Ann Reid has been a researcher, a policy wonk, and a program manager. In January, she will put on a new hat—as first responder to attacks on science education.
This week, Reid was named executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). She will succeed Eugenie Scott, who spent 26 years building up the small, Oakland, California-based organization into a powerful defender of the teaching of evolution and climate change in U.S. public schools.
“I think they are the most effective group working at the grassroots level,” says Jay Labov, senior adviser for education and communications at the National Academies’ National Research Council in Washington, D.C. “The work they did in the Dover case was just spectacular; I’m not sure the ruling would have been the same without their help,” Labov says, referring to a 2005 suit in which a federal judge rejected an attempt by a Pennsylvania school district to force teachers to present intelligent design as a viable alternative to evolution in science courses.
The decentralized nature of U.S. education means that one ruling is never enough to stem the antiscience tide, however. This afternoon, for example, the Texas State Board of Education will hold its final public hearing before approving the next batch of science textbooks for use in local school districts, and NCSE staff members have worked hard to rally support for high-quality instructional materials.
Joining NCSE is the latest step on what Reid, 54, admits has been a circuitous career path. After graduating at 19 from what is now Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which calls itself “the only liberal arts college expressly designed for students of high school age,” Reid earned a master’s degree in international studies from Johns Hopkins University and took a job in Paris with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “I was 21 and I wanted to change the world—today!” she says.
But the realm of international diplomacy turned out to be less exciting—and less satisfying—than she had imagined. “I found the policy work to be very frustrating,” she says. “It simply wasn’t evidence-based. Decisions were being made based on political rhetoric.” After 3 years she returned to the United States with the intention of going to medical school.
Family life interfered with those plans, however, and she wound up taking an entry-level lab technician position at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. That job led to a 20-year research career that included co-leading a team at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology that sequenced the virus in the 1918 flu pandemic.
The work, including developing new techniques for extracting DNA from paraffin-embedded tissue samples, satisfied a previously unrequited passion for science. But it also taught her how quickly newly acquired technical skills can become outdated. “We finished sequencing the virus in 2004, after 7 years of work. Now you could do it on your lunch hour,” she says.
In addition to being a scientific tour de force, the 1918 flu project was intended to save the institute from cost-cutting moves at the Department of Defense. However, Reid saw the writing on the wall—the institute eventually closed in 2011, although its massive collection of tissue samples has been preserved—and in 2005 she went to work at the National Academies’ Board on Life Sciences.
There she was staff director for several studies, including a report on metagenomics that she says “opened my eyes to the shift in biology toward the importance of microbes.” One spinoff was a 2007 paper she wrote with Labov entitled “A Call for Bringing a New Science into the Classroom (While It’s Still New).”
The article was her first formal foray into the world of science education, and she regards it as good preparation for the challenges facing her at NCSE.
“I see our role as doing everything we can to help science teachers teach good science,” she says about the center’s mission. “Evolution and climate change are two topics in which they might find it difficult to do so, because of outside pressure from parents and some local officials. So our job is to help them make sure that doesn’t happen, by giving them the tools they need to fight back.”
Reid likens the center to “the local fire department or FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. As Eugenie likes to say, ‘We don’t put out the fire. But we pass out the fire extinguishers and let the local science community do its job.’ ”
Scientists who have worked with Reid call her an excellent choice to take the reins from Scott. “Ann is an expert at navigating the science-policy-society interface,” says Princeton University’s Bonnie Bassler, chair of the board of governors for the American Academy of Microbiology, which Reid has led for the past 3 years. “Plus, she has a knack for making complicated subjects understandable to broad audiences. She will bring rigor and a passion for science to her new role at NCSE.”