Q&A with UCS Center for Science and Democracy Director Andrew Rosenberg

Ask a Scientist - November 2012

This month, Senior Staff Writer Seth Shulman of Pulse sat down for a Q & A session with Andrew Rosenberg, the new director of the Center for Science and Democracy.

SS: Welcome, Dr. Rosenberg. How are things going at the Center for Science and Democracy so far?

AR: I have only been here for a few months but I feel very comfortable already. The Center’s staff is terrific. I have a very strong impression that is also true of the staff throughout the Union of Concerned Scientists. It is nice for me to be back in New England full-time after many years of traveling a great deal for work. But most of all, I’m excited by the challenge of starting something new. It’s great to come to work and get to think: “How am I going to do that?”

SS: You have a pretty amazing CV as a biologist with a specialty in marine ecology: You’ve done everything from sailing to the Galapagos Islands and studying squid in Norway to serving on a U.S. Presidential Commission on the future of the oceans and as lead regulator for fisheries in the Northeast. What drew you to lead the Center for Science and Democracy?
AR: I do have a pretty varied resume. Where it helps for my work at the Center for Science and Democracy, I think, is that I’ve had the chance to look at things from different vantage points. You know, I’ve served in government agencies but also worked for nonprofit organizations and in academia as a scientist. I know how hard people work in government, for instance, but I also know how good government can be at getting in its own way. One really important thing I’ve learned from my experience is that what people say in the front of the room is often very different from what they say when you get the chance to engage with them in the back of the room. One of the things we need to do at the Center is to try to go beyond political posturing to talk about things that really matter to people and help them understand more about what scientists do and how the evidence they gather can further our shared understanding on key issues.

SS: Along those lines, can you say more about your vision for the Center for Science and Democracy?

AR: Well, the first thing to say is that there is no question that U.S. politics are extremely polarized right now. You have a lot of people going for cheap applause lines, saying things like “government is out to get you.” Speeches are fine. But At the Center for Science and Democracy, we hope to get a very broad spectrum of people—conservatives,  progressives, moderates, faith leaders, and people in business—to all testify to the importance of scientific evidence as a touchstone for the tough decisions we need to make collectively. But we also know we’re not going to really change the debate by standing up and giving speeches. For that, we know the key is to be in dialogue, to engage in a two-way conversation with people about the role of science and the work scientists do.

For the Center for Science and Democracy, our conversations about issues start by asking: What does the scientific evidence say? But we need to talk with people not just about the fixed outcomes and results of science but also about how scientists do our jobs. I think this will be our best chance to show that science is not just another special interest as some might like to paint it. Sure, everybody can have different opinions about things. But we need to find new and powerful ways to explain that science often puts strong evidence on the table and offers valuable expertise that can help us find the best paths forward.

Is our scientific evidence infallible? Of course not. But, when it comes to making key policy choices, we don’t have the luxury to wait to act until we’re absolutely sure about everything. The analogy I use is to a medical doctor. A doctor can’t sit there and let a patient die just because there might be some uncertainty about a diagnosis. Similarly, as a citizenry, we need to act based on the best available evidence and know-how we have. I think the Center for Science and Democracy has a very powerful message about this: about how we can and must use scientific and technical evidence as a touchstone for understanding what is happening and determining how best to use our resources to address the problems we face.

SS: Speaking of evidence and expertise, I’m interested to learn more about how the ocean first grabbed your attention as a focus.

AR: My interest in oceans began with sailing which has literally been a lifelong passion. My family spent summers on Cape Cod and my Dad got his first sailboat when I was two years old. I used to tease him by saying: “How could you have deprived me of that whole first year?” I was joining in sailboat races from the time I was six years old and racing my own boat at age 10. I knew from really early on that I wanted to do something on the ocean. I was drawn more into science in my teens when a guy down the road hired me to assist at a small marine research consulting company he ran, doing things like taking samples in tidal ponds. From then on, I pretty much managed to find a way to spend time on the ocean as part of my studies and my growing interest in science throughout my career, from doing my Ph.D. work in Halifax, Canada, to my work regulating fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

SS: So, I’m curious: Does your interest in the oceans mean that you scuba dive as well?

AR:  No. I am certified as a scuba diver, but I’m afraid it is just not the same for me. I continue to sail whenever I can. I have a boat up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where I live. But, for better or worse, I think I’ve adopted a view very common among those who sail that tends to think of divers as “failed sailors.” Because, of course, we sailors work hard to avoid being in the water; we always strive to be on the water instead.

Andrew A. Rosenberg is director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He has more than 25 years of experience in government service and academic and non-profit leadership. Dr. Rosenberg received his Ph.D. in biology from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and previously studied oceanography at Oregon State University and fisheries biology at the University of Massachusetts.


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