalks, and the depositional link to Milankovitch cycles. Then, I worked as a geologist for the petroleum industry in Houston. But, when oil prices fell, the whole team got laid off.
DR: That’s a rough start for your first job. How did you respond?
Warren: I had been wanting to do a Ph.D. I went to Auburn professors for advice, and they told me about Lou Bartek, who was doing seismic work in Asia. He was planning marine geophysics with the US Navy in the East China Sea for six weeks.
DR: That sounds like an irresistible opportunity.
Warren: It was, only I had missed the deadline to apply for graduate school. But, because I hit it off with Lou, I was admitted late.
DR: I think you have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, or maybe just a tad late. How did graduate school affect your career path?
Warren: During grad school, I was unsure about continuing in the professorial track. My wife wanted to stay in the South. I was attracted to science policy and found an internship with the science research honors society Sigma Xi. While still a grad student, I was able to create science policy internship with Peter Blair at Sigma Xi.
DR: How did you make time for an internship on top of graduate school?
Warren: Funny you should ask – my department head at UNC complained, “I don’t know why you are wasting your time going into science policy. You should instead plan to become faculty at a top-tier research university.” That solidified my commitment to working in science policy. I downplayed the rest of my internship, going in from 6am to 8am so that I could still be in the lab by 9am and my professors and fellow grad students wouldn’t notice.
DR: That sounds like a herculean juggle. You must have known that policy was the right fit for you.
Warren: It was something I knew in my gut. I have a creative streak and outgoing personality. Science policy used those traits in combination with my science aptitude.
DR: What was your first policy job, beyond the internship?
Warren: A professor at UNC, Walter Barnhardt, told me about a job opening in state government. Thinking I was close to finishing my Ph.D., I took an entry-level position at the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management. It seemed like a good way to get my foot in the door and marine geology was right in my wheelhouse. In fact, I was still knee-deep in my Ph.D. My doctoral degree ended up taking longer and was somewhat soul-crushing. But, a mentor of mine, John Ahearne at Sigma Xi, had inspired me to finish regardless, saying “Sometimes it’s rough, but you’ll need the Ph.D. for your credentials.” Probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever received.
DR: I am detecting a theme here, that you dive in, take a lot on, and rely on sage mentors for advice.
Warren: Indeed! For my last year of grad school, I worked four 10-hours days at the Division of Coastal Management, spending evenings on campus. My Ph.D. professor was mad, but I finished. I defended my dissertation a day before the due date of my first baby. My wife said, “Don’t you dare go out and celebrate afterwards,” because she was about to go into labor. The baby came a week later on Saturday, followed by my dissertation upload on Sunday. We joke that we had birthed two babies that weekend.
DR: I bet it is funnier in retrospect.
Warren: To add to the comedy, I got an email Monday that my dissertation had been rejected. It was the first digital dissertation upload from my department so I was flying blind. I had hired someone to take care of the editing and formatting. It turns out that he had misspelled “Disertation” on the front page!
DR: Did you continue the coastal management job after the double birthing?
Warren: Yes, it was a great job for me. I got to work on the most comprehensive set of criteria in the nation for beach nourishment activities, as well as balancing the opinions of multiple stakeholders to overhaul the ocean-front setback regulations. The job gave me more than six years of agency-level policy experience in the executive branch.
DR: When did you change to the legislative branch?
Warren: In 2010, when Republicans took control of the North Carolina Senate. I had already gotten to know the Republican Minority State Senate Leader Phil Berger, Sr., through networking with legislators. On election day, I was at a coastal meeting and saw on TV that the Senate and House had flipped from D to R. It wasn’t a week later that Senator Berger had his chief of staff interviewing me for a Senate policy job.
DR: How did you feel about leaving your coastal management position for a political job that only gave two years of job security?
Warren: I was concerned, but sensed that I would be able to get a lot done in the energy and coastal management sectors in the legislative branch setting. In chatting with Phil Berger, I had predicted that geological issues would come to the table in the upcoming legislative agenda.
DR: Did your predictions bear out?
Warren: Absolutely. The first bill I worked on in the Senate was a coastal management bill for stemming erosion through the use of terminal groins (engineered inlet stabilization with rocks or steel sheet piles) on the coast.
DR: It sounds like you were well-positioned to use your geology expertise in the Senate?
Warren: Yes, I found that I had a crazy-relevant skill set. The challenge is that when you enter the political world, you get branded with your party and subject to polarized opinions. The policies I worked on were powder keg issues, always making the news. I viewed my role as trying to get sound scientific information to the members, yet it invariably got distorted.
DR: Do you chalk that up to the political environment you were in?
Warren: I’d say that while there is a place in policy-making for science, it is generally a minor variable that is often trumped by politics. On the positive side, I was blessed with a boss and a staff who were trusting and willing to listen to what I had to say, even if I was arguing a counterpoint. Sometimes my scientifically-informed opinion moved the needle and sometimes not.
DR: Did you find that frustrating?
Warren: It was frustrating when friends thought I had gone to the dark side, the majority Republican Senate. The way I see it is that there are few Ph.D.-level scientists who are Republican and interested in policy. My party affiliation allowed me to be hired into a place where I could make a difference. We need scientists of all stripes to make progress in our hyper-partisan environment.
DR: How did being in the General Assembly change your perspective on the role of science in society?
Warren: I was exposed to lots of things outside of my wheelhouse. It was a front row seat in Civics 101. I was privy to confidential information and learned to speak only when appropriate. My brand became one of the few people with science training. I started a “Science Monday” email for the Senate Republican caucus to provide information on science policy issues and news.
DR: Did your work on the General Assembly prepare you for the position you have now, of Research Director of the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory?
Warren: Yes, in the Senate I observed that there was no good way to make use of all the university research going on. Lawmakers’ studies tended to be limited in scope because of quick turnaround times and little or generally no funding. Many were glorified book reports. The 2016-17 founding of the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory paved the way for use of university research in policy-making. I saw it as an awesome experiment that had not been tried in any other state.
DR: What wisdom you would share with other scientists looking to get engaged in state-level policy?
Warren: I would say that it all starts with relationships. If you are not going to leave your professorial post, you can still advocate for policy, but you must figure out the right people to talk to and cultivate relationships. Get to know your local senator or congressperson. Visit them. Let them know who you are. Offer to help. If you want to change something, gather the evidence and make your case.
Do you have a story to tell about your own local engagement or of someone you know? Please submit your idea here , and we will help you develop and share your story for our series.