George Sparks

In the Arena with George Sparks

George Sparks is the President and CEO of of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

You have been the CEO of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science for more than 15 years, what ignited your passion for science and technology?

I’ve always been a science geek. I grew up in a little coal mining town in Southern West Virginia just before the space race began. It was the space program and watching the launches with my father that got me interested in science. When I was nine years old I had this wallet, now I didn’t have anything to put in the wallet except an Air Force Academy cadet trading card. But I stuck it in there and said I’m going to go to that school and I’m going to become an aeronautical engineer and a pilot. At 17, I left for the Air Force Academy.

In 2017 you launched the museum’s Institute for Science and Policy. Why did you decide to get the museum involved in politics and what have you learned while working at the Capitol?

In 2016, after the election, people were talking about a war on science. Now I don’t think you can have a war on science anymore than you can have a war on math, you’re just not going to win. You may want to disregard them but that usually ends badly. At the Museum we were looking to involve science in the creation of good public policy. We have a 96% trust rating among the public and saw that as an opportunity to bring people together. We focus on bringing journalists, policymakers, and scientists together to learn about the issues and make recommendations. It’s not about saying here’s the answer but rather, here are several ways you might approach this that are based in good science. We let the policymakers take it from there.

The Institute for Science and Policy has become a trusted resource for Democrats and Republicans alike, how have you cultivated bipartisanship? And what advice do you have for those who are interested in working across the aisle?

A dirty little secret of the Institute for Science and Policy is that it isn’t about science – it’s about people. Everything comes down to people, relationships, and trust. Everything we do is about building trust between people who have disparate points of view. For example, after Senate Bill 181 we started the Lunch Bunch. For a year, six oil and gas CEOs and six environmental CEOs have committed to meeting for lunch once a month. At first we were just getting to know one another but now we are starting to talk about the future of natural gas in Colorado. Now that they have developed relationships, they can trust each other enough to have open conversations. After our last meeting, one of the oil and gas CEOs mentioned that this has been one of the most interesting things he has ever been a part of and that he is even becoming friends with someone in the room who is actively suing him. He said that he no longer sees them as an evil organization that he disagreed with, but as a friend that he respects. Conversations like these are fundamental to breaking past political barriers. 

What issues are you currently tracking?

We’re tracking climate change, gene editing, and artificial intelligence. The big one though is the energy transition. We need to have a statewide dialogue on this topic because otherwise the party in charge is going to push forward a climate plan that half the state may not agree with. Until we get everyone engaged, we risk falling short and making a lot of people angry. We need to start with our common values and build from there.

What are some of the biggest challenges you see facing the state?

We have an increasing income disparity between those who are benefiting from our wonderful economy and those who are feeling left behind. In many ways there are two Colorado’s. The biggest challenge I see is how do we get all Coloradans to care about all Coloradans. This is especially true when it comes to funding our community. We are naturally reluctant to raise taxes but we are also growing rapidly and have a huge need for transportation infrastructure and schools. We are in dire need of upgrades, especially as we grow.

Finally, from your unique vantage point, what are some opportunities you see for the state?

Civilization is built on business, it’s where value is created. When you work in a natural history museum you think about things differently; you think in terms of 10,000 years, not in terms of 10 months. For example, you can look back to the axe-handled stone tool – that was the iPhone of its day and the person who was making them was the driver of the economy. We have continued to evolve technology but the structure of shared value is the same. Business is a fundamental part of who we are and if we can encourage business, we can do great things. If we get stuck in an us versus them with the business community it is going to end badly for the environment, for the local economy, and for the people who live and work here. But if we partner, we can do it really well. 

Rapid Fire Round:

  • Who inspires you? My wife
  • What is your favorite place in Colorado? Breckenridge
  • What are you reading? Why We’re Polarized by Erza Klein
  • What’s your favorite restaurant? Barolo Grill in Denver
March 30, 2020