Podcast: Nicholas Dirks — The Impact of Science Today

Nicholas Dirks, President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences
Nicholas Dirks, President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences

Has there been a time when science has played a more significant, more direct role in the quality, if not quantity, of our lives? The most obvious example, of course, is Covid-19 – from understanding the pandemic to developing a cure in record time.

And yet simultaneously – just as science brings us together, allowing individuals and societies to connect again –  has there been a time when science has divided us more? Not only in our acceptance of how to manage Covid, but even extending to our climate.

How should we – in business, public policy, and our own lives – reconcile the seemingly contradictory trend that arguably science is as inspiring and dividing right now as perhaps any time in history?

For answers, if not insights, few are better to ask than Nicholas Dirks.

Dirks is President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences, whose mission is “Science for the Public Good.” Throughout its history, the Academy’s membership has featured thinkers and innovators from all walks of life, including U.S. Presidents Jefferson and Monroe, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Margaret Mead, and many more. Today, the Academy has more than 20,000 Members in 100+ countries, with a President’s Council that includes 36 Nobel Laureates.

Nick also is Professor of History and Anthropology at UC Berkeley, where he served as its 10th chancellor. He has held numerous fellowships and scholarships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation residential fellowship, and the Lionel Trilling Award for his book Castes of Mind. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As he notes in this conversation: Almost every issue he sees in our future requires bringing science and scientists together with public issues.


Transcript: Nick Dirks

Chris Riback: Nick, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Nick Dirks: Great to be here, Chris.

Chris Riback: As we talk right now, today, I understand that you are about to complete your first year at the Academy. You picked quite a year to start. Do you feel like last year was spring training for you and the regular season is about to begin or is a better metaphor that you arrived at the war just in time for D-Day?

Nick Dirks: Great question. I think I’ll start with a sports metaphor which is that I was dropped in pretty much like [Mariano] Rivera used to be for the Yankees, just at the bottom of the ninth ending with the bases loaded and I needed to do something fast to make sure that we didn’t give away the game. But it’s been a really peculiar year for everyone in every possible walk of life. But to start a new job in New York, being based in Berkeley, California, to take on a role leading a distinguished and venerable learning society, the New York Academy of Sciences which was formed in 1817, 204 years ago, was a great honor but in some ways couldn’t have been better timing.

I think the country and the world has all recognized the importance of science solely in terms of identifying the nature of this extraordinary virus that has taken over all of our lives and indeed coming up with vaccines that are now making so much of a difference in terms of we’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time, that of course all the issues that we’ve confronted politically over the last year around wearing masks, what it means to socially distance, how you think about public health as a matter of both compliance but also of social mindedness, and ultimately whether we’ll end up getting what we now call herd immunity through enough people taking the vaccine are all issues that in a way condense the place of science in our society today.

Chris Riback: Yes, and I look forward to asking you about many of those tensions and many of the tensions around the ways that people seem to be thinking about science, both the incredible revolutionary ways that science is really impacting in positive ways the world and then the people who look at it as the center of all evil. From your point of view what is the New York Academy of Sciences? What is Science for the Public Good, and why did you take the job?

Nick Dirks: The New York Academy of Sciences it’s an old institution but it’s evolved over its long history. And in the 19th century it was a place where learned people would get together and give lectures. It’s where Charles Darwin gave his lectures on evolution when he visited the United States. Thomas Edison was a member. Thomas Jefferson was a member of the New York Academy so it has all those kinds of wonderful claims to distinction in the past.

But at various moments in its history it focused on geography and natural history. For a long time it was in fact housed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, but since World War II has focused a lot in the areas around the life sciences. It had held one of the first conferences on antibiotics, in fact, in the 1940s, and charted the development of a whole suite of antibiotics that were developed after penicillin. And at the same time it was a place that had major convenings around HIV, around AIDS, around SARS. It was the first place that held a conference on SARS when that epidemic struck the world, and of course in the last year we’ve had almost 30 programs on COVID-19 and the whole set of issues around that. So it’s been focused on a lot of different things over.

But for me, the New York Academy is an incredibly important organization because it takes science and it has a huge network of scientists that are part of both our boards but also of our membership. And it not only brings scientists together to talk about the latest advances and discoveries and issues and debates in specific scientific fields, but then it uses that expertise to try to address general issues that bear on science and on the role of scientific knowledge and scientific expertise.

