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Dr. Lubchenco’s Return to Academia: A Personal Perspective

Posted On December 14, 2012 by

Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator discusses the U.S. 2010 Science and Technology R&D Budget at the American Association for the Advancement of Science auditorium, Thursday, May 7, 2009, in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

When Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced this week that she was returning to Oregon State University for personal reasons, I wasn’t surprised. I had the pleasure of being a postdoctoral associate in her lab for a short while in the late 1990’s and I came to know how important her home on the Oregon coast was to her.

Over the last 4 decades, Dr. Lubchenco has built a remarkable scientific career which has ranged from intertidal ecology to serving as President for the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS). As a recent Ph.D. in her lab, I benefited greatly from her scientific advice. But perhaps more importantly, as a father of two young children at the time, I benefited from her guidance on how to balance work and family.

During her 4-year tenure at NOAA, Dr. Lubchenco has led the agency to a number of successes. Many of these were highlighted in her email to the staff on Tuesday, but for me, it was her keen insights about the role of scientists in society that shaped my future and ultimately resulted in a very different view of science – and scientists – than when I emerged from graduate school in 1998.

In pursuing a doctoral degree in marine ecology, I focused on “pure” academic research; “applied” questions were widely considered not academically credible at the time. However, while many of my grad-student colleagues and I researched our “natural” study systems, we had a sinking feeling that we were witnesses to a slow-moving environmental train wreck, as overfishing, pollution, and climate change inexorably altered the natural stage upon which we did our experiments.

Despite this realization, scientists that chose paths other than at a university – pursuing a career in government or at non-governmental organizations like Ocean Conservancy – were generally frowned upon.

But the tide turned when Dr. Lubchenco gave an address before the Ecological Society of America (one year before I graduated) outlining a new contract between scientists and society. Dr. Lubchenco thus became a leading proponent that people with scientific training – and the ability to communicate effectively with non-technical audiences – must play a critical role in helping inform policy decisions.

Central to this was the idea that important, real world research questions must be addressed if society is to ensure that the ocean continues to deliver the goods and services upon which we all depend. And Dr. Lubchenco relentlessly encouraged scientists to step outside the “ivory tower” to communicate what they knew to elected officials and other decision makers.

Her courage to advocate for this new way of thinking about the role of science in society gave me the courage to pursue a path that brought me to Ocean Conservancy. I work with a remarkably talented group of lawyers, communication specialists and policy experts on some of the most pressing ocean issues of our time – overfishing, ocean acidification, marine debris and the need for more protected areas in the sea. Science and scientists are central to all we do, but it is our integrated approach that yields durable solutions.

Our team has greatly valued the important work we have done with Dr. Lubchenco during her tenure at NOAA.

While there is much more to be done, the oceans – and I – are better off because of our time together.