The Bionic Woman of Good Science


On a blindingly bright autumn morning, I’m standing with Jane Lubchenco on the rocky shoreline at Asilomar State Beach, two hours south of San Francisco at the southern end of Monterey Bay. There’s a camera crew with us, filming her for an upcoming documentary on large-scale global marine reserves. I mention that I’d spotted a pair of whales surfacing and spouting in the bay the previous evening, not far from where we’re filming. “Oh, they were probably pilot whales,” Lubchenco says with enthusiasm, turning to look offshore. The professor in her can’t help but point out pelicans, harbor seals, and floating kelp in the clear waters — all vibrant signs of health in this marine ecosystem.

More broadly, she sees good news, which is no small thing for one of the world’s most important environmental scientists, celebrated for her decades- long efforts to call out the ways that human activities have unintentionally disrupted environmental stability. Lubchenco is a marine ecologist who has studied the Oregon coast for close to 40 years. After President Barack Obama named her in 2008 to head up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of his “green dream team,” she was called the “bionic woman of good science” at her Senate confirmation hearings, where she received unanimous approval. Her research papers are among the most widely cited in ecology; among other achievements, Lubchenco has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and served as the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Last year, she was given an unusually free-form mandate by the Department of State to travel the world as the United States’ first ocean diplomat. So what’s she going to do with it?

Lubchenco is the first to tell you that there’s no single solution to our planet’s water woes — that the path to a real, sustained altering of the trajectory we have set ourselves on requires lots of different approaches from lots of different players. But she is pushing in particular for what she and others in the conservation community, like the explorer Sylvia Earle, are calling “blue parks” — in effect, the National Parks of our seas, marine reserves that are fully protected from activities that remove animals or plants or alter habitats. The timing has resonance: 2016 is the 100th anniversary of America’s National Park Service, a once-controversial but now almost universally valued project. We protect natural resources so that they will help carry us into the future, in perpetuity.

From around the world, the scientific data is already in: Marine reserves work, boosting the numbers, diversity, and size of marine life inside — and outside — their borders. When fully protected reserves are paired with strong fishery-management plans meant to maintain healthy populations of fish, Lubchenco says, the long-term prognosis is relatively good. Think of it as taking out a health insurance policy for the planet: Large, thriving marine reserves help ocean ecosystems bounce back from stress events like climate change and overfishing. As with many discussions around environmental policy, like those that surround solar energy or carbon emissions, this one typically takes place at the lofty intersection of government, business, and scientific interests — a 40,000-foot remove from the rest of us. But Lubchenco explains that big things, many times, start at the local level, within a community — that “what happens at home” is often the kick-starter. “People care about that,” she says. “They focus on that. And they want good news. Fortunately, we’ve got some.”

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article: Bonnie Tsui
photo: Oliver Barrett/We Are Mystery Box


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