Ann Adams is a protector with a passion for social justice and the ability to process reams of information, sorting through and synthesizing it all until she arrives at actionable intelligence of strategic importance.
If that sounds like the HR prerequisite for success in the high-stakes world of national security, well, Adams won’t disagree. In fact, the associate vice president for research credits her experience as a CIA analyst — as well as some 15 years as an attorney — with sharpening her innate ability to manage complexity and deliver results in a dynamic environment. For much of the past two decades, that environment has been in higher education, a setting that Adams has always found “fascinating” and “profoundly rewarding” because of her commitment to the ideals and mission that produce breakthrough discovery.
After earning her law degree at the University of Chicago and going on to work at Sidley Austin LLP in Washington, DC, and Chicago, Adams joined Northwestern from 1998-2003 as an associate general counsel. She went to George Washington University in the same role until 2008, when she returned to Northwestern’s Office for Research as an AVP. Among her responsibilities today is overseeing the University’s IRB and IACUC offices, which process protocol submissions and provide education, training, and resources to ensure that all human and animal research is conducted with the highest level of integrity.
“I do think like a lawyer,” says Adams, smiling. “This is one of the skills that has remained consistent throughout my career. It’s allowed me to process a lot of information and prioritize the critical aspects. You can get bombarded everyday by what’s going on in higher education, but you have to figure out what’s most important. Everything can’t be a crisis, otherwise you’re paralyzed. I try to get to the core of what the issues are.”
Adams’ ability to cut to the core and make smart decisions under pressure served her well during her rotation as an analyst in the fast-paced, 24-hour CIA Operations Center in Washington, DC, a job she held after graduating from Lake Forest College with a bachelor’s degree in international studies. “Information was constantly flowing from all over the world, every minute,” she recalls. “Out of everything that came into my desk during the six-to-six overnight shift I’d have to determine what was important to share with the briefing team that would arrive at 4 a.m. These people were going to brief the president, vice president, secretary of state, and the rest of the cabinet. You can’t just give them noise.”
Today, Adams manages issues and information related to providing guidance that helps faculty successfully navigate research protocols and regulatory requirements. Some might wonder if law and science could clash, creating frictions antithetic to bold discovery, but Adams says that such concerns miss the point of what she — and the entire Office for Research — actually contributes to the University ecosystem. In addition to helping safeguard Northwestern and its research subjects, Adams sees her job as protecting the research community and individual investigators from unnecessary administrative burden that would hinder their work. Within academia, some of these burdens include an increase in the number and complexity of federal regulation governing the transfer of commodities and technologies overseas. Export Controls, another office that reports to Adams, helps faculty traverse this terrain successfully.
“The Office for Research is here to help our investigators succeed,” says Adams, noting that higher education is one of the more heavily regulated industries and that universities share some of the same complexities as corporations: diverse employees and other stakeholders, real estate, and financial transactions. “When it comes to navigating administrative complexity, we want to reduce the cost of thinking about such things for our researchers. It’s not a good use of their time to have to focus on that part of the problem. That’s my job. They should be able to focus on what they do best, and that’s transformative research and teaching.”
‘Getting to Yes’
Even though regulation often carries a punitive connotation, Adams says her focus is on helping faculty “get to ‘yes,’ but in the proper way. Purposeful noncompliance is relatively rare," she says. Most of the time regulatory noncompliance is inadvertent: someone accidentally accesses an old version of a protocol rather than the updated version, for example. In instances where the University must say “no” — such as when funding opportunities include certain restrictions that undermine the University’s fundamental research approach — Adams says there may still be viable solutions that allow the research to move forward.
“We don’t have restricted facilities here, but there is still potentially a way for us to help an investigator ‘get to yes’ in this case,” she says.
To be sure, getting to yes doesn’t mean disregarding or subverting regulation. Adams acknowledges that regulatory oversight can create challenges for research institutions — and for entities such as grant-making agencies and their program officers. Those agencies are often “caught in the middle” between academic institutions and the congressional legislators who enact the rules for higher education sometimes with only a vague understanding of how university research really works. (Lately, this situation seems to be changing, with signs of less “disconnect” and the potential for some regulatory easing, says Adams.) Fundamentally, though, the rules exist for good reasons, and federal regulators are less likely to overreach if research institutions police themselves well, she says.
That’s not always happened: Adams, who for about a decade has taught Northwestern courses on ethics and responsible research practices in higher education, can summon a list of historical examples, going back centuries, where science took liberties it never should. The transgressions frequently led to horrible outcomes, even in those instances when investigators may have claimed to be operating with the best intentions to advance scientific understanding.
“Was it the best intention to use poor, impoverished African-American males in research and not treat them for syphilis? I suppose that was someone’s idea of best intention,” says Adams, referring to the notorious US Public Health Service studies that, for 40 years, conducted research without the informed consent of the people involved. “Or using vulnerable children in hepatitis experiments at the Willowbrook State School? I suppose, at the time, that was somebody’s idea of best intentions. But it’s insanity.”
Adams’ sense of social justice, like her love of learning and mission-driven enthusiasm, are foundational to the work she does. Early on, she says she had a keen sense of right and wrong. She also understood the importance of standing up for herself and stepping in to help others who might not have the same advantages she did.
The youngest of four siblings, Adams grew up in Washington, DC, and later Evanston, though she was born in Iowa to parents who deeply valued education and encouraged excellence and hard work. Her father, an urban mass transit expert, earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate in the span of about five years while raising a young family and working at the Iowa Department of Transportation. Her mother earned a master’s degree in early childhood education and ran the Head Start Program for the Evanston School District 65 for 25 years. Both parents, now deceased, were beloved by colleagues and the community, says Adams.
“Not only was education important in my family, so was active debate!” she says. “We were taught to think for ourselves. You have your ideas, so present them. We also learned the importance of helping others who can’t necessarily speak for themselves My parents were groundbreakers in so many ways, including where they chose to live.”
When the family relocated to Evanston, for example, they moved into a neighborhood that was still racially “redlined” at the time. “We were challenging the status quo.”
At Northwestern, Adams feels connected with a larger mission. It’s a feeling that she immediately recognized when she first joined the University and found herself reviewing century-old historical records, including the minutes of Board of Trustees meetings from the 1800s.
“I quickly realized that I have a role to play in this institution that was here long before me and that will be here long after I leave,” says Adams. “I take that very seriously. I have incredible appreciation for the complexity of higher education and our mission. We’re educating people and conducting great research with a positive social impact. How can making even a modest contribution to a research institution like Northwestern be anything other than awe-inspiring?”