Notes from the President: By Degrees (Summer 2007 Trust Magazine)

Notes from the President: By Degrees (Summer 2007 Trust Magazine)

Pew takes a strategic approach to its investments: We set goals and establish tactics to reach them. It is rare, of course, that a goal is reached suddenly, dramatically, without passing through the intermediate stages that our planning anticipates. The outright home run is atypical. Rather, progress tends to be incremental, advancing by degrees. Even in baseball, that's how most games are won. Science may appear to be an exception. The everyday view is that science proceeds by major breakthroughs. News stories of major discoveries substantiate the impression.

In reality, however, very few, if any, scientific achievements occur instantaneously. As the neurophysiologist Torsten N. Wiesel, Ph.D., has noted, “Frustration is the daily bread of the research scientist.” Having devoted a lifetime to laboratory science, he understands the rigor of the process and the long road to discovery. He is also familiar with the rewards, having shared a Nobel Prize for discovering how the visual system functions in mammals. Creativity in the lab, he has said, arises when scientists are free to study what they wish and apply themselves sedulously day after day.

Back in 1985, Pew launched a biomedical scholars program that addresses the importance of work that moves forward by degrees, and we are privileged that Dr. Wiesel chairs its illustrious advisory committee. The program provides flexible funds for research. And it fosters a community among these early- and mid-career researchers to cultivate exchanges of ideas and collaborations that, more than is often recognized, fuel scientific discovery and excellence. There are now more than 400 Pew Scholars, plus more than 150 in the Pew Latin American Fellows Program in the Biological Sciences. As we had hoped, they have become leaders in their fields—year by year, result by result. By degrees.

Cataclysmic weather events are like the supposed science breakthrough—they turn heads. As tragic as they are, they do serve to awaken people to a longer-term trend that has developed over decades: global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions. To be sure, the carbon-dioxide molecule, a contributor to these emissions, seems like a very small thing to be affecting the world's environment, but it has been increasing by degrees, according to a report for policy makers by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this year.

As for the impact, we are literally talking about degrees, perhaps (in the most conservative scenario) a rise of 3.6 degrees F in average temperatures by the end of the century. Such a difference may not seem like much—after all, the day is pretty much the same at 75 or 78 degrees. Such a permanent and worldwide change, however, is enough to disrupt whole societies.

Pew has been supporting rigorous research on climate change for 17 years. Our initiatives have educated the public and policy makers on the planet's future if action is not taken to curb and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and they have also promoted solutions. We are pleased to see the growing interest in taking action. And action is urgently needed, especially in the United States, which, because it produces some 25 percent of the world's emissions, is key to any long-term answer to the problem.

A Pew-supported land-trust consortium in the northeastern United States also works by degrees. As privately-held properties change hands at an unprecedented rate, there is an urgent need to save these lands from development, while also making them available for low-impact public uses, such as recreation and environmental education. The land trusts within the consortium work parcel by contiguous parcel, with ambitious goals of preserving hundreds of thousands of acres.

It is worth mentioning that this article is the first Trust feature story to highlight our Donor Relations department, which was established in September 2004. We have formed partnerships with and designed initiatives for more than 100 donors who share Pew's goal of serving the public interest. We have greatly benefited from their guidance, leadership and support in delivering lasting results.

Institutions gain credibility and reputation by degrees as well, and from its founding, Pew has embraced high standards of conduct in order to merit the public's trust. Nowhere is this responsibility better reflected than in the wise stewardship of our board. Alan J. Davis, who joined the board in 2004, shared that commitment, and we were tremendously saddened by his passing in May. Alan was a wonderful colleague, enthusiastic civic steward and esteemed attorney. On page 38, there is a description of his career and his lasting influence on the city of Philadelphia, which he loved. His thoughtfulness, candor and admirable spirit greatly enriched our institutional deliberations.

In one of his last conversations with his wife, when the topic turned to Pew, he expressed his regret that his board service had been so brief. We feel the same way. We are humbled by this devotion and convey to his wife and family our deepest sympathy.

Rebecca W. Rimel
President and CEO

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions site.