AGU President Eric Davidson: The Path Before Us

If the thought had ever crossed my mind when I first joined AGU in 1990 that I might one day join its leadership, I would have dismissed it as highly unlikely. As a graduate student, I had imprinted on a community of soil scientists and ecologists. I attended my first AGU meeting to stand in for my post-doctoral advisor to deliver a talk in an Atmospheric Sciences session on sources of greenhouse gases, where the links were clear to soils and the ecological processes that govern microbial production of greenhouse gases. I discovered there and in subsequent AGU meetings a community of big thinkers, deep thinkers, and world-class researchers, and from then onward I kept coming back each year for more. Once AGU formed the Biogeosciences section a few years later, I knew that I had found my professional society home. As its name implies, the Biogeosciences are inherently interdisciplinary, often cosponsoring sessions with other sections and focus groups, such as Hydrology, Atmospheric Sciences, Ocean Sciences, Global Change, Planetary Sciences, Paleoclimatology, and Near-Surface Geophysics (after all, soils are very, very near-surface geophysical media!). The interdisciplinary momentum continues to flourish at AGU. Many of our focus groups were formed to bridge gaps between disciplines, we have added interdisciplinarity as an additional criterion for evaluating nominations of fellows, we have added awards and metals that recognize interdisciplinary contributions, and our new Affiliation and Engagement Task Force report is filled with innovative ideas to help transcend traditional disciplinary barriers. So with my interdisciplinary background, perhaps it isn’t so unusual, after all, that I now have the honor and privilege to serve AGU as its President for the coming two years.

My most recent predecessors – Tim Grove, Mike McPhaden, Carol Finn, and Margaret Leinen – guided AGU through a renewal that has transformed our governance, modernized and energized our management, and left a vibrant organization that is growing in influence. Our meetings, publications, policy and public outreach efforts – including the Sharing Science program –  and scientific leadership are all remarkably strong. I am humbled by the tremendous progress that these leaders, our many volunteers, and our very talented staff have accomplished, but I’m sure that they would all agree that our record of growth and success is no reason for complacency going forward. Many efforts are underway to innovate our meeting formats, add new journals and related products and services, set examples for and advance principles of scientific conduct and integrity, and enable our members to be part of the public dialog about the role of science to inform policy. These renewed and new efforts could not come at a more auspicious time.

Recent political events in the US and across the world have created an urgent demand for science in general, and the Earth and space science in particular, to take their rightful and needed place in civil society by injecting their cultures of evidence-driven deliberation. Opinions can and should vary widely, and our role is not to endorse particular opinions. Rather our scientific process of testing theory with evidence also applies to public discourses on policy – which must also confront evidence, including scientific evidence. Considering alternative hypotheses is good science, but let’s be clear, there is no such thing as alternative facts.

The first of my priorities as President of AGU is to help enable our members and scientists throughout the world to engage responsibly and effectively in this needed public dialog. It is important to remember that our voices are powerful only when firmly based on a sound foundation of scientific accomplishment and integrity. Therefore, it is essential that we continue to conduct and publish the highest quality research in basic and applied science. However, for those who are willing to step perhaps a little beyond their comfort zones, we need to be telling stories about the value of our science in terms that resonate with decision makers of all types, including elected representatives, government and agency administrators, voters, and consumers. AGU will be rolling out additional tools and activities to equip our membership to take on these challenges to bridge sectors, disciplines, and partisan politics. The renovation of our headquarters building in DC, due to be completed in 2018, will be a palpable signal of our intent to lead by example to design sustainability in all that we do. These growing efforts will continue to crescendo toward our Centennial celebrations throughout the year of 2019, where we will feature narratives and demonstrations of the value of our science for economic prosperity, environmental integrity, human health, and aesthetic and spiritual solace.

A second priority, no less important, is to keep pushing the envelope to ensure that our institutions and cultures of science advance and protect inclusiveness and safety in the workplace and learning place. Bringing under-represented groups into the Earth and space science talent pool and encouraging success at all careers stages is a generational process, now all that much more urgent. We have made impressive strides expanding opportunities women in science, but we still have much to do, as recent attention on sexual harassment in the sciences has demonstrated. Every student and every scientist, regardless of career stage, gender, orientation, or ethnicity, should feel safe and welcome in the classrooms, laboratories, offices, meetings, field camps, and research vessels where they learn and conduct research. AGU can be proud of its commitment to this goal, and we will be leaders in achieving it.

It should go without saying that no President, alone, can do this. AGU is great because of all of the great work that our volunteers, including our many elected volunteer leaders, have done and are doing now. To advance our mission of promoting discovery for the benefit of humanity, we will need each member to contribute however he or she can to advance the scientific enterprise, from the initiation of basic research to the articulation of knowledge for informing policy.

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