I finally got a chance to read Jane Lubchenco’s interview in last Monday’s Washington Post. Given her role as Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it’s interesting to hear her thoughts on the relationship between science and society:

The independent nature of scientists is a great strength, because it allows us to explore different paths, be open to new ideas and challenge the status quo. That’s not always easy, but it is exciting and enriching, and in the end leads to better outcomes.

Part of what’s interesting about this quote is that it’s meant to be an answer to the question of how federal officials can “best lead in a high science environment.” The independence of scientists, Lubchenco suggests, is both something that is a “great strength” of scientists and something that will “in the end lead to better outcomes.” So, the best way to lead in a high science environment is laissez faire — at least when it comes to the scientists:

An organization is stronger when everyone is empowered to do their best and to help find solutions.NOAA is a science agency. We value our scientists. But achieving our outcomes requires both strong science and a diversity of approaches, skill sets and backgrounds. And so, we also value our technicians, support staff, managers, service providers and communicators – the full richness of what is needed to make an organization run.

If we think of these remarks in terms of interdisciplinarity, then we could say that Lubchenco is suggesting a multidisciplinary approach to collaboration, with each person doing what he or she does best — the scientist does the science, the manager manages, the communicators communicate, and so forth. There’s an interesting twist a bit later on in the interview:

One of the biggest challenges is making sure that scientists are truly valued for the science that they do. Not just brought in as a scientist and then trained to be a manager. We need good scientists to be managers, but we need good scientists to also be rewarded and recognized for delivering world-class science.

Now the idea seems to be that one person could be both a scientist and a manager (not that big a stretch, I admit) — yet Lubchenco still wants to recognize scientist-managers for their science. Presumably, the point would be the same with the scientist-communicator, who ought to be recognized for her world-class science as well as for her world-class science communication.

I wonder, though: Are scientists, as scientists, really so insecure? Would it be an insult to a scientist to refer to her as a good manager or a good communicator? Is there some implicit ‘merely’ that sneaks in before the words ‘a good manager’ that doesn’t sound right to certain ears in front of the words ‘a good scientist’?

When Lubchenco suggests, “we need good scientists to be managers,” I wonder: why? Why wouldn’t it be better, under the multidisciplinary collaborative approach, to have good managers be managers?

Perhaps there are some folks out there who might not quite buy the (Humboldtian, [Vannevar] Bushian, Lubchencoist) idea that laissez faire leads to the best outcomes — and who, therefore, wouldn’t count as good managers …. But I find myself again asking the question: Are scientists really so insecure?

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