The tradition of the commencement address provides universities the opportunity to deliver one final message of inspiration to its students before sending them out into the world. On Saturday, May 18th, 2019 at the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Science and College of Engineering graduation ceremony, that message was delivered by alumna and Chief Scientist of the International Space Station (ISS) at NASA headquarters, Julie Robinson. Robinson graduated from the College of Science in 1996 with her Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology. In her role as NASA Chief Scientist, she provides science advice at the highest levels of the agency, promoting exploration research and demonstration strategies onboard the ISS and other human spaceflight platforms. Her professional experience has included research activities in virology, analytical chemistry, genetics, statistics, field biology and remote sensing. She is a recipient of the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal.
Robinson’s speech was less a message of encouragement, more a call-to-action for this new generation of scientists and engineers. She asked each student in the auditorium to “make a lifetime commitment to public communication—to ensure that your knowledge is available to everyone, that science is part of our public discourse.” It is a commitment Robinson has made herself (Robinson spoke as one of the College of Science Discover Science Lecturers in 2017), and one that many students in the auditorium likely made that day. In the spirit of that commitment, we have decided to make her speech “available to everyone”. Below is the full transcript of Dr. Robinson Spring 2019 commencement address.
Remarks at Commencement, College of Science and College of Engineering
By Dr. Julie Robinson, May 18, 2019
I want to be the first to congratulate you on making it to this significant milestone as you complete your degree. I also want to tell your friends and family in the audience, about some of the sacrifices you made in choosing science and engineering as your vocation, and about the hard work it took to reach this day. You gave up social time to spend time in lab courses. You juggled your core requirements to make sure you could take far more mathematics than your friends in other colleges. Many of you worked in research labs around campus, starting with washing the lab glassware and working your way to running experiments. Others took summer internships or worked in the field collecting data. You stayed up late at night analyzing and rechecking data; some of you published your first scientific papers, laboring through many rewrites. You worked hard to reach this day.
Why was it worth this labor? I'd like to talk about two reasons: one internal and one external. I see this play out every day in my work at NASA and would like to share my thoughts as you move forward into the next stage of your careers and in your life.
The internal reason that we become scientists or engineers is because we love the way science teaches us to observe and understand the natural world. As John Alexander Moore has written, science is a "way of knowing." Science begins with facts gained through observation, continues with identifying alternate hypotheses and testing them with well-designed experiments, and at its pinnacle generates a natural law (which is often misunderstood by the public because we call it a "theory"). Engineering extends that way of knowing one step further to use the knowledge gained and apply it to designing something new. In simplest terms, scientists are focused on understanding the problem, while engineers are focused on designing the solution. But I can tell you from my career at NASA that the two slightly different views of the end goal are so synergistic that neither can advance without the other. The internal reason that you worked so hard to get to this day, was described by Rachel Carson as the "how and the why for everything in our experience." Each of you has been compelled by your passion for knowing "why" and "how" in the universe. Each of you has been compelled by the possibility of being the first to know something essential that has not been known by humankind before.
The external reason that we become scientists or engineers is because we know that society desperately needs our way of knowing to solve its problems. When you came to this university, it was with a commitment to learn so that you could build on the work of the scientists and engineers that came before. Not only did you learn the evidence and theories of the past, but you also made the commitment to pursue rigorous new inquiry on the basis of evidence.
You chose well-you chose a place where your efforts were mirrored by the commitment of the University to the scientific way of knowing. After a multi-year effort to support the growth of research capabilities, and this past year UNR achieved classification as a prestigious R1 Carnegie Research University. During your time at the university, you benefitted from this effort through access to professors who are leading in their field, improved facilities, and grants to conduct your first cutting edge research.
You earned your opportunities through hard work. But hidden beneath, it is important to remember that your endeavors in science and engineering have also been supported by society, sometimes by private donors, but most often by state and federal government agencies. Tax dollars are committed to science and engineering because our way of knowing is the only reliable method for finding facts and developing solutions to society's greatest problems.
Scientific knowledge is frequently at risk of being swept away in a tide of public misinformation. This is a challenge at the core of our Democracy, as summarized in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams in 1795. He wrote, "The more ignorant we become the less value we set on science, and the less inclination we shall have to seek it." Today, our world can seem media-rich but lacking in the use of evidence and critical thinking to evaluate information and find solutions.
