AMS second-century countdown. Four who deserve our thanks.

The previous LOTRW post singled out Bill Gail (and his entire Centennial Committee and their extended network) for all their work in getting us to this 2020-moment. But AMS-member-gratitude shouldn’t stop there. We should also express our thanks to the four AMS executive directors over this time span who helped us reach this milestone and who continue to move the community forward. A word on each (not by any means a full listing of their accomplishments or contributions):

Ken Spengler (AMS executive director from 1946-1988; died 2010). The first executive director. He presided over a membership that grew from 2000 to 10,000 over the period. In 1958 he purchased what is now AMS headquarters at 45 Beacon Street. He later negotiated the 1974 transfer to AMS of publication of the prestigious journal Monthly Weather Review, established in 1872 by the United States Army Signal Corps, the predecessor of today’s National Weather Service.

Richard Hallgren (1988-1999). As director of the National Weather Service over the decade prior, Dick Hallgren had led a substantial Modernization and Restructuring. As executive director of the American Meteorological Society he repeated the feat. He added Interactive Information Processing sessions to the stable of conferences and symposia that made up the AMS Annual Meetings. At the same time, he grew the Meeting Exhibits, bringing in the corporations building weather radars and satellites and AWIPS. He established an international workshop that brought WMO leaders and heads of weather and hydrometeorological services worldwide to the Annual Meetings. He superintended the AMS 75thanniversary campaign. The synergies from all these measures led to the rapid growth of AMS meetings in terms of numbers of participants, papers presented, and revenues. He also established the AMS Education program. 

Ronald McPherson (1999-2004). As executive director, Ron McPherson established the AMS Policy Program, and initiated the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, modeled loosely after the NCAR Summer Colloquium. He worked with Keith Seitter to streamline the publications process. He also expanded the offerings of the Education Program, developed the concept of the broadcast meteorologist as a “station scientist,” and broadened the participation of the private sector across the whole of the AMS. He embarked AMS on the process of preparing transition documents every four years for incoming administrations.

Keith Seitter (2004- present). As head of AMS publications for a decade prior, and subsequently as executive director, Keith Seitter has navigated a relatively smooth, profitable course for AMS journals – this over two turbulent decades ushered in with electronic publishing and continuing to the present day with the trend to open access. (Other scientific and professional societies have experienced far more dollar loss and disruption over the period.) He oversaw the addition of social science and policy sessions to AMS Annual Meetings beginning in 2006 and in 2009 founded the new journal Weather, Climate and Society, providing essential infrastructure for integrating social sciences with meteorological research and services. Continuing Ron McPherson’s work, he supervised major changes to AMS organizational and meeting structure to facilitate greater dialog and more effective collaboration among the public-, private-, and academic sectors of what is now called collectively the Enterprise, as called for by the National Academy’s 2003 Fair Weather report. He laid important groundwork for the nascent International Forum of Meteorological Societies. He’s fostered robust member engagement in the day-to-day work of the Society as well as the development of new initiatives and otherwise repositioning AMS for the second century. He’s developed key collaborations with the American Institute of Physics and the American geosciences Institute.

Whew! A lot of work, and still continuing. The four couldn’t be more different, but they share(d) a common version to the spotlight. All would be quick to redirect any thanks and credit to their staff and the larger AMS membership. Nevertheless…

Thanks to all four of you!

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AMS second-century countdown. Five new starts

No, it’s not Charles Franklin Brooks. It’s Bill Gail. When you see him, thank him.

The American Meteorological Society’s 2020 Annual Meeting– our 100th– is underway. A record number of attendees – more than 5000 – are gathering in Boston for the occasion. But the Centennial itself is the tip of the iceberg. Years of planning and hard work involving hundreds of member-volunteers have reexamined and rebuilt virtually every facet of AMS as we enter the second century. 

Here’s a metaphor for that work, channeling Ed Lorenz’ butterfly:

Imagine a caterpillar contemplating its goals, aspirations, future relevance and role. If AMS limits its perspective to “become a larger-yet-speedier-and-more-agile caterpillar,” history and events in our 21st-century world of rapid technological advance and social change will pass us by. But if we envision and fully embrace the notion of “butterfly,” we can change the course of the world – with respect to resource use and management, resilience to hazards, and environmental protection. Even more fundamentally, we can help reshape the world’s social contract – humanity’s shared sense of and commitment to common purpose, trust, and unity.

