Last Saturday (April 27th), at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, Ernest Moniz, former Energy Secretary for President Barack Obama, and Daniel Nocera, Harvard chemistry professor (and inventor of the artificial leaf and the bionic leaf) – longtime friends – held a conversation on “a path to a low carbon energy future.” Their talk was webcast live; an edited version will be posted online at some future date.
Hard to do justice to the conversation – only the actual video will do, and for that you’ll have to wait a bit. But here’s the pith of it. Mr. Nocera opened with a bit of background on his artificial leaves (you can find links to articles or videos of different lengths and going into varying degrees of detail here). Both fascinating and encouraging.
For his part, Mr. Moniz began with a quick overview of energy policy. He decried what he called “the magical thinking” at both ends of the political spectrum – denial at the one end, and completely impractical ideas at the other (such as a carbon-free energy economy in five years). By way of contrast, he pointed out that the so-called Green New Deal offered much to like. Specifically, it spoke to less carbon (not zero), and it simultaneously tackled social equity; it avoided some of the regressive policy options often associated with different versions of carbon taxes. He argued, in the realistic spirit of the Green New Deal, for settling – that is, for “making progress as fast as we can,” versus “as fast as we need.” He reminded the audience that electrical power generation per se was the easiest bit to implement; decarbonization of transportation and other economic sectors was more difficult. He emphasized that the challenge consisted of numerous pieces: electrical power generation; large-scale grids; nuclear; fracking and CO2 sequestration during the transition; etc., etc. And he summed up by saying that to focus on any single favorite of these pathways would be to fail. Instead, he said we need to pursue all these avenues, in parallel – and what’s more, we need to “hit a home run,” do the absolutely best we can, in each.
Sitting there, my mind was half on the AMS workshop scheduled to start two days later (this past Monday, April 29th) entitled New Minds for New Science: The Forecast for Work in Weather, Water, and Climate. I was thinking that Mr. Moniz could well have added workforce to his list of areas where we needed to hit a home run.
Sure enough, this week’s workshop reinforced that idle thought. Monday and Tuesday’s presentations and discussions made it clear: in each of the above areas in the energy challenge, in each sector of application (agriculture, industry, transportation, etc.), and in environmental intelligence itself (understanding how the planet and its lifeforms function and interact, and what they’ll do in response to human intervention), a diverse, inclusive, educated, trained, equipped, and motivated workforce will be the difference between success and failure. The workforce will need to master two skills:
- IT generally, but in particular artificial intelligence, and
- Social/collaborative skills
Workshop dialog also made something else clear. Both these capabilities will rest on the extent we can strengthen STEM education at every level: K-12, especially in public schools; undergraduate; graduate; and continuing education over a career or lifetime. But conventional approaches to learning, and traditional institutions, and even traditional disciplines, may be casualties in this future. We heard that both private- and government-sector employers are frustrated by the need to serve as “finishing schools” for entry-level workers, sometimes training scientists and engineers for 2-3 years in these skills before they’re useful, functioning members of the agency or company. At the same time, companies are reaching past universities down to the high-school level to identify and hire truly precocious talents (more reminiscent of the way professional athletes are identified, recruited, and developed today, skipping college either partially or entirely).
If artificial intelligence is to be the tool of the 21st-century workplace, then just as today’s students are “one-with-their-smartphones,” we can anticipate that future students at every level will be engaging with personal-AI – helping them learn, at their own pace, subjects largely of their own choosing, informed according to an individually tailored, AI-enabled, iteratively-developing understanding of what they like, what they’re good at, what’s meaningful, and what will earn them a living – their ikigai, as one speaker put it. It’s possible, perhaps even likely that instead of facility with AI being part of the finishing needed by physicists, chemists, biologists, meteorologists, sociologists, et al., that these disciplines of the past will be the finishing added-on to a generic, AI-enabled, learning-to-learn.
A closing vignette illustrates the essential importance of STEM education, not just for the workforce but for the broader society. We’re coming up on the 75th anniversary of D-Day in a few weeks. In historical accounts, much is made of the prevailing weather and the forecasts for same; the tides on the beaches; efforts to mislead German intelligence as to Allied intentions over that weekend, and so on. All these aspects determined Allied casualties and the day’s events. But the reality is that by that point the ultimate outcome of the war had been predetermined. Behind the massive armada of military and conscripted vessels, the soldiers, the tanks and artillery, and vehicles and supplies that would be landed on the beaches of Normandy over that 24-hour period, there was a far more massive pipeline of personnel and material extending across the Channel back to England, and across the Atlantic back to America, that would continue to pour soldiers and resources onto the European continent and sustain those human and mechanical assets for as long as necessary. Entire, unified populations in the Allied nations were accepting the accompanying priorities and the sacrifices needed.
In the same way, to cope with climate change, and an associated host of 21st-century resource-, hazard- and environmental challenges, we need not just the workforce of today, the workforce of the moment, but an educational pipeline producing and sustaining the workforce required across a succession of outyears, and a supportive, scientifically-savvy society committed to such investment over the long haul.
We have to hit a home run.
 “Pith” variously means the core or the essence of something – or in biology, it refers to tissue in the stem of vascular plants. Thus we have “pithy,” referring to “concise and forcefully expressive,” and pith helmets, made from pith material from an Indian swamp plant.