I follow politics, and love to argue and discuss the subject with friends. But usually conservation science and scientists are on the outside looking in – external voices trying to influence federal policy.
That situation, however, just changed. President-elect Barack Obama has appointed two of the United States’ most prominent environmental and conservation scientists to leadership roles in his administration. What happens next is a story worth watching.
Jane Lubchenco from Oregon State University will be heading up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is concerned with everything from fisheries to the ocean depths to outer space, weather prediction and climate research.
Jane began her career as a field ecologist who performed one of the classic experiments in all of ecology – removing snails from portions of New England’s intertidal zone and seeing what happened to species diversity in response.
She expanded from small-scale intertidal studies to a leadership role with the Ecological Society of America, which she almost singlehandedly dragged into a broader commitment to sustainability science.
Jane also has been a champion for marine conservation, and especially the use of marine protected areas as a strategy for marine conservation (sometimes being at odds with current NOAA thinking on fisheries management).
John Holdren from Harvard University will be science advisor to Obama. I first heard of John when as an undergraduate in 1971 I was assigned to read his classic paper with Paul Ehrlich on the impact of human population growth on the environment – it was a prescient analysis that to this day is worth reading.
This is the paper that laid out the IPAT concept: environmental impact = “population size” x “affluence or consumption” x “technology factor.” John went on to Berkeley, where for many years he became the quintessential modern interdisciplinary scientist.
He was famous for his graduate course unofficially called “tricks of the trade,” in which he taught students how to manage information, how to function on a committee, common mistakes when interpreting data, how to present information clearly, and even how to fight jet lag.
Most recently, he has focused on the energy-climate conundrum and been a strong advocate for investment in new green technology and in an alliance of business, government and social change in pursuit of a sustainable future.
It is not going to be easy for Lubchenco and Holdren — because as savvy and brilliant as they may be, the federal government is an unwieldy beast. But for those of us committed to marine conservation and a sustainable planet, there could not be two more knowledgeable scientists in these leadership positions.
Neither Holdren nor Lubchenco would characterize themselves narrowly as conservation scientists – but this is exactly what they are.
They are just ahead of many of us in realizing that there can be no future for biodiversity unless we address broader environmental problems as central societal problems and do so in a manner that takes account of human needs.
(Image: Jane Lubchenco. Credit: Daniel Heaf under a Creative Commons license.)