Episode 21: Making Scientific Research More Nimble


​​​​​​​​​​Aired May 18, 2020

What lessons can scientists and the public learn from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Hosts Lorelle Espinosa and Jon Turk discuss that and sustainability on college campuses with Lisa Graumlich, dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington. Also, Lorelle and Jon explore ACE’s response to the Education Department’s recent release of new Title IX regulations and what it could mean for higher education.

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Hosts and Guests
Lisa J.  Graumlich - Dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington - Guest
Lisa J. Graumlich
Dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington

 Read this episode's transcript

Lorelle Espinosa: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education podcast from the American Council on Education. I'm your host, Lorelle Espinosa, Vice President for Research at ACE. And I'm filling in today for our regular lead host, Jon Fansmith. And with me instead is my colleague, another John, Jon Turk, Associate Director of Research. How's it going today, Jon?

Jon Turk: Not too bad, Lorelle. Joining once again from my bedroom closet to dampen the sounds of city life. But other than that, doing well.

Lorelle Espinosa: Yep. And I am in my basement close to the router, where I had to move after we first started the podcast and no one could hear me. So, it's all in a days' work at a distance. It's great to see you though and hear you, and great to be on with you. And for everyone out there listening, thanks for joining us today. It is really quite a time in higher education. We are, I'm sure, all collectively wrestling with this global pandemic, COVID-19 and everything that it brings with it; the uncertainty, the decisions that we need to be making looking ahead. And there's also another thing that's landed on our plates recently that if John Fansmith were here he would mention, and I'll just mention it, and that is, in early May, we saw the final Title IX campus sexual assault regulations come down from the Department of Education.

Jon Turk: All 2,000 pages of it.

Lorelle Espinosa: That's right, all 2,000 pages, which I incidentally have not read, but I don't think anyone will hold that against me for not reading. These rules go into effect August 14th, which is kind of remarkable. And as our president, Ted Mitchell said in a statement last week, that [inaudible 00:01:58] "the most complex and challenging regulations the agency has ever issued, reflects appallingly poor judgment." We really are disappointed that these are coming down at this time. We've asked, as ACE, the department to please pause, and hopefully they are considering that. We're also a bit disappointed in the regulations themselves and [inaudible 00:02:24] 60 higher education associations last January, January 2019, comments on the proposed rule. And we're seeing that pretty much all of those recommendations that we made were rejected. Of course, there's a lot of people talking about the chilling effect that these regulations will have on victims coming forward. They certainly, in our belief, will do more harm than good. And once again, the timing is not great.

Jon Turk: We have a lot of resources about Title IX available on our website at acenet.edu. We'll be sure to link to that in the show notes. Our very own Pete McDonough, our general counsel, and one of our other directors of government relations, Anne Meehan, earlier in the week actually led a webinar talking about what campuses should expect related to the new Title IX regulations. And so that's going to be available on our online digital learning platform, ACE Engage here fairly soon as well. And we'll have that link in the show notes too. Recently, we saw announcements from the California State System that they're going to be transitioning to a majority of online classes for fall.

Lorelle Espinosa: Yeah.

Jon Turk: So I think there's still going to be some opportunities for in-person instruction for lab-based courses and some of the more hands-on courses. But they're one of the largest systems to come out and announce their decision for the fall to be primarily online. And so we've been working at ACE, trying to get a better sense of the information that is reaching presidents, who they're looking to, what kind of information they're using to make their decisions about the fall term.

Lorelle Espinosa: Yeah.

Jon Turk: Trying to get a better sense of what their plans are looking like. So what students and faculty and staff, what would they expect if they were to come back fully for in-person classes and on campus operations this fall? And so we just closed a survey that had over 300 presidents respond last week. And we're looking to put that information up on our website here pretty soon.

Lorelle Espinosa: Yeah. So everyone stay tuned for that. It's a series that we'll be doing once a month for the next year or so. Really talking to presidents about everything you've said, decision-making pressures, there's a lot of them. But let's leave all of that behind for the moment and introduce our guests, who we are so happy to have with us from her home, up there in Washington. It's Lisa Graumlich, who's the Dean of the University of Washington's College of the Environment. And Lisa, thanks again for joining us today. We're really excited to talk with you.

