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Advancing Science for the Public Good into 2050

Researchers have a discussion while sitting at a computer.

By Nicholas B. Dirks

My journey leading the New York Academy of Sciences roughly coincides with the global calamity of SARS-CoV-2. As I reflect on my two-year anniversary, I cannot help but consider how much we have depended on scientists for the development of vaccines and therapeutics. Even though we are still experiencing the long tail of the pandemic, we are beginning to feel the worst may be behind us. One consequence is that we can more fully turn our attention to other crises, especially the very real dangers of climate change.

The Academy convenes experts for the exchange of scientific knowledge. Photo: Roger Torda

The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic was remarkable, but there were shortfalls, too. One lesson was the importance of preparation, and it is to improve scientific preparation for the next global crisis—no matter what it might be—that we are making great strides with the International Science Reserve. It’s an ambitious program to pre-position resources that scientists will need—and to ready scientists themselves—to conduct research and find evidence-based solutions to global emergencies.

That’s a big part of our mission, along with improving science literacy, promoting interdisciplinary and innovative science, and supporting the training of new generations of scientists. While the Academy is 200 years old, as we head toward the mid-21st century we are fulfilling our mission in new, forward-looking ways. Let me provide some updates, and ask for your continued support for our critically-important work.

The International Science Reserve

We have just completed our first readiness exercise for the International Science Reserve (ISR). Scientists in our ISR Member Network—which stands a thousand strong, with representation from 90 countries—submitted research proposals in response to simulated wildfire emergencies in the U.S., Greece, and Indonesia. We are analyzing the proposals to learn:

  • What data, data-gathering resources, equipment, facilities, and personnel are needed to support scientists in crisis response;
  • What resources transcend specific types of crises and thus can be put in place now;
  • What systems for resource matching and the mobilization of scientists should be in place for quick responses to global emergencies.
The Academy supports early-career scientists through a variety of programs, including the Interstellar Initiative.

Early-Career Science

We are working on the ISR with IBM, UL, Google, Pfizer and other partners. But we need your support to run additional readiness exercises, and to use our findings in building an operations plan. The goal is nothing less than to maximize the power of science to save lives, livelihoods, and the environment.

The Academy is helping young scientists at the most critical stage of their careers, as they transition from graduate school toward success in professional research.


The Academy works with younger scientists too. We nurture early interest in science among ever more diverse groups of young people. With the support of EnCorps, for example, we’re placing scientists in in classrooms across New York City’s five boroughs. In a partnership with the Clifford Chance law firm and Ericcson, we’ve enrolled more than 500 students in Rwanda and Oman in STEM innovation challenges. We are working to diversify and expand STEM education in scores of countries around the world, including with a new program in Colombia.


We are helping scientists give back, across all levels of education. Our Mentors Program places experienced scientists with young people in classrooms and alongside student teams working on extracurricular projects. Our mentors also advise older students as they enter the workforce and our programs support scientists who may wish to change careers, to work as teachers themselves.

  • With this letter, I am announcing our partnership with the Leon Levy Foundation to support neuroscience post docs at universities and medical centers across the New York metropolitan area. The plan is to help remove barriers to advancement and provide significant support for the best and brightest young minds in the field.
  • Our Science Alliance brings graduate students and post docs together to gain communications and management skills, and to learn about professional opportunities and career strategies, including ways to fight bias in the workplace.
  • To support our belief that the best science takes place when problems are attacked with interdisciplinary perspectives by people from diverse backgrounds, we run the Interstellar Initiative with the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development. It is a 6-month workshop to support teams of young scientists from around the world in developing innovative research proposals in the life sciences.
  • Our awards programs focus on early career scientists, to help them advance to become leaders in their fields.
Recent Nobel Prize laureate David Julius presents at the Academy’s Advances in Pain conference in May. Photo: Roger Torda

Scientific Convenings

Of course, we continue to convene scientists and policy experts for the exchange of scientific knowledge. Each year, our conferences feature Nobel Prize laureates and dozens of other researchers at the leading edge of their fields. We help specialists work together, and we tackle topics that grab the attention of broader audiences. Examples include a series on new evidence for the therapeutic value of psychedelics, ways to recognize and reduce bias in the health sciences, and continuing reports on SARS-CoV-2.

Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences

Our multidisciplinary science journal, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, publishes research of current interest for the broad scientific community and society at large. Recent articles have presented work on mathematics anxiety and performance, the benefits of micronutrients during pregnancy, and the biodiversity and composition of bat communities.

We are an independent, democratic organization, open to all who want to help advance science. Now, more than ever, we believe that this commitment is critically important for the lives of our children and grandchildren. Geopolitical forces continue to drive us apart in ways that not only fracture the world but also the practice and advancement of science. We work to bridge those divides, and to foster collaboration, innovation, and the imagination we need to solve our global challenges.

We receive no government funding, and your support plays a critical role in helping science—and scientists—work toward a better, safe, and prosperous world. Please continue your valuable support for the New York Academy of Sciences.

The past as prologue – the ISR and traditional environmental stewardship

By Nicholas B. Dirks

Crossing the streams has always been part of my academic career. As a historian and cultural anthropologist, my own research and writing has been rooted in the value of interdisciplinary thought. I have been fortunate to draw together insights from colleagues who largely work in separate if contiguous worlds. When bridging disciplines as separate as those in the humanities and social sciences with the sciences, however, the efforts we make to connect must be even more strenuous. At the same time, the rewards that can come from this kind of exchange are even greater.

I strongly believe we need to create new ways to learn from differing perspectives and disciplines. This means more than interdisciplinary inquiry, as it can also be about linking traditional forms of knowledge with those that come from cutting edge research and analysis.

This kind of capacious thinking lies at the heart of our commitment at The New York Academy of Sciences to promote science-based solutions to global challenges through our International Science Reserve (ISR), which is designed to mobilize and use different kinds of knowledge from across borders, sectors, and disciplines.

In my own areas of expertise, I know that the decades between the 1970s and end of the 20th century saw the disciplines of history and anthropology draw closer together, with historians paying more attention to social and cultural factors and the significance of everyday experience in the study of the past.

The people, rather than elites, became the focus of their inquiry—anthropological insights into agriculture, kinship, ritual, and folk customs enabled historians to develop richer and more inclusive narratives about social structures and relationships, as well as about human relationships with the environment over the long period of time we now call the Anthropocene. In the same way, the ISR will aim to bring together not only cutting-edge scientific expertise but also past knowledge that may come from an era when we were more attuned to natural rhythms and processes than we are today, when industrialization and technological development have created new levels of autonomy from the natural world.

The ISR recently launched its first scenario planning exercise—focusing on how scientific expertise and resources can be mobilized to combat wildfire emergencies. Wildfires are not new environmental phenomena; human civilization has lived alongside the risk of wildfires for thousands of years. And so, as wildfires increase in both frequency and magnitude due to climate change, we can learn from indigenous communities and traditional forms of knowledge when it comes to environmental stewardship.

In California, which saw a record-breaking season of devastating wildfires in 2020, local knowledge from the Yurok and Karuk Northern California tribes may hold the key to managing wildfires through ‘cultural burns.’ This is a practice which involves

intentional burning designed to cultivate biodiverse landscapes, remove excess fire fuel, and ensure that the ecosystem is more resilient overall. Indigenous preparation of the land has been practiced for thousands of years but it is only recently being recognized as an effective tool to control fire risk.

After a century of fire suppression, enforced by laws which prevented cultural burning, the Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks in California’s Sierra Nevada initiated programs to manage wildfires through burning programs. A recent UC Berkeley Study of the Illilouette Creek Basin in Yosemite showed that where traditional fire regimes were restored, there were multiple positive effects: greater landscape and species diversity, increased soil moisture, decreased drought-induced tree mortality, and more landscape fire resistance due to a reduced forest cover.

Decreased forest cover during the managed wildfire period means that when an unintended fire is started (by lightning strike for instance), the more varied landscapes – with trees, shrubland, bushes all at different heights – were more resilient to fire. In contrast, when the crowns of trees catch fire in a homogenous forest canopy, a blaze can spread rapidly along the top of the uniform tree canopy, helping the fire spread more quickly.

The view that indigenous burning can benefit forest ecosystems is gaining growing acceptance among policy makers in different parts of the world as evidenced by the Aboriginal burning regimes in Kakadu national park in Australia and Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa. Meanwhile in the US, the federal Forest Service increasingly partners with Tribes to improve wildfire resilience and protect cultural resources through the Tribal Relations Program. In California, fire suppressing laws have been reversed with a new California law, effective January 1, 2022, affirming the right to cultural burns, reducing the layers of liability and permission needed to set fire to the land for the purposes of controlled forest management.