And so to me it was a perfect transition in a way from being chancellor at Berkeley, where I had great scientists, great humanists, great engineers. But I was also aware that almost every one of our challenges, both national and global, have some relationship to science.

Almost every issue that I see in our future does require bringing science and scientists together with public issues. And in the case of the New York Academy and in the case of my whole career to try to do that in a way that advances the public good seems to me to be a good enough reason to have made this transition even during a year when I was 2,500 miles away from the home office.

Chris Riback: Yes, an incredible way to get to start at a time and from that location. And how have you thought about the role of science in society today and how do you think about it differently now one year later now that it has played such an obvious and everyday role? But has your view of science and the public good, the role of science in human life, do you look at it differently right now?

Nick Dirks: Yes, it’s a great question, Chris. First of all, when I look back on my academic administrative career both at Columbia and at Berkeley, my primary interest was to support research and education, basically advanced research and then the education of the next generations of scientists.

And I wasn’t as actively involved in thinking about taking scientific knowledge and scientific leaders and using their extraordinary insights into different aspects of our natural and physical world to address larger kinds of questions and issues. And in a way the pandemic really has crystallized I think the importance of taking a broader view. And so for me personally it’s been a happy confluence of just decisions that get made on a very different kind of timeline and for very different kinds of reasons to take on this role and really take on the question of how science can address public issues.

But the question that you raised, how has my view of science changed? It’s certainly become very clear to me that, first of all, there is a real communication problem. There is a communication problem both because scientists are not always very well-trained in how to talk to the public, and because the public is not always very well-positioned to understand what science is, and how science works, and how scientific discoveries unfold, and why it is that you can read about one study one day and then two months later to read about another study and see things that potentially conflict and they may of course raise raised doubts and heightened distrust.

Chris Riback: We’re seeing that even right now as you and I are having this conversation one of the most recent statements from the CDC was around masks and the fact that if one was fully vaccinated you don’t need masks in public. Communicating in science is a tough thing.

Nick Dirks: It’s a very tough thing. And it’s not that scientists need to study communication necessarily along with everything else they studied to get to the point where they can do the advanced research they do.

And of course it feeds into a public sense that they’re just constantly changing their mandates that science is not about truth but it’s just about opinion, which of course is a fraught area of our entire political, social, cultural, and public health life today.

Chris Riback: It certainly is. And I’ve found myself wondering and thinking about this conversation, how do you reconcile the trend that arguably science is as inspiring right now as perhaps any time in history? And I was trying to think about this, you’ve got Galileo and you have other periods of history, the Renaissance when science was at the forefront of effecting public thought and all of society.

And in this one moment we have the examples, we’ve got the COVID vaccine that you mentioned as obviously among the most remarkable scientific discovery creations and based on years of scientific discovery. I know you know the mRNA work that has been done. You’ve got CRISPR, again that you are so close with, you’ve got the landing of Perseverance, the Rover on Mars. I mean, you’ve got some incredible scientific activity right now in society. And yet simultaneously it seems that science has never been more divisive. Climate change doesn’t exist, you know that, Nick. We have anti-vaxxers are a prominent voice in society. How do you reconcile those diverse trends?

Nick Dirks: Well, first of all, Chris, it has ever been thus. Galileo, who you mentioned made extraordinary discoveries. He was also put in prison and his books were burnt and he was the subject of a great deal of persecution because some of his proposals about the nature of the universe were deeply upsetting to people in his day and time. If you look at the Renaissance across the board there were those tensions. I remember as a kid having these neighborhood meetings around whether or not we should all build a fallout shelter together because of the threat of nuclear war. So you had the great discovery of nuclear fission and then you had of course the fear that that was going to be those powers of creation would be turned to destruction.

And it has continued to be the case for years and years that science has these extraordinary moments of discovery and opening up the world. I mean, again, another wonderful thing when I was growing up was the age of space exploration began. From the John Glenn to the moon landing to the Mars Rover. These are extraordinary demonstrations of science. And again, you spoke to mRNA. First time ever that we have a new technology for developing a vaccine that is in itself related through RNA discoveries to CRISPR-Cas-9 and the extraordinary work of Jennifer Doudna at Berkeley and at Emmanuelle Charpentier and others colleagues.

And yet, the counterargument not only continues but in some ways it is fed by all of these discoveries. So you have growing interest in space aliens at the same time that you have space exploration, you have as I mentioned the fear about the misuse of nuclear weapons, you have even with CRISPR-Cas-9 the concern that you can now genetically alter a human being and introduce with a much more sophisticated technology than existed in terms of 19, 20th century debates over eugenics, a new way of creating designer babies as they’ve been called.

