Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ben@NSF: A professor’s experience in the real world ..... of DC.

In early winter 2011, then Geosciences Assistant Director Tim Killeen approached me with the suggestion to spend some time at the National Science Foundation working on cross-directorate program activities.  A late March dinner with Tim and Deputy AD Marge Cavanaugh finalized the arrangements and I started my one year stint in August 2011.  I found a (pricy) 1B apartment in Arlington at stone’s throw from NSF, allowing easy transportation to work and to Reagan National Airport.  Living on the 15th floor, my vertical commute was about as much as my horizontal commute to work.  My IPA assignment was in the GEO directorate’s front office, focusing on the foundation’s evolving Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) portfolio that was initiated and led by Killeen, and related activities.  I also had a role as program officer in one of the SEES programs, SEES Fellows, which focuses on workforce development by supporting young scientists to enter the sustainability research area with a multi-year grant.  Cross-directorate activities at NSF are much like interdisciplinary teaching and research at universities.  Everybody talks about it in a positive manner, but execution is complicated by siloed organizational structures.  Nevertheless, the commitments among the directorate ADs and NSF leadership (Suresh and Marrett) ensured that significant progress could be made in the development of this investment area.  When I write this, 16 programs fall under the NSF’s SEES portfolio, five of which were finalized when I was there and have recently been posted on the NSF website ( ). 

What is sustainability science?  Discussing the term alone can fill several pages, but we define it as:
In a sustainable world, human needs would be met without chronic harm to the environment and without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Meeting the grand challenge of sustainability requires multi-faceted approaches, with research and education at the nexus of societal needs and behavior, environmental impacts and economic demands.  NSF supports this through interdisciplinary, use-inspired research and education programs that reflect the foundation’s unique role for the nation.  Three goals guide the portfolio’s development: (1) Building the knowledge base by supporting interdisciplinary research and education that facilitates the move toward global sustainability; (2) Growing the workforce of the future, by supporting the development of a workforce trained in interdisciplinary scholarship needed to understand and address the complex issues of sustainability; and (3) Forging critical partnerships, by building linkages among projects and partners, and add new participants in the sustainability research enterprise, including industry and policymakers. 

Given the above description, it is clear that the SEES portfolio takes a broad approach, which can group in the following themes :

  • Natural Environment - Understanding of the natural and living environment, particularly coupled human and biophysical effects on climate systems, hydrologic  systems, geologic systems, and ecosystems.
  • Human Environment - Focusing, across the full spectrum from individuals to societies, on social, behavioral and economic aspects of environmental sustainability.  Such research also seeks to understand how scientific discovery and its development results in societal adaptation and resilience.
  • Built Environment - Examining the interaction between technological and constructed systems, such as urban areas, electric grids, cyberinfrastructure, transportation networks, energy resources, materials, and extreme events, in the context of environmental sustainability.  
You will find more information on the programs and its goals on the SEES website and in a piece I wrote with Tim and Marge for AGU's Eos in early 2012 (

One year at an organization as diverse and complex as the NSF does not allow a full assessment of the enterprise, but I came away impressed with the pervasive commitment to the research and education communities.  Leadership, program officers and support staff all share the mission of NSF and are very concerned about the well-being of their respective constituencies.  By interacting with leadership and program officers in many directorates, I saw different perspectives and heard alternative opinions, which was most refreshing.  Besides the satisfaction of working on an important activity for human society, I also returned intellectually invigorated, and have just started a new First-Year Seminar that deals with sustainability issues (Earth159).  NSF is a welcoming place for “rotators”, encouraging new perspectives and supporting one’s personal development, while maintaining focus on the mission of the organization.  The personal separation, with my wife Lies staying in Ann Arbor for her work, and resulting commutes between DCA and DTW, were probably the least attractive part of the arrangement for me.  TSA officers at Reagan soon recognized me as I regularly went through the Delta security line (perhaps my tong twisting lastname helped their memory).  I encourage active scientists to consider a rotation at NSF, because such involvements bring community experiences and perspectives directly to the table.  From my own perspective, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the activities that were started and newly proposed for future years during my stay, within a political climate that has an uneven view of science, and sustainability science in particular. 
(from UM's Dept of E&ES Fall Newsletter 2012)

A troubling footnote (Dec 2014)
The NSF takes security and conflicts very serious and does so in a heavy-handed manner.  Interviews and conflicts are handled without much recourse.  Then, my personal information was stolen from "secure" government servers, which includes extensive health, financial, family and friend records, and physical attributes (like images and fingerprints).  A form letter and some financial tracking promises are offered in response to this breach of trust.  Given their many protocols and procedures, one should expect that a government organization likewise prioritizes personal care and respect.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Planet under Pressure: Planetary Stewardship (Day 4; final day)