Lisa Graumlich: Well, Lorelle, and Jon and all of your colleagues, it's a pleasure to talk to you. And also, thanks for all you do to support leaders in higher education. It's wonderful to hear this opening piece and knowing that you're helping us navigate these really challenging times.

Lorelle Espinosa: And we really are happy to have you, Lisa, to talk about environmentalism and sustainability on campus; this is your area. We're so pleased to talk to you about it. And of course, there's a lot going on in this area right now, given the pandemic. And you recently wrote an op-ed about what we can learn from this pandemic, how we can apply it, how we can think about science. I wonder if you might just walk us through some of the points that you made in that op-ed.

Lisa Graumlich: Yeah, I think I'd be happy to talk about this particularly, once again, to leaders in higher education. All of us are scratching our head, trying to fully comprehend how the pandemic changes everything. And as a scientist, I've got some viewpoints that are both sober, but also have some hope in them. And there's three observations I've been thinking a lot about recently. The first is that this is an opportunity for scientists to do what we have been developing the capacity to do over the last couple of decades, which is to do global, collaborative, nimble science. So if you think about what happened as the coronavirus and the seriousness of it was starting to sort of emerge, Chinese scientists sequenced the coronavirus genome, literally at breakneck speed. And then this is the important part is they made those data freely available and accessible to the global scientific community, so we could start to work on what would tests look like and what would be your response. So if you think about that, this nimble, open-access, global sharing of data is something that has become the norm. If you don't do that as a scientist now, you're really not part of the gang anymore. This is how we work. And in terms of questions of other big...global climate change, global sustainability issues, we collaborate. We work on these questions as a global community and we saw that come through.

Jon Turk: Well, they're big questions, right? I mean, these are big questions that need a lot of people's time and energy devoted to it, to help solve. I think one of the things that struck me when you were making that first point, is just how it really does tear down the idea that excellence is really centered only in certain pockets in the world, that it really is spread throughout the world and it really does need folks from everywhere to help contribute to solving these complex problems.

Lisa Graumlich: Jon, I couldn't say it better myself. It's really an all hands on deck situation. And in a global pandemic, so many of our complex issues are global. It's not just everyone who traditionally has been part of the mainline science community, which is like North Americans, Europeans, the Japanese, it really is everyone. And how we actually, as academic leaders, think about how we continue to build out that capacity. So as we continue to address things like pandemics, where are our sub Saharan African researchers and capacity, where in the global South, how are we dealing with this?

Jon Turk: Absolutely.

Lisa Graumlich: So I have then, a more sober take on this, which is the path from the scientific research to policy and implementation is far more bumpy. So here at the University of Washington, once again, there was the pass off of the genome. We started to develop COVID tests literally within days, and we were ready to roll those out. And without going through sort of all this sordid and sad details, there was just bureaucratic after bureaucratic,after political hurdle that had to go through. And to this day, this was weeks ago, to this day, we still do not have the level of testing and test availability that we would like, despite the fact that the scientists were there. It was so interesting because we have over $100 million worth of externally funded research a year in the College of the Environment, but we don't do virology research, but we have very large analytic capacity. And we were literally transferring equipment, instruments and humans, like skilled technicians were on their way over to UW-Madison, so we could get this testing capacity up. We moved on a dime, but the policies and politics weren't there.

Jon Turk: So don't let anybody say higher education is slow to change, that's one of the things I heard from that.

