The case for the geosciences.

Recent months have seen a bit of back-and-forth between the Congress and the scientific community about the value of geosciences research. Throughout this discussion, there’s been a tendency for advocates to see funds for science as extremely limited; to view investments in different fields of science and technology as a zero-sum game; and to focus on jobs creation, and the state-by-state distribution of those jobs, as the paramount concern. This mindset has tempted some members of Congress, and some scientists and policy analysts from other fields, to question the contributions of geosciences to the economy relative to the stimulus provided by other R&D, say information technology or biotechnology. The truth remains, though, that credible economic justification for the various views, pro and con, has proved hard to come by. The analyses and arguments on all sides have been fragmented, anecdotal, narrowly focused – and arguably a bit too disputatious, misdirected and shortsighted.

It might therefore be useful to pause, and to step back a bit from the particulars, in order to look at the larger context, the sweep of history, and the challenges of the future. To do this is to discover that America’s focus on the geosciences has been enduring; that the geoscience of the past two centuries has led to America’s preeminent and indispensible place in the world today; and that going forward the stakes riding on progress in the geosciences have never been higher, nor the urgency greater. Such a 3600 view also reveals that investments in science are not zero-sum but synergistic. If the United States, with just four percent of the world’s population, aspires to remain the indispensible nation through the end of the 21st century, we’ll have to earn that label anew. Sustained, high levels of balanced investment not just in the geosciences, but across the whole of physical, natural, and social sciences, as well as engineering and STEM education, will be essential.

Background: science policy in the United States and its legacy.

Most of us have a tendency to see U.S. science policy as originating post-World-War II. Certainly that shared experience and the horrific loss of life served to focus minds. Scientists, political leaders, and the general public all understood the role of science and technology in helping to win the war, and the importance of continuing strategic investments in science, especially the physical sciences, in the face of Soviet aggression worldwide throughout the years of the Cold War[1].

We tend to lose sight of the earlier national history. Prior to World War II, the United States was just as preoccupied with national security. But the policies and coping strategies took a different form. The former colonies and the young nation relied on a measure of protection provided by the world’s vast oceans. Americans realized that the key to economic opportunity was the continent’s seemingly limitless store of natural resources, and the transportation infrastructure needed to bring those resources to world markets – globally, across those same vast oceans, and domestically, especially in the early days before rail, by river and canal. West Point was established in 1802, with a military focus but an educational emphasis on engineering that would evolve into today’s US Army Corps of Engineers with its capabilities for managing waterways, building canals, and providing safety in the face of floods. The Survey of the Coast, to assess and ensure the navigability of the harbors and coastal waters so important for trade, and the progenitor of NOAA’s National Ocean Service and the NOAA Commissioned Officers Corp, was established in 1807. A series of great scientific explorations of the continent followed, with the twin aims of inventorying natural resources of every type and identifying and staving-off security threats: The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806. The Zebulon Pike explorations of 1806-1807. The Wilkes expedition of 1838-1842. John Wesley Powell’s exploration along the Colorado River in 1869. Myriad other efforts of lesser scope were sandwiched in between. These were paralleled by Navy studies led by Matthew Fountaine Maury and others to characterize the navigability and resources of world’s oceans and coasts. Meanwhile, during the Civil War, the Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant colleges with a focus on education in agriculture and industry. In 1870, the nation expanded the U.S. Army Signal Service mandate to include responsibility for weather, climate, and river observations and forecasting services to meet the needs of agriculture and public safety. [In the 1890’s, this unit would be moved into USDA; today, housed in the Department of Commerce, it’s NOAA’s National Weather Service.] The US Geological Survey was established in 1879.

There’s much more texture to the narrative[2], but here’s the bottom line. Up to the present, our national prospects and standing in the world have remained fundamentally aligned with our ability to identify and locate, and then master the management of natural resources, including but not limited to food, water, and energy. To maintain our current world position it is simply not enough that we can not only meet our own needs domestically, and market any small surplus to others. Our government and private sector have to be so adept that they can continue to serve as trusted consultants and advisors to a hungry, thirsty, energy-needy world. A high bar indeed.

During the time we had been discovering and coming to appreciate fully the true value of our natural resource base, we also uncovered two additional – and more sobering – realities.

First, we’ve learned to our dismay that we live on some of the world’s most hazardous real estate. Disastrous cycles of flood and drought mark every region of our vast country. We experience as many tropical storms as tropical nations in the western Pacific. We suffer through as many winter storms – and bad winters – as high-latitude nations such as Canada or Russia. We have a virtual lock on the world’s tornadoes. Subduction zones of the type triggering the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and the 2011 Japanese tsunami lie just offshore of our own Pacific Northwest. We have dozens of active volcanoes and some major dormant ones. Our west coast is laced throughout with dangerous seismicity, but the earthquake threat also lies poised throughout the nation’s mid-section and along the Middle Atlantic states. Iconic economic giants such as Boeing and Microsoft, and hundreds of thousands of people live and commute across former mudslides slipping from the flanks of Mount Rainier. Most of the natural gas pipelines servicing the northeastern United States run through the site of the 1812 New Madrid earthquakes in Missouri. Our vulnerabilities are rife and growing. A big part of any national risk management strategy has to cope with these and similar hazards. Again, we have the challenge and opportunity not simply to meet our responsibilities for domestic risk management but to market and contribute our science and services to other nations facing similar problems worldwide.

Second, our scientific and economic success over the past two centuries has created new environmental challenges. As early as the late 19th century we began to recognize that our footprint on the environment, on habitats and landscapes, on biodiversity, and the chemistry of our air, water, and soil could no longer be ignored. Here again, thanks to progress in the geosciences, and thanks to action by political leaders, business, and the public, America has joined other nations worldwide in early detection of emerging environmental problems, dealing with them at home, and helping out abroad in ways that foster our national security, maintain our standing as a good neighbor, and make the world a better place for everyone, not just ourselves. But we’ve lost our naiveté: we now know that the Earth is not just a resource and a threat; it is also a victim.

Throughout this two-century span the geosciences have provided all manner of practical help with regard to each of these three defining challenges. We’ve developed the geospatial information base needed to inventory our resources and match them against national and worldwide needs. We’ve provided the weather, water and climate information needed to make America the breadbasket to the world; making and sharing the advances needed to reinvigorate the Green revolution of past decades so that we can sustain a world of 9 billion versus 7 billion people. We’ve developed new tools for monitoring water availability, quality, and use. We’ve uncovered new ways to access old energy sources and returned the United States to its position as a leading exporter as opposed to an importer of energy. We’ve done the geoscience necessary to support solar and wind-power technologies. We’ve identified a new, 21st-century hazard – space weather – and developed coping measures to handle that threat. We’ve so far avoided the worst of the environmental crises we see emerging in other countries such as Indonesia and China.

