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AAAS President James J. McCarthy: Scientists Should Share the "Wow" Factor in Their Work
McCarthy and Rwandan president Paul Kagame at the 2008 AAAS Annual Meeting
[Photo by Collelaphoto.com]
AAAS President James J. McCarthy began his term on 18 February, at the end of an Annual Meeting in Boston that highlighted the need for science to transcend political boundaries and work for the global good. It was a fitting start for McCarthy, who has made a career out of traversing discipline boundaries in his field of oceanography and later breaking down the barriers between science and policy in his work on global climate change.
McCarthy is the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University, where he also oversees the university's program in environmental science and public policy. He has led several national and international groups studying global change, such as the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
In a recent interview with science writer Becky Ham, McCarthy discussed the role of science in politics, the often-overlooked joys of research, and his plans for his AAAS presidency.
First off, are there any particular areas of interest that you plan to focus on during your term as AAAS president?
The theme for the AAAS Annual Meeting in 2009 ["Our Planet: Its Life, Origins, and Futures"] encapsulates interrelationships within science and broadly across socioeconomic systems, which need to be communicated more effectively both within our scientific communities and to the public.
In this theme we embrace a very broad view of origins, not only the origin of life but of the Earth's life support system as well. Life has evolved in ways that have been constrained by the environment, but this life has also, itself, changed the environment. This is dramatically so for humans over the last few hundred years. We have changed the environment intentionally and unintentionally to benefit our own species, but some aspects of these changes have been deleterious for other species, and, in some instances, for our own species. Rapid climate change is a good example of this.
The final word, futures, is intentionally plural because as we see co-evolution of our species and our environment play out, we realize that for the first time we human beings really are causing rapid changes in the co-evolution process. Decisions that we make today will affect the life support system for all species, including our own, in the next one or two human generations.
So we see the next annual meeting as an opportunity not only to highlight these issues, but to reinforce the notion that all branches of science contribute to our understanding of how this life support system came into being, how it functions, and how it might function differently in the future. This knowledge allows us to project the consequences of a "business-as-usual" strategy and to see how different the future could be if we make conscious decisions to steer our co-evolution with the environment in more favorable ways.
And I guess also, since 2009 will be celebrated as an important anniversary related to the naturalist Charles Darwin, that must have played some role in choosing the 2009 meeting theme?
1859, the year that Darwin published of Origin of Species, is also the year of the first commercial oil well, and the year that Sir John Tyndall discovered that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. So is this just an interesting coincidence? Knowledge of how life involved, the advent of a new energy technology, and the discovery that our fossil fuel energy dependence could change the temperature of Earth all come into play in a convenient way for organizing a meeting like this. It helps draw attention to the connectedness of different parts of the system, and the need to study them from many perspectives.
What other kinds of educational outreach are important? For instance, what do we need to do to improve science education for school-age children? Is there something we need to do more often or less often in the classroom?
A few times a year I talk to groups of high school students in local communities, and it's very interesting talking to students of this age about the problems that we're facing today and especially with the example of rapid climate change. Everything we know that makes this problem urgent has been discovered in their lifetime. Climate science also serves as a good example of science as a dynamic and exciting process of discovery. It is also a good example with which to demonstrate how we are constantly challenging what is known in our attempts to better understand all aspects of the world about us. The excitement of this is something that we often don't communicate all that well to young people.
I had an opportunity this past summer to speak to high school students in a native community on the northern coast of Alaska. I asked if any of them were interested in science, and none of them were. And since this was in their science class, I asked why. They said it's because science is hard. Well, unfortunately that's a representation or an opinion about science that doesn't have to be true. One of the first things I would like every student who is studying science at any level to realize, is that there is enormous excitement in discovering something that hasn't been found before. Or perhaps in seeing something for the first time that you've read about or you've heard about from your teacher, whether you're seeing a bird and hearing its call, or looking through a microscope at your first sample of pond water.
You and your wife are co-masters at the Pforzheimer undergraduate house at Harvard University, and I presume you come in contact with a lot of students who don't have a science background. What are their attitudes when it comes to science?
I would say that historically some of the more interesting students that I have encountered in the undergraduate teaching that I do here at Harvard are students who have no interest in a career in science. They may be headed to business, they may be headed to law, they may be headed to a variety of different areas. Now they are really curious, and they really want to understand certain aspects of the systems about them, realizing that it will be integral to their futures, perhaps just as informed citizens but also in their professional work. The reason I say they're interesting is that they are among the most demanding, among the most inquiring, in part because I think they realize they're never going to have this opportunity again.
And I think we often underestimate the "wow" factor, the realization that, you know, those of us who have decided to spend our careers in science are every day finding something exciting. And whether we find it in a laboratory or whether we find it in the field, or whether we find it in the way our thoughts come together as we read the publications of our colleagues, that's what science is all about. I think in that regard it's very different from what a lot of students imagine, and certainly very different from the way most of my colleagues have described their careers in business or in law or in medicine. I think it's an underappreciated aspect of what interests and what motivates and sustains scientists in their everyday lives.
How do scientists reach out to people beyond their school years—what is the best way to reach people who want to know a little bit more about science and the process of science? Is through the media?
