Interview: Margaret Leinen - Director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
By Greg Trauthwein
Scripps Institution of Oceanography – one of the premiere institutions of ocean research and higher learning on the planet – is the hinge of the Southern California blue economy. MTR recently spent some time with Margaret Leinen, Vice Chancellor, Marine Sciences, UC San Diego, Director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, for her insights on the path forward.
I’m sure we can find Scripps’ ‘vital stats’ online, but can you give a brief overview of the Institution that you run?
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego is a thriving center for ocean, earth and atmospheric science with more than 2,000 students, staff, researchers and volunteers. In the 113 years we’ve been in existence, our education and research mission has grown with leading experts in diverse fields across a broad spectrum of science with demonstrable value to the public. Dozens of Scripps projects throughout the United States and worldwide are problem-solving collaborations between our scientists and natural resource managers, urban planners, public health officials, the military, policymakers, philanthropists and citizen scientists.
It’s thrilling to lead a truly stellar institution that features some of the greatest minds in our business. In fact, Scripps and UC San Diego were recently ranked by Nature magazine as the top earth and environmental research institution in the country, and fourth in the world. Scripps also proudly operates a research fleet with ships that have completed hundreds of missions in the past few years and our public Birch Aquarium at Scripps that welcomed nearly a half million visitors last year. I have to mention that Oceanology International has just recognized Scripps icon Walter Munk, the world-renown oceanographer and geophysicist, with a special (Catch the Wave) conference and we will be continuing that momentum with events and symposia in the months ahead as we celebrate his 100th birthday in October.
In your mind, how is Scripps unique from similar institutions around the world?
There are several first-rate ocean and earth science institutions making significant contributions around the world. I see Scripps Institution of Oceanography increasingly emerging as an institution that not only does the highest level of basic research on the ocean, atmosphere and earth, but also provides society with science-backed solutions to some of the world’s most urgent challenges. Science at Scripps informs urban-, state-, national- and international level policy and planning. As one example, in last year’s El Niño season Scripps performed ultra high-resolution coastal elevation surveys that are helping the U.S. Navy understand risks to coastal infrastructure and the possible relocation of facilities affected by sea-level rise. Californians see the impacts of environmental change every day. Many at Scripps are involved in research to better understand the ocean and the atmosphere with projects to improve our ability to forecast change, describe impacts to regions, and aid in developing adaptation plans.
Scripps research recently helped municipalities around San Diego in understanding how to make beach nourishment efforts more cost-effective. Our scientists found that using the appropriate type of sand can help cities save millions of dollars in such efforts. This research is of great value given the impact to beaches from expected sea-level rise over the next century. We’re also ramping up a new Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation to help societies adapt and prepare for the significant changes ahead for our coastal communities.
What advantages do you have by being located in San Diego?
Scripps research spans the globe, from pole to pole and from Earth’s interior to space. Our physical home base in San Diego, however, gives us several key advantages. For example, San Diego’s Maritime Industry Report found that our local economy supports $14 billion of direct sales, 46,000 employees, and 1,400 companies focused on technical or non-technical marine related products and services. This provides Scripps with tremendous potential to partner with industry in innovation, research and workforce development. Being part of UC San Diego and the University of California, which focus so heavily on innovation and partnerships with industry, also carries tremendous advantages. University of California researchers and entrepreneurs have spawned hundreds of new companies employing tens of thousands. These businesses have contributed more than $20 billion to the state’s economy. UC San Diego leads the UC system in startups. In fact, UC San Diego faculty, students and alumni have launched or created technology for more than 650 companies. Scripps is taking advantage of this leadership in innovation and commercialization by forging new collaborations with business partners.
What is Scripps’ role in supporting, fostering the growth & benefitting from this Blue Tech cluster?
The Blue Tech economy is thriving, and Scripps is doing its part to help accelerate its growth. Last year, Scripps scientists and ship operations successfully competed for more than $130 million from federal agencies to support a range of research, monitoring, infrastructure, education and training programs, which feeds into the Blue Tech economy. With a deep history of collaboration with the U.S. Navy that goes back decades, Scripps provides “environmental intelligence” that’s needed to give America an edge in terms of national security. Scripps also supports the cluster as an institution for research and education. Our faculty and staff are the experts who can provide expertise to policy makers and industry. We are training the next generation of scientific experts in earth, ocean and atmospheric studies who will go on to become leaders in academia, industry, government and non-profit work.
The Scripps Nimitz Marine Facility in San Diego’s Point Loma community is the home base for our oceangoing research vessels and a major contributor to the maritime community. It’s a bustling hub of seagoing activity. Last year we welcomed home research vessel Sally Ride, the newest ship in the U.S. academic fleet. All of this activity and participation in the Blue Tech cluster provides a forum for collaboration with industry for our mutual benefit.
Put in perspective how the public knowledge and perception of “the ocean” has changed over the years?
Not long ago societies considered the ocean an endless resource for human cultivation. Today, of course, we see human impacts have cut across the ocean, from overfishing to pollution to increasing levels of acidity. Exploration and observation are needed to track and understand these changes.
At Scripps we also see the ocean as a robust source for new marine-based medicines. Scripps is uniquely poised to translate marine-derived small molecules—from identification and characterization by our Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine with UC San Diego’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences—into collaborations that allow for pre-clinical and clinical testing.
We also have evolved to address the many unique and challenging aspects of understanding and protecting our planet. It will take more than one perspective to tackle some of our world’s most pressing challenges and as part of UC San Diego, Scripps has unique opportunities for interdisciplinary research. Pushing the boundaries of innovative research increasingly requires collaboration. With that goal in mind we recently hired several new faculty members that will launch cutting-edge research at UC San Diego that addresses key perspectives on the impact of climate change on human health, policy, resilience, adaptation and other areas.