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NOAA Head Illuminates Challenges of ‘Compact Between Science and Society’

The central role that science plays in the national conversation has brought new challenges for the field, said Kathryn D. Sullivan, who examined “the compact between science and society” in the William D. Carey Lecture on 14 April at the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy. Sullivan has served as undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere as well as the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since 2014.

Sullivan looked back toward another era of great scientific opportunity, quoting Vannevar Bush, who, after serving as science adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, pioneered federal funding for science and engineering in the post-war era. “’Science has been in the wings, it should be brought to the center of the stage,’” Sullivan quoted.

“Well, it is certainly center stage today,” she added.

As head of NOAA, Sullivan cited weather forecasting as an example of how scientific advancement has informed our daily lives in ways both large and small. Thanks to advances from decades of research across many disciplines, scientists can capture information about the state of our planet and interpret and translate data into “reliable and actionable information” that benefits our society, she said.

Kathryn Sullivan
Kathryn Sullivan delivers the William S. Carey Lecture at the 41st Annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Then, “governors, emergency managers, community officials, and each of you rely on weather modeling and forecasting to spur smarter decision-making around natural hazards, both in the short and the long term,” she said.

Sullivan cited one example of how this “environmental intelligence” has had major effects on improving food security in India. If crops fail due to particularly heavy monsoon rains, the Indian government wants to be prepared to feed its people. Rather than buy wheat at elevated prices after crops are destroyed—or make unnecessary purchases—NOAA shared predictions about monsoon intensity to inform the government’s decision making.

Yet science’s leading role has led scientists to face new constraints not present in the era of Vannevar Bush, she said.

Public expectations of science are sky-high, she said. Science is expected to contribute substantially and frequently toward our safety, health, and prosperity—lofty expectations that inform the public conversation on whether scientific research is worth taxpayer dollars and how frequently results should come forth.

Scientists today also face increasing demands for transparency in the scientific process and in science-based decisions, Sullivan said.

“Today both of these variables are under close scrutiny from many quarters, from myriad interest groups, the media, individual citizens, and the Congress, to name but a few,” she said.

NOAA has been the target of congressional scrutiny from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who has launched an inquiry into a 2015 paper in Science prepared by NOAA researchers that disputed the existence of a recent slowdown in the rate of global warming. The chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has sent letters and subpoenas to Sullivan requesting NOAA documents and communications related to the paper, a move that AAAS and other scientific organizations have criticized.

Sullivan said she is most concerned about the “apparent decline in society’s confidence in science as an enterprise of special value to society and of scientists as respected and trustworthy people.”

While she disputed such generalizations, Sullivan acknowledged that the future of the scientific enterprise is heavily dependent on societal perceptions. If society’s skepticism and distrust of science continue to grow, she said the field may be hampered by burdensome oversights in the name of transparency, productivity, and utility.

“I cannot imagine how we can continue to enjoy a vibrant society and healthy economy without a scientific enterprise that is rich, creative, and vibrant across the entire R&D spectrum with discovery and innovation powered by our very best and brightest minds,” Sullivan said.

If we want to remain secure economically, Sullivan said, our research enterprise must be strong—and must be strongly connected to societal benefits.

“Today we live in a much more crowded and interconnected planet, and we face a plethora of wicked problems with global consequences,” she said.

Yet we should not simply rely upon the scientific advances of other nations, Sullivan argued.

“These habits of mind pay dividends throughout our society. A culture that reveres discovery, invention, creativity, and a free society is the strongest guarantor of our nation’s well-being,” she said.

Sullivan urged scientists to contribute constructively to conversations about the role of scientific enterprise, calling for a buildup of the “stores of scientific knowledge” rather than investment only in what we think may yield immediate benefits.

The most pressing problems we face today are “rooted in the demands and stresses placed on our planet’s natural systems by a population of 7 billion growing toward 9,” Sullivan said. Only through further scientific advancement can we equip ourselves with the analytical tools to make wise decisions for a sustainable future, she said.

Sullivan again looked to the words of Vannevar Bush. “’On the wisdom with which we bring science to bear against the problems of the coming years, depends, in large measure, our future as a nation,’” she said, repeating Bush’s observation from 1945.

Sullivan again included her own postscript: “Tonight, we might well add ‘and the future of our planet.’”

Sullivan previously served as assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction and deputy NOAA administrator and performed the duties of NOAA’s chief scientist. She was also the inaugural director of the Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education Policy in the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University and president and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio. Sullivan was one of the first six women selected to join the NASA astronaut corps in 1978 and was the first American woman to walk in space.

The Carey Lecture was established in 1989 to honor William D. Carey, former executive officer of AAAS. The Carey Lecture is delivered each year at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy by an individual who exemplifies Carey’s leadership in articulating science policy issues.