In addition, the geosciences have at the same time made fundamental contributions to our understanding of science and the universe itself. In 1776, people the world over held three ideas to be true:

  • The climate is unchanging
  • Weather is unpredictable
  • The assimilative capacity of the atmosphere is infinite

The geosciences haven’t just tweaked or fine-tuned these ideas, but turned each on its ear. Studies of weather prediction led to the discovery of a wholly-new class of physical phenomena – chaotic systems – which have since been found to populate every nook and cranny across the span of the universe itself. Studies of Earth and exotic forms of life known as extremophiles found in seafloor-spreading sites, in Antarctic ice, and at great depths in the Earth’s crust have motivated, informed, and improved the effectiveness of the study of other planets in the solar system and other solar systems across the galaxy.

The new challenge and urgency for the future.

So far, so good. But the fact is, that our geoscience has enabled us to see the outlines of an unprecedented national and global challenge coming our way – and on nature’s hurried timetable, not the more relaxed pace we might desire. The three trends – the world’s population and appetite for resources, vulnerability to the disruptive impacts of hazards, and disruption of the ecosystem services on which we depend – have grown so extensive, complex, and fast-paced that it no longer suffices to treat them in isolation. We can sustain human progress and prospects only by managing all three of these challenges simultaneously – globally, to be sure, but actually everywhere locally. We don’t possess the science needed to handle each of these three pieces to the 21st-century puzzle separately, let alone in combination. Much further work is required, and on an accelerated time frame.

The good news is that we’re close – and that progress in other areas of science and technology has given us new tools for dealing with the geoscience problems we face. Computing power. Communication. Experience managing big data. Supplementary pieces of the puzzle from fields such as biology and ecology. Social science for helping 9 billion people navigate the psychological, social and institutional adjustments needed to adjust to the new realities. Innovative policy options. But we can’t rest on our oars. To meet this challenge will require our best, united efforts over coming decades.

[Another historical aside. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been forced to match or exceed Soviet military build-up step-by-step. but that didn’t distract us from our resolute focus on natural resources, hazards, and the environment. The rocketry developed to launch nuclear missiles was quickly put to work to orbit weather satellites to collect and communicate data for initializing computer models. Space-based satellite military surveillance has been extended to monitor crops, forests, ice and other land-, ocean-, and atmospheric conditions from pole to pole. The radars developed to detect inbound air strikes and missiles have been harnessed to monitor severe weather threats. The nuclear physics used to build warheads has spawned a raft of isotopic techniques for studying Earth’s chemistry, identifying the sources of pollution, reaching back in time to assess past climate variability, and more.]

A range of possible futures awaits.

At one end of the spectrum of possible outcomes, we fail to muster the political will and national consensus needed to advance the geo-sciences in a balanced way with progress in other R&D in related fields, and we slowly fall behind in our efforts to sustain resources, build resilience to hazards, and maintain ecosystem services. Our options gradually erode, economic growth is first constrained and then begins to decline, and political polarization increases in response to the attendant social stresses.

At the other end of the spectrum of possibilities, we invest aggressively but deliberately in science and innovation across the board, and place emphasis on rapid-prototyping and infusion of new knowledge and ways of doing business across our land. We support the STEM education needed to provide the 21st century workforce and the public support for this work – and at the same time equip that same public to hold both scientists and political leaders accountable for their performance. We recognize that there is no way that the United States can prosper for any extended period unless the entire world is enjoying a measure of that same prosperity. We therefore put our house in order domestically but share what we’re learning with other nations – and learn from their experiences – so that the world as a whole makes progress together. Our options steadily expand. Economic growth – true economic growth, with minimal externalities – accelerates. In fact, the economic growth is so great that the costs of the investment, which had seemed significant to start, recede into the background. Domestic and world politics become more civil; national security, the primary policy preoccupation all along, is maintained and even enhanced.

These last considerations should make it clear. The issue is not more funding for geosciences, or science more broadly, alone, though such emphasis is essential. The issue is for more innovation and application of that innovation for the benefit of life. That’s going to require an effective governing policy framework and public will.

To work on these problems? With the rest of you? What a great time to be alive! The only better time is tomorrow. And the next day.[3]

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Note: This piece was originally posted March 27. It was subsequently edited midday EDT on Saturday, March 28, 2015.

[1] Have time and inclination to read about modern-day U.S. science policy? Hard to find a better place to start than Homer A. Neal, Tobin L. Smith, and Jennifer B. McCormick, Beyond Sputnik: U.S. Science Policy in the Twenty-First Century, University of Michigan Press (2008).

[2] For a readable, thoroughly-researched history of U.S. science policy prior to World War, consult A Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940 (1957). It’s out of print but available on-line here.

[3] Many of these ideas are expanded on here.

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Women in weather.

Yesterday AMS and Northrop-Grumman put on a Google Hangout on Women in Weather.

women in weather

Their tagline?

According to the National Science Foundation, out of the 14,000 professionals employed in atmospheric sciences, only 2,000 are women.

That’s only 14 percent.

Join us on March 25 at 12:00pm ET for a Google Hangout On Air as we discover all of the exciting possibilities women have in the weather enterprise.

Compelling viewing! Built momentum as the hour went on, and could fruitfully have run a great deal longer.  A lot to think about and digest.

Last evening, though, I heard from a colleague. Her message made me realize any contemplation on my part was way-too-shallow/complacent. She had this to say:

“I must confess that I really would prefer that some organization (maybe AMS) to eventually (no rush!) organize more discussions *among MEN* about the value that women bring to the profession.   Explaining why/how/etc the field would be less complete without them.   It is clear that men hold many of the leadership positions in atmospheric science.  They — not women — are the ones largely setting policies, mentoring/employing younger (often male) colleagues. 

I get a little frustrated when I see repeated, women-only lunches & discussions (tons of women in the room, with a small handful of men).  They can be positive in that they are empowering (sisterhood!) and provide supportive words  —  analogous to how  “Lean In” suggests that women need to be more assertive and step up to the table more.  But it’s my rather strong belief that I don’t think anything will significantly change even if all women start doing this (which they won’t)… it really needs to be MEN who take ownership on the issue and start convincing their male colleagues that certain strategies and steps are needed in order to increase the success rate of women in the field… “

When asked, my colleague was kind enough to let me repeat her remarks verbatim as a means of opening up the topic on LOTRW. You may agree or disagree with what she had to say, and perhaps after a night’s reflection, she might want to tweak a word here or add a phrase there. Other viewers and members of our community would undoubtedly offer quite different takes.

Perhaps we can agree at the outset that there’s never been a moment in history or prehistory when gender equality, with all its implications and ramifications, hasn’t been a defining issue for the human race. Second, we’ve made little or no tangible progress across that vast span of years, despite the attention and writings of evolutionary and behavioral biologists, anthropologists, political and business leaders, and discussions of men and women, husbands and wives, in settings ranging from the United Nations, the halls of Congress and corporate boardrooms, to households, schools, churches, and coffee shops. Dysfunction is rampant, the topic consumes us, men continue to be complacent[1], and women continue to be frustrated[2].  No papering it over; this is a serious problem. And (full disclosure – in fact, telling you only what you knew already), this single post, with its limitations of length and haste, cannot offer resolution.

The issue is profound; what’s more, at its heart, the issue is an ethical, moral – spiritual one. Given that, the issue has company. It’s mirrored in failed race relations, our treatment of children, the elderly, the poor, and other vulnerable groups. So… with respect to these important issues – not only are we failing to progress… but shame on us.

