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Mission: To think about the future of science

Anthropologist who coordinates a project financed by FAPESP is appointed to the council that advises the U.S. government

NSB public domain images Meeting of the National Science Board in 2015, with National Science Foundation Director France Cordova…NSB public domain images

Anthropologist Emilio Moran, holder of a FAPESP São Paulo Excellence Chair at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and coordinator of a project about the impact of the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant has been chosen by U.S. President Barack Obama to serve on the National Science Board (NSB). The Board establishes strategies for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the leading basic research funding agency in the United States. It looks at the entire range of policies defined by the executive and legislative branches of that country and decides which major research projects should be funded. Composed of 25 members including prominent scientists and representatives of some industries whose work is focused on innovation, the NSB meets five times a year and serves as consultant to the U.S. government and Congress on matters related to science, technology, and education.

Moran will serve a six-year term at the NSB. “The Board tries to ensure that funds invested by the National Science Foundation in science and technology are spent on high-quality research that meets the needs of the United States. Helping to make those decisions is a heavy responsibility,” says Moran. The researcher is a professor at Michigan State University (MSU) and a pioneer in studies that combine natural and social sciences in an effort to understand the interactions between man and the environment. Rachel Croson, director of the MSU’s College of Social Science, points out that Moran has a uniquely multidisciplinary background that promises to be very useful to the board. “We are proud to see him appointed,” she says.

President Obama appointed three others to the NSB in addition to Moran. One of them is University of Florida president W. Kent Fuchs, who has many years of experience in university management: from 2002-2008 he was dean of the Cornell University College of Engineering and from 2009-2014 provost of Cornell University. He coordinated the establishment of a new Cornell campus devoted to technology and situated in New York City. Another appointee, Victor McCrary, vice president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, has been an executive at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where he managed investments of more than $60 million in security and defense projects. The third appointee, Julia Phillips, is an executive emeritus of Sandia National Laboratories where, as a vice president, she was responsible for developing the institution’s intellectual property protection policy. Three members of the board were reappointed to additional six-year terms. Physicist Arthur Bienenstock, professor emeritus at Stanford University, coordinated the board’s initiatives to reduce the administrative costs that weigh heavily on NSF-financed researchers. W. Carl Linenberger, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado, and Anneila Sargent, an astronomy professor at the California Institute of Technology, are both known for their skills in supervising foundation programs.

NSB public domain images … and the medal representing the Vannevar Bush prize, awarded by the Board to leaders in science in the United StatesNSB public domain images

Long-term recommendations
The National Science Board has become a forum for discussion of NSF directives and its future prospects. It makes long-term recommendations to the U.S. government and Congress. Although the board participates in decisions made by the foundation, it does not directly intervene in its day-to-day operations. That task is performed by the director of the NSF, a post currently held by astrophysicist France Cordova, who has a seat on the NSB. Some of the contributions by the NSB are published in reports, like the ones presented every two years about the status of science and engineering in the United States, or the ones that deal with specific subjects. The most recent of these discussed the challenges involved in improving the training of professionals who work in science, technology, the various fields of engineering, and mathematics.

The Board’s tendency to think about science as a state policy rather than a government policy took shape over time. Its members are appointed by the president, but their six-year terms are completely divorced from the U.S. political calendar. The idea of creating a body composed of people associated with science to support the NSF dates back to the second half of the 1940s, when it was accepted somewhat reluctantly. One of the men responsible for that format was engineer Vannevar Bush, who at the time headed up the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. In 1945, Bush produced an historic document entitled Science, the Endless Frontier, in which he defended the importance of basic science for the future of the United States and the need for the government to fund the work of university researchers and the education of future scientists. Under his proposal, that function would be performed by an agency directed by a board composed of nine members, selected from the scientific community and having no government connection, in order to prevent politics from influencing its decisions.