And of course there are major concerns about the relationship between vaccines and so the charge went in an ill-fated article that was published in Lancet, the relationship of the vaccine to autism. So first of all, it’s always been like this. There have been not only these anti-science kinds of trajectories but that every step forward in science has produced in turn reactions that in some ways have been exacerbated by the very success that science has.

And I think one of the challenges for us, and certainly one of the things I see the New York Academy of Sciences is able to play an important role in is to remind people, first of all, that science is predicated on facts that are demonstrably true, reproducible, et cetera, but it’s always interpreted by humans who are learning through new and newer facts all the time what and how the things that they’re studying in fact operate and that that human process of discovery is one that constantly is undergoing change, so it’s a moving target.

It’s really important to remember that science alone is not going to be able to solve these challenges, it’s not going to be able to deal with the great distrust that exists around science as well. So there has to be the recognition in my view that science and a larger understanding of what we are as humans, what we are as human societies, how they operate and the relationships between them.

Chris Riback: What role should business play in advancing science? What do CEOs say to you when you talk to them about supporting the sciences?

Nick Dirks: Yes. Well, I think I’ll just say one thing before I answer your question, which is that another example that is incredibly important in our contemporary world of the place of science but also of the complications around scientific advances and discoveries is technology. And I haven’t mentioned that yet but one of the people who I’ve recruited to the academy board is Reid Hoffman who of course was the founder of LinkedIn-

Chris Riback: LinkedIn, yes.

Nick Dirks:  … Now is on the Microsoft board. But Reid has been very interested in joining his own college in master’s level education and questions of ethics with his life as a technology entrepreneur. And we talked a lot about the need to bring questions about ethics and the social use of technology and to much better conversation with the kinds of things happening within the space of technology itself. I just mentioned that to also make clear that since business now is also, of course, primarily driven in some ways by technology both in terms of new kinds of businesses but also in terms of changing business processes.

These kinds of wider questions that bridge the solely scientific or technological on the one side and the larger social, economic, cultural, even human dimensions of those kinds of changes on the other are things I think that we have to recognize as critical. Critical for everything from the way we use social media which of course there’s a great deal of talk about today, but also critical from the point of view of business. So there’s nobody in business who isn’t thinking about science in some way or another.

Beyond that we have a number of other business CEOs on the board of the New York Academy. I think they all believe that in our current age science is going to be a critical part not just of dealing with world problems but of also developing their own products and thinking about the kinds of things that business has to take on certainly in terms of its social responsibility but also just more generally in terms of recognizing the role that science and technology play in virtually every part of our life.

I think this has come out of the pandemic in part, there’s a sense of urgency about restoring the prestige of science and it’s shared across the business world. But again, when you think about technology what does it mean to use technology to be efficient and then find out that your algorithms are reinforcing social-stereotypes. What does that do if you’re being efficient but you’re then displacing a great many workers who used to assume that their careers would be spent on a particular industry because they’ve just been made redundant because of artificial intelligence? These broader conversations are actually incredibly relevant for the boardroom as well.

Chris Riback: Again, from a historical point of view, the amount of disruption, the amount of angst that exists in our society right now, whether that’s the tension that we were just talking about anti-science, the tension that we see around the role that technology plays and the dislocation that can occur, whether that’s in jobs, education, opportunity, housing, that technology can play. In thinking about the answer you gave earlier about… It’s always been thus, is there has been scientific discovery and change, there’s also been human pushback.

Do you look at where we are in history and think to yourself, ‘Yes, man, this is an extraordinary time?”

Nick Dirks: Well, I’m sometimes reminded of conversations I used to have with my parents when they were alive about all the kinds of changes that had taken place during their lives in technology from household appliances to 747s and the like. And in some respects, that generation underwent more in the way of technological change than we did. But the technological change that is happening right now is one that is just, hugely disruptive.

And the miniaturization of high computational power into our iPhones that all of us carry around, what Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum has called The Fourth Industrial Revolution where we’re looking at the possibility of 3D printers printing not only the toys that you see sometimes on demo but actually body parts, organs. What does that do to everything from supply chains? To our notion of what actually can be made in the world? So yes, this is a moment where you don’t always see it. You certainly feel it and you experience it and it affects almost every part of our lives.

