Cross-Fertilization and Collaboration are Crucial in a Modern World, Says National Academy of Sciences President

Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, advocates for interdisciplinary collaboration and discusses the importance of having scientists at the table when policy is made in an exclusive interview with Earthzine.

Marcia McNutt in the balcony of the historic Golden Gate Theatre in September 2016. Image Credit: Kelley Christensen

Marcia McNutt in the balcony of the historic Golden Gate Theatre in September 2016. Image Credit: Kelley Christensen

“The oceans have a lot to teach us,” said Marcia McNutt, geophysicist and president of National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

McNutt was the keynote speaker at the MTS/IEEE Oceans ‘16 plenary session in September. Prior to being elected president of NAS in 2016, she served as editor-in-chief of the Journal Science, and her career highlights include leadership of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

While addressing the early-morning crowd of conference attendees from all areas of ocean services, she spoke about the history of science-based decision-making in government, which she traced back to President Lincoln’s decision to establish NAS in 1863.

“From a scientific standpoint, Abraham Lincoln observed (the battle of Hampton Roads) and he knew the ships (were) designed by scientists and naval engineers and he wanted to have the scientists on his side,” said McNutt. In U.S. history, this marks the first battle between ships fortified with iron. She made a compelling case for science in the decision-making process to create evidence-based policy firmly rooted in approaching problems scientifically rather than ideologically.

“We, as ocean scientists, need to get more involved in policy. I think we need to encourage more of our students and post-docs to engage through fellowships on Capital Hill. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every oceanographic institution sent one of their best and brightest to run for Congress once a decade?”

IEEE Earthzine’s Science Writer Jenny Woodman and Science Editor Kelley Christensen spoke with McNutt after her speech.

KC: You said that it’s important for scientists to make policy. How do we encourage interdisciplinary collaboration across fields to create better policies?

MM: The struggle has always been that those who make really deep and enduring breakthroughs need to have expertise that goes beyond superficial. But, it’s also true, currently, that deep and enduring expertise is less likely to be found in any one discipline. It is more likely to be found because they were able to take something from one field and something from another field and something from a third field and create their own amalgam of understanding — put it together in a way that no one else knew about before. That’s how they were able to create a new frontier. And that includes the frontiers with the social sciences. One of the biggest areas right now is called convergence — convergence between the engineering and the biological sciences, where people are being inspired by biology to do new things in engineering and vice versa.

The problem with this is, in order to do it, there are, frankly, language barriers. You learn more new vocabulary in a first year biology class than you do in Spanish 1. So, it’s not possible to simply take someone who’s a sociologist and you sit them down with a biologist and the two collaborate. No, they don’t speak the same language. It would be like you putting a Spaniard with a French person and assuming they are going to collaborate … I think the issue here has to be that early on in people’s educational careers, they need to learn the language of the other fields. They don’t necessarily have to go really deep into it, but they have to learn enough of these other languages that they feel confident that they can go pick up a paper, or pick up a book and they can get into it because it’s not Greek to them.

“More and more of the decisions that we are making need sound science for their input. We were in a meeting with the deputy secretary of state and he made a very interesting comment. He said he is realizing he needs scientists in the room just to tell him what kind of scientists he needs in the room.” – Marcia McNutt, geophysicist and president of National Academy of Sciences.

KC: You spoke of robotics as the future. What do you think needs to change about the policy environment in this country, how can we advance that task?

MM: Robotics is just such a rich field right now. There’s certainly lots of funding for it … from industry … from pure research … from applied research, because of its use for the military. Industry really needs (robotics) for things like deep sea interventions and all sorts of applications.

I do think that there’s not enough cross-fertilization between these different domains where people work and that’s one reason why (when I was editor of Science Magazine, we) started (the journal) Science Robotics — to get more cross-fertilization so that people aren’t reinventing the wheel. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be sitting in a meeting and hearing about someone using the most primitive sort of solution to a problem that was solved long ago over in another domain, but they didn’t know about it.

Getting that cross-fertilization is important. For example, in space weight is a huge premium; they’ve got miniaturization down pat. Weight has never been a premium in the ocean because basically you never paid a premium for launch. But, now, as people are packing more into (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles) AUVs and wanting to get lower hotel loads, suddenly miniaturization is a good idea, because some of these miniature devices are drawing lower hotel loads. So, they can borrow from space in that regard.

In medical, everything was about precision. If you want to have a robot do a surgery for you, precision was everything. You have to have that robotic arm, it can’t make a tenth of a millimeter mistake in a cut. In the ocean, if you’re just picking up a rock, you can have kind of a clumsy actuator arm, but now, if you’re trying to pick up a jellyfish, maybe you do want something that’s fairly gently and finely controlled. You can borrow from medical robotics to get very finely controlled actuators for more delicate things in the ocean. There are a lot of things where the problem’s already been solved over here, let’s just borrow it.

JW: In your plenary speech, you spoke about the need for scientists to enter into the policy arena. You asked the audience to imagine what we could accomplish if we sent our best and brightest to Congress. Could you speak a bit more on this subject?

MM: Most of the people in leadership roles in our country have backgrounds at being attorneys or businessmen, and very few of them have technical backgrounds. You go to other countries — the two best examples right now are China and Germany — they are really technocracies, where leadership has strong technical backgrounds and they’re proud of it.

In fact, I’m even seeing a growing movement — we saw this with Brexit, where in Great Britain, there was a sense that the electorate didn’t even want to hear from experts, which is puzzling. If you ask those people if they wanted to renovate their homes, would they rather have their homes renovated by a contractor who really knew HVAC and electrical and how to construct a home that would withstand the winds and the storms in the area where they lived? Or would they rather have it constructed by someone who knew nothing about plumbing, nothing about heating and air conditioning, nothing about proper electrical work and who had no idea how to make a structurally sound house? I think they’d all tell you that they’d prefer the former rather than the latter.

The same is really true of politics. More and more of the decisions that we are making need sound science for their input. We were in a meeting with the deputy secretary of state and he made a very interesting comment. He said he is realizing he needs scientists in the room just to tell him what kind of scientists he needs in the room.

JW: The Obama administration has made a concerted effort to have scientists at the table; have you seen this first hand?

MM: (President Obama) did set a very high bar for, not only the number of scientists, but for the quality of people that he had in his administration. When you look at the examples in other countries, I’m thinking that this is going to become a competitive issue. If you really want your nation to be competitive, getting better science into your decisions is going to be essential. It is going to be a matter of national security, of cyber security, because in the end — if you have access to scientists you can answer questions.

The important thing is: Do you know what questions to ask? And it’s all about who is asking the questions. If you don’t have scientists at the top, you don’t even know that you’re not asking the right questions.

Jenny Woodman is a science writer and the Writing Club coordinator for IEEE Earthzine. Follow her on Twitter: @JennyWoodman

Kelley Christensen is the science editor for IEEE Earthzine. Follow her on Twitter: @kjhchristensen

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