John Roll, vice dean of research at the Washington State University College of Medicine, was named president of the Washington State Academy of Sciences this month.
Roll teaches at the college and has conducted extensive research in addiction, substance use disorders and mental health treatment.
The academy is a group of researchers, scientists and engineers from universities, companies and state agencies. It was established as a nonprofit in 2005, and its primary purpose is to advise the governor and legislature on recommendations or analysis pertaining to their fields.
The academy has produced reports on a wide variety of topics, from climate change to cannabis and the Columbia River treaty.
Roll, who has been an academy board member since 2016, said the group conducts research and analysis when asked, but can also produce reports and research on their own .
The academy, Roll said, is full of some of the state’s smartest scientists, and he counts his appointment to president as a great honor.
There are two topics that he intends to focus on in the coming year and beyond. First, climate change and its impact on not only Washington state but the planet, as evidenced by the heat wave in the Pacific Northwest or the flooding in Germany this summer.
“I think there are short-term and long-term implications for almost everything,” Roll said. “The short-term implications impact decision-makers more than long-term, but it’s human nature that we need to focus on those, but I think we need to start pushing out our thinking to the long-term.”
After more than a year of living with a pandemic, the distrust of science and polarization of a nationwide vaccine campaign is also on Roll’s mind.
“It seems to me that everybody thinks they’re right, and the corollary is that those who disagree with us are wrong,” he said.
The problem with this manner of thinking, Roll said, is that it’s not how science works.
“I don’t make up my mind immediately about most things, and I want to understand why people who disagree with me think the way they do, and we can have that dialogue,” he said. “And I think that’s how science works– there are very few things we can know 100% are true.”
The pandemic illustrates the hypothetical deductive process that Roll describes. From learning how the virus spreads and implementing masking as a tool to the vaccine trials themselves, the science changed as we learned more about COVID-19 and continues to do so.
Translating science to people who are not scientists is another part of what Roll believes the scientific community can work on, especially when it’s vital to people’s lives and survival to understand the science. He believes it’s incumbent on scientists to work in partnership with policymakers around messaging and propose realistic solutions for the public.
“The days of the ivory tower person telling other people what to do, if those days in fact ever existed, have to be a historical footnote,” he said.
During his time as president but also before and beyond that role, Roll said he is working on issues of diversity and equity, ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table.
Ultimately, Roll said scientists and groups like the academy can help to be a part of the solution.
“People need to have hope, so whether it’s a pandemic, climate change or addiction, we need to find ways to give people hope that they can climb out of these dark days into a better future for them and their children,” Roll said. “And I think science can be an important part of that conversation.”
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