Science in our society – Part I. An interview with Dr. Jane Lubchenco

In early July, Dr. Lubchenco was kind enough to spend some time with me over the telephone talking a little bit about her life as the under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and administrator of NOAA.

NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Dr. Eric Schwaab, and Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley assess how the sample is processed aboard the Research Vessel Caretta and chain of custody protocol used when handling specimens associated with the oil spill. Credit: NOAA.

I admit that initially, I was intimidated at the prospect of talking with a scientist who a) had the ear of the president, b) whose research has had such a tremendous impact on marine ecology and ecology in general and c) who has been instrumental in encouraging scientists to dialogue with the public and policy makers.  After our conversation, I realized that Dr. Lubchenco is thoughtful, inquisitive and much like the other women I have interviewed.  One thing I came to appreciate more deeply during our conversation were her ideas about  a social contract. Here is part one of our interview.

Me: I’d like to talk a little bit about your beginnings in science. I read that the Nature feature on you that you fell in love with science after you took a summer class at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA.  Could you tell me a little bit about that experience and what motivated you go to grad school in marine ecology?

Dr. Lubchenco: I was actually in love with science well before that.  That summer I fell in love with the ocean.  I grew up in a family that encouraged my sisters and me to explore everything and science was one of the things that caught my attention.  I particularly loved biology, physics and geometry in high school.  In college I was a biology major; between my junior and senior years, I had the opportunity to spend the summer in Woods Hole, MA to take a course in invertebrate zoology.  It was a magical experience. We spent most of our waking hours either in the field or in the lab, exploring the spectacular marine diversity that continues to fascinate me.  There are so many different types of animals, so many different ways of making a living, different shapes, colors, forms. It was an intriguing new world and I couldn’t get enough of it.  My first real experience doing research came when I was selected as one of six from the class to spend the second half of the summer conducting research under one of the six course instructors.   I designed my own project and got a taste of the fun of devising experiments to test hypotheses.  Based on that experience and my interactions with the graduate students in the course, I decided to go to grad school in marine sciences.  That summer started me on the path I’m on today.

Me: You went on then to do grad school at the University of Washington and ultimately Harvard.  How were these experiences different from the Woods Hole experience?  Were there people there that inspired you?  Did anyone specifically change the way you thought about science?

Dr. Lubchenco:  I would highlight a number of influential people. Mary Alice Hamilton, a professor at Colorado College where I did my BA in Biology, knew that the Marine Biological Laboratory was a special place and she made it possible for me to attend.  One of the professors in the invertebrate zoology course, W.D. Russell Hunter, sparked my interest in research,  became one of my champions and helped me think about the potential of graduate school.  The University of Washington was a real hotbed of intellectual excitement around the convergence of evolutionary and experimental ecology.  Robert Paine in particular was championing rocky seashores as a model system for understanding basic patterns in nature.  Until that time, most of ecology had been focused on the present and was descriptive. Rocky shores provided unparalleled opportunities to test hypotheses by manipulation the abundance and distribution of species in the community, for example by using cages to include or exclude predators or herbivores or transplanting individuals from low on the shore to higher up.  It was certainly more feasible to exclude top predators like seastars than to do the comparable experiment with lions, for example.  The steepness of the physical gradients from high on the shore to low on the shore, from wave exposed to wave protected – and the fact that you can manipulate things – all led to huge new possibilities for understanding basic processes that determine patterns of distribution, abundance, and diversity. Paine championed this field of experimental marine ecology and was and is a great mentor.  With his colleagues Gordon Orians and Alan Kohn, Paine created a dream team of grad students in the department.  Smart, inquisitive, fun and creative individuals, they challenged, inspired and supported each other and excelled at producing innovative scientific discoveries.  Both experiences – Woods Hole and the University of Washington – were catalytic in framing the way I thought and think about problems.

Me:  You also spent a year a UC Santa Barbara doing independent research before you went on to Harvard to complete a PhD.  Did moving from institution to institution provide completely different perspectives and shape your insight into the field?

Dr. Lubchenco:  These three universities – the University of Washington, UC Santa Barbara and Harvard had very different but equally strong intellectual traditions in ecology; the faculty in those places had different starting assumptions, methodologies and preconceptions.   Being intimately exposed to all three greatly enriched my appreciation of different but equally valid approaches to fundamental problems.

Me:  Was it during your grad school that started you thinking about and become concerned about the pace of human impact on ecosystems and ecosystem services?