This and the next few posts unpack that. 

We start with a few things that remain unchanged. Caterpillar and butterfly share the same DNA. In the same manner, as the AMS enters its second century, it remains committed to:

  • Advancing the atmospheric, water, and climate and related fields in the service of society – fostering breakthrough science, technology innovation, and applications – through meetings, publications, certifications, scholarships, education, chapters, awards, and policy. We’re continuously taking a fresh look at publications and meetings to ensure AMS leads the means by which scientific and professional information is created and established. 
  • We’re sharpening our priority on diversity, equity, and inclusiveness; we’re committed to reflecting the breadth of backgrounds, capabilities, and needs of our members and our society in all we do. 
  • We’re maintaining our aspiration to serve the global public, using new means to impact those we serve with our knowledge and capabilities, from applied uses to education to policy and more.

But in addition, we’ll be extending our reach, in five particular respects. We owe the identification and articulation of these to the multi-year efforts of a Centennial Committee and many collaborators. That said, we owe a particular thanks to Bill Gail, who as AMS President saw the need for such a multi-person, multi-year, encompassing and far-reaching effort. It would have been easy for him to suggest someone else take on such a big multi-year responsibility. Instead he shouldered it himself. A forecast: decades from now, when AMS members of the time look back, they’ll likely see Bill’s role as approaching the impact of Charles Franklin Brooks, one of the AMS founders.

Here are the five (the language essentially verbatim from internal AMS reports):

Career enhancement & advancement. A key benefit of membership in a professional society is access to knowledge and opportunities for learning and networking. Collectively, these are key assets to advance and enhance an individual’s career. As it enters its second century, the AMS must focus on strengthening its value proposition to members. It should recognize that more atmospheric and related jobs are now in the private sector, and sometimes in industries that are not typically active in the AMS. This support should extend through a member’s professional journey from their academic years to their work years to retirement years. To catalyze positive outcomes for its members, the AMS will need to facilitate an entrepreneurial spirit from businesses and governments. The AMS should also renew and extend its partnerships with academic institutions, other professional societies, and the industry, whilst encouraging an agile mindset of lifelong learning from its members.

Local-collaboration networks. To borrow a common phrase, “all impact is local.” Weather impacts, education, and policy issues are often discussed and addressed locally. In its second century, AMS recognizes that one way to greatly grow its impact is by emphasizing local activities. Fortunately, AMS has access to a wide range of local organizations to accomplish this. As shown in the figure below, these assets start with AMS local chapters but encompass universities, NWS offices, broadcasters, companies, high schools, active retirees, and more. We know that these organizations would like better means to share information and collaborate. Effective local networking brings substantial benefit to each organization; in doing so, it expands AMS impact, builds valuefor AMS members, and potentially grows membership.

Member-volunteer portal. The AMS Volunteering Program (AMSVP) is a proposed new, society initiative that would offer opportunities for AMS members to apply their expertise and knowledge to the solution and mitigation of serious problems that confront worldwide communities and populations. The purpose of the AMSVP is to promote opportunities for AMS members to make their expertise and experience available to non-profit and academic organizations worldwide and to facilitate service for the greater good.

Partner-Organization Web. Expanded partnering helps AMS leverage its resources and grow its impact through organizational collaboration. The goal of the Centennial’s Expanded Partnering initiative is to build AMS’s partnering capacity in two ways:

• Greatly amplify the depth of collaboration possible with AMS’ core partnerships;

• Significantly grow the number of partner organizations

AMS can effectively interact with at all levels of collaboration, leveraging technology to accomplish this efficiently. AMS benefits from the collaborations, and from its international leadership in building the underlying platform technology.

Historical Research Network. The AMS Historical Research Network (HRN), coordinated by AMS, is a virtual and scalable network of historical information and resources linking multiple institutions that bridge the historical and meteorological communities. AMS-HRN provides crucial and socially relevant linkages between our first and second centuries and between the past, present and future of the meteorological enterprise. History is an important shared interest among the membership, from new students to retirees. The HRN will coordinate its work with other Centennial Initiatives including Lifetime Career Enhancement, Local Collaboration Networks, the Member Volunteer Portal, the Partner Organization Web, and related initiatives. The HRN supports diverse historical projects of interest to the weather, water, climate, and atmospheric chemistry community. We proactively support projects that document and interpret the contributions of women and minorities. We also aim to identify issues of social relevance, preserve the historical record, and coordinate with educational and public outreach programs to reach new generations.

