College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

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

December 10, 2012

By Barry Bergman, UC Berkeley NewsCenter

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 listens to a question from the audience as Graham Fleming, Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research, looks on. “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.”

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