Dr. Lubchenco:  No, not at all. I was very focused on trying to understand basic ecological patterns and processes. It was only many years later when I began to see the ecosystems that I was studying change right before my eyes that I became concerned.  Tracking the same system through time, quantifying changes, I began to realize how very dramatically they were being altered.  In one instance, I returned to coral reefs in Jamaica that I’d studied 20 years earlier and was overwhelmed with the magnitude of the differences.  It had been transformed from one of the most spectacular ecosystems in the Caribbean to a wasteland by a combination of overfishing, runoff of nutrients and sediments from land and habitat destruction.  Multiple experiences like that that made me appreciate things were changing much more rapidly than was commonly understood by managers, policy makers or the general public.  I began appreciating the fact that scientists had an obligation to share more broadly what they were witnessing and documenting, and work toward solutions.

Me:  What activities during your academic career led you to become involved in consensus statements and public outreach documents?

Dr. Lubchenco:  When I was Vice President of the Ecological Society of America I led an effort to identify research priorities for the field of ecology.. The document we generated is called the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative.  It identifies the research needed to both advance the intellectual frontiers of ecology and make the most difference to society.  Recognizing that societal relevance is as important as creation of new knowledge for setting research priorities was a major departure from the past for the Society.    In fact when it came time for the committee to give its report at the annual meeting, none of the other committee members would help give the report. They insisted that as the Chair, I should do it, but in reality we all expected it  would be so unpopular that we’d have rotten tomatoes thrown at us.  At the time, these ideas were risky, nontraditional, and potentially threatening.  The fact that the report received a standing ovation and was roundly embraced by the Society reflected how concerned its members were about environmental problems and their desire to be part of the solution.  It was a coming of age for a professional scientific society.  Many of us saw first hand the changes that were underway and were frustrated that others were oblivious to this. There was precious little research going to understand these changes or understand the options for managing things differently.  We went from being a society of ‘go away leave us alone we’ll do our research’ to a society where people felt increasing motivated to do something outside their comfort zone.

We’re in a world now where the real world is the cutting edge of science.  The ‘applied vs basic science’ concept that framed choices made by my generation is simply outdated.  One can make fundamental advances in knowledge while simultaneously solving real world problems. The irony is that we have a wealth of knowledge that is not being used.  So we desperately need two things.  One to make better use of the knowledge we already have by communicating and sharing it more broadly.  And second, we need to invest in fundamental knowledge because it will enable us to make better decisions down the road.

ME: This touches on your idea that scientists have a social contract with society- that scientists should focus their efforts on the most pressing issues in society and communicate these results more widely.  Could you tell me what you think the role of a scientist is in today’s society?

Dr. Lubchenco:  I believe that scientists have an obligation to focus on the most important problems and to share their knowledge broadly.  Most scientists focus on publishing in the peer-reviewed literature.  In addition to that very important task, it is equally important to get new knowledge into the hands of the public, policy makers and managers.  Sharing information is not the same as advocating for a particular policy outcome. I believe that you can be an objective observer and cataloguer and discoverer of knowledge and also a good communicator of that knowledge to the public and policy makers without being someone who advocates for a particular policy or management solution.  Scientists are free to exercise their rights as citizens and advocate for what they believe in, but we should not confuse sharing of information with advocacy of specific policy outcomes.

Me:  If I understand you correctly, you are saying that given the knowledge a scientist has they can provide the options and ultimately it’s the politicians’ decision to make choices about those options.

Dr. Lubchenco:  Correct.  I believe science should inform, not dictate, our choices.  Choices, whether they are made by individuals or by institutions will be better if they have considered the relevant scientific information. ‘Inform’ is the operative word here.  When policy makers make decisions, they consider many things – politics, economics, values – for example.  I believe science should be at the table as well. But if scientific information is not available, understandable, credible and relevant, it won’t be considered.  So I believe that scientists have an obligation not just to acquire new knowledge, but to help make it  available, understandable, relevant, and salient.  Simply put: science should be at the table.

Me:  Do you miss basic research at all?

Dr. Lubchenco:  Sure.  I miss it a lot.  I miss my students and I miss being out in the field.  When I came to NOAA, I jokingly told my staff that if they wanted to keep me sane I periodically had to get a family fix, a nature fix and a science fix.  We try to work those in although its pretty tough given the workload we have here.  But those things are important to me – spending more time with my family, getting out in the field, and reading the literature and writing papers.  One of the great benefits of being at NOAA, though, is the opportunity to learn from our talented scientists about their new findings, some in areas such as weather that are completely new to me – that’s energizing.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco has been the under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and administrator of NOAA since 2009. Nominated by President Obama in December 2008 as part of his “Science Team,” she is a marine ecologist and environmental scientist by training, with expertise in oceans, climate change, and interactions between the environment and human well-being. She received her B.A. in biology from Colorado College, her M.S. in zoology from the University of Washington, and her Ph.D. in ecology from Harvard University. Her academic career as a professor began at Harvard University (1975-1977) and continued at Oregon State University (1977 – 2009) until her appointment as NOAA administrator.


About Dilara Ally

Dilara Ally works as a Bioinformatics Scientist for one of the hottest biofuel companies in San Diego, CA called SG Biofuels.
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