Former Carnegie Museum head leading way with new science initiative
By Rex Rutkoski
Published: Monday, April 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Samuel Taylor has spent most of his lifetime energized by work and its opportunities for growth.
The latest chapter of his career allows the former head of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to draw on the colorful body of that work.
Taylor, 61, has been appointed the first director of the ambassador program of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. The new initiative is designed to encourage communities to use more science and engineering in decision-making on future projects.
Pittsburgh has been chosen as the pilot city for the program, which initially will focus on the subject of energy. The program has already selected 27 scientists and engineers to serve as ambassadors.
“I really do have interest in building new things, and the positions I've accepted have been about renewal, innovation or transformation, those kind of opportunities to bring a certain level of creativity and create something new,” says the Squirrel Hill resident, who served as director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History from 2008-12.
“I feel very strongly there is a huge imperative for scientists to be much more involved in the community as our society is confronted by so many huge issues with a science base to them that are not really understood by the community,” Taylor says.
Formal and informal science education needs to be encouraged “in every possible way,” he says. Otherwise, people are not as likely to make informed choices, based on data and education, but ones rooted in emotions, politics or personal bias, he says.
“The whole field of energy is so critical locally, nationally and internationally,” Taylor says.
“He should do great things with this latest challenge,” says John Rawlins, interim co-director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, citing Taylor's intelligence, intuitiveness and attention to detail.
“He is enthusiastically in awe of nature, and his scientific interests extend to all life forms and processes. He is well suited for the daunting task of encouraging and guiding a fruitful interplay between technology and science,” says Rawlins, who also is curator and chair of invertebrate zoology and assistant director of research and collections.
Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum, agrees. “Sam is a phenomenal educator, and his new position is absolutely perfect for him,” he says. “He is a fantastic, smart and incredibly outgoing man with a great sense of humor and a passion for history and science.”
Taylor, who began his latest role Feb. 25 and works from his Squirrel Hill home, considers it a great honor to be entrusted by the academies as the first director of the ambassador program.
“I'm working with an incredible management team, people who are really smart and really creative,” he says.
Taylor says one of his strengths is being able to explain scientific concepts to audiences who do not necessarily have scientific training.
Terrell Smith, senior communications officer, of the Washington, D.C.-based, academies, calls Taylor “an ardent advocate for science and science education, as well as a first-rate communicator.”
“Sam has been described by thought leaders in Pittsburgh as someone with bold ideas, who thinks strategically and is adept at handling potentially controversial issues, such as energy, by staying focused on science,” Smith says.
Taylor hopes to establish an ongoing community conversation about energy that is science-based.
Pittsburgh possesses “all the right ingredients,” Taylor says, including its ongoing strong science research, to be the pilot city for this program.
Barbara Granito of Shadyside, chairwoman of the program's advisory board, sees Taylor, with his decades of involvement in communicating science to the public, as the ideal person to move it forward.
The experience of the National Academies of Science and Engineering is that when communities have access to the science that is at the core of challenging issues, better decisions are made, she says.
“Energy is important, but science-based energy knowledge may be even more important to our abilities as a community to make good, informed decisions not just for now, but for the decades to come,” she says. “Science and engineering are integral to our daily lives. Yet, few people know how to connect with this fact.”
Most of the big decisions that will shape the prosperity of our region, state and nation in the years to come will be influenced by science and engineering and the command that policy-makers have of both, says Bill Flanagan, executive vice president for corporate relations for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. “This is especially true at the intersection of energy, the economy and the environment, where a third ‘E' — emotion — often sways the conversation,” he says.
Flanagan has been serving informally as an advisor to the ambassador program on behalf of the conference for the past few years. He believes it is only through a fact-based approach that civic leaders can develop sound policy that builds an economy and improves our environment, making it possible for engineers to design and implement the systems that can make it happen.
Smith praises the “tremendous spirit of collaboration” in Pittsburgh that is important for a program like this.
“Pittsburgh also has a rich diversity of energy sources right within the region, making the pilot's topic of energy a particularly relevant one for this community,” she says.
Rather than a standard lecture format, she says, the academies anticipate that core events they organize will be small-group conversational salons in which the scientists and engineers have an opportunity to share information and the audience has ample opportunity to ask questions and share their perspectives on the topic.
Also envisioned are film screenings, followed by panel discussions, science cafe talks and field trips to labs and other relevant sites.
“We think this program will really make a difference in Pittsburgh,” Taylor says. “We felt that this is really a city in which all the right ingredients are in place.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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