Although Bush’s treatise had been commissioned by the White House, then-president Harry Truman had different plans for the future agency. He preferred that rather than being administered by a board, it should be overseen by a director appointed by the White House. Vannevar Bush teamed up with U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson, who introduced a bill proposing the establishment of a basic research agency controlled by a nine-member board. The law passed in 1947, but Truman vetoed it. Bush, with support from areas of the scientific community, continued to advance the idea. A solution to the impasse came in 1950 with the passage of a law that, as Truman wanted, gave the president the power to appoint the director of the agency but also, as Bush wanted, set up a governing body of 25 members, obligatorily composed of scientists, engineers, and educators even though all of them would be appointed by the White House. Members of the NSB were given the authority to select its chairperson—currently Maria Zuber, vice president for research of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Marcia Minillo Emilio Moran, an expert on human settlements in AmazoniaMarcia Minillo

On some occasions the Board has had to speak up. They did so, for example, when President John F. Kennedy proposed to cut the number of board members from 25 to 12—he ultimately changed his mind—or when President Richard Nixon froze the NSF budget and conditioned the 1971 appointment of a new director of that foundation on an agreement by the nominee to support Nixon’s antiballistic missile program. Chemist Franklin Long, of Cornell University, declined the offer. In the 1980s, the Board played an important role in reformulating the NSF peer review system after evidence surfaced that recommendations by reviewers about and education project had been ignored by foundation staff, causing political embarrassment. Beginning in the 1990s, the NSB was also decisive in strengthening NSF investments in research on the environment, science education and mathematics. More recently it has been focusing on nanoscience.

It is in this environment that Moran, of Cuban birth and a naturalized U.S. citizen, will be working. Brazil, especially Amazonia, is one of his fields of interest (see interview in Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 125). At the Center for Environmental Studies and Research at Unicamp (NEPAM), Moran coordinates a team of researchers from different fields and various institutions that is studying the social and environmental impacts of construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant in the basin of the Xingu River near the municipality of Altamira, in Pará State. The project is funded by FAPESP and connected with the São Paulo Excellence Chair (SPEC). This is a grant mechanism created by the Foundation to forge collaborations among institutions in the state of São Paulo and leading researchers situated in other countries. Moran visits Brazil several times a year. He lectures and advises doctoral candidates in environment and society at Unicamp and does field work in Altamira.

Holder of a degree in Spanish literature from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, Moran earned his master’s degree in Latin American history and his doctorate in social anthropology at the University of Florida. He spent most of his career at the University of Indiana, until retiring in 2012. There, he collaborated for many years with political scientist Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012). Winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, Ostrom challenged the concept of the “tragedy of the commons,” according to which individual interests take precedence over a community objective, resulting in destruction of public assets and natural resources. Ostrom argued that in practice, the isolated interests pursued by certain groups can be more beneficial to the economy and the environment than an intervention by the State or by the market itself.

Trans-amazonian highway
In the 1970s, Moran observed the beginnings of human settlements along the Trans-Amazonian highway. This was the subject of his doctoral dissertation. According to sociologist Lucia da Costa Ferreira, a professor at Unicamp and NEPAM researcher, what is innovative about Moran’s approach is that it uses a broad set of data obtained from interviews, remote sensing, and demographic studies in an effort to understand the roles of various figures in the settlement of the forest areas. “His work considers the settlement process as a complicated system that involves alliances and interactions among multiple actors. He rejects the traditional dichotomy that sets the figure of the unscrupulous entrepreneur, responsible for the destruction of the rain forest, against a community of the excluded,” says Ferreira, a member of the Belo Monte project team. In earlier studies, she explains, Moran showed that there are micro-sociological processes that intervene in the structural change of the forest. “He found, for example, that family farming also played a role in the deforestation of the rainforest. Based on demographic and remote sensing data, he demonstrated that family composition was one of the variables in the phenomenon. Farmers who had more male children benefitted from that labor force and ended up causing more deforestation than farmers who had daughters,” she pointed out.

In his research at Altamira, Moran and his team are studying the impact of the construction of the hydroelectric plant on several population groups. They developed a questionnaire and began the work of interviewing the former residents of the city. “Almost all the data gathering for the project has been done. All there is left is the evaluation of a rural settlement, because it hasn’t been built yet,” Moran explains. The project seeks to better understand the consequences of undertakings like Belo Monte, such as the rapid population growth that increases the prevalence of infectious diseases and affects sanitation and the food supply. Big projects also bring about changes in the labor supply. The plan is to develop policies to deal with those challenges.

Project
Social and environmental processes that accompany the construction of Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, Altamira, PA (nº 2012/51465-0); Grant Mechanism: São Paulo Excellence Chairs Program (SPEC); Principal Investigator: Emilio Federico Moran (Michigan State University and the Center for Environmental Studies and Research-Unicamp); Investment: R$772,919.97, for the entire project.

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