Wrighton vies for presidency of global science association, nearing end of GW tenure

Media Credit: Auden Yurman | Senior Photo Editor

Wrighton said with its “talented” members across the world, AAAS is “well-positioned” to support efforts to address global issues like neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, infectious diseases and poverty.

Interim University President Mark Wrighton is running to become the next president of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, a science organization aimed at advancing science, engineering and innovation.  

If elected as the AAAS president in the ongoing general election, Wrighton would lead scientists, engineers, educators and researchers working to advance scientific initiatives and policy at the association after his interim term at GW ends July 1. Electronic voting opened last week and closes Tuesday before in-person voting takes place Sunday at AAAS’ D.C. headquarters.

But Wrighton is running against Willie E. May, the vice president for research and economic development at Morgan State University, in a spar to lead AAAS.

After four years of membership, Wrighton became an AAAS fellow in 1986. The association’s website states through his work as a chemistry department chair and the provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the chancellor of Washington University, St. Louis and GW’s interim president, Wrighton has contributed to the advancement of science, engineering, medicine, social science and public policy work, which will complement his potential role as the AAAS president.

“This work was made even more meaningful by supporting the development of new and diverse talent for important fields and leveraging the University enterprise to serve a broader community locally, nationally and globally,” Wrighton said in a Feb. 17 blog on the AAAS website.

Wrighton declined to comment on the ongoing election, deferring to the AAAS blog post. 

The AAAS holds a general election to select a president and members of the Board of Directors annually, according to their website.

The current president, Keith Yamamoto, is a cellular and molecular biologist and the vice chancellor for science policy and strategy at the University of California, San Francisco. Yamamoto prioritized diversity, equity and inclusion policies and expanded scientists’ understanding of the social impacts of scientific research.

Wrighton said his passion for educating and advocating for change in the scientific community aligns with the mission and values of AAAS.

“Stemming from its large membership and engagement with leaders in science, engineering, medicine and social sciences, AAAS is positioned to be uniquely influential for advancing science and its applications to benefit all of humanity,” Wrighton said in the blog.

Wrighton said with its “talented” members across the world, AAAS is “well-positioned” to effectively support efforts to address global issues like neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, infectious diseases and poverty.

“Advocating for stronger education and rewards in the workplace by AAAS should be a top priority to advance science and its application,” Wrighton said.

May, a chemist with more than 85 archival publications, has formerly served as the secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology in the U.S. Department of Commerce and the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

May said he hopes to advance diversity and anti-misinformation initiatives and guide government policymaking through his presidential platform, according to the AAAS website. The website states that if elected president, May would use AAAS to respond to misinformation and train scientists to participate in “meaningful” public discussions.

“I am excited about the prospect of working together in AAAS to advance science, engineering and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all,” May said.

AAAS members said the association needs a leader committed to interdisciplinary studies and reforming the education system, and Wrighton’s past leadership experience could benefit him in this role.

Sudip Parikh, the chief executive officer of AAAS, said the organization looks for leaders with diverse experiences from different social backgrounds.

“We would like to see someone with a compelling vision for the future of the scientific enterprise, who can inspire the mobilization of the scientific enterprise in service to society while achieving a new scientific excellence that is generated by people from all corners of society,” Parikh said.

Parikh said members would like to see the new president advance the core goals of the AAAS while establishing trust and diversity among members of scientific communities. He said AAAS’ mission is to further scientific excellence, promote equity and inclusion, create trust between scientists and other communities and promote public policies that advance science.

“To prioritize our four strategic pillars that ignite, enable and celebrate the breadth of the scientific enterprise, advance and recognize science, foster the diversity that leads scientific evidence, build trust among scientists and communities and ensure good policy for science and good science policy,” Parikh said in an email.

Parikh said AAAS members are excited to see how new leadership will guide scientific research during a time of rapid innovation.

“Members realize this is a unique moment for the scientific enterprise – we are living in a time of advances from rapid vaccine development to the launching of JWST [James Webb Space Telescope], the largest optical telescope in space – and so many others,” Parikh said.

James H. Lambert, an AAAS fellow and professor of engineering systems and environment at the University of Virginia, said an AAAS president should show commitment to using “money and resources” to advance the education for individual scientists and civilians.

Lambert said the next AAAS president should be “fluent” in how different disciplines coincide with one another, like how scientific research connects to peacemaking. He said Wrighton should understand that scientific research methods have evolved and new ways of inquiry inform disciplines, like reforming the tools used in cultural ethnographies.

“I don’t know how anyone could know how science is going to evolve and change in the next decade, but that’s something that your president would have to have an open mind to see what’s best for humanity,” Lambert said.

Michael Klymkowsky, an AAAS fellow and professor of molecular cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, said AAAS leaders should prioritize education reform so science departments can prioritize academic quality rather than prestige. He said association leaders judge departments in universities based on how much grant money they can accumulate for the school and the fame of their faculty.

“The problem is, education can often be full of easy solutions that don’t actually work,” Klymkowsky said. “I’m looking for a stronger advocate for real reform of the educational system.”

William Cramer, an AAAS fellow and professor of biological sciences at Purdue University, said he would expect the candidates to have at least 20 years of scholarship experience, including publications and grants.

Wrighton has more than 50 years of experience, beginning with his first position as assistant professor of chemistry at MIT in 1972.

“It would be a person who has a reputation of first-rate scholarship, as established at some point in his career,” Cramer said.

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