NOAA’s Jane Lubchenco on ‘society’s wicked problems’

Midway through her campus talk Thursday, Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, pointed to an animation that showed how closely forecasts by the National Weather Service — which is part of NOAA — predicted the path of Hurricane Sandy.

Jane Lubchenco and Graham Fleming

Jane Lubchenco listens to a question from the audience as Graham Fleming, Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research, looks on. (Barry Bergman photo)

“Tell me that’s not amazing,” she said. A Blum Hall audience heavily skewed toward Berkeley science faculty and students — some of them standing along the walls or sitting on the floor — applauded. A few gasped audibly.

The talk by Lubchenco, a marine ecologist and a university professor for three decades until President Obama picked her to lead NOAA in 2009, was organized under the auspices of the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute — described by Graham Fleming, Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research, as “an umbrella” for the campus’s work in that domain — and the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology, or BiGCB, an ambitious, multidisciplinary effort to design better predictive models for planetary changes and, hopefully, lay the groundwork for more effective policymaking.

As both an academic scientist and administrator of a “mission agency” — charged with predicting changes in the nation’s climate and weather and protecting its oceans and coasts — Lubchenco devoted most of her hourlong talk to illuminating “the different roles that scientists play in society,” especially their responsibility to address what she termed the “wicked problems” facing the country and the planet.

“The real challenge to us collectively is… not just documenting changes, not just saying what the problems are, but really creating solutions,” she said, outlining a “social contract” for scientists. “And that means interdisciplinary approaches. It means engaging with society on a variety of spatial scales, and it means thinking differently about what our roles as scientists are.”

Forgoing a lecturn or microphone, Lubchenco relied only on PowerPoint slides in arguing that the academic world has “an obligation to be part of the solution” to a surge in “extreme events” ranging from hurricanes, blizzards and floods to droughts and wildfires. In a typical year, she said, the U.S. might see three or four weather-related events resulting in damages of at least $1 billion. The year 2011 brought a record 14 such events “across every major category of extreme weather.”

In the case of Hurricane Sandy, the National Weather Service did “an absolutely spectacular job” of predicting the size and path of the storm, she said, allowing communities to take timely action to prepare for and deal with its impacts.

Lubchenco attributed the government’s forecasting accuracy to “an investment of public dollars into research over the last decade to better understand the physics of storms, and to have enough ability to assimilate massive amounts of data [and] crunch them with high-performance computers in models that have been based on advances in knowledge about how storms behave.”

“Most people in the public don’t really know how you get better and better at doing things,” she observed. “It’s really advances in the fundamental science that enabled this to happen. These are your tax dollars at work, and they are paying off in dividends.”

Lubchenco urged the scientists in the room to “become bilingual” — that is, to find more effective ways of communicating with the general public. Then she showed how it’s done, employing a baseball metaphor to explain how Sandy’s impacts were exacerbated by a sea-level rise resulting from global climate change.

“A baseball player who is on steroids is going to have a much higher probability of hitting lots and lots of home runs,” she said. “Now, you can’t turn around and say this particular home run was because of steroids. But you can say there are going to be a lot more home runs because this person is on steroids.

“I think the same is true,” she added, for the relationship between climate change and extreme weather. “We now have weather on steroids.”

Lubchenco closed by reminding her audience that “these big, wicked, global problems that are out there are ones that affect all of us, and it’s happening, in many cases, faster than many of us thought.”

“We all need to up the ante,” she said, “and to do so in a way that’s focused on the future that we are very quickly entering.”

Lubchenco’s call for “holistic, ecosystem thinking in national policies” — as well as her call to arms in the cause of addressing climate-related challenges — clearly resonated with the standing-room-only crowd.

“Jane Lubchenco’s tremendous leadership has redirected many of the best of our next-generation thinkers toward careers in ‘use-inspired’ science — science that is deeply fundamental, but also addresses wicked problems of urgent importance to society,” said Professor Mary Power, a key faculty member within the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology and, like Lubchenco, a former president of the 10,000-member Ecological Society of America.

Added Fleming, “The response to her talk shows Berkeley scientists are not only concerned that we’re at a global ‘tipping point,’ but convinced that science will be key to ameliorating problems like extreme weather and other human-influenced ecological disturbances. We believe in the social contract Jane Lubchenco described, and we’re fully committed to a multidisciplinary approach to addressing the ‘wicked challenges’ associated with climate change. That’s what the the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute and BiGCB are all about.”