Recognizing indigenous knowledge benefits our understanding of wildfire management in the 21st century and provides insights into other challenges such as biodiversity loss, including even the hunt for new drugs such as antibiotics. This is reinforced in the findings of the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that indigenous and local knowledge plays a large part in preventing wildfire and other crises. For habitats in which indigenous people and local communities can manage their land, there is less loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function. For example, in the Amazon (region of Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia): wherever indigenous people have secure tenure, the deforestation rates are two-to-three times lower than in similar forests where they don’t have control over the forests.

Increased recognition of such knowledge will also help retain traditional culture and inform land management policy, which has historically excluded indigenous voices and banned indigenous practices.

This is why the ISR and The New York Academy of Sciences proudly aligns with ‘Open Science’ principles and welcomes involvement from everyone – regardless of discipline or geography – within our community of experts. Everyone may register to encourage project proposal submissions in relation to ISR identified crisis areas, so that we are able to benefit from the rich and diverse forms of knowledge that in some cases have been part of our heritage for centuries – particularly in terms of environmental stewardship. Indeed, our first call for proposals on the topic of wildfires included submissions from a range of countries including Brazil and the Philippines as well as the US and Australia. I strongly support the incorporation of different sources of knowledge in the service of a larger, shared culture of enquiry and practice, ultimately adapting modern and traditional modalities of knowledge for the work of science in developing appropriate and effective solutions for tackling the global challenges that we all face today.

The International Science Reserve – an ambitious future-proofing initiative for the public good

By Nicholas B. Dirks

With its long history of championing science-based solutions to global challenges, the Academy is ideally situated to establish the International Science Reserve (ISR). The ISR will be a network of networks: of communities of experts across scientific disciplines, across sectors, and across borders. The Academy is building the ISR on the model of collaboration we have embodied throughout our 200+ year history as a trusted global convener of scientists across public, private, and academic domains. The ISR reaches across those domains to speed up research and solutions to help prepare for and then ameliorate the effects of complex global crises, such as a great earthquake, a water-borne pandemic, or a cyber-attack. 

The goal of the ISR is to quickly connect scientists to scientific resources for faster and better crisis preparedness to help people and protect communities from further disaster. To do this, the ISR fosters collaborative networks and builds experience and expertise within those networks by rehearsing what would happen in a real crisis. These scenario-planning or readiness exercises will help scientists be well equipped in advance to respond to urgent challenges (as this video describes) that are not only possible but likely in future years. Filling an important gap in existing crisis response mechanisms, the ISR will not replace those mechanisms but strengthen them and make them more effective. 

In working to prepare communities of scientists and scientific resource providers to respond to many crises, The ISR will be guided by our Executive Board. The ISR builds on the design of the High-Performance Computing Consortium (HPCC) whose work during the Covid-19 outbreak provided enormous and immediate benefits. The ISR expands that work by leveraging not just high computational resources but also specialized talent, labs, databases, and networks of researchers and institutions. It, therefore, relies on our communities of scientific experts, our relationships with industry, federal agencies, and global institutions, our ISR founding partners, as well as ISR members. 

The ongoing pandemic and the range of responses around the world have shown us all the value of good preparation. In the scenario planning exercises that are a key step in pre-preparing the ISR science communities, different stakeholders can role-play what they would and could do in the event of a global crisis. The first ISR pilot exercises focus on wildfires, a phenomenon of increasing frequency and magnitude both in the United States and across the world, a direct result of climate change. The success of the pilot will be measured by the extent to which we can test current wisdom about the resources that scientists need to help protect people and nature during wildfires and to set them up for faster and more equitable recovery afterwards. We can use the valuable information coming out of the wildfire pilot to keep improving processes to identify needed resources in advance, to match scientists to those resources, and to track the projects and lessons that result. Indeed, science is a process and develops in real-time as we iterate in a constant improvement process, fine-tuning our systems of communication and collaboration. We expect to have the results of our pilot ready in mid-2022 and will announce our next ISR crisis focus areas soon after. 

While we have just begun, we are satisfied to see strong indications that a wide range of people and partners are energized by the ISR’s ideas and ambition. We have in place an Executive Board, generous funding partners including IBM, Google, UL, and Pfizer, collaborators such as the National Science Foundation, and we have already recruited over 1,000 scientists into our engaged ISR community. 