Lisa Graumlich: Jon, thank you, thank you. But, okay, so here's my third big point, is that the science has led to true behavior change, based on a trust in science. And it's real science. Sometimes I kind of roll my eyes when like science literacy tests are things like "How many planets are in the solar system?", which is like, no, that's like a parlor game. Science is data, and it's models, and it's uncertainty, and it's a process of sort coming to better and better understanding of how complex systems work. And that is that flattening the curve notion. It's a model that's based on data, and it's a model that's evolving. And so in my own state here, Washington, Governor Jay Inslee consulted scientists, and he acted very decisively. And our UW public health researchers made the case, we were initially the epicenter, we made the case for flattening the curve and we changed everything. We closed our beloved espresso shops. We stopped doing all those Seattle things. But in all seriousness, we did it based on science. And what's interesting is, we're starting to see, in the subsequent weeks, some journalists, particularly in Europe have been doing surveys of public trust in science. And it's soaring, and it's soaring in part because of the partnership between scientists and science communicators, journalists, other people that do podcats, social media people, and that it's explaining the scientific method and the scientific process. It's not about facts, it's about using science as a way of understanding a lens to look at the evolving situation we're in. So the fact that we've got behavior change based on science, it makes me think that as we consult other grand challenges, climate change, sustainability, et cetera, we are developing a capacity as a global culture to see science as a partner in how we make personal decisions as well as much larger political decisions.

Lorelle Espinosa: That's really great. Yeah, I was wondering about the trust issue because higher education has also been facing some trust issues in the public. I mean, we see a narrative around higher education that is troubling to us, and we've made strengthening public trust a major priority at ACE. And I was thinking about when you were saying people were trusting science, that's great, because we also have seen recently, this anti-science or don't trust science sort of wave as well, which is equally concerning. But you and your colleagues are finding some hope that you're regaining some trust or perhaps you're just seeing more trust from everyone.

Lisa Graumlich: Lorelle, the data and it's the work that's coming out of Germany and the UK, it's not just creeping up, it's actually soaring. And it literally takes my breath away and does give me a great deal of hope, and it's been frustrating. I've been looking at the issue of climate change for 40 years now, and I think about where we are with that, and watching the sort of erosion in trust of climate sciences has been so disheartening. And so, seeing that, are we actually digging out of that distrust hole, but the piece that was so interesting to me was it was, scientists can't do it alone. It's really this, if you will, ecosystem of journalists and podcasters and all those sort of boundary organizations and individuals that help mediate this relationship between the process of science and how the science is used.

Jon Turk: One thing that I was thinking about related to this, and as you were talking about public perception, again, around science, now I'm not going to say too many positive things about what was the daily press conferences that the president was having around COVID-19. But I was struck the day when Dr. Anthony Fauci had to essentially give a public lecture about the scientific method, and talk about how clinical trials work, and what evidence means in a science capacity. And what struck me about that, was we were watching on prime time television, a civil servant scientist confronting our chief policy maker and talking about the scientific method and the importance of that in making policy decisions. And I think that's incredible and I think it gives me hope that if we can take that kind of model, if we can really put the scientists out upfront and show that there's rationale to that, that maybe we have a chance at some of these other, very pressing and very important issues.

Lisa Graumlich: Jon, embedded in your comment was something that was so intriguing to me, which was, is the scientific community ready for prime time, if you will. Are they ready to succinctly, clearly, and without jargon, be able to explain processes and not sort of just get lost in sort of details? And as the Dean of this very large College of the Environment, this has been part of one of my campaigns, is to have our scientists be better communicators. At this point, about a third of our faculty have actually been through formal science communication.

Jon Turk: Really?

Lisa Graumlich: But what makes me even happier is the fact that I can get my faculty to actually do something like this with enthusiasm and stuff; the higher education leaders out there will appreciate that. But it's all of these home grown grass roots initiatives that are coming from graduate students and early career faculty. So we have literally dozens of science communication-type programs and initiatives and courses, et cetera. One of my favorite ones is actually using some of our professors from the dance department and acting department, that are using improv-type techniques to train our scientists, our faculty, and graduate students and postdocs in how to be nimble and responsive. So as Dean, I never thought I would be offering courses to graduate students that really had improv as sort of one of the core learning objectives.

Jon Turk: The key feature?

Lisa Graumlich: Yeah. And in watching successful scientists communicate well, I realized it's actually that skillset, that sort of thinking on your feet and understanding, it's connecting with the people you're trying to communicate with. I mean, if you think about it, that's what improv is about, it's about the interaction, it's about the communication, it's about the response. It's not about standing on a podium and marching through your PowerPoint slides. And I love the fact that I feel like my early career people are the ones that are really leading the way on this.