That said… two comments. One is global; the other more limited, but holds global implications down the road.

First, although the issue is at its heart ethical, moral, and spiritual, it has transcendent and hugely practical implications. Our failure to ensure that women are at the table as decisions are made locally everywhere and worldwide in every context compromises our ability to solve the intractable 21st-century real-world problems we face. This is not a new thought. Bernard Lewis, a noted Middle East scholar, addressed this in a little book he wrote in 2002 entitled What Went Wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. Lewis’ idea is that for the past 500 years, the once-dominant Islamic world has failed to modernize or to keep pace with the West. He notes that many Islamic scholars and leaders see this as opening the door to disastrous Western influence across the region. He and others speculate that this failure to modernize has come about because women have been excluded from decision-making and influence.  

Closer to home, we can revisit and expand a bit on some of the thinking in LOTRW the blog and LOTRW the book (pp 115-119). There it’s suggested we face an obdurate three-fold  simultaneous challenge: garnering natural resources, especially, water, food, and energy; protecting the environment; and building resilience to natural hazards. Our only option?  To bring to bear the whole of the world’s brainpower, in its fullest diversity.

Here’s some homely speculation to illustrate the idea. It’s not good science; it’s not even science. But please indulge me. It goes like this.

Suppose we have some number, say twelve people, in a room trying to solve a tough problem. Let’s suppose that all of them are male. Let’s also suppose, life being what it is, that most of the diversity in the room is embodied largely in the first six men; those last six men more-or-less duplicate the range of thinking already represented at the table. They don’t add that much. Now let’s suppose further that the spread of problem-solving possibilities the discussion brings to light changes with the size of the group in a combinatorial or factorial way rather than in a purely linear way. In other words, the sixth person coming into the room doesn’t just add 17% to the problem-solving capabilities of the room. Instead, because he can engage any of the other individuals in sub-conversations or groups of two or more in sub-conversations that’ll lead along additional paths to novel ideas, that he’s enhanced the problem-solving-power of the room considerably, maybe not a factor of 6, but by a significant amount. Note, however, that the last six men coming into the room don’t add much to the problem–solving power at all. They duplicate what’s already there.

Now… replace that second contingent of six men with six women, so we have six men and six women. Those six women aren’t duplicating the six men; they’re bringing different experience and perspective. Those additional six people haven’t just doubled the problem-solving-power of the people in the room. Again, because the new participants will partner up with multiple subsets of people in the room in differing ways, and because they’re bringing fresh perspective to bear, and because the discussion is enriching in a combinatorial way, they’re increasing the range of available options by factors of ten or hundreds.

Easy to find fault with the details here. But not the flavor. By bringing to bear the full diversity of society (starting with gender, for today’s purposes) to solving our problems, we’re not just doubling our chancing of working through to effective solutions and coping strategies, we’re increasing our social brainpower manifold times[3].

Second, just a bit closer to home, here at the American Meteorological Society we’ve been running a leadership development program for early-career scientists – the Summer Policy Colloquium – for the past fourteen years. We’ve put 500 people through the program over that span of time (INFOMERCIAL: you still have time to sign up to participate in this year’s Colloquium, which runs from May 31-June9 here in Washington, DC).

Half the participants have been women. This is not an artificial result produced by a quota system of some kind; applicants for the Colloquium self-select. Women have been drawn to the challenge and supported by their host institutions out of proportion to that 14% statistic for the demographics of our field mentioned in the Google Hangout.

Ask yourself: what does that say about the future for our field – and by implication, for the fortunes of seven billion people wrestling with resource-, environmental-, and hazards issues? A heartening sign? Or just more complacency on my part (male, and a fairly senior one at that)? After yesterday’s Google Hangout and correspondence, I’m hesitant to say.

I’ll know better when/if I hear back from my colleague, or from you. She/you are better positioned to judge.

_______________

[1] Word software offers a host of horrible synonyms for this word: satisfied, self-satisfied, smug, unworried, content, contented, self-righteous.

[2] The Word software synonyms here are chilling: unfulfilled, irritated, unsatisfied, upset, angry, exasperated, discouraged.

[3]There’s a huge literature on the subject of diversity and problem solving; Googling that phrase provides a starting point for diving in. It would be useful if some of the social scientists among the readership could offer links or references to specific peer-reviewed literature or research on this subject they’ve found credible.

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Weather-Ready World

 

picking through Vanuatu wreckage in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam

picking through Vanuatu wreckage in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam

Why settle for a Weather-Ready Nation?

Last week’s press release from the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, reprinted here in its entirety, says it all:

USAID, NOAA, AND WORLD METEOROLOGICAL ORGANIZATION ANNOUNCE NEW WEATHER-READY NATIONS INITIATIVE

News

16 March 2015

SENDAI, JAPAN – This weekend, at the 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the World Meteorological Organization announced the creation of Weather-Ready Nations, a new program to improve the understanding of high impact weather, water, and climate events.

The devastating effects of extreme events such as cyclones, floods, and tsunamis can be greatly reduced through improved communication of expected impacts and risk, better delivery of warning information to communities under a threat, and clearer actions that individuals, businesses, and communities can take to be more resilient. Even in places where the crucial step of establishing early warning systems has been completed, advanced warnings are only beneficial if they lead to a public response that moves people out of harm’s way. The basic need is for more actionable information to reduce the number of weather, water, and climate related fatalities and improve the economic value of weather, water, and climate information.

Weather-Ready Nations, relying on best practices developed in many countries–including the United States–will address this by offering to combine and share countries’ experiences in developing initiatives that shift toward an impact-based forecasting and warning system which informs people about what impact the weather will have on users, rather than just expected conditions. The goal is to provide tangible actions that people and communities can take to increase their resilience.

First steps in launching Weather-Ready Nations will be to host seminars for experienced and interested countries to share best practices and then agree on capacity development actions. The next program action will be to offer demonstration programs to selected countries.

We welcome the participation of interested partners in this Initiative. Together we can empower emergency mangers and others to make smart decisions to save lives and reduce the economic impact of natural disasters.

A great vision, well-directed! Its framers – at the NOAA, at USAID, and at WMO are to be congratulated and encouraged. Some comments:

Timing. This initiative has been some time in the making, but it was announced just a day or two after Cyclone Pam slammed into the nation of Vanuatu in the western Pacific, even while reports of the scale of the impacts were still coming in. Few events could better paint a picture of the challenge posed in making all nations of the world weather-ready. At one end of the scale are large, developed, rich nations, including the United States. Weather disasters rarely impact more than a small fraction of the geographic area; the impacts year-on-year amount to a percent or so of GDP. By contrast, Vanuatu, a nation of small islands extending over perhaps 100,000 square miles but providing less than 2000 square miles of actual land, offered its 250,000 residents no place to hide. At least half the population, including more than 50,000 children, was directly impacted by Cyclone Pam. Critical infrastructures – power grid, water supply, communication, schools, and hospitals – were devastated. On some islands, 90% of the buildings were damaged or destroyed. Other islands saw their entire forest ecosystems denuded. For a largely rural, subsistence-lifestyle nation, this impact was particularly devastating. (Ironically, Vanuatu’s president Baldwin Lonsdale was in Sendai, Japan attending the WCDRR.)

