Science to the people

Alumnus George Kraw reflects on the success of the popular Kraw Lecture Series, which turns complex scientific inquiry into engaging public presentations

When alumnus George Kraw (Cowell '71, history and Russian literature) launched his popular Kraw Lecture Series on Science and Technology four years ago, scientific inquiry was under attack.

That year, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a list of scientific setbacks during the Trump administration, from vanishing online data to the reduced role of scientists in federal policymaking.

Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly,” the New York Times reported in 2019.

During a tense and demoralizing period for science, the Kraw Lectures were an impassioned defense for scientific inquiry, in a series that prided itself on open access. 

The Kraw talks, which are sponsored by Kraw, are always free and open to the public, and cover topics ranging from the Antarctic in a time of climate change to the possibility of self-driving cars creating massive future gridlock. 

The straightforward and flexible event format, which pairs a leading expert with a timely and intriguing science and tech issue, allows the Kraw to change with the times. One of the goals of the Kraw lectures is to increase major gifts to UCSC. The lectures have led to fortuitous meetings, partnerships, and funding opportunities. 

Pandemic pivot

While the Kraw started out in an analog, in-person format—with lectures drawing crowds at UCSC’s Silicon Valley campus—it pivoted to an all-virtual webinar-based approach after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which also became a recurring subject during the lectures, with UCSC faculty reflecting on the efficacy of vaccines, the threat of variants, and other pressing issues relating to the virus.

This spring, attorney George Kraw, who made the lecture series possible with a founding gift to UC Santa Cruz, reflected on the popularity of the science talks that bear his name, as well as the urgent need to continue them into the future. 

“Clear and open communication about science and technology is critically important,” Kraw said. “I have been interested in the pernicious effects of political ideology and zealotry on science since my undergraduate days at Cowell College."

A summer visit to Moscow between his junior and senior year, spent at the Lenin Institute, increased his resolve to fight against pseudo-science. 

“In Moscow, I learned how the provably false theories of ideologues like the Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko led to policies that created disastrous consequences like the 1930s Ukraine famine,” Kraw said.

Lysenko was an infamous scientist who was put in charge of Soviet agriculture to disastrous effect. Part of the problem was his denial that genes existed. His methods led to widespread crop failure and mass starvation. He has come to emblemize the pernicious effects of scientific know-nothing-ism. 

Kraw believes that science communication is one way to counter “ideological twisting of science, whether the topic is climate change or a global pandemic." And he recognizes the public’s desire for clear and direct discussion of pressing issues in the science and tech realm. 

“I am very happy the lectures have found large followings," he said. 

The original goal was to increase the visibility of UC Santa Cruz’s work in science and technology, and was aimed primarily at a Silicon Valley audience. 

“But the pandemic created opportunities to reach a global audience through live streaming and the university’s YouTube channel," Kraw said. “I am hopeful that we can have live lectures again later this year, but streaming will continue.”

A sense of urgency and possibility 

George Kraw launched the series of science and tech talks with the help of his wife, Rafe Kraw, his key partner in both setting up and continuing the lectures. 

“She helped both organize my original ideas and carry them through," he said. 

A brush with mortality also played a strong role. In 2015, Kraw was diagnosed with stage 4 renal cancer and told that the median survival rate for his condition was 16 months, and that the prognosis for survival in the five years following the diagnosis was 8 percent. 

“Six years later, I am still here,” Kraw said. “The doctors are uncertain as to what worked, but something did. My illness gave me some sense of urgency in getting (the lecture series) up and running.” 

The lectures themselves often have a sense of urgency, with topics including “Forecasting the Future of a Changing Ocean,” featuring ocean sciences professor Raphe Kudela and Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Kristy Kroeker, or “Preparing for Future Climate Change: Lessons of the Past,” with Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor and leading climate researcher James Zachos.

Serendipitous connection

But the talks also have an element of discovery, inquiry, and adventure. The inaugural Kraw Lecture, held in March 2017, set its sights on the cosmos. The talk, featuring astrophysicist Jonathan Fortney, posed a fascinating question: How common is the Earth? 

The lecture focused on the discovery and characterization of rocky planets around other stars. Fortney, one of 15 principal investigators for a new NASA initiative, the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), which is a quest to find life on planets around other stars, said it was a great honor to give the talk that kicked off the series. 

“I remember it well,” he said. "That talk was an important springboard for increasing the visibility of UCSC's exoplanet science.”

As it turned out, that talk also led to an unexpected boon for Fortney’s research. During his talk, Fortney mentioned that he was setting up a brand-new collaborative workshop called the Other Worlds Laboratory for visiting exoplanet scientists at UC Santa Cruz. One of the people in the crowd that night just so happened to work for the Heising-Simons Foundation, which supports the kind of original research that Fortney mentioned. Intrigued by his idea, the foundation ended up funding the project, changing Fortney’s dream into a project that will continue into the future. 

It just goes to show that a single Kraw Lecture can be beneficial to lecturers and audience members alike. 

“The Other Worlds Laboratory brings 40–50 scientists from around the world to campus, for three weeks, to brainstorm new exoplanet projects and collaborations, and foster existing ones,” Fortney said. “It has really raised the profile of UCSC in the astronomical community worldwide."

Fortney said the Kraw Lectures are a good reminder that science and scientific inquiry should be a part of our shared culture in the same way as the arts and humanities. 

“Not everyone can be an artist, but we can appreciate art and what it brings to us as humans,” Fortney said. “Science touches another part of people's humanity, and I think that sharing it is just as important."