The wide range of responses we’ve seen to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the associated skepticism about scientific expertise, have shown a real need for science-informed leadership in the service of the public good – at both a national and global scale. The pandemic also revealed the need for a scientific appreciation of how existing disparities and inequalities will be worsened by these kinds of crises if public policy does not start by protecting the most vulnerable first. The ISR at The New York Academy of Sciences is stepping up to help drive evidence-based change. It is only by heeding the hard lessons from the pandemic that the world can truly prepare to respond more effectively when the next global crisis comes. It is the Academy’s ambition for the ISR to strengthen response and recovery efforts to save lives, restore services, and offer hope for better outcomes in the future. The ultimate measure of our success is not the impact of the ISR on the scientific community. The measure of success is the impact on the lives of all people and the health of our planet. 

Climate Change and Collective Action: The Knowledge Resistance Problem

A colorful graphic image.

By Nicholas B. Dirks

June 1 marked the official start of hurricane season and already tropical storms Ana, Bill and Claudette have made their respective debuts.

And while summer has only just officially started, early hot dry conditions in Arizona, California, Oregon, Utah and New Mexico are exacerbating enormous wildfires putting a strain on local first responder services.  Severe drought conditions in the west is restricting the use of essential water supplies.  Its impact on the nation’s food supply has yet to be determined.

In May, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released revised temperature “normals” which show a significant shift towards warmer temperatures. We are far from the state of readiness required to deal with the inevitable outcomes.

Scientists have been sounding the alarm about the human impact upon climate change for well over a century. French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier, who is generally credited with the discovery of the greenhouse effect, wrote in an 1827 paper that: “The establishment and progress of human societies, the action of natural forces, can notably change, and in vast regions, the state of the surface, the distribution of water and the great movements of the air.”

But unlike the pandemic, which was a highly visible emergency with nightly news reports showing crowded ER’s and patients on ventilators, the impact of climate change has always been a much tougher sell.  In addition, when proposed changes come up against “the pocketbook,” there is pushback.

Recent Research and “Crisis Fatigue”

A recent paper published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences The distributional impact of climate change – discusses the various impacts of climate change from both a social and environmental perspective.  As with many other global issues, the impacts of climate change will most certainly affect poorer countries even more severely, but that doesn’t let the rich ones like the United States off the hook.

Then there is the risk of “crisis fatigue”—the continual sounding of an alarm about something that is not immediately visible, to the point that the problem is so overwhelming that individual actions won’t help.  But as we learned from Covid-19, there is no local crisis of this kind that doesn’t soon become a global crisis.

Science is an incremental process, and scientific knowledge is based on multiple arguments, experiments, and developments.  However, the scientific consensus that climate change is not only real, but escalating faster than many scientists had predicted, is based on measurements and models that issue a clear and urgent warning.  We need to act now, and fast, to drive effective policy to combat climate change.

Training scientists to be better communicators is a good step, but much more must and can be done to develop a public consensus that might mirror the scientific consensus.  Climatologists, meteorologists and environmental scientists play an important role, but we need to enlist all the disciplines of the academy (including social scientists and humanists), all the agencies of government (domestically and internationally), and all the major sectors of the economy to help chart a way forward.

The Impediment of Knowledge Resistance

As Mikael Klintman, in his recent book, “Knowledge Resistance,” has argued, “it becomes crucial to ask what we as individuals and groups can do about knowledge resistance in cases where, in the long run, it is problematic to ourselves and to others – humans, animals, and the environment alike.”

Professionals from healthcare, insurance, business, as well as legal and financial sectors can help scientists and public officials “sell” appropriate actions and solutions. The average person may not pay much mind to the science behind reducing carbon emissions but put in the context of how much taxpayer money is used to treat patients who have respiratory conditions exacerbated by polluted air from auto emissions, and it’s a different conversation.

Policymakers supporting the development of wetlands or sensitive barrier islands might be more inclined to rethink such plans if voters are provided with data on how much it is likely to cost when severe storms hit, in terms of increased taxes to pay for emergency relief, rebuilding, and higher insurance rates. Like the warnings and recommendations about COVID-19, climate change has become a deeply partisan issue, but preparedness for the long-term impacts of climate change is not “hysterics” or “alarmist” as some would argue.