Context. Speaking of WCDRR, that NOAA, USAID, and WMO would make their joint announcement at this venue is significant. The press release focuses on improvement of warnings: building the international and in-country capacity needed to extend the time horizon and improve the treatment of uncertainty in weather forecasts and outlooks; enhancing the emphasis on impacts in the forecasts and warnings; making the forecasts and warnings actionable. All this is laudable and necessary. However, the rest of the World Conference proceedings, the Sendai framework, and ongoing risk management efforts all make clear that warnings and emergency response are only the last resort of any effective weather-readiness strategy. From a community- or national standpoint, disaster risk reduction is largely a question of land use, building codes, the uninterruptibility of critical infrastructure, and public awareness. This test is difficult enough for the developed nations (witness the impacts of Hurricane Katrina); for the developing world the challenges are greater still. As NOAA, USAID, and WMO move forward, they should make it clear to the larger world that at best their combined efforts can save lives, reduce injuries, and make small, incremental contributions to saving property. In the face of weather hazards, nations of the world need to do much more to make the lives of those who survive worth living.

A key difficulty posed by weather hazards is the mismatch between the risk and the time horizon and geographic scale of economic investments to build the needed resilience. Weather hazards are inherently acute, local and uncertain. By contrast, for any given location, investments made today might pay off next year, but they might not be needed or yield any return for decades. It’s impossible with today’s science to tell.

Private-sector opportunity. The world’s financial sector has been remarkably clever for centuries in devising financial instruments to handle such discrepancies in time horizons, but they have struggled in this instance. Insurance provides partial cost-recovery for catastrophic loss after the event, but to date there are no corresponding instruments providing incentive and means for investments in land use, building construction, and infrastructure to provide for increased resilience over time. (This reality points to the difficulty of the problem rather than any lack of trying.) Nevertheless, the private-sector (writ large, not just the private-sector weather-service providers, insurers, and the Home Depots and WalMarts) is best positioned here to identify targeted opportunities for improving resilience that have a pay-as-you-go and stream-of-benefits dimension to them. There’s room for private enterprise to do well by doing good.

U.S. Department of Commerce. Domestically in the United States, and with respect to international marketing and business opportunities for U.S. firms as well, there’s opportunity for the Department of Commerce to play a vital supporting role. Expertise on hazards, (NOAA); wind-, fire-, and seismic engineering (NIST); vulnerable populations (Census); rebuilding local economies (EDA); international markets (ITA); and links to the entirety of American business – all under one roof?

Magic.

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Disaster experts send a message from Sendai.

 


SendaiThe UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (UN WCDRR), held at Sendai, Japan from March 14-18 has reached its conclusion. Full particulars are available here. From half a world away, this latest WCDRR looks to have been a fruitful occasion.

One fruit was the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. The document, which only runs 25 pages, is worth the read in its entirety, but here are excerpts:

A look back at 2005-2015:

The Sendai report starts by looking back to the so-called Hyogo Framework for Action, crafted during the 2005 WCDRR held in that city. The Sendai framework also uses the Hyogo framework as a yardstick by which to assess performance over the past decade. This assessment is relatively detailed but starts off this way:

Since the adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action in 2005, as documented in national and regional progress reports on its implementation as well as in other global reports, progress has been achieved in reducing disaster risk at local, national, regional and global levels by countries and other relevant stakeholders, leading to a decrease in mortality in the case of some hazards. Reducing disaster risk is a cost effective investment in preventing future losses. Effective disaster risk management contributes to sustainable development. Countries have enhanced their capacities in disaster risk management. International mechanisms for strategic advice, coordination and partnership development for disaster risk reduction, such as the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction and the regional platforms for disaster risk reduction, as well as other relevant international and regional forums for cooperation have been instrumental in the development of policies and strategies and the advancement of knowledge and mutual learning. Overall, the Hyogo Framework for Action has been an important instrument for raising public and institutional awareness, generating political commitment and focusing and catalysing actions by a wide range of stakeholders at all levels.

Over the same 10-year time frame, however, disasters have continued to exact a heavy toll, and as a result the well-being and safety of persons, communities and countries as a whole have been affected. Over 700 thousand people lost their lives, over 1.4 million were injured and approximately 23 million were made homeless as a result of disasters. Overall, more than 1.5 billion people were affected by disasters in various ways. Women, children and people in vulnerable situations were disproportionately affected. The total economic loss was more than $1.3 trillion. In addition, between 2008 and 2012, 144 million people were displaced by disasters. Disasters, many of which are exacerbated by climate change and increasing in frequency and intensity, significantly impede progress towards sustainable development. Evidence indicates that exposure of persons and assets in all countries has increased faster than vulnerability has decreased, thus generating new risk and a steady rise in disasters losses with a significant economic, social, health, cultural and environmental impact in the short, medium and long term, especially at the local and community level. Recurring small-scale disasters and slow-onset disasters particularly affect communities, households and small and medium-sized enterprises and constitute a high percentage of all losses. All countries — especially developing countries where the mortality and economic losses from disasters are disproportionately higher — are faced with increasing levels of possible hidden costs and challenges to meet financial and other obligations.

Expected outcome and goal:

Building on the Hyogo Framework for Action, the present framework aims to achieve the following outcome over the next 15 years:

The substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries

…To attain the expected outcome, the following goal must be pursued:

Prevent new and reduce existing disaster risk through the implementation of integrated and inclusive economic, structural, legal, social, health, cultural, educational, environmental, technological, political and institutional measures that prevent and reduce hazard exposure and vulnerability to disaster, increase preparedness for response and recovery, and thus strengthen resilience.

The pursuance of this goal requires the enhancement of the implementation capacity and capability of developing countries, in particular the least developed countries, small island developing States, landlocked developing countries and African countries, as well as middle-income countries facing specific challenges, including the mobilization of support through international cooperation for the provision of means of implementation in accordance with their national priorities.

Seven global targets:

(a) Substantially reduce global disaster mortality by 2030, aiming to lower average per 100,000 global mortality between 2020-2030 compared to 2005-2015.

(b) Substantially reduce the number of affected people globally by 2030, aiming to lower the average global figure per 100,000 between 2020-2030 compared to 2005-2015.

(c) Reduce direct disaster economic loss in relation to global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030.

(d) Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030.

(e) Substantially increase the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020.

(f) Substantially enhance international cooperation to developing countries through adequate and sustainable support to complement their national actions for implementation of this framework by 2030.

(g) Substantially increase the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments to the people by 2030.

In the full framework document, each of these targets is linked to broader United Nations goals for sustainable development.

Priorities for action:

Taking into account the experience gained through the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action, and in pursuance of the expected outcome and goal, there is a need for focused action within and across sectors by States at local, national, regional and global levels in the following four priority areas:

  1. Understanding disaster risk;
  2. Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk;
  3. Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience;
  4. Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Again, in the Sendai framework each of the four priorities is expanded further, in extensive sections detailing actions on global and regional levels, and at national and local levels respectively.

