Jacob Traverse is the new president and CEO of the Center for Truth in Science. We spoke with him about his professional path to the Center, the importance of scientific integrity, and the next steps needed to clean up the mess at the intersection of science, justice, and the economy.
CTS: What drew you to the Center? What excites you most about its mission?
I come from the world of biotechnology and life sciences, and while I spent my early years in the laboratory setting, what I love to do is think about how to use what we learn in the lab and ask questions like ‘how does that work?’ and ‘what can we safely do with it?’
This enthusiasm and curiosity led me to a mix of roles in industry and the nonprofit sector, where I sought out ways to apply new technologies to tackle old problems to make life better for people in a world that constantly demands that we make more from less.
One of my favorite sayings is ‘the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.’ You can walk into laboratories around the world and find people doing things that look like magic. How can we get those advances into people’s pockets, and do it responsibly?
For many promising innovations, this requires a combination of multiple decisions made across a range of regulatory and scientific arenas. The Center for the Truth in Science sits right at this intersection, seeking to help decision-makers determine how we can benefit from the products and technologies science has enabled us to create today. It’s a big challenge, but an exciting one.
CTS: You have a pretty versatile background in research, program development, and fundraising. How do you expect those experiences to apply to the Center’s mission?
Succeeding in this role will require more than diving into a single industry sector and getting to know it and map it. The Center’s mission touches many areas of our modern lives, and our challenge is to find ways to explain to a diverse mix of audiences how our work is relevant and impactful.
I saw the complexity of this landscape while coordinating product development, R&D, sales, and supply chain teams during periods of growth for the modern crop biotechnology and corn ethanol industries. Additionally, my experience at the Institute for Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences really underscored how big, society-wide issues like food safety require collaboration between stakeholders across many different sectors, starting with industry, government, and academia.
Hopefully, I can help us focus on the big picture of where these worlds collide, making us uniquely positioned to provide clarity and value where they are needed most. If so, I am confident that we can tell a compelling story that inspires and attracts the support we need to deliver on our mission.
CTS: That’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen—regulators, policymakers, researchers, academics, non-profits, NGOs, investors, agencies, industry, etc. What did you learn from working with so many different stakeholders?
Each of these stakeholder arenas has its own language. Before we start making decisions surrounding risk and safety, we need to agree on what our words mean. Are we using the same language? Typically, we are not.
There are limitations to certainty across these fields—we can’t do clinical trials on everything. We can’t take a human and feed them only peanut butter for 30 years and see what happens. Instead, we have to use the best methods and best evidence possible and make some subjective decisions on ways to account for the uncertainty that remains.
The Center’s goal is to find ways to minimize that subjectivity and to educate stakeholders in all these areas on what the evidence tells us, and what its limitations are. We ask things such as—are we using the best methods? Or are we making subjective decisions that misrepresent the evidence we have? Are we being consistent in the approach and the interpretation of data?
Are we talking about a risk assessment? Or a risk management plan? These are different, and that must be recognized when decisions are made. All of these arenas want to make the world better and safer for people, but they can benefit from greater clarity and a neutral translator. This is where the Center thrives.
CTS: This seems like a constantly moving target.
In many ways it is. There is an avalanche of information at our fingertips and the pace of scientific discovery is accelerating quickly. Regulators and policymakers are struggling to keep up as we learn new things, invent new products, and develop research tools at faster and faster rates. Scientists created a Covid-19 vaccine in days, and then it took over a year to approve them for wide usage. The safety piece took all of the time. The vaccine creation process itself was near-instantaneous in comparison.
The challenge is putting these advances in the hands of everybody so that they can be used safely. The Center wants to be a resource to the people making these decisions, to ask the right questions so we don’t freak out over things that aren’t scary while missing something that is. We don’t want to live in a world that is losing out on benefits because we are misrepresenting the risk that is there.
CTS: How do you view the Center’s role in this tug-of-war between progress and risk?
The Center is not trying to tip the balance in any direction. We’re not going to tell you what decision to make, we just want to make sure you’re making that choice with good evidence. We also want to move the knowledge and tools we help create into the hands of top-level decision-makers so they can use them to keep people safe and make good use of advances in science and technology.
We can’t eliminate risk entirely, but we can be doing a whole lot more to better understand it.
— You can read Jacob’s full professional bio here.