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Nina Fedoroff: 21st-Century Challenges Require Global Focus by Scientists

Nina Fedoroff is starting her new year in Saudi Arabia, focused on some lifelong research and policy passions. She’s establishing a new center for desert agriculture at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, where scientists from many countries and diverse disciplines will tackle one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century: how to feed a planet in the face of diminished arable land and shrinking freshwater supply.

For 3 years as science adviser at the U.S. State Department and USAID, Fedoroff urged researchers to collaborate on “truly global problems that do not respect political boundaries or political positions.” As the incoming AAAS president, she will encourage the association to further expand its international engagement and support a future for science that looks much like the work of her new center.

AAAS is “a wonderful interface between science and society, and this is something that is important throughout the world,” Fedoroff said in a recent interview. “And it’s never been more important for scientists to work together on the big issues confronting the world: food, energy, and water.”

Her own experiences—from working closely with molecular biologists in the former Soviet Union to mentoring a Brazilian postdoctoral fellow—have convinced her that science is well suited to bringing nations together in this enterprise.

Science is an evidence-based exploration of nature, where “it doesn’t matter what language the science is done in—the criteria of excellence are really the same,” she said. “That makes it possible for scientists of many political persuasions and many religious beliefs to talk to each other.”

AAAS is already a leader in supporting science diplomacy and brokering international collaborations, Fedoroff noted, citing programs supported by its Center for Science Diplomacy and Center for Science, Technology, and Sustainable Development, among others. And she is happy that AAAS is a partner of the Global Knowledge Initiative, a nongovernmental organization founded by Fedoroff and others that facilitates international scientific partnerships.

But AAAS can do even more to help “jump the gap between countries that are well advanced in science and those that are not,” she said. “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.”

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 Rockefeller University in 1972. In addition to her role as visiting professor at King Abdullah University, she is an Evan Pugh Professor of 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 to 2004 and was elected a AAAS Fellow in 2010.

She will succeed Alice S. Huang as president when the AAAS Annual Meeting closes on 21 February; Huang will begin a 1-year term as chairperson of the AAAS Board.

As science adviser to the State Department, Fedoroff was instrumental in bringing more scientists to work in U.S. embassies, overseeing the deployment of the first U.S. science envoys, and developing and maintaining science and technology agreements with many countries.

With the new U.S. Congress in place this month, Fedoroff said it is difficult to predict the fortunes of domestic and international science programs in the near future. Targeted programs in energy and climate change research may not disappear, she suggested, “but I think that the budget for basic science probably won’t expand a whole lot.”

“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,” particularly on the scientific consensus regarding global climate change, 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 thinks that researchers especially need to sharpen one message: How scientists do their jobs. They work “by carefully constructing evidence and testing hypotheses,” she said, drawing a conclusion only when the weight of the evidence supports that conclusion. People in government or business, she said, “often don’t understand that science isn’t just another point of view or opinion.”

Fedoroff sees the AAAS presidency as another chance in her wide-ranging career to share science’s potential. “I remember sitting in my study 20, 25 years ago and wishing that I could have a larger voice,” she said. “I’m delighted to have that larger voice, because I think that one’s accomplishments, one’s 15 minutes of fame, need to be put to good use, and I can’t think of a better use than communicating about science.”