On Science Serving Society, from a DC Insider

I recently attended a talk by Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist who was basically in charge of running NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmostpheric Administration) from 2009-2013.  One of the most highly cited ecologists since, well ever, she was part of Obama’s ‘Dream Team’ of science advisors. During those four years, NOAA went from one turbulent challenge to another including the Gulf Oil spill and multiple extreme storm events like hurricane Irene.

Her talk, under the theme of “Science Serving Society” was fascinating in terms of both content and delivery.  There was not a powerpoint in sight, instead she took us to a “field trip” to that strange foreign country known as Washington DC via a series of twelve short stories that illustrated the culture and habits of yonder parts.  I thought I’d share some little nuggets of wisdom here by way of some quotes that stuck:

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”  – Referring to the situation of concerned fishermen anxious about their livelihoods following the disastrous Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. Point: Researchers may harbor a wealth of detailed knowledge, but applying it takes more finesse and the ability to relate to people.

Wait a minute, I thought you were a scientist…but I just understood everything you said!” – VP Joe Biden to Dr. Lubchenco while being briefed on fisheries in the gulf. Point: Scientists need to think about how well they’re communicating. The onus is on us to do it clearly and understandably.

“I don’t need to your weather satellites, I’ve got the weather channel.” – Congressman to Dr. Lubchenco, in reference to the ageing fleet of weather satellites that were in orbit at the time. Point: It’s easy to forget that others don’t know what you know. Though she was gracious about this, to me the fact that this elected official didn’t realize that weather reports on TV relied on publicly funded weather satellites set off additional alarm bells at the clear inadequacy of standards we have for holding office.  Just as doctors, accountants, and lawyers have to pass examinations, perhaps politicians should be tested on basic competence.

Paraphrase: Scientists have a contract with the public…Sometimes we academics tend think of students who go outside it as failures.  Instead of writing them off, we actually need to encourage many more to go into policy. Referring to the disconnect between the classic priorities of scientists and needs of both science and society.

It looks as wholesome as peaches and apple pie…But I think it’s a serious threat…and the whole community needs to scream bloody murder if it goes through. – In reference to the so-called “High Quality Research Act (which I blogged about earlier here).

Thanks Dr. Lubchenco, for being such a fabulous female role model and reminding us to step back and look at the big picture.


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