Dr. Jane Lubchenco Delivers Woodworth Lecture

By Jorja Rose '18

Photo of Dr. Jane Lubchenco's Opening Slide.

Photo of Dr. Jane Lubchenco's Opening Slide.

This past Thursday evening in Tishman Auditorium, the Honorable Dr. Jane Lubchenco delivered the 2018 presentation for the Robert H. Woodworth Science Lecture Series. The series, which honors one of Bennington’s founding faculty members, brings renowned scientific professionals to campus to lecture on their work.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco is a veritable giant in the scientific field. Her list of credentials includes serving as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, as Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under President Barack Obama, and as the first U.S. Science Envoy for the Oceans. She is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Nierenberg Prize, and is one of the most widely recognized marine ecologists in the world.

The lecture delivered a surprisingly optimistic message, emphasizing the successes that politicians, businesses, and communities have made in replenishing fisheries globally. She stated, “If we could replicate and accelerate the progress, we could actually turn around and challenge what’s happening.” However, Lubchenco remained cognizant of the looming task that is protecting and restoring the world’s oceans, a feat that will require more than just shifting fishing practices.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco.

Lubchenco also made a call for scientists to descend from their “ivory tower” and engage the public with their work. “We kind of get crosswise with the public because of a lack of good understanding about where information comes from,” she said. “We really need to pay a lot more attention to making our science more accessible and more relevant, and becoming what I call ‘bilingual.’”

This bilingualism refers to being able to speak in layman’s terms about important issues, in addition to the technoscientific jargon. Lubchenco shared an anecdote from when she flew in Air Force 2 with then-Vice President Joe Biden to oversee Hurricane Sandy clean-up. After giving Biden a rundown on the issue’s scientific background, he turned to her and said, “I thought you were a scientist.” When she replied that she was, he responded, “But I understood everything you just said.”

While students appreciated the significance of having Lubchenco on campus, the lecture raised questions for many, and highlighted what is perhaps a generational divide in thinking about climate change and the accessibility of science. An Nguyen, ‘18, who studies science at Bennington, wishes Lubchenco had said more about what role students could play in making science accessible. “The only thing I wish she could have gone more into is what we as students and scientists in training could do to change the rewards structure in academia, given that our path is at least somewhat dependent on it,” Nguyen comments. “As it was, the talk seemed geared toward the public, which is great! I love how many people turned up.”

Sarah Gross, ‘18, reflects on Lubchenco’s Friday afternoon Science Workshop talk, “Science in a Post-Truth World.” “I felt a twinge of panic during Dr. Lubchenco's talk when she spoke of the collective responsibility for scientist to turn their work into stories and make science accessible to the public – although I agree with the mission, that's a pretty substantial burden.  The responsibility of educating the ‘general public’ that facts are facts feels like a problem I won't be able to solve, and it also felt infantilizing towards both scientists and non-scientists alike.”

Fiona McGovern, ‘18, describes herself as “extremely disappointed” with Thursday night’s talk. “I think I was excited about the prospect of someone who was interested in making science more accessible to people. But in terms of addressing climate change, she didn’t propose to change any structures of nation-states and any structures that weren’t capitalist. I was really upset that she prioritized profit and incentives for big corporations, and while I realize that’s a way to ‘buy-in’ to address environmental issues, I thought it was deeply problematic.”

It’s true that much of the success Lubchenco has had in replenishing fisheries relies on creating the right incentives for big business – although it is worth noting that Lubchenco has worked extensively with local fishermen and their communities, a point that perhaps lacked emphasis in Thursday night’s talk. Still, a career spent thinking within predominant economic structures, rather than beyond them, seemed to lack the radical tone that some Bennington students craved from such a big-name speaker. McGovern adds, “I understand what her former role is, and am not surprised that she’s coming from this direction.”

Other students offered more enthusiastic feedback. Liam McRae, ‘18, is impressed with how Lubchenco and the teams she’s worked with employed economic incentives to generate real change. He says, “Watching Jane Lubchenco’s talk was exciting if only to learn that such a strategy had been working out. It was remarkable to hear that a law forcing commercial fishing companies to underfish actually got passed.”

Cody Jacobs, ‘19, says, “It made me feel more optimistic.” And that, perhaps, was one of the biggest takeaways.