In his compelling book, the War on Science, journalist Shawn Otto summarizes the importance of science in our democracy:
"The more complex the world becomes, the more challenging it is for democracy to function, because it places an increased burden of education and information upon the people-and in the twenty-first century, that includes science education and science reporting." (53)
In the 1950s an infusion of public support for science was initiated as a response to fear of the atomic threat and Sputnik and led to the creation of not only a space race, but also a science race on a global scale. The infusion of public money created the structure of science and engineering at the university, as we know it today. But as Shawn Otto also points out, "over the course of a single generation, government funding allowed scientists to turn inward, away from the public...at the very time that the public had developed a love-hate relationship with science." (113). We stopped explaining the importance of our work to the public and began to act as if a favorable review by our peers was sufficient achievement; we began to think of our grants as coming from our merit alone, and not as part of a public trust.
Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2010 and 2015 found that scientists today are more likely to be discouraged that evidence is not used in public decision making. Alarmingly, members of the public, while supporting science overall, are less positive about the value of scientific achievements than they were previously. Today, proven solutions that have been developed by scientists and engineers are sometimes mistrusted by members of the public. Our evidence-based way of knowing can be lost in a sea of misinformation and conspiracy theory spread by those in search of internet clicks.
The result can be devastating damage to people's lives: measles epidemics, deaths from unprecedented weather events, and health impacts of pollutants. Political discourse on the left and the right features confusing misinformation that creates controversy and disrupts evidence-based discussion of such issues as fluoride, vaccines, water quality, and genetically modified organisms. Misinformation can spread so rapidly that it overpowers the evidence-based reasoning of scientists.
I have experienced this erosion of public trust in science and engineering personally, as I travel the country speaking on behalf of science at NASA. At NASA, we experience such positive support from the public that we often get credit for things we didn't even do like Teflon, Velcro, and Tang. None of those were NASA inventions. But one thing we actually did that I think has had amazing impacts is the miniaturization of thermal control that led to neonatal incubators. Given the people around the world that are alive today because of these incubators, it may have been one of the greatest achievements of the Apollo era in its return of benefits to humanity.
One day, I had just used this example in a public presentation. Afterward, a lovely woman came up to me and said, "that's a great story about the incubators; but how could NASA have actually developed that technology since they faked the Moon landings? You can't prove anyone landed there."
I responded, "I know a lot of outstanding scientists that have devoted careers to analyzing moon rocks, and there is no way they could have been fooled, so I know from the geologic data that we landed on the moon."
To which she responded, "I saw all about it on the internet, and the shadows in the photos are wrong!" Sure she had made her point, she turned and quickly walked away!
I believe as scientists and engineers we have an obligation to the society that supports us to bring our knowledge and its impact back home. We have that obligation because society supports our work, and we have that obligation because of the value of our way of knowing to democratic discourse and public policy.
In my work at NASA, I took on this challenge in crafting an approach to measuring and communicating the Benefits for Humanity of research we are doing on the International Space Station to the daily lives of people on Earth. Not in technical jargon with the caveats we would use in speaking with our colleagues, but in simple words that can convey our passion and the importance of the knowledge we have gained. Even the most fundamental research connects to improving lives here on Earth, and we all need to be able to explain the importance of our work, and indeed the work of our colleagues in other disciplines, in short and simple words. We need to share the benefits of our way of knowing at community gatherings, over the fence with our neighbors, and in social media.
Today as you receive your diploma and begin a career in your chosen discipline, my challenge to you is to make a new commitment. I challenge you to recognize not only the support of your family and friends, but of our whole civilization. No matter what accolades you receive from your peers in the years to come, never forget to be grateful for the structures in our society that support scientific inquiry and are the foundation of your opportunities.
Your work is on behalf of humanity, and that creates an obligation to explain your knowledge and solutions for the benefit of an informed society. The way of knowing that you have developed through your hard work at the university is a privilege not shared by many. I challenge you to make a lifetime commitment to public communication-to ensure that your knowledge is available to everyone, that science is part of our public discourse, and that the benefits to humanity that will come from your work can be fully realized.
Go forth, to discover! And to share!
- Funk, Cary, and Lee Rainie. Public and Scientists' Views on Science and Society. Pew Research Center, 29 Jan. 2015.
- Jefferson, Thomas. Extract from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Monticello (Papers of Thomas Jefferson 28:363, Library of Congress), 27 May 1795.
- Moore, John A. Science as Way of Knowing: The Foundations of Modern Biology. Harvard University Press, 1993. Otto, Shawn. The War on Science: Who's Waging It, Why It's Dangerous, and What We Can Do about It. Milkweed Editions, 2016.
- Robinson, Julie, Kirt Costello, and David Brady. Eds. International Space Station Benefits for Humanity, Third Edition, NP-2018-06-013, 2018.