The good news? AMS members will benefit from these initiatives for years to come. The even better news? By volunteering, engaging, you can shape these initiatives, improve upon them, bring them to life and sustain them.

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Open access journals. Part 4.

Google the phrase “the war on science” and a host of links pop up immediately.

Scientists might be forgiven for occasionally feeling beset. But the fact is, there isn’t really a war focused on science. Scientists, technologists, innovators, thus far, are held in generally high regard and tend to prosper worldwide. It’s more accurate to say that scientists are merely collateral damage in a contest so extreme that it feels like war – at least to those of us first-worlders who’ve never had to suffer the real thing personally.

It’s a noisy, clamorous, often vicious competition for attention, for eyeballs, on news and social media. And in this “war,” like real wars, truth is often a casualty. The progression might be summed up this way:

  • stick to the facts
  • supplement the facts with facts-based commentary around the edges, designed to stimulate thought
  • highlight existing uncertainties in the facts
  • actively, deliberately enhance that uncertainty, create uncertainty
  • triumphantly announce, through multiple media outlets, some compliant, others hacked, that black is white[1].

Today, people can get paid for this – in proportion to how far they can work through such progressions, on behalf of politicians and countries, corporations, etc. 

As argued in the previous three LOTRW posts, science is discovering that the protection and life-giving foundation that historically has been protected by peer-reviewed journals may no longer be adequate in the face of this “war.” A metaphor from our field: ocean acidification resulting from fossil fuel use (read “the rise of fake news”) affects marine organisms – ranging from coral and oysters to phyto- and zooplankton) that build their shells and skeletons from calcium carbonate (read “science dependence on journals”).

A cautionary tale comes to mind:

The tower of Babel[2].

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”– Genesis 11:1-9 (NIV)

We all know this story. Interpretations of this tale and variants make for interesting reading. By some views, the story is basically an attempt to account for the diversity of the world’s languages. According to other accounts that add an overlay of the tower collapse, it is a condemnation of human tendency to pride and overreach.

How might a storyteller update the tale to make it relevant to today? What could keep the world’s peoples from realizing our fullest potential? 

Well, it likely could no longer do to center on language per se. Over the millennia, humanity has worked out how to live with multiple languages. And, fact is, the diversity of languages is decreasing. Some, spoken by only a few are dying out as their speakers are absorbed into larger ethnic groups. The now-globalized world tends to have common words for new products, ideas, and technologies. 

In any event, we are so confident on this point that one popular language training tool has cloaked itself in the name: Babbel

Today’s analogous risk? Our society will become so captivated by spin that we allow the reality-based innovation that has brought humankind this far to unravel. One therapy that needs to be applied to society broadly is a widespread K-12 educational effort to help children discover, develop skill at, and enjoy critical thinking. In the meantime, certain institutions, like science and the journals they require, need to be protected.


[1]Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway captured this in their 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt.

[2]A tip of the hat to reader J.M. Hiatt for bringing this to mind.

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Open access journals. Part 3.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”– Exodus 20:16 KJV

“In war the first casualty is the truth.”– attributed variously, in slightly different forms.

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”– Winston Churchill

In Knives Out, a very popular mystery film currently making the rounds in theaters, one of the pivotal characters – the nurse, Marta – cannot lie without vomiting. 

It’s not clear that any real person, living or dead, has ever been so endowed (or afflicted) with this gift (or curse). In fact, the Ninth Commandment hints that our proclivity to shade the truth or lie outright when convenient is essentially universal, and age-old. Truth has therefore always been under siege.

But modern-day information technology, and the accompanying explosion in the influence and reach of social media, have combined to transform the vulnerability of truth, in new ways that threaten its continued existence. In the past, truth might often simply fail to see the light of day – snuffed out by darkness. Today truth is instead often overwhelmed by the glare of competing half-truths and utter falsehoods. Fake news, which might once have been considered an oxymoron, has become an actual thing – even earning its own Wikipedia entry. The power of IT-fueled social media can and does often pose an existential threat to hitherto generally-accepted truths or reality.

