Monday, April 2, 2007

Ransom A. Myers and the uses of fame

The following is an excerpt of an article by Bill Barker, King's College President and 20 year friend of Ram. The article appeared in the Halifax paper the day of Ram's memorial. The picture of Bill and myself was taking the morning after. "It was exciting to get to know someone who was so alive with a passion for research at the very highest level of his discipline, and who had so much curiosity and so many opinions on so many topics. He had a bracing energy, and every encounter gave me a bit of a jolt. He was one of those intellectuals for whom the work goes everywhere, and the mind never stops boiling over with observations and new ideas. I loved the boldness. Looking back, I have to say his nickname, though made up of his initials, was not an accident...Ram was, for a self-described "quantitative fishery population biologist," relatively famous...It’s interesting how all the comments on his life (mine included) mention Ram’s listing in Fortune – this is the way that you become famous for being famous. Ram clearly loved the notice, and enjoyed the ironies of this celebrity. But being in the spotlight helped his cause ....Ram was exceptional in the force of his message. If you want to see how he did this, one of the best places is his 2003 testimony to the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (it’s on the web). Here Ram presents his advice on the decline of fish stocks. His summary of an ongoing massive meta-analysis of data from around the world clearly demonstrates the vastness of the ecological failure through overfishing. From this general view, he moves back to the particular to offer practical advice on the management and replenishment of specific stocks. The clarity, urgency and hope in his testimony are exemplary. He knew the value of publicity, of getting in the news. The Dalhousie web page devoted to his memory mentions that his work made the front page of The New York Times "above the fold." This, of course, is pure Ram, and all his friends will get the joke. He was delighted that he had appeared "above the fold" because he knew he had captured the ultimate piece of real estate in the world of print journalism. Many academics have important messages that should be heard by the public. Sometimes these messages are too nuanced or too obscure for public discourse, which is not terribly refined or precise. How to attain that knowledge transfer is a huge issue for universities and our research funding agencies, who want the public informed and the discoveries to be used. Most of us (I speak as a member of the public in relation to Ram’s research) don’t want to hear the details. For whatever reason, we can’t put in the effort or the time. We want the big picture. It’s difficult for an expert, who has struggled so carefully to tune the ideas, to enter into the rough and tumble world of the media. Now and then, however, there are academic experts who are able to maintain a sophisticated research agenda and who at the same time can translate the work into terms that can be quickly grasped by the general public. When their ideas get out there, they help to shape necessary public debate. This is important work, and deserves recognition. Ram was one of the masters." ---William Barker, President of the University of King’s College, The Chronical Hearld,

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