Story posted March 09, 2009
National Medal of Science winner Susan Solomon has often found herself at the center of hot topics. She was, after all, one of the atmospheric chemists who first identified the cause of the ozone hole.
As co-chair of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), she hunkered down with 113 governments to produce the 2007 report that scientifically declared “Warming of the climate system is now unequivocal.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that during her two-day visit to Bowdoin in February, 2009, she also found herself in the middle of one of the hottest debates of the day: the relationship of scientists to their work—particularly environmental scientists whose research has the potential to shape the future of life on the planet.
For Solomon, it’s a complex relationship that first exhibits itself at a private “Women in Science” luncheon, which she herself has requested. “I like to have these kinds of gatherings when I visit different colleges,” says Solomon companionably, as a stream of students, professors and lab instructors files into a Thorne Hall lounge.
She settles into a mound of salad and addresses the group: “I’m interested in understanding more about the way issues for women in science have evolved,” she says. “Think about what you want to discuss, what interests you, and then I do have a few tips for survival for women in the sciences which people sometimes find useful.”
It doesn’t take long for the conversation to get animated. The budding scientists discuss their first explorations of science in Bowdoin labs and classrooms, where roughly 40 percent of their professors are women.
Their elders describe an earlier landscape: Attending graduate science programs with no female professors, being among the only women in their classes, finding few overlaps in disciplines and fewer opportunities for women to be in the mainstream—let alone in the forefront.
Solomon herself describes being dumbfounded as a graduate student 30 years ago when she was told that, “there are some professors here who don’t take women students. I remember sitting there thinking how shocking that was even then.”
Issues and questions start flying: How do you determine what field is best for you? Why is there a dearth of women in the quantitative sciences? How do you balance child-rearing with the demands of research? Which fields are friendlier to women? Why does the pipeline narrow for women scientists at higher levels?
"I started as the only undergraduate female physics major, kind of a mascot,” quips Associate Professor Madeleine Msall, chair of Bowdoin’s Physics Department. “I had to lobby them to change the building so I could go to the bathroom near my research lab. I had a daughter in graduate school and had to fight against the perception that that meant that I was leaving physics as fast as possible. But it was what allowed me to balance my life, to say, I’ve got these things I care about that are separate from the intellectual achievement. In the long run, that did enormous things for my mental health and it also allowed me to educate the department. At the time I felt like I was pushing immense brick walls …”
Pushing the Boundaries of Disciplines
Eventually, the discussion boils down to one very important question: How does it feel to be a woman scientist?
To a younger generation enjoying the exploration of undergraduate research, it feels like an open door. “I haven’t really come across any gender issues so far,” says a soft-spoken biochemistry major. “It all seems pretty equal.”
“You’re growing up in a completely different environment,” says Solomon. “You guys are our future. But,” she cautions, “I will say that one thing that does happen later in one’s career is that different fields will have a different tone, even within chemistry. One bit of advice for those of you thinking about grad school … When you go somewhere, think about, ‘Is this the environment where I want to get my Ph.D? Are these the people I want to work with and be a part of?’ And if not, find out if there’s another school in the same field that might be more to your liking. Or if it looks like that field is just that way, maybe think again.”
One might expect a woman who has broken many gender barriers in her own life to have a less accommodating perspective on effecting change, but Solomon reveals a pragmatic sensitivity to the personal cost: “A work environment is kinda like a marriage,” she continues. “You’ve got to be realistic: You’re not going to change him.” The women roar with laughter.
After the laughter dies down, Madeleine Msall offers a different view: “You can’t wait for the perfect work environment, for some kind of magic generational change,” she counters. “Really, if you just say that anyplace that feels unfriendly I’m going to shy away from … then change is never going to happen.
“When I go back and visit the physics department, I’m astonished at the number of people who gave me a hard time who remember me fondly now and tell me I’ve inspired them to be so much kindler and gentler. I get to see that what I did as a grad student is no longer so controversial. There are now new boundaries. You know as a person how strong you are. But maybe test that.”
“Yeah, you’re definitely braver than me,” says Solomon, smiling broadly. She looks around the room and adds: “Isn’t she wonderful?”
This is not false humility. One of the great scientists of her generation is genuinely impressed by Msall’s personal and professional fortitude. She will show that same interest in virtually everyone she meets during a rigorous schedule of campus visits with students of Arctic studies, chemistry, environmental studies and physics.
What is the Role of the Scientist?
“You got it all kid,” Solomon says, smiling to the student who is escorting her across the quad for the first of several classroom visits. “When I was doing my research in Antarctica the ‘80s, I didn’t know what was coming. You guys know what’s coming. In the next 20 years, the signal of climate change is going to come booming out of the noise. It’s just going to be the greatest scientific opportunity the world has ever seen. Don’t miss it! There is nothing more impassioning than working on things no one has ever done before and learning things about the world that no one ever knew before.”