Planet under Pressure: Planetary Stewardship
Several high-ranking people gave presentations on the final day.  A UNESCO director, a British minister (the political kind) and several leads from major groups, including a passionate Johan Rockstrom on the new "Future Earth" initiative.  They all said the right words about need for change; none were sure about actions toward change.  In contrast, an outstanding presentation by Berkeley prof Richard Norgaard got to the point.  Until we change our current economic value system, no change is likely, if even possible.  There is need for a moral path that is rooted in international trust.  Neither is there now, but this is the likely way forward.  Equity, not efficiency should guide the new economic system.  And, the desire for market-based win-win solutions is fundamentally flawed,  There is no win for everybody; instead, we need to back up a little and want less.  Incentives by our governments should be toward the economic system we want, not building on the past.  I would love to hear a long lecture from this guy, including a bit more on the hard theory he alluded to.
The stewardship panel was 80% female this time (well-balanced, according to one panelists), which solicited a tweeted question about the value of a matriarchal system v today's patriarchal structure.  Are women better in governing?  None of the panelists went as far as supporting that contention ... in public.
The conference ended with a PuP declaration that can be found here:
Again, the right words and certainly the right spirit.  Unfortunately all this gives me little hope for any progress at the Rio+20 summit later this year.  The key politicians have not even decided to attend (like UK, USA, China), so agreements would have limited impact.
This type of conference, which is unusual for me, offered a great experience.  It reminds me of op-ed pieces in newspapers that have powerful words, but do not require accountability from the writers.  It also reminds me of the classes my colleagues and I give.  Similarly, professors are not held accountable for change.
No grand conclusion, although pathways are crystallizing in my head.  As such, the PuP conference provided lots of excellent stuff to engage my future classes, which are stocked by the young folks who will demand action and may be willing to accept change for themselves.  Clearly, continued (economic) growth is not the answer.  Equity and human behavior are directions toward solutions.
Saturday, March 31, 2012.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Planet under Pressure: Challenges to Progress (day 3)

Planet under Pressure: Challenges to Progress.
Awoken by the hotel fire alarm (picture), I missed the first two presentations while standing outside in "casual wear". No fire and not the nicest way to get up. However, I made the presentation by Laurence Tabiana, who offered a levelheaded assessment of global governance.  She nicely situated the failed Copenhagen conference as the end of old world thinking, and expecting little future progress in international collaboration. We are in a stage of state-based thinking, which limits the willingness for international cooperation.
The panel echoed this and also emphasized that we remain in a world that measures national progress by GDP. New measures are needed that include natural capital. Also, a new thinking about values is needed to convince citizenry of our place on this planet.  Is a catastrophe needed to jolt us into action, much like the Great Depression and World War II?  Hope it does not have to come to this.
A break-out on green economies proved disappointing, ins pite of moderator Nisha Pillai efforts.  High-level folks (including Aussie minister, OECD rep, WTO rep, etc) gave mostly platitudes.  The Aussie politicians did offer a very astute observation that  consumers do not drive all decisions.  We often do not know what the upstream connections are (for example, where did the electricity come from in food production, or the source of battery parts in our Prius).  A second break-out on hazards showed the UK's attempt at integrating all its agencies into one alert system.  I asked about upscaling to larger, less homogeneous societies, and cheekily added less rule-obeying people than the Brits.  Won't be easy, especially in developing economies, where government agencies compete instead of collaborate (say, Brazil).  I am developing my own view of environmental risk assessment, which revolves around an individual's willingness to accept risk.  Give the info and any alerts, but let citizens decide on tolerable risk (perhaps with their insurance companies).
Final day tomorrow is on planetary stewardship and run up to Rio+20 (named after the 1992 Rio conference, 20y later).  I doubt that Rio+20 will achieve much, based on what I've learned here, and limited apatite for agreements among developed nations.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Planet under Pressure: Options and Opportunities (Day 2)

