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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Speaking at the National Science Foundation, "Can you hear me now?"

Today I had a chance to speak to a small group of senior advisers of the Engineering directorate of the National Science Foundation.  Oh, and there was a secret tribunal over WebEx as well. I was invited to speak as part of the Emerging Frontiers of Research Innovation program. Every three years, NSF puts out a call to the research community to submit emerging research that is potentially transformative and addresses grand challenges. The idea that I submitted on behalf of the research collaboration associated with this blog was one of seven that was chosen out of over 300 submissions.

Title: Emergence in complex biophysical and sociopolitical systems.

I am writing now out of a mixture of pain and amusement.  The pain is that in my over 20 hours of preparation leading up to the 30 minute presentation, I discovered that in the end, I wasn't able to speak to their interests very clearly.

The amusement is about how the talk actually went.

It's a little like this:  A citizen is given audience with the world's largest producers and supporters of soda pop.  The citizen says, "I realize that in your mission to quench the nation's thirst, developing this soda pop seemed like a good idea. However, it is quite literally causing a variety of systemic illness, many of which you are trying to fix yourself.  But you are trying to fix them by supplying more soda pop.  Here is the science that shows your soda pop is killing us.  Instead, people should drink water.  Here is the science that shows the benefits of water.  You could also satisfy your mission of quenching the nation's thirst with a different kind of drink: water."

Response of the makers of soda pop, "I get what you're saying about the water.  But what kinds of soda pop do you envision us producing in this thing that you're proposing?"

Oh, when I think of it, it is quite funny.

They absolutely could not hear what I was saying. I was synthesizing a bunch of research that was really outside their expertise and I think it really caused them to "tilt."

I had hoped that it would cause them to be interested, but that didn't seem to happen. To be fair, one of the people came up to me and directly thanked me, telling me that they learned a lot from my talk. I think they followed what I was saying in some ways, but it wasn't compelling enough--actually, I think that a few of them were unfamiliar with the compelling issues of sustainability, as evidenced by their look of confusion when I said that a "science as usual" path means that the conditions that support cooperative human existence will no longer be in place in the lifetimes of our children or grandchildren.

Alas. I'm trying to manage my feeling of failure.