America’s scientist abroad
UCI botanist travels the world helping scientific groups
With his rosy cheeks and booming laugh, Michael Clegg is often told he resembles Santa Claus, and he logs almost as many miles.
The UC Irvine ecology & evolutionary biology professor also is foreign secretary for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which means he’s on the road as much as he’s at home in Irvine. In one eight-week stretch last fall, he traveled to Mexico, Missouri, New York, Washington, D.C., two regions of India, Mexico again, Chile and Argentina.
In between it all, he teaches a popular UCI freshman biology course to about 700 students, and he researches plant evolutionary genetics — primarily on avocados, morning glories and barley.
“Mike keeps a superhuman schedule that would fell those less dedicated,” says his department chair, Brandon Gaut. “He’s a primary ambassador for American science. But despite his hectic schedule and his great importance both internationally and nationally, he continues to teach. One of our best professors recognizes the importance of imparting his knowledge to the benefit of our undergraduates.”
Clegg downplays his importance: “The academy pays the university for half of my time, and then I work full time for both institutions,” he jokes.
The academy is widely considered America’s premier science organization. Although it’s private, White House officials, members of Congress, and federal agencies like the Department of Energy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rely on its independent recommendations on major policy issues.
Clegg says being the academy’s foreign secretary is a wonderful job. His goal is to strengthen and empower scientific communities, particularly in developing countries, to tackle “the issues of the 21st century: climate change, water resource futures, food security, emerging global diseases and biodiversity loss.”
“The issues are hugely important,” says Clegg, who believes scientists can help come up with solutions if given proper funding and other support. “There’s no global government, so we really have to work with our counterparts country by country.”
Clegg is not a formal ambassador, but he has performed his share of diplomacy. He was sent on a fact-finding mission to Cuba after 9/11 by U.S. State Dept. officials, which included a three-hour lunch with Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. He describes Fidel Castro talking non-stop through lunch about everything from education and other critical policy issues to being forced to quit cigars by his doctors.
“This was right after the anthrax incidents, and there was concern at high levels of the State Department that the Cubans might be engaged in developing biological weapons, because they had invested a lot in biotechnology capabilities to develop a local pharmaceutical industry,” Clegg says. “They were very forthright, let us visit everywhere, and there was no evidence of any biological weapons program.”
Clegg knows that scientists here and abroad face political challenges. In some nations, they end up in prison if, for instance, a government leader sees a research report that contradicts government policy. In 1980, prominent Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov was imprisoned for advocating nuclear arms control and human rights.
In part because of the Sakharov affair, the NAS created a human rights committee, which works to defend scientists here and abroad who have been unjustly incarcerated. Clegg is an active member and helps take up the case of people like Dr. Thomas Butler, then of Texas A&M, a medical doctor and plague researcher who was charged in 2003 with illegal transportation of bubonic plague samples. The charges and punishment appeared to be politically motivated, Clegg said. Butler spent two years in prison, and the committee worked hard on his case.
Clegg says he has never felt in danger in any country, and in fact he’s usually treated as an honored guest. It’s an honor he tries to return, treating everyone with respect and keeping lines of communication open with scientists even in countries that have no formal relations with the U.S. government. He’s often keenly reminded of the problems he and other academics are trying to tackle, seeing people living in hovels with no toilets or running water near his hotel in India, for instance.
When Clegg is not on the road as a globe-trotting diplomat, he’s a busy UCI classroom teacher and plant researcher. His office is decorated with drawings and photos of flowers he has studied — and agave plants used for tequila. They are, after all, a plant product. He also loves teaching freshman biology. “They’re very eager to learn,” he says.
UCI has long had a professor in the foreign secretary position: Physics Nobel Laureate F. Sherwood Rowland formerly held the post. Clegg is beginning his third and final term, which runs through 2014.
Through it all, he maintains his ready laugh and genial spirit. His assistant, Cheri Tomcheck, says it comes naturally to him.
“He’s the nicest boss you could ever work for,” she says. “And yes, many people tell him he looks like Santa Claus!”