Which brings us to open-access journals. Current enthusiasm for making scientific journals open-access, because “information wants to be free,” fails to acknowledge information’s frailty in a post-truth world. To be accredited, to be verified, to be safeguarded so that it can endure, truth has always required help. Historically, peer-reviewed journals, whether published by science societies or by for-profit publishers, have (just barely) managed the task. But now, information gatherers have grown in numbers and the growth of knowledge has picked up speed – outstripping the ability of peer review to establish priority, verify data and logic, and distinguish between the new and what was already known, between what is truly novel and important, and what is merely incremental or repackaging. And that’s before we get to the tasks of protecting data and knowledge over extended periods of time from cyber attacks and distortion. 

Turns out, the (only partially) tongue-in-cheek Churchill quote is closer to the actuality. Information doesn’t want to be free. It wants to be protected. It’s the lies that want to be free. 

And in today’s world, and going forward, information will only be protected at increasing cost.

Who should bear that cost? Society can’t afford to put it willy-nilly on the backs of charitable donors and foundations. However well-meaning, such individuals and institutions can at best provide only intermittent, short-term, low-levels of attention and funds. Governments must find ways to step up to the responsibility.

Postscript: Science societies, facing demands for open-access, are today thrust in the position of J.R. Spradley’s mule:

J.R. Spradley, a NOAA political official from the Reagan days, once said in a similar situation he was reminded of a mule they had down on the farm. The mule was a terrific worker, helped them get everything done, but ate too much. They began to train the mule to do more and more work around the farm on less food…but just when they’d succeeded… when they’d gotten the mule to work all day for no food at all, it went and died on ‘em.

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Open access journals. Part 2.

“ceiiinosssttuv” –Robert Hooke (1676)

“I was country when country wasn’t cool.”– Barbara Mandrell (1990)

When the peerless Isaac Newton and his contemporary Robert Hooke[1]walked the earth, natural philosophers were few and far between. The pace of discovery and change was relatively slow. Fact is, the term “scientist” wouldn’t supplant “natural philosopher”for more than another 100 years. (When it did, the label would first be applied to a woman – the remarkable Scottish science writer and polymath, Mary Somerville– who died at the age of 91, almost exactly 150 years ago.)

During Newton’s time, the oldest national science institution in the world, Britain’s Royal Society, formerly the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, was established in 1660. (A reminder, that by some lights, the American Meteorological Society, at age 100, might be considered a relative newbie.) The institution was the outgrowth of a more informal group established some fifteen years earlier by Robert Boyle (claimed – and acclaimed– as a chemist by most, though some in our community also see him as a proto-meteorologist). 

The Royal Society’s formation occurred in several stages. Under Boyle’s leadership, the original group met weekly and conducted experiments. Royal approval and a formal charter were granted in 1662. A second royal charter, using the historic name, followed in 1663. In November of that same year Robert Hooke was appointed Curator of Experiments. Member scientists recognized early that a journal was a critical need. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was cranked up about 1665, and is credited with being the first journal in the world devoted exclusively to science, and therefore also the world’s oldest and longest-running science journal.

The Wikipedia article suggests that the familiar functions of the scientific journal – registration (date stamping and provenance), certification (peer review), dissemination and archiving − were introduced at [Phil. Transactions’] inception.

To expand a bit, scientific journals have provided means for researchers to share progress as they go along. But journals have also been, and continue to be, asked to accomplish much more. Journals are used to establish priority (who published first?). Journal peer review is supposed to assess worth (validity, novelty, scope and breadth of implications, etc.). Peer review is also to bring to light and thereby limit data falsification, manipulation, and plagiarism[2]. Historically, journals have helped the science community provide a measure of transparency and reproducibility. Then there is curation. Once a paper has been accepted, journals make the work and the foundational data and metadata accessible – and inviolate – not just in the short term but over the long haul.

ceiiinosssttuv

This suite of journal functions is not just incidental but indispensable to the progress of science. Before the advent of journals, and even in their early days, scientists like Hooke would achieve some of the needed functionality by publishing their results in the form of anagrams, such as the one above, floated in 1676. Only two years later would Hooke reveal that rearranged, these letters were the Latin expression ut tensio, sic vis of his eponymous law: stress is proportional to strain. (If interested, you can read a bit more of the backstory on such use of anagrams here.)

