Steve Allison, newly named director of UCI’s Newkirk Center for Science and Society, envisions the university to be a global role model for fair and equitable research.
Allison, who holds joint appointments in the Schools of Biological Sciences and Physical Sciences, was inaugurated as the Director of the Newkirk Center on October 1st, 2021. The center’s mission of promoting scientific research with the public’s interest in mind is one that Allison passionately supports. “There is a need for extending this message,” says the new director.
This intimate relationship between research and community is one that is rooted in the Newkirk Center’s history. Founded and endowed by Martha and James Newkirk in 2001, the Center is a beacon for connecting “wonderful research with the outside world.” Martha Newkirk, who graduated from UC Irvine, and James Newkirk are both entrepreneurs who fund the center with their philanthropy. Moreover, serving on the Newkirk Center’s advisory board along with leading UC Irvine research professors, the Newkirks have become examples of their own message.
The message is one that Allison has always been committed to. “We need to make sure communities we serve know what we are doing and give them the opportunity to influence the work that we do, especially for the communities without a strong voice,” says Allison. The new director has a strong history with coordinating and amplifying voices. After George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence, the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) department and Allison have advocated for diversity and inclusion in policy through the Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ARDEI) Council. The ARDEI Council facilitates and ensures policies in EEB that empower diverse and inclusive voices. Allison, who meets consistently with the Newkirk Center’s board as the new director, notes that the same principles are supported by reaching out to members of the UCI community and external communities as well. For instance, Newkirk communicates with NGOs, local government, water districts, federal agencies, and other universities—both for funding and to promote community research interests.
Allison not only supports Newkirk’s principles, he also brings an extensive resume of practical experience to his new directorship. Allison spends much of his time training graduate students in his lab group, where they apply empirical and theoretical approaches to understand global change in microbial communities (droughts, climate change, etc.). Allison also trains EEB graduate students through the Ridge 2 Reef program, an interdisciplinary program that focuses on developing skills for students to better transition into careers in environmental fields.
Coming from a background in research and training in environmental science, it is no surprise that Allison’s vision for the Newkirk Center is one with a stronger emphasis on climate change. “Coordination of the research activities surrounding climate change is very important,” says the new director. At its core, the Newkirk Center is a resource for students and the community to understand and solve these societal problems. The center often holds conferences to spread awareness and cutting-edge research on such issues. One example is their co-sponsoring of the ‘Toward a Sustainable 21st Century Series.’ Open to the public with recordings and resources available online, the series of conferences tackles actionable efforts to conserve and sustain the environment. These conferences and many more are available to the public regularly, including a recent conference on microplastics.
Allison also envisions new feedback and synergy between graduate training and the center. “We hope to transfer the educational assets and techniques [of the R2R program] to the Newkirk Center,” says Allison.
Allison now oversees the Science&Society@UCI and Research Justice Shop programs of the Newkirk Center. The Science&Society@UCI program is the Newkirk Center’s effort to support activities and research that focus on combining systems of translation, public opinion, and policymaking. These are usually specific events such as conferences and seminars that push forward the idea of community-driven research and policy. The Research Justice Shop program, on the other hand, is an ongoing endeavor to build authentic research partnerships with diverse and unique communities, train researchers in equitable and emancipatory methods, and understand the relationship between research and the community. The interdisciplinary program is open to any graduate students on campus and is headed by Drs. Connie McGuire and Victoria Lowerson Bredow, who develop the curriculum, select the RJS fellows, and lead the workshops.
Before he became the Center’s Director, Allison served on a subcommittee for the Research Justice Shop and he strongly supports its vision of equity in research. Overall, he wants the Newkirk Center to teach research students how to interact with “community members in a fair and equitable way.” He wants to avoid extractive practices in research: “We don’t want to study community members like test subjects,” says Allison. On the contrary, the new director wants people outside of UCI to “look at it and say that is something for the good and something they can relate to.”
To ensure this vision, Allison is trying his best to listen before too eagerly modifying the tried and true structures of the Newkirk Center. So far, Allison has been meeting with board members, learning the systems involved, and listening to different communities already in partnership with the center. The new director is comfortable patiently learning for now. By doing so, Allison hopes to make the Newkirk Center the “face of the research enterprise at UCI”—a face that listens to the community.
Written by Christopher Nagelvoort