The Sendai framework ends with a look at expected follow-up – laying out general considerations; the role of stakeholders; and means of implementation – for international organizations and global partnerships.

___________________________________

Some closing comments:

Japanese self-interest in disaster reduction is understandable. The tiny nation (146,000 square miles, a mere 5% of U.S. land area) sits on the famous Pacific Ring of Fire, criss-crossed by a crazy quilt of seismic zones and dotted by 26 volcanoes. Elongated and thin, and running SW-NE along the western boundary of the Pacific Ocean, their country offers an extended target for typhoons at their fullest strength. Since the start of the IDNDR, the Japanese people have suffered through the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, not to mention storms and other disasters. Some future scenarios, such as a repeat of the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, pose trillion-dollar risks.

In response, the government and people of Japan have consistently risen to the occasion. They struggle to recover from disasters (what nation doesn’t?) but they have been strong backers of international efforts to build resilience going back more than a quarter century. Frank Press, then the president of the U.S. National Academy of Science, made the first call for what became the UN International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) at an international meeting of seismologists in Japan in the 1980’s. The Japanese hosted a Yokohama conference to mark the mid-term of the IDNDR in 1995. The Hyogo Conference followed in 2005. The rest of the world owes Japan a debt for convening these world conferences on a regular basis and for continuing commitments and actions during each interim.

Finally, the IDNDR from two decades ago was built around enthusiastic but-ill-conceived goals, calling, for example, for reductions in losses by fifty percent within the ten years of the program. The Sendai framework shows how much the field has matured. The goals are couched in terms relative to the size of populations and economy, and recognize the scale of the effort required to achieve progress. Similarly, today’s Sendai proposed actions are far more-thoroughly reasoned, and more commensurate with the real scope of the problem.

In the next post… zeroing in on one of the outcomes of Sendai that should be of special interest here in the United States.

 

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Blogging by the numbers: 5-0-247.

Social media are widely understood to provide extraordinary new opportunities for connecting people and sustaining conversation and dialog. This is true for blogs just as it is for Twitter and other vehicles. So here’s a comparison that (a few) people might find interesting. As of 9:35 EDT this morning, the Tuesday Eos.org opinion piece on the social contract between scientists and the public had yielded five comments on the AGU site. Yesterday I followed up with a post on LOTRW building on the Eos piece. The yield? Zero comments. The silence has been deafening.

By contrast, Wednesday Judith Curry picked up on the Eos piece on her blog Climate, Etc., generating 247 comments. Bottom line? Since its publication, 98% of the dialog on the social contract has occurred in that space.

Read through that extensive Climate, Etc. comment string, and you’ll find opinions and reactions covering the gamut. You’ll also recognize that much of the commentary comes from people who’ve been actively following Professor Curry for years. You’ll also see that those engaged in the conversation often use whatever subject her proximate post may offer merely as a springboard to launch other discussions, or return to earlier topics from previous posts. There’s an in-crowd flavor to the dialog that sometimes makes it hard for the occasional reader to follow or fully appreciate it. But there’s much that remains on point. And in fact, when you get to the latter parts of the discussion, you’ll find comments leveled at the post that I had expected to see aimed directly on my blogposts for years, but that people have somehow been too polite or gentle to express to me personally. Some of her readers were dismissive of the Eos piece because it offered no more than mere opinions, unsupported by data. (Others, thankfully, noted it was clearly labeled an opinion piece. But there’s a sense abroad in the land that scientists, having tasted the delights of unassailable facts, will never stoop to opinion again.) Some noted inconsistencies inherent in a message that called for scientists to listen first, yet was expressing opinions. Some saw a scolding tone in parts of the post even as it called for a reduction in scolding on the part of others. All this criticism has merit.

Of course the number of readers of each and every blog far exceed the numbers of those who take time and effort to comment. But the question remains: What’s the secret sauce of Climate, etc.? Why do Judith Curry, Gavin Schmidt (RealClimate), Andy Revkin (DotEarth) and a handful of others provide such fertile soil for extended discussion, when the rest of the world’s 200 million bloggers go unremarked and observed?

Professor Curry isn’t saying. Perhaps that’s understandable. Living and working in Atlanta, she’s in the shadow of a far more famous secret sauce. Coca Cola, in order to avoid the term limits attendant on patents, have chosen to keep their syrup recipe secret for more than a century.

In any event, we should all take a moment to applaud successful bloggers for their hard work and (largely thankless) role in society’s great conversations on so many subjects.

And thanks to you personally, Judy, for exposing the Eos.org post to the light of day.

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Scientists and society: the social contract redux.

Some months ago, the folks at AGU were kind enough to invite me to write an opinion for Eos.org, reflecting on the social contract connecting scientists with the society we serve. The piece was posted Tuesday, having finally cleared a thorough vetting process that included peer review, followed by extensive editing and reformatting. Thanks to all concerned for that extra care and attention; the revisions made for a better product.

One idea expressed was that we would do well to move beyond the post-World-War-II policy of “curiosity-driven research.” We might do better to channel the 17th-century natural philosopher Francis Bacon, and “seek knowledge for the benefit of life,” in a spirit of selfless love (or, in his vernacular, “charity”).

Something like this is expected of adolescents as they make they way into adulthood. Case in point: a close colleague has a brilliant son who is now finishing college. The son has made a splash over the past few years putting together a computer-controlled sound-and-light show for his major university to mark the Christmas holidays. The event has been something to behold, been featured on YouTube, etc.. But few expect that son to make a career of this. Instead he’s more likely to work at the interface of biotechnology and engineering, building on his summer internships along these latter lines… and making the world not just a more entertaining place but a truly better one, for all of us, for decades to come (no pressure, young man!).

Science itself is making a similar shift as it matures. Looking back over the past four million years, we’d say that for virtually all that time, S&T has amounted to little more than a sideshow in human affairs. However, over the last two thousand years, and especially over the past century or so, S&T has begun to matter. It is today the proximate determinant of humanity’s prospects and fortunes. We look to scientists to make all manner of incremental additions to the store of knowledge and to apply such new understanding to improve our lives.

But we’re also earnestly hoping (or perhaps praying? or perhaps all-too-complacently trusting?) for far more, in two respects. First, we expect scientists to deliver a cornucopia of substantial – more properly, transcendent – global economic opportunities. Second, we count on them to identify existential threats to the planet and life on it from a long way off (whether in space or time, and defined as “in time to avert disaster”), and offer any needed coping strategies.

So far so good, so long as we don’t look too closely. Thanks to science, we’ve harnessed a range of energy sources; tamed electricity; extended life, and the quality of that life; replaced human physical limits and frailty with the power of machines; morphed our mobility, and through IT have generated a new virtual universe of information and started to mine its vast potential (as in the discovery of DNA and the mapping of the human genome). Turning to risk management: scientists toil away identifying new means for feeding and slaking the thirst of nine billion people while keeping them meaningfully occupied, and at the same time protecting the Earth’s habitats and ecosystems, and building resilience to hazards. We keep an eye peeled for asteroids. We monitor disease outbreaks.

