Closing reflections on the 2011 Colloquium and the future of the human race.

The AMS Summer Policy Colloquium in a nutshell? A ten-day discussion on the challenges of Living on the Real World – the world that is at one and the same time, globally and locally, a resource we can’t do without, a victim we tragically mistreat, and a threat to our very lives.

The discussion brings together scientists, policymakers, and practitioners in this arena…as well as the journalists who report on it and the educators who prepare professionals for it. Colloquium numbers? Small. And the number of presenters (40 this year over the ten days) typically (slightly) outnumber the participants (pushing 30). The (extended) community is making a huge investment in these future leaders.

The conversation is trans-generational. Most of the participants are early career, and most of the presenters fairly senior. But occasionally the speaker is one of the youngest people in the room. And sometimes the questioner is one of the oldest.

In a way, the ten days are themselves the “tip of the iceberg.” [How’s that for about as stale a metaphor as we ever see? But it’s apt! It fits!] Are you a scientist? Then you might compare it to the field phase of an experiment. Scientists who go to sea on research vessels, or mount complex field studies [to paraphrase the military, experimentalists put “chemical sensors, met instruments, and radars on the ground”]. And one of the truisms about field work is that those two weeks or two months of gathering data are dwarfed by months, sometimes years of preparation, and the months of data analysis, reports and publications that follow.

The Colloquia are no different. Lining up the speakers and the participants, putting together the program, making the hotel and travel arrangements, takes time. And then there’s the follow-up: thanking the presenters, paying the bills, absorbing the participant evaluations and preparing for the next year. The folks in the office yesterday were exclaiming about how much we still have to do.

Though the speakers were a diverse group, they displayed common traits.

Commitment. Though most of the speakers have been at their task for decades, they have no intention of stopping to what they’re doing anytime soon. They recognize their knowledge work rewards sustained effort, and they’ve disciplined themselves to put in the time.

Passion. Commitment accompanied by burnout or cynicism can be rather unattractive. Year after year the speakers radiate a positive intensity that’s infectious.

High-mindedness. Pick up the newspapers, turn on the television, check out YouTube, and you and I will see leaders acting out, behaving badly. Perhaps the most refreshing, encouraging aspect of each year’s Colloquium is to see the integrity, strong sense of purpose, and dedication to the public good on display – in scholars, in journalists, in elected officials and staffers, in executives – all the players.

Courage. Speakers are asked to share a bit of their life stories, and it’s amazing to see how the intellectual challenges of their jobs and careers have been matched by personal risk and hardship and how they’ve remained strong, sometimes through years of adversity. [Okay, so that’s one dimension that factors into selection of the speakers.]

And here’s the best part. I see that in the participants as well. Some display these same traits in embryo. In others they may be more developed. But they’re there.

Each year, I ask the group, “What’s the favorite activity of people my age?” Usually they’re reluctant to guess. They want to be polite! So then they start giving answers like golf, or bridge. Or maybe gardening. Sometimes they get a little nasty, and suggest bingo.

“No,” I tell them. “The favorite activity of people my age is to stand around with other people our same age, and say, “The world used to be a wonderful place but now it’s going to hell in a handbasket.”

They all laugh! Not because this thought is alien. Just the opposite. It’s true. We have an unfortunate predisposition to this.

But then I tell them, “The key to thinking differently is to meet once a year with you! You have so much energy, and intellect, and juice! And you want to make the world a better place! To work with you is to realize that the future is in good hands.”

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