Chris Riback: How important are experts? You travel in a universe of experts. And this polarization that we’ve been talking about a little bit it seems to be totally polarized as well on experts. The tension between the push to put faith in our experts, follow the science, versus extreme populist anger against experts.

I had a conversation on this recently with one of my kids and brought up the example of the best and the brightest and the humor around the sense of what exactly did it mean to be the so-called best and the brightest and where did that lead to. Does it worry you the tension or the sense around expertise?

Nick Dirks: Yes. Well, it’s a great question, Chris, and it’s one that I do think about and worry about a great deal. Again, I don’t think it’s the first time that experts have been in the crosshairs of a populist resentment of one kind or another, but there is a way in which when you think about something like the possibilities of nuclear power on the one side or the threat to our health from a virus on the other side, that experts really are critical for our basic survival leave alone for a world in which we can thrive. And so the current anger and resentment and just outrage about experts and expertise is one that really does deeply concern me.

I mean, one of the reasons I went from Columbia to Berkeley was because it’s a university in which on the one hand you have some of the best experts in every field in the world, but on the other hand it has a huge commitment to access, to trying to bring to the universities, I mean, people from all kinds of backgrounds. I mean, we had many undocumented students, we had students who had been formerly incarcerated, we had students from foster care, we had students who had been homeless in their pre-collegiate lives. And I think that was a really important thing to do to see as a microcosm of what is possible to bring people together from backgrounds that would never have imagined being able to walk into a lecture hall, that of course before COVID, and taking a course with a Nobel Laureate.

Now, the problem is it’s very hard to scale this to really encompass the groups of people who have this kind of sense of being on the outside, of seeing a world in which the escalation of inequality and privilege and wealth and all the rest of it has aligned experts with great power, privilege, and wealth and kept us out. And that of course is again, the symptom of what I think has been a political environment for the last 30 and 40 years that has just encouraged using these kinds of goals as wedges for political mobilization and in political recruitment.

So it’s not easy to come up with a simple solution but I do think education is critical to this and I do think that those of us who are in the world of colleges and universities, and I’ve spent most of my life as you know in the university world, have a real obligation to try to really come up with new ways to bring experts into a much closer set of relationships with those who feel they’re on the outside.

And part of that too, and to go back to what we were saying about communication before, it’s also learning to look up from the lab bench, or look up from the scholarly paper, or look up from the particular area of expertise that one has as an expert. And forgive this, but to become a little more anthropological, look at the world around and understand that one way to deal with this is to really get outside of your comfort zone and try to come up with different ways to bring expertise into a position of relevance for everybody.

Chris Riback: Which leads me to wonder and want to ask about leadership and how you think about leadership. You’ve held some of the senior most leadership roles in some of the most challenging organizations to manage. Chancellor of UC Berkeley, President and CEO of New York Academy of Sciences. You engage with CEOs, with leaders of governments, of organizations, of nonprofits, of businesses.

At the highest level from your point of view, what is leadership, what is your style? You’ve written books on colonialism and ethnohistory in India and Imperial Britain, what would you title perhaps the book on management that maybe you’ve sworn you’ll never write but if you did I’m sure that people would buy it, Nick?

Nick Dirks: Well, I have to talk to you about that, Chris, because I have to increase my sales of my books a little bit beyond the 200 that I can give off to my buddies in my particular disciplinary fields. But as I’ve looked at the challenges of leadership and management over the years I’ve learned a lot. And I think when I started as a Dean at Columbia to leave the classroom and go into administration I was just trying to support the faculty to do the work that they needed to do, whether for education or for research.

And as I did that for a long period of time, as I saw some of the, I thought structural impediments to change that came from staying too comfortable with just being in one’s department and just doing once research in one’s little field, knowing more and more about less and less as another colleague of mine at Columbia once said was the one to professors. I’ve come to think that we really as leaders have to take on the responsibility to think about changing institutions. And if anything at Berkeley I was a little bit too quick to suggest the need to re-imagine the university. That was a major budget problem that had to do with the politics of the State of California, the underfunding of the university.

But you have an obligation to think about changing these institutions. And this is a conversation that I think has been really productive for me, is to talk to people in the business world and trying to understand better why it is that institutions are important but how it is that you keep changing institutions to not so much honor the past but to prepare for the future. And it is ultimately the responsibility of leaders to figure out that relationship between the past and the future, because most of us left to our own devices just want to keep doing it the way we did it yesterday, last year, and just keep doing the same old thing.