This comprehension and a corresponding sense of urgency need to underpin every aspect of human endeavor. When it comes to risk management we can’t tolerate blind spots or laggard response. When it comes to opportunities we must seize the day. Everything hinges on the pace of innovation and its application.

But we don’t normally see this played out at the broadest level. Instead we see particular conversations on pieces of the puzzle. Here’s a recent example: what’s been identified as the battle brewing over NASA priorities. Julian Hattem reports it this way in the Hill.com:

“A battle of interplanetary proportions is brewing on Capitol Hill.

It’s not “Star Wars,” but partisan lines are quickly being drawn in a budget battle over the future of NASA, which could have a long-term impact on the space agency’s ability to explore the deepest corners of space as well as the ground beneath our feet.

On one side are Republicans who accuse the Obama administration of taking its eye off the ball by funneling too much money into research about the planet Earth, rather than focusing on distant worlds and stars.

On the other, Democrats argue that the administration’s plan is critical to harness the best of NASA’s talents, protect our planet and consistent with the agency’s wide-ranging mission…”

The disputants here seem to see space research as a zero-sum game, and “study of the Earth” as somehow distinct and in opposition to the “study of distant worlds and stars.” The reality is something different. Neither Earth science nor planetary science can progress in isolation. Earth is the only planet presenting us opportunity to “ground-truth” observations we make from space. Our work of our remote probes must be strongly rooted in constant, diligent experiment and study closer to home. In the same way, study of other planets provides our only chance to assess the robustness of geoscience. How else can we reduce the risk that our conceptual and computer models of our world only seem to work – that in reality they’re merely empirically tuned to mimic conditions here?

We urgently need to make progress across the whole of space science and technology.

To repeat: how successful will we be at “feeding and slaking the thirst of nine billion people while keeping them meaningfully occupied, and at the same time protecting the Earth’s habitats and ecosystems, and building resilience to hazards?” The answer lies in the pace of innovation and its application.

“Application” is the key bottleneck here.

For example, remember: global change is not a slow-onset problem. Global change is rapid-onset, compared with the time required for seven billion people to agree upon what to do about it.

With respect to all these matters, including our policies for support of observations from space, building weather-readiness at a community level worldwide, and much more, the question to be answered (trumping budget considerations and all else) is

“What must we do to learn what we need to know in time?”

Imbedded there is a question from social science, (although social science provides us so much more):

“How much time do we need?”

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Valentine’s Day reflection for Earth scientists

“Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.” – Jesus (Matthew 12:34)

“Love doesn’t erase the past, but it makes the future different.” – Gary Chapman[1]

 

love

Joel Achenbach has written an interesting piece you can find online at the Washington Post, entitled Why Science is so Hard to Believe. Worth reading! However, you may find you have already discovered for yourself many of the reasons Mr. Achenbach lists: much of science is counter-intuitive; a lot of science debates, whether on fluoridation or measles vaccines or climate change, really manifest tribal warfare; our brains are wired to operate emotionally as much as rationally; today’s internet allows us to adopt a cafeteria-style approach to science, finding support for whatever positions we choose a priori to believe; and more.

Valentine’s Day reminds us that something else might be at work. It just might be that as a class, scientists have a problem with love. We could be among the Valentine’s-Day-impaired.

You might think this off-base. Somehow, as individuals, scientists find ways to have lasting, loving, meaningful relationships. We get married. We parent children. We’re attached to significant others and partners much as everyone else. But in my case, and this may hold true for others, this is largely due to the patience and grace my wife, my family, and many friends have shown me for decades. This extended group has overlooked my faults and encouraged me by example and not by criticism to function better as a member of a true society than I would otherwise. You have been inclusive, and taken the initiative, and drawn me in. Despite my repeated provocations, you’ve never cast me aside or thrown me under the bus. (THANK you all!)

In return, we scientists have deliberately, and with glee, set up science as a largely love-free zone (with the possible exception of a few branches of psychology). We can’t write an equation for it, and measuring love has proved elusive, so we’ve left it out.

When it comes to the Navier-Stokes equations, or Newton’s laws, that’s exactly the right approach! But we carry it a step further. If our science happens to reveal our colleague’s science as deficient, so be it. No room for sensitivity there. He/she should have taken more care. If our science catalogs worldwide human failure, while failing to offer solutions, no need to pull any punches. Our work is done. Meeting these challenges is someone else’s problem. (But by the way, that failing, struggling world should keep paying us, and maybe even a bit more.) To top it all, as a class, though again perhaps not as individuals, we find the idea of a God, a God who is pure love, as a special irritant. With each new scientific advance, we’re fond of thinking, and sometimes making public, with a flourish… yet more proof that there’s no need for God. Therefore He doesn’t exist.

This love-free thinking carries over to our communication. The oceanographer Randy Olson in his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style points out we target our messages to people’s heads when we should be aiming for the heart and the gut.

As scientists, how can we learn to be more loving in our communication? Perhaps we could start with what the author and counselor Gary Chapman termed the five languages of love: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch.

It might be tempting to dismiss these as playing no role in science, but remember: we’re talking about the communication of that science now. And fact is, we can point to success stories in how scientists have used these five languages of love over the years to build public and political support for science and scientists. Here’s a brief compilation of some of these best practices. With a little thought, you can quickly improve on this list:

Gifts. Science and innovation have been a source of material gifts since the beginning of time. Food for a hungry world. Water for every spigot. Electricity to every wall outlet. Medicines and therapies to improve health and extend life. Labor saving devices. Communications technologies to allow seven billion people to express their love more widely on Valentine’s Day. This has been science’s paramount language of love.

Acts of service. These come a close second. Science has provided many if not most of these gifts in the service of mankind… making life easier, more pleasant, more manageable, even more meaningful. The social scientists come especially to mind here. As the physical sciences and technology have advanced, social science has enriched our understanding of the resulting benefits, and how they’ve been distributed across social classes, their impacts on social equity, and much more.

Quality time. Through books, articles, talks, the Discovery Channel, and social media, scientists have created and spent quality time with the larger public, making science accessible to that public. And, fact is, time spent thinking about science and its benefits constitutes quality time.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Science and technology have created more opportunities all seven billion of us to enjoy quality time itself, and multiplied the ways such quality time can be used. They’ve provided insights into the nature of the universe and our place in it that enliven discussions of philosophy (and even the much-maligned idea of God). They’ve created new opportunities and arenas for artistic expression, adding richness to painting, sculpture, the performing arts and venues that don’t fall conveniently into these categories.

Words of affirmation. So far, science has been looking good! But this category and the next need work. Affirmation? Sometimes it seems we can’t be bothered. To start, we see little to affirm. We’ve been trained to look for shortcomings and we find them. Everywhere. Given such a reality, we feel that to affirm would be to lie, and there is no place for that in science. So we’ve become scolds, not just on climate change but also on the environment more broadly; obesity and other aspects of health and lifestyle; and more. Even the social scientists find themselves joining in. It may be one reason that political leaders find it difficult to support social science is that they find themselves favored targets of that science, whether on equity issues, matters of foreign policy, the state of the economy, etc.