Jon Turk: Yeah. I know we're going to get into some more details about sustainability and sustainability efforts on campus, but I think I want to stick here for a moment on our discussion with policy and communicating policy. And in particular, touch on one of your areas of expertise in global climate change. But again, when you were speaking, one of the things that struck me, right, even with my example of Dr. Fauci and talking about the scientific method and in the context of the pandemic. So this is probably kind of a softball question for you, but so one would have to think right now that even despite a variety of viewpoints that are kind of out there on the extremes, most people are seeing the direct day-to-day impact of the pandemic on their lives. They see the potential existential threat because of the pandemic. Oftentimes people don't see global climate change as such an eminent threat. "This is something that's happening so small and it takes so long, it's not going to affect me." And they kind of set aside research, or it's easy for policymakers to not feel that they have to address that particular issue. I'm going to just stop for a second. I'm just going to leave that right there and see if you have any response to that.

Lisa Graumlich: Jon, five years ago, I would have strongly agreed with you that we don't see the public sensing the fact that climate change will impact their lives in substantive ways, such that it becomes a priority, in terms of either adapting to what is going to be a new normal, or trying to address it by sort of changing all the ways that we use energy and sort of organize ourselves around fossil fuel use. I feel like just in the last couple of years, that has changed. So I'm talking to you from Seattle, where we are in the West, where we have seen large wildfires in the summers and that has become a little bit of the new normal, where even if you don't live near the fire boundary, the air quality and the disruption of travel and I think just the fear associated with seeing what had once been a vibrant forest now sort of blackened, is something that has been really striking to people. I have many in-laws that are Midwesterners involved with various parts of agriculture and they're concerned about drought. And they don't really want to argue about the politics of climate change, but they want to know is this kind of drought that they've been seeing something that they need to start planning around. And just in that really practical way, what are they going to do about it? Certainly we're seeing areas with sea level rise, where sea level rise happening. And the incursion of salt water into fresh water aquifers is something that people are starting to plan around. So I think on some level, there's many people that are realizing that like it or not, it's time to actually start adapting and potentially having some of those quiet conversations about, and what are the big politics about what we're going to do about it?

Jon Turk: Yeah. I mean, that's really heartening. It's good to hear that you're seeing that trend. I think that that goes back to then that...the original question then is, if we, as citizens are beginning to recognize that this is the new reality, this is an issue, how do we begin translating that to our policymakers, to know that this is something that we expect policymakers to be addressing. And that's something that I think both everyday citizens, higher education leaders, scientists, everyone has a role to play in communicating that.

Lorelle Espinosa: That's right. We're going to take a quick break and be right back. I know on your campus, Lisa, you're doing a lot to make your own campus sustainable. And we'd love to hear more about how you're doing that because I know one thing about being clued into the environment is, it does feel a good as a citizen to engage in things that I think are contributing to bettering the environment. I'm sure you've seen some of that too, even at a local level on your campus.

Lisa Graumlich: So, the University of Washington has been a strong advocate for using the campus as a laboratory of how we learn to live more sustainably, and we've been doing it. You know, we've won various kinds of green awards from the Sierra club, et cetera. What I love about how we do this is it is a partnership between students and faculty and staff and leadership, that has involved some pretty deep conversations about what do we do and why do we do it, and how do we embed it in the community that we're in? So for example, we're about to launch our next iteration of our strategic plan. And part of it has...one of the 10 major areas we're working on, is sourcing food from local sources. And it's one of those things that has all sorts of co-benefits. So not only are we reducing sort of the greenhouse gas production and consumption by how we source our food, but we actually are often then increasing sort of the healthiness of that food. We have a wonderfully productive student farm that produces enough that we can supply a substantial portion to our residence halls and importantly, to our student food bank. The students in our community that are, even before the pandemic, are food insecure, is shockingly high. And if you think about what you normally see then in the food bank shelves, is it's Velveeta mac and cheese and canned goods, et cetera.

