Director’s Blog 10/18/20

Director’s Blog October 18, 2020

By Ian Billick, PhD

What does it mean to lead a scientific organization in a period of collapsing trust in institutions?

In an article in the Atlantic, “America is having a moral convulsion” David Brooks points out that social trust, or the confidence that others will do what they ought to do most of the time, is at an all-time low.  Structural racial and financial inequality are among the many rational reasons distrust is increasing.  However, distrust makes our lives poorer, literally.  Higher trust nations have lower economic inequality and distrust is associated with depression, anxiety, and suicide.

Several years ago, RMBL Science Director (and in the interests of full disclosure, also my wife) Jennie Reithel asked when we became “the administration”.  Having reconciled myself to this transition a decade or so earlier, I found the label less distressful.  But I took her point.  She does not see herself as “the other”.  Starting as an undergraduate and having done grad work at RMBL, she sees herself as a scientist and former student, who for personal and professional reasons spends her time getting scientists access to research sites and fostering collaborations.  She draws her energy from making good things happen for students and scientists. Subtle, and not so subtle, questionings of motivation are a symptom of growing general distrust.  According to Brooks, most people in the US don’t trust others when they first meet them.

What does RMBL do to build trust?  As important as shared intent, trust is gained when an organization actively works to effectively understand and respond to the needs of its stakeholders in service to its mission.  We embed staff in the RMBL community to build reciprocal understanding and empathy.  We rigorously evaluate operations through our online survey and personal interviews.  We engage scientists on committees, from finance to research to diversity, with a focus on individuals advancing the collective good rather than personal agendas.  Our Board includes a broad representation of scientists.

Engaging scientists in decision-making is challenging.  You are pulled in a thousand directions, including your family, the institution that pays you, and your students.  Decisions may not be as obvious as they seem, bound by financial and regulatory constraints that may make no sense, but which RMBL cannot avoid.  Being empathetic to multiple perspectives imposes a significant cognitive load.  But to build a high-functioning institution means that we can’t dismiss people who disagree with us by calling into question their motivations or suggesting they just aren’t bright enough to get it.  Those arguments ring hollow; people don’t come to Gothic because they are motivated by fame or money, and everybody is smart.

As part of encouraging engagement, Emily Snow put together an excellent guide to RMBL decision-making.  Is RMBL perfect?  No.  Are we always trying to be better?  Yes.

Does building trust matter?  Brooks cites ethicist Sillela Bok, “Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”  There are a lot of things that the RMBL community holds dear about our future, from maintaining the integrity of the ecosystems surround Gothic, to maintaining a priceless collection of long-term studies, that will only be achieved through collective action.   Trust will be the foundation on which we stand; distrust will be the quicksand in which we sink.

Beyond the Gothic valley, humankind’s capacity to manage the world will depend upon the extent to which they trust, and follow, the science.  In building an institution that scientists trust, while keeping our eyes wide open to the ways in which we can improve, we are providing leadership for taking on hard worldwide problems that will require collective action, from institutional racism, to climate change, to food insecurity, and pandemics.

Thanks to CB resident Michael Baim for pointing this article out to me.  As always, feel free to reach out, express an opinion, or ask a question.  I’m always looking for good reading material and topics for blog posts!