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AAAS’ Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs Has New Director

Maureen Kearney
Maureen Kearney was a regular visitor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s standing exhibits and was actively involved in research being conducted by the museum’s scientists whom she managed. | J. Wood/NMNH

Outside Maureen Kearney’s former office at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is a framed photographic portrait and an accompanying ink drawing that reveals much about the incoming director of the AAAS Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs.

In the portrait, Charles Darwin is captured comfortably leaning against a vine-covered column – his white beard and black bowler characteristic of the British naturalist and author of On the Origin of Species – accompanied by a reproduction of his 1837 black-ink sketch of the Tree of Life.

Kearney holds a Ph.D., master’s and undergraduate degrees in biology – a subject she took on after first pursuing philosophy as a potential academic path.  The change was largely due to the good fortune of enrolling in an evolutionary biology course taught by a “riveting” biology professor, the “best professor I ever had.”

Kearney has devoted her academic and professional work to the study of biodiversity, evolutionary biology and evolutionary history of organisms, a field known as phylogenetics. Throughout her career, she has worked to enhance collaboration across departments to bring multiple perspectives to scientific challenges. She brings a dedication to the value of basic research, teaching, student training, curation of public programs and exhibits and management of scientists and scientific teams.

Her career has traversed Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, where she was a research curator and served as a member of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Evolutionary Biology, to the National Science Foundation, and then to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

“My research activities and interests were largely in phylogenetics, evolution and biodiversity – collecting and analyzing diverse data sets to reconstruct species relationships and also working on methods and theory in the field,” said Kearney. “Why are some groups of organisms so diverse and others not? How do key innovations evolve? Why feathers, why the first seed, why genome rearrangements?  All of these questions require background knowledge of species relationships.”

As the new director of the AAAS Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs – her first day was Feb. 26 – Kearney brings an extensive mix of academic, management and public engagement experience to the center’s programs.

Among them, the Science and Technology Fellowship Program places scientists and engineers in policy positions throughout the three branches of government to contribute scientific knowledge to policymaking. The Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights & Law Program works with volunteer scientists and human rights organizations to apply knowledge toward global challenges and contributes to multiple activities to ensure the free pursuit, access and application of science is used to uphold human rights. The Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program facilitates communication between scientific and religious communities through partnerships with religious organizations to help incorporate science into educational programs and encourage scientific outreach to address public concerns about scientific advances and show how they address world problems.

Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life
A former colleague presented Maureen Kearney with this portrait of Charles Darwin and his Tree of Life drawing as a reminder of the “Open Tree of Life” initiative she headed up at the National Science Foundation. | Anne Hoy/AAAS

At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Kearney managed seven academic departments with some 120 scientists and museum professionals. As associate director of science, she laid the groundwork for a five-year strategic plan that set out a vision for the museum’s scientific research.

The plan led to a roadmap for future research priorities. It also launched an effort to digitize the museum’s extensive collections and recruit data scientists to harness and organize the data embedded in the millions of natural history objects that can reveal “critical historical baselines for studies of environmental and evolutionary change,” she said.

She also worked to update the museum’s research tools, which led to the purchase of a microCT imaging scanner and laid plans to establish an integrated imaging facility and construction of an ancient DNA lab.

During her time at the National Science Foundation, Kearney managed a range of grant funding programs related to biodiversity and evolutionary biology, among other topics. She also led an initiative to create, visualize and analyze an evolving “Open Tree of Life” along with others related to biodiversity and ecosystem function.

Before going to NSF – a move that brought her back to the Washington, D.C. area – Kearney headed up the Field Museum’s Division of Amphibians and Reptiles in its Zoology Department.

Outside of work, Kearney is a naturalist at heart and has long enjoyed exploring, observing and collecting samples of the natural world. It is an interest shared by many but one that must be nurtured – a fact that strikes her anew each time she answers questions from or examines the collections of her neighbor’s curious child, who explores everything from grasses to rocks to the birds aloft.

“Every child is a natural born scientist or an engineer. It’s the human condition,” she said. “They delight in discoveries about the natural world and they are determined to understand how things work. They are little engineers and they’re little naturalists.” To keep such curiosity alive requires great mentors, not unlike the one she was fortunate to have had.

Such passion for knowledge requires support for science and its institutions, and continual public engagement with science, including interactions with scientists, whom, she said, devote their lives to discovery, evidence-based explanations and proposing solutions to the challenges facing society.

“We want public support for science. How? People must trust scientists, of course. And scientists must continually highlight how science improves lives,” said Kearney. “We must also ensure that the benefits of the scientific process are not just for the few, but for all people and all communities. And that every child sees a path to participate in science if they desire to.  These ideals are what really attract me to the center and to AAAS.”