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Q&A with Theresa A. Maldonado: Candidate for AAAS president-elect

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Theresa A. Maldonado; Photo Credit Theresa A. Maldonado.

In the AAAS Annual Election, Theresa A. Maldonado is running for the influential position of AAAS president-elect.  

A self-described dot connector and systems thinker, she is vice president for research and innovation at the University of California and is currently hard at work revitalizing the university’s innovation transfer ecosystem, guiding multi-campus research institutes for greater impact, and delving into new federal policy implications on research. Past accomplishments include leading the $100M California Climate Action Initiative and facilitating the $1.2B Department of Energy Alliance for Renewable Clean Hydrogen Energy Systems hub. Maldonado is an electrical engineer by training with a doctorate from the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

As I think about science and my career, I am guided by these principles:

1. Words matter.
2. People matter.
3. Context matters.
4. Trust, integrity, honesty, and ethics are foundational core values.
5. Rigor cannot be compromised.
6. Relevance must always be understood and communicated effectively.
7. The lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and consideration of unintended consequences must always be at the forefront of all strategies, programs, and activities.

Science informs. But science also should enable stakeholders to be proactive (anticipate) as well as responsive – and we should be clear in our messaging to be authentic in the impacts we try to achieve.

Theresa A. Maldonado

What unique role(s) can/should AAAS play in the scientific enterprise?

First, the “scientific enterprise” includes the ecosystem of people, tools, and ideas in which the research process is conducted over time, for the science itself and at times for applications. However, this work is often done without context: different populations, cultures, geography, religions, timescales, etc. Research typically focuses on fundamental questions and not on holistic contextual systems-thinking required to address climate change, the mass shooting epidemic, global pandemics, and the associated rhetoric. The fast-paced environment of emerging AI, political discourse, and growing equity gaps, for example, introduce considerable complexity in both the challenges and opportunities we face. Therefore, perhaps the “scientific enterprise” should be viewed with a wider lens.

Second, AAAS is the largest multidisciplinary professional society with a mission to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all.” AAAS has global reach with membership from over 91 countries. It has a distinctive reputation of excellence for the science it spotlights and for its hallmark programming in policy, education, and DEI. It is foundational in its science-to-policy platform that other organizations are beginning to mimic.

AAAS is positioned to serve in unique roles in today’s scientific enterprise, such as:

  1. Establishing “social lab”1 approaches to advance iterative collective systems thinking;
  2. Aligning competing interests, cultures, timescales, and reward structures of academia, industry, government, and communities toward common goals; and,
  3. Developing a trusted reputation for listening as much as informing different stakeholders.

What are the 2-3 most important items for which AAAS can advocate?

With its new strategic outlook in today’s context, AAAS would add value by “advocating” or “focusing on” the following important items, among others:

  1. Explore and message the importance of international collaborations in the context of a growing number of federal policies to secure the research and economic enterprises in the U.S. and globally. Several U.S. federal agencies have adopted security measures for the U.S. research enterprise that are challenging international collaborations and partnerships. They also limit the type of research that can be conducted at most universities not positioned to do restricted research. The international membership of AAAS could be engaged directly in this conversation.
  2. Given the recent COVID-19 global pandemic and cascading disasters (e.g., climate impacts on food insecurity, disease, and water access), explore how disparate communities, such as academia, industry, government, and other groups (e.g., first responders), can be brought together to mobilize effectively grounded on science-based facts. As stated by former editor-in-chief of Science Journals, Marcia McNutt, “The worst time to be exchanging business cards is during a crisis.”2

What excites or inspires you most about the future of the scientific enterprise, and, more specifically, AAAS’ role in that future?

As I think about science and my career, I am guided by these principles:

  1. Words matter.
  2. People matter.
  3. Context matters.
  4. Trust, integrity, honesty, and ethics are foundational core values.
  5. Rigor cannot be compromised.
  6. Relevance must always be understood and communicated effectively.
  7. The lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and consideration of unintended consequences must always be at the forefront of all strategies, programs, and activities.

Science informs. But science also should enable stakeholders to be proactive (anticipate) as well as responsive -- and we should be clear in our messaging to be authentic in the impacts we try to achieve.

I am fundamentally a dot connector and systems thinker. I am inspired by disciplinary research advancements and excited when they can align toward a greater goal – often in ways never imagined before. I believe in leveraging expertise and other assets. The potential to authentically engage different people, diverse thoughts, and systems thinking is tremendous; we just need the alignment and sense of urgency. AAAS is at a pivotal moment as a professional society to enable and guide the scientific enterprise, policy makers, and an inclusive global scientific citizenry to reimagine and influence future directions for the benefit of society.

 

1 See, for example, “The Social Labs Revolution” by Zaid Hassan, 2014.

2 M. McNutt, “A community for disaster science,” Science, 348 (6230), 03 April 2015.

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Kat Song

Senior Marketing & Communications Manager