What’s coming—as she will later describe in painfully lucid detail during her public Kibbe Science Lecture that night—is the potential for flooding and major droughts, agricultural disruption and sea-level rise, as human activity triggers dramatic warming of the atmosphere. (Watch the video.)
So how can the person who knows the carbon savings already forgone by America’s failure to follow Europe’s lead on fuel efficiency standards sound so excited? As if the impending changes were an incredible opportunity and not a prophesy of grim times to come?
The clues emerge in her next Bowdoin encounter: DeWitt John’s Environmental Public Policy class, where Solomon’s choices as a scientist get a different kind of scrutiny.
The class is discussing several articles about climate change that Solomon has sent beforehand. In one study, a graph shows geographically layered per capita emissions of carbon over time, demonstrating the dramatic level of reductions it would take in the future just to maintain current levels.
“You guys read the article, what did you get?” asks Solomon.
“People think we can keep emitting the way we are and we’ll be fine,” says one student. “It says that despite the uncertainties we have to do something.”
“That’s a political statement, that’s not a scientific statement,” corrects Solomon. “It didn’t say, in spite of uncertainties, we have to do something now. It tells you the physical consequences of waiting. It’s still your choice whether to act or not. That’s the way I would frame it as a scientist.”
“Then you’re never allowed to step out of that scientist mode?” one student challenges.
“Very, very rarely and with extreme caution,” says Solomon
The statement sets off a firestorm of debate.
“It’s tough for me to see how you, how scientists, can just be scientists and not be citizens concerned about how the world will change if we don’t do something about this,” says Katy Shaw '11.
Solomon acknowledges the rising tide of public opinion. “Okay,” she says. “Katy just said that she thinks scientists should express themselves on the politics and the implications. Let’s take a vote.”
They go around the room. “I think scientists have a responsibility if they see a problem to express what they think should be done, unlike a politician who can gloss over it,” says one young man.
Everyone, minus one student, agrees with his statement.
“Me, I’m in the ‘shouldn’t’ category,” says Solomon, surprising none of the students, who nonetheless require an explanation.
“This is a politically charged issue, guys,” says Solomon, looking around the table. “My value to society is quite a bit higher if I tell you what the science is and I tell you that we, as a society have to decide how we’re going to solve it than if I get up on my podium and start preaching my values to you.
“I mean, how are you going to believe me on science if I’m trying to impose my personal will? What you know is different from what you believe. My values are no better than anybody else’s. Obviously I have an opinion, but … my best function is to make sure that everyone gets the facts so we can all use our collective values to solve what is a social problem and not a science problem.”
It is a hard viewpoint for the class to get their mind around. Certainly not a debate that can be resolved in the span of an hour. It’s also an issue that returns the following day, as Solomon visits Mark Battle’s introductory course aimed at non-scientists, Physics of the Environment.
Debating the Future of Science
Solomon put the same question to a vote with the 38 students in Battle’s class: Should scientists be advocates? This time, students overwhelmingly favor a third option Solomon has now included – a hybrid category of “middleman” climate experts, like Al Gore, who are not themselves scientists but who know enough to present scientific information to the public with their own acknowledged spin on it.
“I think Susan was intrigued by the students’ responses,” says Battle. “After class adjourned she said she hadn’t appreciated how much even an educated and informed population like the Bowdoin community would want scientific information digested and provided with some guidance.”
Food for thought: Who owns the future direction of science? What is the role of environmental scientists? It’s a debate that is hardly confined to the Bowdoin campus.
The future of climate change
Solomon's Kibbe Lecture, titled "A World of Climate Change: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," addresses both scientific aspects of climate change and some of the reasons international agreement on climate change policy has proven particularly difficult.
“I think it’s probably the question of the hour,” observes Battle, who recently returned from a major conference of the North American Carbon Program, which was abuzz with these issues. “There are big questions about what kind of science should be done. Should it be curiosity-driven research or should it be what is called “decision-support” science – answering questions that are needed in order to make policy decisions?
“As a scientist you can sit down and say, I am going to calculate, based on the best state of our knowledge, how much carbon is stored in this forest – without actually learning anything fundamentally new. That is an answer policymakers want and need, but in doing that calculation, you don’t learn much that is new and it perhaps distracts you from other things you’re interested in. But society needs this. That is the tension in the conversation.”
Regardless of what one believes the role of the scientist must be in the future, it is clear they will be a big part in finding solutions for the evolving crisis of global warming.
Susan Solomon can’t help but be excited by that. She loves science. And her love of science co-exists with her fears for the future. They are not mutually exclusive. They might, perhaps, even serve each other.
“Climate change challenges us to think beyond our own backyards, and beyond our own generation,” she says finally. “Yes, we can broaden our discussion from science to other topics—this is a truly interdisciplinary problem, in my opinion, and technology clearly is essential to the solution. But the elements of the problem are inexorably tied up with understanding the science so that you can know the scope of the problem and understand the solutions. There are no silver bullets, but there is a lot of silver buckshot.”
All photos by Brian Wedge