January 1, 2020

A New Year’s resolution: answer Dr. Lubchenco’s call for a renewed social contract

Posted by Laura Guertin

I’ve been writing New Year’s resolution posts since I started on the AGU Blogosphere – whether it was writing about spending some time unplugged (2015), to general suggestions for faculty (2016), to the challenge of reading #365papers (2017). My posts after that started taking more of a “call to action” approach, encouraging scientists to help the public learn about NOAA (2018), to help students feel hope towards climate action (2019) and the follow-up post of ideas for generating climate optimism (2019). This year’s post is an excellent continuation of the recent posts, and it was inspired by a talk given by Dr. Jane Lubchenco at the 2019 AGU Fall Meeting.

On Tuesday of AGU week, there was a panel for the Union session Is Environmental Science Serving or Failing Society? Strategies for Rapid Progress on Climate Solutions. The panel was composed of speakers from the Rowan Institute to Project Drawdown. The first speaker was the person that has been challenging scientists to do work and communicate their results to society – Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Distinguished University Professor at Oregon State University, former Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and a host of additional titles and honors.

Dr. Lubchenco’s talk was titled Our Moment Of Truth: The Social Contract Realized? Her talk was recorded and is available in this embedded YouTube video, and below I’ll call attention to some of her main points and share links to resources.

Note that Dr. Lubchenco’s “call to action” begins with her 1997 AAAS Presidential Address, published in Science, titled Entering the Century of the Environment: A New Social Contract for Science [available open access]. Part of her message in this address:

All sciences are needed to meet the full range of challenges ahead. It is time for the scientific community to take responsibility for the contributions required to address the environmental and social problems before us, problems that, with the best intentions in the world, we have nonetheless helped to create. It is time for a reexamination of the agendas and definitions of the “grand problems” in various scientific disciplines.

We can no longer afford to have the environment be accorded marginal status on our agendas. The environment is not a marginal issue, it is the issue of the future, and the future is here now. — Lubchenco (1998), Science

[I have the video cued up to when Dr. Lubchenco begins speaking, but you can access the entire video on YouTube and catch her talk between 3:26 and 37:02. She continues after the formal presentation with Q&A until 52:25. A link to the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon she is showing in the above image is available and from May 17, 1992.]


Dr. Lubchenco masterfully laid out the question (in exchange for public funding, what is our obligation as scientists?) and the solution (doing science, sharing widely, do work where there is serious need, and do so with humility, transparency, and honesty). Calling attention to the Vitousek et al. (1997) paper on the Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems (Science, 277: 494-499), Dr. Lubchenco stated that scientists are not delivering on our social contract, that we must keep in mind the role of science in society – to inform understanding and decisions (not dictate, but inform), and to improve the human condition. The science community is developing solutions to our challenges, yet the solutions that exist are not at the scale society needs.

The take-home message is contained in this image I took from one of her slides. I think the slide speaks for itself.

As the title of her talk states, this is a “moment of truth” as we look at the current and projected future state of our climate, water, energy, ocean, and the overall environment. A reminder of what she asked from us scientists in her AAAS Presidential Address:

Part of our collective responsibility to society must include a scientific community-wide periodic reexamination of our goals and alteration of our course, if appropriate. The fact that the scientific community has responded to societal needs several times in the past century—although generally in wartime—provides encouragement that it is possible to mobilize and change course rapidly in the face of a crisis. — Lubchenco (1998), Science

Dr. Lubchenco also stated that the evaluation and reward structure in higher education does not always or consistently recognize work that benefits society and the communication efforts of our students and colleagues. How many of us are given credit on our annual reviews or in the promotion & tenure process for writing an op-ed, or speaking at a public event about our science? How much weight is that given compared to a published journal article? Which activity yields dissemination with the widest audience? And how many programs/departments take the time to train students to share their work with a non-STEM audience – especially with those that benefit the most from their work? In the end… how does this impact our social contract?

The new Contract should extend well beyond research and training activities. Some of the most pressing needs include communicating the certainties and uncertainties and seriousness of different environmental or social problems, providing alternatives to address them, and educating citizens about the issues. In parallel to initiating new research, strong efforts should be launched to better communicate scientific information already in hand. — Lubchenco (1998), Science

So how do we make this a New Year’s resolution? We each need to identify our capacity to put incentives in place. We collectively need to change the rewards for individuals and the collective good. We need to support our students and colleagues that engage in science communication. The time is now to start or step up our game – and to keep stepping up our game, so we don’t need an extension on our already-renewed social contract for science.

And for Dr. Lubchenco’s final slide…


Yes, count me in to do my part!