Chris Riback: You’ve been a strong advocate around the globalization of education. What is the momentum on that today and how do the various geopolitical trends between liberal and illiberal democracies, between globalism and nationalism, how do they play a role?

Nick Dirks: Chris, you have an hour or two? That’s a huge question, obviously…

Chris Riback: If you could boil it down. We’ve got 20 seconds left, Nick, so if you could just give me everything you’ve got on the tensions between globalism and nationalism in 20 seconds and go.

Nick Dirks: Yes, thanks. Thanks a lot. Look, I have been an advocate as you said of a globalization. I’ve been an advocate in the sense that I’ve encouraged universities I’ve worked into to try to recruit as many students and faculty for that matter from around the world because I thought that cultural exchange was always a good thing, and in fact, cultural exchange I think can be the basis on which better political relationships and better economic relationships can develop.

But by the same token over the last few years I’ve been also spending time in different parts of the world, this is of course before COVID, where there’s a huge effort to build new universities. And I’ve tried to suggest that certain kinds of global relationships could be very helpful. That some of the models from the U.S. could also be helpful, for example, the need to have along with wonderful STEM training and opportunities to have the liberal arts because that again opens things up.

Now, the liberal arts have a problem in certain kinds of political regimes that think that critical thinking is about being imaginative but not actually being critical and so you’re constantly balancing that tension that exists I think in that very term that we use sometimes all too flippantly about what the goals of the liberal arts really are. The bottom line is that we need to ensure that as we think about our future that the future of our localities, the future of our communities, the future of our families, but also the future of our nations and the future of our world and our planet, we have to find a way in which we can build our capacity to understand other people. To develop greater forms of not just empathy but of genuine understanding, to be able to imagine ourselves in somebody else’s position.

And that sometimes is about critique, it’s sometimes about just trying to suspend the way in which we ourselves think about the way the world looks and start looking at ourselves perhaps as others do or as we could finally imagine that others will. And that requires a global theater in which to operate. It requires a very capacious sense of education and I think it’s fundamental I think to the success of businesses in the world ahead as well.

Chris Riback: Well, I got to tell you, that scares me because that requirement that you’re laying out, which by the way I subscribe to, so many forces are pushing against that right now. We all subscribe to technology that reinforces our existing points of view. We more and more socialize with people within our view. So at the same time that I’m hearing from you that the imperative future is to connect outside to understand where other people are coming from. That requirement comes at the exact time I think that there are many pressures pushing in the opposite direction.

Nick Dirks: I feel exactly that concern and that is indeed what drives this call to action. I do get… I mean, partly I’ll do the mea culpa. Partly when you go to American campuses you see a kind of almost retrenchment. And it’s a retrenchment on the one side that is driven by the fact that you have much more diverse kinds of student populations and there are all kinds of historical issues that are being worked through. But on the other side, what’s really critical is that we use these years of education to open up our minds and our capacity to really, as I just said, try to imagine how other people feel about the world.

And we’re not doing a very good job of that right now. We’re not doing a good job on university campuses, we’re not doing a good job necessarily in our politics, and we have a lot of other impediments that are not only local but we can see driving of course a lot of ethnonational movements around the world. So it ain’t easy but it is really important.

Chris Riback: Thank you. Nick, very quickly just to close, looking forward you’re entering now your second year at New York Academy of Sciences, so many issues that we’ve talked about. What does a great year too look like for you?

Nick Dirks: Well, the going back to the office every now and then. One of the nice things about the New York Academy is that I have a really, really great office on the 40th floor of the World Trade Center building seven.

Chris Riback: That’s a great office.

Nick Dirks: It gives me a view of the world which is as capacious as anyone could hope for. But really I think the next year is about figuring out what this post-pandemic world is going to be all about, how are we going to live our lives? And a lot of this requires, again, refiguring the culture of work, and of course by implication the culture of life.

Science is going to play a role in this. My hope is that the New York Academy of Sciences plays a really critical role in both supporting science but also interpreting science for all the others who are thinking through these issues how we can both be safe but also really creative in how we think about the experience of the last 14, 15 months. For me the success of year two which begins on June 1, is being able to play a role that is really helpful in what we’re all going through and making the next move to what we still don’t fully understand is the post-pandemic world.

Chris Riback: Nick, thank you. Thank you for your ideas, thank you for your time.

Nick Dirks: Thank you, Chris. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you.

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