Working Life

Going where the science matters

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Science  30 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6260, pp. 594
DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6260.594

Not long ago, I was a tenured professor on a sabbatical at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. One winter morning, reflecting on why we scientists work as hard as we do, I identified three primary drivers: curiosity, ambition, and idealism. We chase interesting problems, wherever they lead. We're a competitive lot, with career advancement an important incentive. And we're compelled by a desire to benefit society.

Later that week, an old friend sent a photo taken in the Adirondack Mountains during my first summer's fieldwork as a Ph.D. student. Looking at my 24-year-old face, framed by long black hair and a dreadful orange sweater, I asked myself, “What was on that young fellow's mind?” Clearly, he wanted to satisfy his curiosity about how climate change affected ecological communities. He was idealistic, with notions of applying his training to the cause of conservation. In his naiveté, he viewed personal career advancement as unimportant, even contradictory to the greater good.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“What would he think of my grayer self … some 30 years later?”

What would he think of my grayer self, sitting in my Oxford chambers some 30 years later? Though I hadn't answered all the questions that gripped him, he'd be pleased that I'd learned a lot about climate change and ecology. He'd probably be happy that I'd had a successful career—though I expect he'd ask whether I hadn't been co-opted by “the system.” And he'd be wondering in exactly what ways I had contributed to conserving the natural world. My honest answer: “Not many, beyond haranguing students, giving public lectures, and writing academic papers.”

Not long after these reflections, some colleagues suggested that I look into a job opening at a federal science agency to lead a program aimed at bridging the gap between the climate-change research and the natural-resource management communities. My knee-jerk reaction was to say no. I was comfortably tenured, enjoying the honors and perks of an established academic career. But tugging at my coat sleeve was my younger self, asking me why I shouldn't reinvest my knowledge and experience into benefiting the environment.

With no good answers for him, and a reawakening idealism, I applied for the job. It's now been 3 years since I assumed directorship of the Southwest Climate Science Center in Tucson, Arizona. I've worked harder than I ever did as a professor. I've had to acquire new skills, and I'm still struggling to understand all the dimensions of my new field. But the work has been interesting and rewarding in countless ways. I am fostering partnerships between researchers and managers to address a variety of urgent conservation challenges: How will sea-level rise affect vulnerability of coastal marshes to storm surges? What forest management practices are most effective for increasing drought resilience? What are the best ways for researchers and managers to engage?

Do I miss anything from my days as a professor? Certainly teaching, but I still mentor graduate students and younger colleagues. I continue doing research, but I've redirected much of my effort from paleoecology to conservation. I still get paid to satisfy my curiosity, but now I'm doing so in the center's rich environment of multiple academic disciplines and professional cultures, and with the view to solve compelling real-world problems.

Is my job perfect? Certainly not. As in any administrative job, some tasks are neither interesting nor enjoyable, and government administration has unique aggravations. But on the positive side, I no longer suffer the exhausting high-passion, low-stakes squabbles that can arise among university faculty members. And, most importantly, I enjoy the added satisfaction of knowing that my center is having a real impact on conservation. So, looking again at that old photo, I wonder whether the grin on my face came from knowing that, one day, I would inform and influence conservation in a direct and tangible way.

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