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AAAS President Nina V. Fedoroff: Expanding Science’s Role Across International Borders

For three years as science adviser at the U.S. State Department and USAID, Nina Fedoroff urged the world research community to collaborate on “truly global problems that do not respect political boundaries or political positions.”

“It’s never been more important for scientists to work together on the big issues confronting the world: food, energy, and water,” said Fedoroff, a wide-ranging and widely influential plant biologist, in a recent interview. As the new AAAS president, she will encourage the association to further expand its international programs, especially in developing nations.

AAAS is “a wonderful interface between science and society and this is something that is important throughout the world,” Fedoroff said.

Nina V. Federoff

“Every country seeks to be a knowledge society today, and I think one of the most important things that scientists can do is to participate in making connections with scientists in less-developed countries to provide know-how, collaboration, and sometimes even materials,” she added.

AAAS in recent years has significantly expanded its international engagement. Important working relationships have been established with China, Rwanda, and the European Commission, for example, and high-level AAAS delegations have visited the India, Kuwait and Syria, Cuba, North Korea and many other nations. The AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy was founded in 2008 to serve as a hub for international science engagement.

It’s a process that Fedoroff has seen firsthand. As science adviser, she traveled to Islamabad to bring together American and Pakistani researchers collaborating on projects from telemedicine to new agricultural science. “I was surprised at how good the science was, and how important it was in bringing both science and technology that wasn’t in Pakistan yet” to the country.

Long before her appointment to the State Department, Fedoroff was fostering her own international outreach as an adviser to Moscow’s Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology, as a key player in the organization of the International Science Foundation after the fall of the Soviet Union, and as a mentor to international students in her lab.

Now in Saudi Arabia, she is establishing a new center for desert agriculture at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). It’s a challenge that combines some of her lifelong research and science policy passions, bringing together scientists from many countries and diverse disciplines to work on a complex problem. In the face of global climate change, she noted, “we have to get better at using land that we now consider useless and water that we now consider un-useable.”

The center includes collaborations between molecular biologists, engineers, aquaculture specialists, plant breeders, and many other researchers. The partnerships are essential for tackling such an immense problem, she said, but they also highlight the need for new ways of surveying data across the sciences.

“The problem is that there is so much information that it’s extremely difficult to have enough time to read stuff in great detail,” Fedoroff said. “We now have in-depth articles and we have thumbnail sketches…but how do we create a situation in which the information can be accessed at different levels of resolution, or different levels of detail?”

Fedoroff received the 2006 National Medal of Science from U.S. President George W. Bush for her pioneering research in the fields of plant genetics, plant responses to environmental stress, and genetically modified crops. She received her Ph.D. in molecular biology from the Rockefeller University in 1972. In addition to her role at KAUST, she is an Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State University, and a member of the external faculty of the Santa Fe Institute.

She served on the AAAS Board of Directors from 2000-2004 and was elected a AAAS Fellow in 2010. She succeeded Alice S. Huang as president when the AAAS Annual Meeting closed on 21 February. Huang then began a one-year term as chair of the AAAS Board.

Fedoroff takes office as the administration of President Barack Obama and a new U.S. Congress contemplate deep budget cuts to address a burgeoning federal deficit. The Obama FY 2012 budget, released 14 February, would increase spending on all basic and applied research by 5% over the fiscal year 2010 budget. The FY 2011 budget remains in limbo in the U.S. Congress, making it difficult to predict how S&T spending will fare over the next few years.

“I think that President Obama really has science as a high priority, and I think he is going to do his best to make sure that our country invests in science… but the budget situation looks pretty difficult,” said Fedoroff.

Some members of the new Congress have announced that they would like to hold further hearings on the science of climate change, a prospect that should encourage researchers “to be on the scene as much as possible” in Washington, she noted.

“Some of our champions of science are retiring from Congress, and I think it’s going to be…even more important for scientists to come to Washington and make themselves heard,” Fedoroff said. “I think they have to come, they have to testify, they have to write, they have to lecture—anything they can do to get the message across to the public.”

Fedoroff said research universities can help build public understanding about science by reaching out to K-12 teachers “to help them understand state-of-the-art science and teach it.” She also encouraged scientists to participate in programs like the Penn State Frontiers of Science lectures and free public “mini-courses” which discuss timely topics such as energy use, brain science, and infectious disease.

Popular programs like the lectures, she said, demonstrate the need to connect further with “people who are not scientists, but who are curious about what scientists have to say.”


Listen to Becky Ham’s interview with Nina V. Fedoroff.