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Gary Machlis serves as science adviser to the director of the National Park Service

Gary Machlis serves as science adviser to the director of the National Park Service

Gary Machlis

National parks could one day have Siri-style guides

*For our full coverage of AAAS 2016, check out our meeting page.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—When Jonathan Jarvis took over as director of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) in 2009, he needed some advice. How should he deal with invasive pythons in the Everglades? What about archaeological artifacts exposed by melting glaciers? What he needed was a scientist. So he tapped Gary Machlis, a human ecologist and science policy expert, to serve as the first-ever science adviser to the NPS director. Machlis, a fellow of AAAS (which publishes Science), is co-leader of the Department of the Interior’s Strategic Sciences Group, which has conducted scientific assessments of environmental disasters from Deepwater Horizon to Hurricane Sandy. This weekend, at the annual meeting of AAAS, Machlis celebrated the 100th anniversary of the NPS with a presentation about science in national parks. Science sat down with him afterward to talk about the future of park research.  

Q: Why does NPS need a science adviser?

A: Director Jarvis … needed to know the best available science. If the park service has a budget, where should that money be spent? What are the most important things that we need to take care of? If an invasive species is harming the native species in a park, what do we do about it? And how do we make sure our employees and our visitors stay safe? Those are science and evidence-based questions. So my job is to deliver unfettered advice. There are only four words I can't say to him. 

Q: Which are?

A: "I told you so." I think many scientists don't understand fully that when you've delivered your advice to a leader as best you can, and they've integrated your information fairly and listened carefully and they make a decision that you might not agree with, you've done your job. And then you've got to move on to the next decision. If you whine about it, your credibility and your ability to aid the decision-maker are compromised.

Q: What research projects are being conducted at national parks?

A: Ethnographic studies in Alaska to better understand subsistence; how to preserve the integrity of the hydrological system in the Colorado river; how to deal with disasters like Hurricane Sandy or Deepwater Horizon. We have a lot of work on climate change. Some of the most exciting work is on night sky and sound. The park service of the 21st century considers natural quiet and the sounds of nature as a resource that needs to be preserved. So you can see that it's across all the fields of science.

Q: During your talk, you mentioned “environmental DNA monitoring.” Can you explain what this is? 

A: Everywhere we go, we deposit small amounts of our DNA. And as DNA sequencing is becoming cheaper and more practical, it means that this sort of residue that animals and humans leave can be used to monitor species. So for example, in Glacier National Park, from little pieces of barbed wire or sometimes scratchy surfaces on a tree, [researchers] collect hair from a bear and identify the actual individual bear. And they identify that bear's relatives, and those bears' cubs. They are able to get extraordinarily accurate information about the population with a minimally invasive technique.

Q: What research isn’t being done that you could see happening in the future? 

A: Much of the artificial intelligence community is working on programs that can do semantic and deep learning. Already there are experiments in robotics and AI programs that people can interact with. A primitive form of that is the Siri that's on your iPhone. Imagine that artificial intelligence expanding so that everyone would have access to the information they were curious about at a national park—a “Siri” that is a trained park ranger. We're not in the business of developing artificial intelligence, but I believe that in the near-horizon, 20 to 30-year future, AI will be part of the suite of ways we help the public use their parks. 

Q: Are there ways in which we aren't taking advantage of national parks as a scientific resource? 

A: Yes. I think we should use parks as science education portals. I personally think science textbooks should be rewritten so if it's talking about geology, it says "and you can go visit Grand Teton National Park and learn about it. You own it. It's your heritage. Here's how to go." I don't think there's a single topic taught in high school science that can't be linked to a national park.

Q: What are your fears for NPS and NPS-sponsored research? 

A: It's always difficult for organizations to renew themselves. We have to create a landscape where young people…care about parks, contribute to parks, and work hard to protect them. Another fear would be that the American people forget for a moment what they own. It’s a sad thing if a family lives near a national park where they could learn so much, but doesn't know about it, or can't afford to go, or if they got there they wouldn't know what to do. And then I guess the last fear would be climate change, habitat fragmentation, pollution, biodiversity—the whole list of threats. By 2050, Glacier National Park may not have glaciers. Then what do you do?