In classical antiquity’s most epic saga, the seer Cassandra warns a Trojan prince against provoking the Spartans. As told in Greek mythology, her words go unheeded and thus launched a thousand ships.
In our own time and place, a humble government biologist provoked ferocious denial by assembling a mosaic of evidence that launched a new environmental movement. Rachel Carson, who died soon after her seminal book, Silent Spring, was published, at least was heard.
This year we observe the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, in part because this community’s experience with the overuse of chemical pesticides inspired the title. The book and its ensuing controversy foreshadowed today’s debates over climate change, genetic research, vaccination, sustainable energy and organic foods.
Public opinion on these issues now seems tied as much to political persuasion as to empirical persuasiveness. Even that effect now attracts sociological inquiry among some faculty members, as well as ruminations on the extent to which scientists should engage in advocacy informed by their research.
Carson's legacy might be subject to debate, but in 1974 it did produce a ban on the pesticide DDT, linked to bird deaths and reproductive problems. Sixteen years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife counted just 174 breeding pairs of bald eagles in Michigan. But 16 years aft after that, despite loss of habitat, 482 pairs were counted, and today it isn't unusual to see the national bird patrolling our waterways.
Scholars have stood against the javelins of orthodoxy forever, testing prevailing wisdom and sometimes overthrowing it. Scholarship isn’t just about absorbing facts, but steadfastly engaging and creatively in the discovery process. Those laboring in academia understand it is rarely glamorous and the results of research are often incremental, even at times misunderstood if they are noted by a wider public at all. And only after a scholar faces the judgment of peers and publishers, and possibly politicians and the public, maybe then he or she will be heard.
Sometimes discoveries have immediate, direct application—our crop research comes to mind, producing disease-resistant varieties that reduce or eliminate the need for chemical pesticides. More often the knowledge we gain takes time to develop. I’m thinking of the Long-term Ecological research Program at the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station, which examines ways to work with natural systems to promote crop productivity. Such knowledge will have impact across the bio-based spectrum, including in biofuel applications.
We can be proud that Michigan State is one of the leading places where this critical work takes place. And it happens deliberately, resting on the shoulders of earlier work and sustained very oft en by public or stakeholder funds. Your engagement—your voice—is a critical component in developing this institution’s capacity for the exceptional and supporting voices that can make a positive difference in the world. So speak out in support of Michigan State, our scholars and researchers, our students, our outstanding alumni and their contributions, and all that we stand for. Together, we are nearly 500,000 Spartans strong, and we are a formidable force for good.
Lou Anna K. Simon, Ph.D.
President, Michigan State University