Jane Lubchenco | PAS Academician


Thank you, Mr President. It is a great honor to introduce myself to this esteemed group. Instead of summarizing my C.V., I plan to share a little about how I see my work and what it is telling us. (A short bio appears at the end.)

I’m an ecologist and environmental scientist. My research focuses on interactions among species in an ecosystem and between the environment and human well-being. I focus on connections. I see the world and its components as complex adaptive systems. Especially at a time of global challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity and inequity, scientific insights about human-environment interactions and findings about which features of complex adaptive systems lead to resilience are urgently needed and immediately relevant.

My research on climate change, biodiversity, and ocean ecosystems has been both ‘basic’ and ‘use-inspired’ (as defined by Donald Stokes in his Pasteur’s Quadrant to mean producing fundamental advances in knowledge that are immediately relevant to societal challenges). In addition to producing and leading scientific advances, I focus on engaging with society, sharing scientific knowledge widely, making it accessible, and training and empowering scientists to be effective communicators and co-produce solutions. Scientific knowledge is more relevant than ever and urgently needed, but to be useful, it has to be accessible, credible, salient, understandable, and useable. In short, I work actively to fulfill scientists’ collective social contract: include a focus on wicked problems and their solutions; commit to sharing knowledge and engaging widely; and act with humility, transparency and honesty.

For most of my career, I have been an academic – initially at Harvard and now at Oregon State University, but I have also spent considerable time bringing science to and engaging with the public, journalists, the private sector, a wide range of civil society and philanthropic organizations, and governments – through my own work and by creating opportunities for others.

Recently, I have served in a variety of positions in the U.S. government, alternating government service with academic activities. In 2008, President Obama invited me to be an inaugural member of his ‘Science Team’ and to serve as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and to lead the federal agency that produces and uses scientific information to deliver climate, weather, and ocean services and stewardship – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). After 4 productive years leading NOAA, I returned to academia, first as the Distinguished Visitor in Public Service at Stanford University and then as University Distinguished Professor and Valley Chair in Marine Biology at Oregon State University. In 2014, I was named the State Department’s inaugural U.S. Science Envoy for the Ocean, a position for which I travelled internationally over two years as a science diplomat to focus on ocean issues in China, Indonesia, South Africa, Mauritius and the Seychelles. In 2021, I returned once again from academia to government service to work under President Biden as the Deputy Director for Climate and Environment in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy – a position I hold today. Although my position is in the White House, I appear here today at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in my personal capacity, not speaking for or representing the Biden Administration.

Looking across these diverse experiences and knowledge acquired, and channelling our earlier discussions about the importance of science communication, I’d like to tell you a story.

This is a story about the ocean and scientific knowledge. It touches on the relationships between people and the ocean and what scientific knowledge is telling us about problems and solutions. As you may know, the ocean represents about two-thirds of the surface area of the planet and an astonishing 98% of the living space of Earth. The ocean sustains and feeds us; it connects us. As our life-support system, it has made life on Earth possible. And it harbors untold secrets. We have only begun to uncover the treasure trove of knowledge hidden beneath the waves.

You will note that I use the word ‘ocean’ in the singular. Yes, there are many ocean basins – the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Indian, etc. – but they are all connected. In truth, there is only one ocean.

For most of human history, people thought the ocean was so immense, so bountiful, so resilient, that it was impossible to deplete or disrupt it. We thought we could take as much as we wanted and dump as much as we pleased – with no real consequences. Fisheries seemed endlessly bountiful, with ever-new target species discovered as peopled fished farther and farther from shore and deeper and deeper. The 1960’s slogan “dilution is the solution to pollution” encapsulated our thinking about dumping wastes in the ocean: its size made it the perfect place to dilute or hide whatever we didn’t want. We assumed that the ocean was infinitely bountiful and resilient. In short, the main narrative about the ocean was that “It was too big to fail”.

The last few decades have shown many of us the folly of that thinking. You’ve seen images of depleted fisheries, disgusting plastic pollution, larger and more persistent red tides, bleached coral reefs, dead zones – one problem after another, with very real consequences for people as well as life in the ocean. These problems are so overwhelming and diverse that many people have thrown up their hands saying, “It’s hopeless!” They feel that the problems are too complex; the vested interests are too powerful; and the solutions are not obvious or feasible. And so, in just a few decades, the dominant narrative about the ocean has shifted from ‘The ocean is too big to fail’ to now ‘The ocean is too big to fix”.

I note that in some places, both narratives exist today. Some people still look at the ocean and see an endless opportunity without responsibility – more minerals, more oil and gas, more fisheries.

Fortunately, science is pointing the way to a third, more hopeful narrative. Scientists are telling us that in fact, the ocean is central to solving many of our global problems – from climate change and food security to equity and economic development. Around the world, there are small-scale examples of these solutions, but they are not at the scale or pace that we need. For example, a scientific analysis concluded that we could get as much as 20% of the carbon emission reductions we need to reach the 1.5-degree Paris Agreement target from the ocean – by tapping ocean renewable energy; protecting and restoring blue carbon ecosystems like mangrove forests, saltmarshes and seagrass beds; decarbonizing shipping and more. Science is flipping the script on the ocean – the ocean is no longer the victim, but a powerful source of solutions. So, in short, what we are seeing through new scientific findings, discoveries, engagement and demonstration is that, in fact, the ocean is not too big to fail, nor is it too big to fix, but it is, in fact, so central to our future it’s too big to ignore.[1]

Yes, there is urgency. Yes, the challenges loom large. But this new narrative for the ocean provides a path forward because it exemplifies social and natural sciences coming together to provide both knowledge and hope through engagement with society.

Thank you.


[1] Lubchenco, J. and S. D. Gaines. 2019. A New Narrative for the Ocean. Invited editorial. Science 364 (6444) p. 911 DOI: 10.1126/science.aay2241 https://science.sciencemag.org/content/364/6444/911