We might do much better. Science could have evolved along different lines. We could have adopted the approach of improv theater and built science by supporting our predecessors and colleagues and building on what’s right about their work, however flawed, rather than focusing on the faults. We could seek to understand why leaders and the public behave as they do, and only then seek to be understood. This grace is the hallmark of all lovers.

Physical touch. You might think we can’t go there, but the fact is, we can. This is precisely what happens when scientists are embedded in the world of the practitioners: in electrical utilities, agribusiness, water resource agencies, emergency operations centers, teaching hospitals, etc. It’s what happens when social scientists engage in participatory action research, versus building firewalls between themselves and the people they study. In these settings, the differences between scientists and their practitioner-collaborators blur. The working relationships are especially close. Oh, and by the way, affirmation, not criticism, is the order of the day. This happens organically, from the grassroots, not because of any top-down prescription or mandate.

Two concluding thoughts. One negative: We’ll fail in our use of these languages of love if we pursue them as purely manipulative techniques. Jesus put voice to that truth we all know: you and I don’t take words at face value; instead we read each other’s hearts. One positive: While we can’t erase the past, we can make the future different. Let’s get on with it!

Happy Valentine’s Day! Much love to all.

_______________________________

[1] Author of The Five Languages of Love.

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SB=IA as a guide for US investments in science. Annotations.

Last week’s LOTRW post introduced a new “equation[1],” reproduced here:

(SOCIETAL BENEFIT)i = INNOVATION x APPLICATION

A subsequent post will again pick up the thread of the main argument. This post is in the nature of an aside. It attempts (not entirely satisfactorily) to deal with a few pointy-headed loose ends regarding this statement before proceeding further.

For example, in the earlier post the terms of the equation could perhaps have been defined with a bit more care.  Innovation, as used here, refers to new knowledge, or idea, or method, or device[2]. Application refers to the act, or in the case of a society writ large, the many acts of putting that innovation into practice. The equation states that the societal benefit resulting from innovation doesn’t result from breakthrough alone but the application.

The proposition has already generated a bit of feedback – less than I’d like, and also less than appears in the form of comments to the blog; some has been communicated by direct e-mail, and some face-to-face.   Here’s an example. One person asked:

Am I correct that the “innovation” part involves a judgment of the value of the innovation?  That is, a weak innovation, even if applied widely has low benefit, such as the innovation of high-fructose corn syrup in food that reached high levels of application but was probably not a large benefit to society.  That would also imply that spectacularly good innovation, even if they have limited application, would “score” well, like finding a cure for a fatal disease even if it affects only a tiny fraction of the population and would therefore have very limited application.

Absolutely correct. To follow up a bit on this thread, there’s an underlying supposition here that it’s possible to assess an innovation’s “potential” in some sense. One interesting attempt along these lines: in 1970, Alvin Weinberg, then director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, gave several talks and wrote a paper on The Axiology[3] of Science; The American Scientist 58, pp 612-617[4]. Weinberg argued that

  • Pure is better than applied
  • General is better than particular
  • Search is better than codification, and
  • Paradigm breaking is better than spectroscopy.

He argued that these were so deeply ingrained in scientists’ prejudices as hardly imply a theory of value. Of special interest here is Weinberg’s suggestion (reflecting the sense of his time) that applied science was inherently less valuable than pure science, when viewed through the lens as science, rather than societal benefit.

It’s in this respect in particular that John Plodinec’s thoughtful comment seems very helpful. He suggests that in his management of science he tended to place his bets primarily on application. As John has in the past, he’s tended to anticipate where I’m going next. Specifically, I want to argue in favor of investing far more substantially in the “APPLICATION.” More in the next post. In the meantime, hopefully, other reactions, comments, questions will continue to come in.

Please hang in with me here. This is going someplace. I promise. :)

_________________________________

[1] Asking your indulgence… up to this point I’ve been careful to use quotations and explain that this is not a real equation, with carefully defined variables and expressing a rigorous mathematical relationship relating carefully defined variables. It would be convenient to drop the quotes going forward. In the same way it would be helpful to drop the subscript, remembering that the societal benefit referred to is always that contribution to societal benefit resulting from the innovation in question.

[2] Some definitions of “innovation” refer to the introduction of new knowledge, etc. In such a framing both the idea of “something new” and the notion of “application” are incorporated implicitly in the one word “innovation;” the two are deliberately separated here to make it possible to tease out and speak to their separate roles.

[3] “axiology” refers to the theory of value.

[4] Roger Pielke Jr. makes available an on-line encapsulation of Weinberg’s thinking here.

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U.S. “policy for science” … and a (possibly) new “equation” to focus minds.

miracle2

Science policy analysts usually distinguish between “science for policy” and “policy for science.” The former denotes a unique role of science in informing policy on all aspects of the national agenda – national security, foreign affairs, the economy, public health, education, natural resources, hazards, environmental protection, and much more. The latter covers the national strategy for investments in science – not just the amount and allocation of funding across disciplines, but also the balance of funding for universities versus in-house federal laboratories, the emphasis on STEM education, etc.

World War II, and development of radar, the atomic bomb, rocketry and jet aircraft, and even penicillin put policy for science in the national spotlight. Since then, political, military, and corporate leaders as well as the broader American public have supported substantial, sustained federal investments in research. With some oversimplification, the funds have been widely distributed across the sciences. In general the basic premise or policy has been that scientists and researchers within each of the many disciplines were best positioned to judge research opportunities and research quality, and to allocate their apportioned funds most effectively.

Though U.S. funding for science has been broad, it has been uneven. Some of the roots for this are simply historical. Others reflect the reality that experimental science tends to be more expensive than theoretical work, or the field of mathematics; or that the requirements of physical sciences for laboratory equipment such as particle accelerators and mainframe computers exceed those for, say, social science, which are more labor-intensive. Some of the allocations reflect political opinion on the maturity or utility of certain branches of science relative to others.

Not surprisingly, policymakers have changed the apportionment of funds from time to time. For example, in the 1950’s the Cold War was on and the country invested heavily in particle/nuclear physics. Soon the space race would consume resources for similar reasons. In the 1990’s investment in the biological sciences and technologies accelerated. In general, these shifts in funding have been few in number, broad in nature, and enduring. As America has looked over its shoulder at the experience of other nations, it’s seen evidence that governments aren’t expert at judging winners and losers – that is, which fields of endeavor will yield the greater or quicker payoffs.

Over time, however, the costs of science have been rising. Increasingly, research falls into the category of “big science.[1]De facto, political leaders appear to have settled into a policy default that science funding should never amount to more than a certain percentage of GDP[2].  This has resulted in a squeeze on science. In turn it has encouraged some in the policy world to break ranks and propose stagnation or declines in funding allocations to certain fields in order to prolong growth in support for other science. A recent round of such proposals has put funding for geosciences and social sciences in the crosshairs. That in turn has prompted a search for counter-arguments from stakeholders in those fields. Such discussions are no doubt inevitable and are probably a good thing. However, given the polarized nature of today’s politics, the conversation runs the risk of making federal allocations for science a political battlefield rather than a non-partisan discussion.

