New Scripps director focusing on environmental health


That’s the message new Scripps Institution of Oceanography Director Tony Haymet and outgoing Director Charles Kennel are conveying as the leadership torch is passed at the world-renowned La Jolla marine research center.

Haymet, a native Australian and distinguished marine chemist specializing in the biology of marine creatures in near-freezing environments, became the 10th director in the institution’s 103-year-history. He took over in mid-September for astrophysicist Kennel, who’d led the organization since 1997.

Kennel stepped down to launch an environmental sustainability program at UCSD.

Haymet said Scripps will continue to do the three things it’s always done: seek, teach and communicate.

“Seek means discover new science,” he said, “teach means trying to educate the next generation of scientists, and communicate means, not just with other scientists, but to politicians and the community at large.”

Scripps’ new director said his administration will add one more item to the institution’s to-do list: benefit.

“We’ve been born into an era where we can see more immediate benefit for some of these huge problems we have in our oceans and atmosphere,” he said.

Despite trying times, Haymet said his message is one of hope.

“We do have a serious backlog of 160 years worth of abuse,” Haymet said. “Whenever we wanted to get rid of something, we just dumped it in the ocean or the atmosphere. What we do in the next five years will have a huge impact on our legacy. Our job is to get the message out that it’s not a lost cause.”

For example, said Haymet, the ozone hole over the Antarctic had been growing for years, but scientists now believe it will gradually repair itself over the next couple of decades.

Scientists believed ozone depletion was largely caused by emission of chloroflurocarbons, CFCs, used in aersol cans and refrigeration. In 1987, an international agreement, the Montreal Protocol, was reached reducing the production of ozone-depleting compounds. Revisions in 1992 called for an end to the production of the worst of such compounds by1996.

CFC emissions dropped dramatically by 1993.

Kennel said the new emphasis at Scripps Institution of Oceanography will be on environmental sustainability, a goal he will pursue as a member of Scripps’ atmospheric science group.

“Global warming will effect every living creature on Earth and all our interrelationships,” he said. “Over the last 30 years, we’ve lost 90 percent of the numbers of the 17 largest fish species. It’s time to go beyond diagnostics and complaining about these things, and start going about finding some solutions.”

Scientists in the 21st century will have to interface more with other disciplines, such as economics and politics, to solve environmental problems like global warming.

“There’s a real intention, a realization, that we have to deal with these problems,” said Kennel. “We’re moving into the realm of solutions. Universities here and all over the world are starting to deal with these problems.”

Kennel advocates implementation of an environmental sustainability initiative.

“There needs to be a huge emphasis on renewable energy,” he said, “particularly renewable liquid fuel for our autos - biofuels, whether you’re talking about corn, soybeans or marine algae, biofeed stocks - optimizing them.”

One answer to avoiding climatic catastrophe, Kennel said, is to develop renewable energy sources like biofuels, which are not polluting. Doing so would not only have immense environmental benefit, but economic benefit as well.

To ultimately achieve environmental sustainability, Haymet believes the scientific community must become greater risk-takers and become more aggressive in convincing philanthropists that, even though backing speculative scientific ventures can be risky, the potential benefit is worth the risk.

“To be on the leading edge of this means trying out new ideas,” he said. “An institution like Scripps depends on grant funding. But, we also need sources of money for these much more speculative ideas. In five years’ time, Scripps will have a much broader base of funding. With some more discretionary money, we can invest in bright ideas with our most innovative scientists.”

Kennel achieved his primary goals as director of Scripps Institution, which were to invest much more heavily in both scientific technology and human resources, in order to further scientific research. As Scripps director, Kennel said it was his job to lay the framework for the future to ensure Scripps will be as good or better for its 200th anniversary.

To achieve that ambitious goal will require some practical applications.

“We need to work on problems that people care about,” said Kennel, “particularly global warming.”