Ignoring the impact of COVID-19 cost millions their lives, and billions of dollars in healthcare costs and lost income. The economic cost of lost jobs and wages, as well as the cost of care of COVID patients, especially those who still have long-term health effects, has still to be tallied.

All the data are showing us what will happen if we are not ready. Science can deliver on the knowledge, but it will take genuine collective action to hone and sell the messages that can tread that fine line between preparation and panic.

Lessons Learned: The Aftermath of a Pandemic

Academy President and CEO Nicholas Dirks smiles for the camera.

By Nicholas B. Dirks

Nicholas Dirks

When I was first in discussions in early 2020 to take over the leadership of The New York Academy of Sciences from the retiring Ellis Rubinstein, we could still go out to dinner, attend meetings in person, and enjoy concerts and the theater in closed and crowded spaces. Masks were for surgeons in operating theaters and researchers working in labs. We could still enjoy networking at well attended conferences, traveling through crowded airports and train stations, and planning vacations and holiday family gatherings. Although for years I had always mentioned a pandemic as a primary example of a global challenge that would know no borders and require global cooperation, I also knew that the last such pandemic had happened 100 years ago. I confess I had assumed I was being largely rhetorical.

What a difference a year makes.

Now, more than a year after the lockdowns began across the world and in the U.S., we are at last seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It will still require a leap of faith to predict when life will return to the way it was in 2019, but significant progress has been made during the past several months.

As with most life-altering events, much can be learned when we can take a hard, practical look at what we did wrong, what we did right, and how, with better planning, we might have changed the course of history. And if we’re smart about it, we can use those learnings to prepare a playbook for the next pandemic.

Accept that pandemics and other global catastrophes are here to stay and plan for them.

Much of the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. can be traced to the lack of a cohesive national response. Poor communications also did not help. Mixed messages from public officials and health experts created confusion, and worse, disbelief that COVID-19 should be taken seriously. “It’s no worse than the flu” was one such frequent comment, along with “something that only old people get,” and the “cure or shutdowns cannot be worse than the problem.” Then there are the “hoax” believers, and the bizarre “treatments”—all fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories running rampant on social media. We can’t predict what new crises are on the horizon, but it is incumbent upon all government officials to have emergency response plans ready for quick implementation. Aside from the obvious—i.e., having the necessary medical equipment and public health protocols already in place—understanding that social behavior needs to be addressed is just as important as medical intervention in meeting the crisis.

Look at challenges as opportunities for new ideas to blossom.

Like many other organizations whose core business is based on live in-person events, The New York Academy of Sciences had to quickly pivot to virtual forums when we could no longer host actual gatherings. But we have found that our online webinars and virtual conferences have broad appeal to our members—especially those who do not live within easy access of our physical conference location in downtown New York. At some point the in-person meetings will resume, but we will continue to offer the virtual options that will open up our programs to all our members and others across the globe.

Shutdowns have had some benefits.

The past year has been disastrous for many of us, with death and disease rampant both in the U.S. and globally, and with devastating economic effects on certain sectors and populations. At the same time, we learned what we can do with the technological tools on our laptops and in our phones, seen clear skies in polluted cities from Delhi to Beijing, as well as nature venturing out into the deserted streets. The YouTube video of a kangaroo hopping down an empty street in Adelaide was especially poignant. Of course, we cannot keep things shut down forever—we not only miss our social life, we depend on it. But as we consider not just the effects of a pandemic but the escalating threat of climate change, the past 12 months have provided a clear view of how our natural environment can quickly improve if we give it room to do so. We don’t all agree on everything, but we do all live on the same planet — and as the late Carl Sagan pointed out — “Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.” It will serve humanity well in the future if we could use the lessons of the last year to develop much bolder plans to take on the significant global and planetary challenges before us.

As we look forward to life returning to normal, it is worth remembering that despite all our scientific and technological progress, we were blindsided by a microscopic virus that was exacerbated by polarized politics, and a lack of public understanding and trust in science. It is also clear that the massive disparities of our society and our economy have been magnified by this public health crisis. Scientists must work not only with each other but with social scientists, humanists, and many others, as we seek to find more effective ways to translate our knowledge into enlightened public policy that takes on the full complexity of the human condition.

Fortunately, for the past 200-plus years, The New York Academy of Sciences has been committed to working to bring the best and brightest minds together to develop solutions for our global challenges. It’s a mission I’m proud to embrace as the Academy’s president and CEO.

Nicholas B. Dirks