Certainly the press, but you know, interaction between the scientific community and the press is often a very difficult. It's difficult because there are not, frankly, that many people writing for newspapers and magazines who are knowledgeable enough of science to allow them to either be sufficiently critical or articulate enough to convey effectively the message of scientists.
And I think it's difficult because in part we come from different cultures. You talk to a newspaper editor and say, "Gee, you had this great person covering science and now they're doing something else." And they say, "Well, that's part of the way the press works." They want to keep their people from being terribly familiar with their sources and retain their objectivity because what they're really doing is reporting. Now I like to think that when I talk to a person from the press, it's not a source and a reporter interacting, it's the two of us together on an educational mission. But some news editors reject this notion of collaboration.
McCarthy speaks with MIT President Susan Hockfield at the 2008 AAAS Annual Meeting opening plenary
[Photo by Collelaphoto.com]
How about other kinds of public outreach by scientists?
I think scientists need to be more generous with their outreach efforts, in schools and in public lectures in every community. In the part of the world where I live, many communities have a town lecture series, and they [the public] crave scientific talks. I think it's very important for the public, the electorate, to have a better sense of how scientific information might influence the policies that their elected officials are going to be responsible for formulating, because there are very, very few people in Congress with whom you can have discussions about any technical aspect of a scientific matter. An educated electorate is absolutely fundamental to the function of our democracy, and this includes scientific education more than ever before.
In an election year, there's increasing talk within the scientific community about becoming more active in politics and science policy. What kind of role do you see for researchers in the political arena?
I think one of the realizations in this election year is that we really must restore the scientific integrity of our federal government. We must ensure that scientists can speak freely. We must ensure that their words, their writings, their opinions, the best scientific opinions of the moment, are fully available in the policy process and not put through a filter that has individuals who are not scientists deciding that certain scientific knowledge is something that either the public or the policy process should not have. As well as supporting individual candidates who understand the value of science, we need an opportunity to compare the candidates' positions regarding their support for scientific research and the use of scientific information in all aspects of the policy formulating process.
And science issues like stem cell research and global climate change have become prominent political issues.
If you had told me just four years ago that the leading contenders for the presidential election on the Democratic side, and on the Republican side certainly Mr. McCain, are all saying that by the middle of this century we need to have reduced our emissions from fossil fuel use by 80 or 90 percent... I would have said that is laughable. If Mr. Kerry had tried that, the Republican National Committee would not have needed Swift boats. Some people would have judged him certifiably insane and would have locked him up in a minute.
So here's an example of how science—and I don't think we can overestimate the role that a very articulate spokesperson, such as Mr. Gore, has played—is finally being effectively communicated to the public. In a sense the public is now out ahead of the national politicians on climate change. So the risk of losing voters is much smaller now when presidential candidates make bold statements like those that we are now hearing within both parties.
What are your plans for AAAS' international efforts during your tenure?
Well, I think we took a very positive step in that direction this year with the AAAS Annual Meeting global science theme, and we'd like to build on that... The leadership of AAAS is very keen to involve more scientists from developing nations, and we're looking for ways to facilitate this. I think it would add a great deal to our AAAS annual meetings, and many of us who have experience with the IPCC realize that the climate assessments could not possibly have had the successes they did without the participation of scientists from developing nations. Unfortunately these scientists often do not have resources to support their participation in international endeavors of this sort. I hope that we can see a big step up in the participation of scientists from all nations in the AAAS, notably those from developing countries where the travel resource is more difficult to find, and we're looking to ways to make this possible.
In December 2007, the U.S. Congress passed an omnibus appropriations bill with significantly less funding for R&D than people had hoped. What kind of action could AAAS and its members take to help raise R&D appropriations in the next fiscal year?
It is a concern, I think, of all of our professional societies. I think in part it comes back to this need to convey to the public the importance of science and the realization that our nation's investments in science and technology are fundamental to the economic success of our nation.
So I think we need to be vigilant, we need to watch these trends, we need to argue at every opportunity with the congressional committees and with the administration the degree to which this investment is very much in our national interest. We've had difficult budgetary times. I don't have any illusions that the new president will magically be able to dig us out of the hole we're in right now.
Are you still as active as a researcher as you'd like to be, given the administrative duties you have at Harvard and with the IPCC, and now as AAAS President?
We all have of cycles of activity, and for the last two dozen years I've been very involved in some aspects of science administration. As I became more involved with the IPCC, I realized how important it is for scientists to interacting broadly across not only the natural but also the social sciences as they interface with the policy arena. Thus, although trained in laboratory and field science I came to appreciate this other very important aspect of what scientists can and should be doing.
So while I continue to read the primary journals in my initial field of expertise, I now read much more broadly in other areas of science. I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to broaden my view and to author chapters and sections of reports that puts the science that I know well into a broader context of how systems are changing, how they might change in the future. I believe that as I look around and see some of my colleagues of my generation continue to be as active in field work as I was at one point, that I would still enjoy that. But I can't imagine having a better time than I am having now, with my feet in multiple camps rather than the area where my research started and where it could well have continued.
7 April 2008