HomeNewsDirector’s almanac: March 2018

Director’s almanac: March 2018

I’ve heard people say that March is the snowiest month in Minnesota. It turns out that’s not true – or no longer true now that the climate is changing. So spring – now earlier than it was historically – is truly around the corner.

This month I’d like to share some thoughts I recently shared at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advance of Science, the world’s largest general scientific organization. The AAAS annual meeting is a place where new, cutting-edge research is revealed to the public and where scientific leaders talk about the role of science in society.

The ideas in my talk are ideas at the heart of IonE: How do we build an academy that is ready, willing and rewarded for serving the public good? At AAAS, I argued that we need to get academic environmental scientists outside of their traditional modes and mindsets – and I showed how the University of Minnesota is leading that transition. What follows is an adapted version of what I had to say – and, as always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.


Society is experiencing unprecedented environmental change – and we need science to make sense of these changes and help us decide what to do about them. It follows directly from this need that academic scientists have a duty to help society survive, and even thrive, in the face of these profound environmental changes.

Despite this broad duty to the common good, the language we – scientists – use to talk about environmental change reveals a lot about how we tend to see the role of science in society. 

First, we love to emphasize that science delivers facts. That’s absolutely true: After all, CO2 is a greenhouse gas. But that’s just a fact. But a lot of what the world needs from science – and a lot of what science can and should deliver – isn’t about simple facts.

We also focus on describing impacts: the bad things that happen when the environment changes. Our journals are full of talk about vulnerability, as a measure of risk yet to come. And we prioritize conservation – that is, keeping things as they were. These words emphasize the negative and revere the past.

But now think about some other words: prosperity, freedom, stewardship, and equity. These are things that voters, policy-makers, and students want – and we need science to help us get there. When scientists work toward these things – when we put these kinds of words at the center of our work – we share core values with the public and help create a positive future.

For example, scientists can measure the risk of climate change to biodiversity. Experts expect that 900,000 species could go extinct this century due to climate change. But the methods that estimate risk can also be used to make recommendations about smart climate change adaptation, such as landscapes that promote species migration or urban environments that are climate resilient and embrace biodiversity (like this group and this map).

In principle, there’s nothing preventing academics in the environmental sciences from engaging in forward-looking research – research that tells us not only how the world is but what it can and should be. Some fields – such as engineering and agronomy – already do. But many fields are focused more on assessment than solutions. We can do better.

At the Institute on the Environment, we believe there are some essential ingredients to building an academia that better serves the common good. As a mission-driven, interdisciplinary organization focused on innovation in research and leadership, we take our duty very seriously – to the University of Minnesota, to our fellow Minnesotans, and to the world.

Here are six things we are doing now – and are working to do better every day:

We need to foster academics who take responsibility not just for diagnosing problems but also for offering tangible solutions. At IonE, we do this by funding research that includes solutions in study plans and designs, right from the start. (For example: We’re very proud of our recent grants on water sustainability.)

We need to put people in the center of research about the environment. Scientists might think they study biophysical processes, but it’s people – with values and beliefs – who make decisions about the environment. At IonE, we made this orientation an explicit part of our mission: We lead the way toward a future in which people and planet prosper together.

We should embrace – not fear – public scrutiny. At IonE, we are working to seed public engagement earlier in to the research process, incentivizing co-creation over outreach after the fact (like this recent work with the Minnesota state government).

We must move faster. All of our stakeholders and constituents want us to. At IonE, we’re developing a new model for rapidly spinning up teams that can complete collaborative research – solving partners’ problems – within nine to 12 months. (Stay tuned for more news on this front!)

We have to provide training about listening to and working with stakeholders. Some of the folks that need the most training (and for whom the least support is available) are our most esteemed researchers. At IonE, we work to lift up our whole community – from faculty fellows to undergraduate students – through workshops and peer mentoring.

We need boundary organizations within academia. It takes time and talent to get outside the university, and we need to make it easier for our best researchers to do that. One way we make these connections at IonE is through convenings put practitioners in direct collaboration with researchers.


I’ll be sticking to these six points in other talks this year – and leading by example is one of the most important ways we create a different way of doing. In honor of the season of rebirth (spring!), we are working toward continual rebirth of the academy itself. Onward!

Want to learn more? You can read more about ideas related to the six points above in this paper led by IonE’s Bonnie Keeler and in a series of three blogs that colleagues and I wrote for Nature magazine a few years ago.

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