Planet under Pressure: Options and Opportunities. 
Serious stuff today, mostly about what needs to be done.  Perspectives on economics, food&water and other sustenance issues.  The positive role that women play was well articulated by Bina Agarwal (both impacts on their lives and governance roles) and Dutch economist de Boer emphasized the need for a new dialogue with decision makers.  The panel, again with many UKers (although sometimes masked by affiliations with Euro-mainland institutions), picked up on this focus on human behavior and human values.  We need to go beyond describing the processes and issues, and try to touch the heart of the global citizenry.  Moreover, positive arguments about our collective future are a lot more useful than scare scenarios.
A Research and Action Agenda break-out session did not deliver much of an action agenda.  A pattern that is emerging across the conference thus far.  Steps in the right direction were explored, however, focusing on the "what" instead of the "how" of issues that are before us.  I am ready to hear more.
I then attended a nerdy break-out session on Geo-engineering that was science-heavy (mineral reactions, atmospheric particles, yield calculations, etc) and quite illuminating.  It seems that such CO2 removal processes may not be terribly effective, so geo-engineering offers little hope in the short run (but would create lots, lots of jobs).  Whereas there are processes that can reduce CO2, scaling it to the 30Gt of CO2 that humanity adds each year seems impossible.  Perhaps returning areas to natural vegetation is the best, short-term CO2 capture scenario, meaning that we reduce domesticated grasslands/pastures and return them to more C-intensive vegetation without need for nutrient fertilization.  This should appeal to the vegetarians among us, as croplands could be unaffected.  Frankly, they have point.  Like so many, I too enjoy my meat, but agree that average intake can easily be reduced.
An early evening informational session on a new global initiative, "Future Earth", illustrates the genuine desire of the community to see change, but also the lack of a convincing socio-political strategy towards change.  More on that likely to come in the days ahead.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Planet under Pressure: State of the Planet (Day 1)

Planet under Pressure: State of the Planet.
The first day of the conference focused on general descriptions and views of the planet from a human perspective. Clearly, the conference is more about "People under Pressure" than "Planet under Pressure", based on these presentations. An annoyingly large number of UK speakers and panelists were featured at this aspiringly global conference. Many of them had the same message, "time to act", a decade ago, emphasizing the stalemate we are in and our inability to create actionable knowledge.
The sciency talks were good.  I especially liked the biodiversity presentation by Sandra Diaz and Steffen gave his informative Anthropocene graphs talk (both non-english accents).  A famous economics guy, Tony Giddens (he was called Lord several times), offered nothing insightful, but was, of course, selected in the UK news for his message (that is, we need change).  Panels are now the standard mode of these type of meetings, with panelists talking for 5 min about their thoughts on their topic of choice, and sometimes answers to (tweeted) questions.  A seemingly bored UK Chief Scientific Advisor, John Beddington, did not hide his effort to prefer prepared words (he was called Sir John each time, which makes me think of A Knight's Tale, not science guy).  The moderator, a former? BBC-WN anchor, was the most energetic of the morning.
The afternoon breakout that I attended on the Anthropocene was more engaging.  This was one of 10 or so break-out sessions.  The Anthropocene was loosely defined as the epoch when humans are the main surface processes driver.  I'd agree that we might be seeing the bottom of a new epoch or it is just a brief geologic event (like the consequences of an impact).  Too soon to claim the end of the Holocene (which is already over-tuning the record) with little geologic evidence that a new identifiable human-centric epoch will be lasting 1000s of years.  On the other hand, unless something dramatic happens soon in today's world, these surface processes may be noticeably preserved in the geologic record.  The jury is out on the Anthropocene, but it makes a great discussion starter about human impacts, regardless.
Good day overall.
Monday, March 26, 2012.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Planet under Pressure: Getting There (Day 0)

Planet under Pressure: Getting There.
Hoping for an oversold plane and a bump to business, I only got bumped by turbulence.  Heathrow is completely on the opposite side of London from the Excel conference center, so serious tubing was needed to get there.  The London Underground is wonderful on Sunday.  Not busy and perfectly on time.  It still took 1:30 h to get to the new Aloft hotel that is conveniently attached to the conference center (thank you, Expedia).  Early check-in available, so at 10:30a in my room.  The conference is one of those modern contraptions that are airy, but otherwise have little character; see picture 1.  Apparently an Abu Dhabie company owns it and Elsevier is the organizing company of PuP here, so corporate sustainability is already well represented (..). 
The conference center is in a former London docks area, which is being developed for suburban living and public other uses.  Lots of new glass buildings and several others under construction.  The hotel is also brand new and shows only as a sandlot on Google; it apparently only opened last November.  Have a nice city view from my "loft" room; parking, canal and London outskirts (2nd picture). 
Nothing on science or policy today, but we did have a reception supported by the folks who give the Blue Planet prize.  Lots of young people and many of the older crowd looks like me (variably grey-haired men).  Stay tuned for actual content (I'd say beef, but many here are likely vegetarians).
Planet under Pressure website is at
Sunday, March 25, 2012.