The equation. A large part of the discussion centers around the idea of “innovation.” And that’s where my proposal for a new (?) “equation” comes in. The word “equation” is in quotes, because this is not a true equation such as f=ma, or e=mc2, with clearly defined physical parameters and precise mathematical relationships. Rather, it’s more in the spirit of the “equation” familiar from risk analysis that Risk=HazardxVulnerability. Here, risk, hazard, and vulnerability are not single, easily measured variables so much as they are conceptual ideas. And the equation itself is really more of a guide to thinking than a rigorous mathematical statement. It reminds us that the risk posed to society by floods or a K-T-like asteroid hit depends not just on our vulnerability (easily managed) to local floods and (the-end-of-life-as-we-know-it) vulnerability to the asteroid hit but also the frequency of that hazard: (everyday, somewhere) for the flood versus (every 50 million years or so?) for the asteroid strike.

With that preamble, then, consider this equation, offered in a similar spirit:

(SOCIETAL BENEFIT)i = INNOVATION x APPLICATION

This equation reminds us that the societal benefit (economic growth; national security; public health and safety; environmental quality, and more) resulting from innovation (and hence denoted by the subscript i) depends critically on how extensively that innovation is applied –not just on the innovation per se[3]. Thus, the invention of the transistor, by itself, has arguably paid for all the science that has ever been done or ever will be done. But that is not just because of the invention as such. It is because of the extensive application of that invention across every field of human endeavor since[4].  It follows that if the goal of publicly supported science is societal benefit, we ought to give as much primacy to applying science as we give to advancing it.

This is where the geosciences and the social sciences come in. Both contribute substantially to innovation intrinsically. But they make at-least comparable, and arguably far larger, contributions to application, and hence to societal benefit[5]. In particular, they help us be as disciplined in our approach to application as we are to innovation itself. Our past attention to application has arguably been more happy-go-lucky. We see application as kind of miracle that follows effortlessly and inevitably from innovation, in the spirit of Sidney Harris’ famous cartoon.

More on the implications of this in a future post. In the meantime, better-educated and more-well-informed readers can tell me where they’ve seen this equation or something like it in economics or some other field.

_________________________

[1] Look for an aside on the definition of “big” science in a future LOTRW post.

[2] Note that this is a choice. Instead of being resigned to limiting research funding to 2.7-2.8% of GDP, the U.S. might instead have opted (or could still opt) for raising that by as much as, say, a percent, and tested (or test) what difference that might make in GDP growth.

[3] Not to get too pointy-headed here; there is obviously societal benefit intrinsic to pure innovation and the joy it brings to the innovator or the innovator’s audience; but in cases of interest I’d argue that these benefits are dwarfed by larger societal benefits to much broader publics.

[4]That’s unsupported by data or peer-reviewed analysis, but prove me wrong. To appreciate the scale of this: there are something like 100 million transistors in every cellphone integrated circuit. Intel estimates that this year the number of transistors worldwide is 1.2 sextillion. That’s 1.2×1021 (or roughly 2×1011 – 200 billion – for each human on the planet).

[5]Numerical weather prediction didn’t break new ground in physics at the start. It took existing equations of motion for fluids and applied those equations to modeling the atmosphere. Not long after, however, the insights gained from that application generated innovation, creating a new field of physics: chaos theory.

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Is there an echo in here?

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” – 1 Kings 19: 11-18

the climate- and measles discussions show similarities

the climate- and measles discussions show similarities

 

Burnout on the job is commonplace today, even among those engaged in Earth observations, science, and services (despite the fact that such labor is clearly some of the more interesting and less onerous tasks daily facing a 4-billion-person workforce). It’s easy to think that burnout is something new, a 20th-21st-century invention, and forget that it happened to workers, and prophets, down through the ages. This Old Testament account documents one such case… the prophet Elijah.

Take the trouble to read the text[1] prior to the excerpt above, and you’ll find that Elijah is coming off the pinnacle of his career. Years earlier, he’d forecast a severe drought – a forecast which verified(!). But the forecast and the manner in which he’d made it inspired the anger of the power structure of the time (sound familiar?) and he’d been forced into hiding for the duration. After years of running from Israel’s king in the desert, Elijah resurfaced, confronted hundreds of the king’s hired naysayers, and with the help of the larger Israeli public, slew them all. And with that, the years of the drought come to a dramatic end.

You’d think Elijah would have been on a high. But instead burnout and depression sank in, and he fled, seeking shelter in a cave. That’s when he and God (think of God as Elijah’s boss/employer) had the conversation above. Elijah’s boss goes easy on him. Essentially God says, “I see you’re hurting, Elijah. Tell you what, you’ve done a good job, let’s wrap up a few things and name your successor. Elisha would be good. But oh, by the way, you were never alone the way you thought. You had plenty of company. Thousands of ‘em.”

Two comparisons with today:

First, to hang out with climate scientists is to realize that here is a group that feels put upon, perhaps uniquely so, much as Elijah did. The forecast of global warming and its likely consequences, and the way we’ve made it have brought not praise but opprobrium. And the way we’ve reacted to that has brought more disapproval still. We look at other branches of science with wistful envy. We ask ourselves: Why didn’t we go into nanotechnology? Or IT? Or robotics? Or fast food? Or almost anything else?

But in recent days, if we take the trouble to look over our shoulders, we see the same raging debate about – wait for it – measles inoculations. I vividly remember the days I spent in bed with measles at the age of five. My parents told me later, and then throughout my life, that the closest I ever came to dying was back then, and how worried they’d been. Measles would compromise my health throughout the rest of my childhood. The same happened to thousands, millions, of other kids. So when the vaccine came along in the 60’s it was naturally and widely celebrated. But read the newspapers today, or follow the broadcast and social media coverage, and you’ll see the climate change argument replicated down to the smallest detail. (Hint to climate scientists: take everything you’ve ever written about climate change and substitute a few words like “measles,” “vaccination,” “uncertainty,” “unintended consequences” in the right places and you can double your list of publications… all before going home tonight.)

Oh, and let’s be clear here. The generalized lesson for you and me to learn is not that “all scientists are put upon.” Fact is, the feeling that we are uniquely misunderstood and alone is nigh on universal. Every one of us — whether husband or wife, parent or child, lawyer or ditchdigger, clerk or CEO — tends to see life this way, at least in the darker moments of the soul.

Here’s the second comparison, more particular to Washington DC. Our city is populated by about 500,000 people who were told by mom and dad to “go and make the world a better place.” Each day we slave at it. But instead of reminding ourselves that we’re part of a 500,000-person support group, we think we’re the only ones… just like that prophet Elijah.

And just as wrong-headed. So today (and tomorrow, and in the days after that) try this: every time you write an e-mail, or pick up the phone to take or make a call, or post on Facebook, or engage in conversation, instead of mistakenly seeing that interaction as combat, or struggle, recognize it for what it is – a celebration of what it means to be alive and a player in the 21st century. And help the person or persons at the other end of that dialog to the same realization.

That’s what mom and dad sent you into the world to do.

[1] The full story is found in 1Kings Chapters 17-19.

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