With words of encouragement and a strong sense of comradery, the Cornell Alliance for Science graduated its 2016 cohort of Global Leadership fellows on the evening of Nov. 15.
Representing 13 nations and three continents, the 28 fellows successfully completed an intensive 12-week program on Cornell’s Ithaca campus. They will soon return home to implement their nation-specific plans for advancing scientific innovation as a means for enhancing food security, supporting environmental sustainability and reducing poverty.
“You’re going out to practice science in the public interest for the good of humanity and all of mankind,” Max Pfeffer, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, told the fellows in a graduation address at Willard Straight Hall. “You will be effective ambassadors in this worthy endeavor.”
“We have one thing in common and that is a passion to make the world a better place,” said Malawi fellow Tamanda Chabvuta, who was elected class speaker. “We have worked tirelessly, and the course has instilled in us a dedication to change the lives of the people where we live.”
Sarah Evanega, adjunct international professor of plant breeding and genetics who founded and directs the Alliance for Science, drew parallels between the anti-science movement and the disregard for truth that characterized the recent U.S. presidential election.
“Most of us are bound by the norms of facts and science,” she said. “We operate with ground rules and civility. We do not overstate the truth. We admit when questions are still being asked and that the data are still coming in. But, we are inundated daily in public forums and in bullying sessions on the internet by baseless, truthless claims promulgated by anti-science activists. Unlike scientists, these activists are not accountable for their claims. They can – and do – say anything. And they go low. But we must continue to go high.
“You came to Cornell for a 12-week intensive course to learn more skills for how to stand up for science and evidence-based decision-making in agriculture,” Evanega said. “Together we are learning how to stand up to the bullies who threaten agricultural progress in our countries. We are learning how to reach out through our networks and engage with local communities to tell positive stories about biotechnology that are grounded in evidence – stories that are personal, that resonate and are compelling.
“You are the champions who multiply the Alliance for Science mission to promote choice and ensure access to technology,” she continued. “You are the alliance. When I want to ‘go high’ in the GMO debate, I talk about you – our alliance champions.”
Evanega and the fellows praised alliance staff members Polly Endreny Holmberg and Anna Garber Hammond for their skill and kindness in facilitating the training program.
“These two women are like track and field athletes,” Evanega said. “Every day, they give this program the legs to walk, run, jump hurdles and pole vault over the highest obstacles. They have also been the heart and ears of the program, offering the fellows moral support as well as technical, logistical and programmatic leadership.”
Jayson Merkley, a 2015 fellow and director of Vegan GMO, said he hoped to serve as a bridge between the first and second cohorts of Global Leadership fellows.
“This program means so much to me and has been such a life-changing event,” he said in an emotion-choked voice. “If your experience was anything like ours, you know that inexplicable feeling you get when Sarah Evanega looks you in the eye and calls you a champion.”
Joan Conrow is a visiting fellow at the Alliance for Science.