Yámana Science and Technology held its third National working conference ~ ‘Mapping the Systems of Science and Technology’ ~ in San Francisco on Oct 28th-30th.  It was our first event outside of the beltway.  Our 2010 and 2012 ‘UnSummits’ were held in the Washington DC area, and were an official part of the USA Science and Engineering Festival.  We called ourselves the ‘think tank’ part of the festival.

This event was held in sync with the Bay Area Science Festival — yet it is telling that we were not part of that festival.  Though we had made inquiries into becoming an official part of that event, the question of who can make that decision became a barrier that was not overcome.  In the end, we were ‘stand-alone.’

I feel like a manifesto of some sort should come out of this event.  The complexity, emotion, diversity and new ground seem to call for a large ‘aha!’ that can be captured in a rallying cry.  Several of us at the event spoke of a ‘birthing’ …. a pivotal point in time where new life is breathed into something precious.

Perhaps it was.

First a nod to the festivals.  Larry Bock has been a gracious and generous supporter of our work, even as he may be working at slightly different parts of the ‘system’ of science.  We (the founders of Yámana Science and Technology) are scientists and technology specialists – several of us with PhDs, and all of us with many years’ experience in academia, medicine, or industry.  Larry is hoping to inspire more children in the USA to become interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  

Larry’s desire to take on the monumental task of running a festival is born of being a serial entrepreneur of life science companies, and looking far and wide (often overseas) for good talent to hire for STEM jobs.  

We, however, are part of the industry that is ‘super-saturated.’  The PhD and technology worker population that is over-qualified and that feels we need to be working on different things in science, in different ways.  Yet Larry sees enough overlap in initiative, derring-do, and vision, that he gave a ‘yes’ in 2010 to support our cause and let us be officially included in his event.

I myself am a graduate of the University of California, San Diego, as are two of my co-founders of Yámana Science and Technology.  We’ve had a long history with UC San Francisco, which is the grantee for the Bay Area Science Festival.  I knew of that festival before it was born – on the first year, when NSF did not fund the grant application, and on the subsequent year, when it did.  I attended the first International Public Science Event Conference in 2011, in Washington DC, where festival officials gathered and shared best practices and ideas in this burgeoning field.  Our conference venue was due to the suggestion of the wonderful Rebecca Smith, who was part of the granting process that got the Bay Area Science Festival going.  

When I wanted to know if we could partner-up here on the West Coast, there was no ‘go to’ person like Larry Bock – at least not one that I could identify.  

I only mention this because this was the beginning ground-rumble of what was writ large in the dynamics of our conference.  

The conference was a wonderful thing.  People were engaged, dynamic, happy to be there, and sometimes not.  There was excitement, energy, new learning, and even some very emotional parts.

Why?

Because of two dominant dynamics.
One – the planet is in trouble.  One session, where we outlined desired headlines from a future we wish to create, spoke of overcoming issues such as bee colony collapse, CO2 emissions, and trash in the Pacific gyre. Notes from the working sessions are captured here.



 
Yet the scientists from academia and basic research were engaged in discussions about their careers.
 
The two worlds seemed quite separate.  Some people got angry.  Angry that the scientists were ‘belly button gazing’ when the world’s ecosystems are collapsing(!).  
 
Yet I can attest as to one reason why this disconnection has occured. 
 
For scientists, their own ecosystem is collapsing.  I maintain that many, if not most, have entered science as a career to make a difference on the planet.  I believe they are striving with great heart to do exactly that.  But the extreme competition, the exponential growth of PhDs without concomitant growth of jobs for which they’ve been trained, the hyper-competition for grants and extreme pressure for ‘high impact’ publications makes their career a seeming battle for survival.  When you’re so concerned about your own existence, the needs of the planet become fading and existential.  Perhaps.
 
I say that a new conversation potentially emerged from our event.  The daunting challenge of the ‘Ivory Tower’ emerged full force from the back-ground.  The urgency of crashing populations of various dominant species, such as salmon, played full throttle for me.  And the urgency of addressing livelihood and sustenance for our scientists-in-training came on like a train on greased rails.  This was accentuated by the presence, on the first day, of both Michael Teitelbaum – who is clear that we don’t need more PhD scientists in an already saturated workforce population – and my son, who is applying for PhD programs in physics, because of an inner drive to ‘do’ science at the level only now possible, in our current explorations of the Universe.  Who wouldn’t want to know the things one learns while obtaining a PhD.  But then what to do with that knowledge….

It will take a birthing for these two worlds to drop behind, and a new world to emerge.