Lorelle Espinosa: Canned, dried, yeah.

Lisa Graumlich: Exactly. And so the notion that on a weekly basis, there is fresh food being produced by students for students using sustainable agriculture, is something that is a key part of our sustainable plan. Another key area is that thinking about how we keep equity and inclusion at the core of that. And to stay on the food theme, we have a really vibrant partnership with the native students, staff and faculty organizations and the tribal leaders in the area. And so some of the area that is devoted to farming, is actually devoted to native medicines and foods that are being grown in traditional ways with traditional seed sources, and is a source for native students on campus to have their first foods, their foods sort of grown on campus and available to them. And so, it's kind of thinking about all the ways food, sustainability, culture, equity, and inclusion, all intersect in such a way that ... Oh, and by the way, there's fewer of greenhouse gases being produced in all of this, but there's all these ways that culturally, it is sort of vibrant. And we're learning and we're collaborating with each other and we're having conversations that we just didn't have before.

Lorelle Espinosa: I love that. You are speaking my language. That that is so creative and exciting, and I imagine there are many more things that you're not even sharing, because we don't have time, but that one is inspiring. Thank you for sharing. So I wonder if we might just close our conversation talking about some takeaways. So I think embedded throughout our dialogue, and I'm really glad that Jon paused on some of what he did earlier, really do speak to some things that higher education leaders can do sort of on the day-to-day in their decision making. And I wonder if you might just give us a few things that you would like our listeners to take away, and specifically our listeners who are leading institutions of higher education.

Lisa Graumlich: So in this moment, we have asked our faculty and our staff, particularly students' services, best staff, anyone that is sort of student facing as part of our organizations, to stop everything. Reconvene around some kind of online education provision. We've got some skills in that area, we're ramping up really rapidly. We've disrupted the delivery of education in ways that in the end, I'm pretty darn proud of the fact that we've pulled it off. But we have pulled it off in a way that faculty are quietly saying, "What do my old rewards systems and incentives and kind of merit evaluations mean? I've just been incredibly nimble, and I figured out how to get field equipment mailed out to students, so they can actually have experiential education in urban Seattle, even though we can't all get together in a lab. It was crazy hard and I did it. And do I just get a -"

Jon Turk: Good job.

Lisa Graumlich: -regular sort of course evaluations? Or, I am now thinking about how I can't do my regular research because I can't get into my lab. But instead, I am working with my graduate students and postdocs doing really different kinds of work that is more integrative and maybe involves the community more, et cetera. And so how do we as leaders pause and say, whatever we were measuring and valuing before we need to take a look at it and say, to what degree does nimbleness, community engagement, the ability to actually communicate about the impact of your research, not just sort of publish it, sort of turn into ... get codified into not just values that we as leaders talk about, and not just having a few examples where we parade in front of the press, like, "Oh, look at this great faculty member or this great graduate student that's doing this." But that we actually think about what are our value systems and how are they reflected in particular, in the promotion and tenure guidelines. Even the best of our researchers will not have the kind of productivity that they had a year ago under COVID; they can't get into their labs, they can't get into their field. They're taking care of family members that might be ill, they're stressed. And how do we just as a community sort of look at what we're doing, think about how it's embedded in our larger homes, meaning the places we live and work, and really break down our ivory tower and really be part of a larger community?

Lorelle Espinosa: Well, there are a lot of lessons there, Lisa. Thank you for sharing them. And I know you've also talked about this upcoming generation of scientists as being very community minded and focused on solutions. So I mean, there's a lot of hope for the future and like you said, I think there are some silver linings. So maybe we end there, because that's a beautiful note to end on. I want to thank you Lisa, for spending time with us today. And I want to thank our listeners too, for tuning in, in what is a very hectic time. And please, as always, if you have feedback or suggestions for future episodes, do email us at podcast@acenet.edu. And you can find our podcast as well as links to all of the resources that we've mentioned today on our website, acenet.edu/podcast. And finally, you can subscribe to our podcast, leave reviews and find more episodes on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks everyone. Stay safe and be well.

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​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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