Which brings to mind a question (channeling the inimitable Barbara Mandrell a bit): Could science journals have been blockchains before blockchains were a thing?

They certainly perform some blockchain functions. Look at this excerpt from an IBM website, typical of many on-line introductory links out there (if interested, dive into the five-minute-total collection of introductory IBM videos on the topic available on the same link). Blockchains embody

Distributed ledger technology

All network participants have access to the distributed ledger and its immutable record of transactions. With this shared ledger, transactions are recorded only once, eliminating the duplication of effort that’s typical of traditional business networks.

Records are immutable

No participant can change or tamper with a transaction after it’s been recorded to the shared ledger. If a transaction record includes an error, a new transaction must be added to reverse the error, and both transactions are then visible.

Smart contracts

To speed transactions, a set of rules – called a smart contract – is stored on the blockchain and executed automatically. A smart contract can define conditions for corporate bond transfers, include terms for travel insurance to be paid and much more.

Of course, the blockchain folks have bigger, more expansive ideas for the ways blockchains can underpin or supplant journals, and even how blockchain technology can weave through the entire fabric of science.

To sum up: specialized recordkeeping – peer-controlled, immutable, a shared record of truth. These similarities/shared goals – and the prospect that journals and the scientific enterprise may adopt or more blockchain-based mien – together suggest that the current information revolution, far from reducing the cost of journals, may force costs up. That’s because blockchains, as presently implemented, tie up vast computing capacity and consume stupefying amounts of energy as they grow.

More in the next post.


[1]Hooke was a bachelor, but may have had a child out of wedlock. If you’re reading this, your chances of being related to him in some way are probably as good as mine.

[2]Another side note: in the early days, before the Royal Society would accept your paper for publication, they’d repeat the experiment. Hooke earned his pay by performing two experiments per week for the Society. Imagine passing that test today – imagine forcing those working on multi-national, multi-year projects like VORTEXor big satellite instrument platforms and packages like GOES to wait for years until successor, confirmatory projects could be run, before accepting their research results for publication.

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Open access journals. Part 1.

“Information wants to be free.“ Stewart Brand

Finally! We’ve seen the back of 2019; the year 2020 beckons, with all its promise and potential for a fresh start. You and I enter the year as new creations. But if we’re to realize versus squander this annual opportunity for refreshment and renewal – indeed for personal transformation – it’s time to cobble together a set of New Year’s resolutions.

Surveys suggest most of us aim first at improving our physical and financial health (better diet, more exercise, lose weight; save more, spend less). But you have to read a ways down any top-ten list before you come to resolutions along the lines of learn something new.

Hmm, that seems important too. But learn what? It depends. People generally may view learning something new as acquiring a new skill or a hobby.  A vignette: Jerry Mahlmann was one of the leading NWP researchers in his day. He was also an avid basketball player. But one day, when we were both in our fifties, I asked him about the basketball, and he said, “Oh, I’m playing volleyball now.” When I asked why, he said with a smile, “I’m getting better at volleyball.”

But for anyone in knowledge work, building our capacity to contribute at the job takes priority. Case in point. I’m employed by a scientific/professional society, one celebrating its centennial, and seeking to be as relevant to the coming century as it was to the last. As a result, I’m belatedly trying to come up to speed on the issue of open-access journals.  

(Really, Bill? The topic is incredibly arcane, esoteric. It’s complicated – stupefyingly, head-spinningly so. And it’s dry – material on the subject can seem a bit dull, calling to mind a vast, parched landscape, one rapidly becoming still more desertified. Why, Bill?)

Truth be told? If you’re working in the policy corner of the AMS, it’s been tempting to stick your head in the sand and ignore this issue in favor of climate-change policy and carbon fees, or on building resilience to hazards, or renewable energy, or public-private partnerships domestically and internationally, or any of a dozen other topics. Tempting to leave this open-access issue to AMS publications staff and volunteer leadership and the AMS Executive Director.

But recently, the U.S. government has signaled that it is contemplating further steps toward completely open access. The prospect is generating greater science-society concern (see also here).

And the issue matters:

  • Journals actually add great value to science; they’re not just an incremental final add-on. That value is achievable only at a cost, a cost that needs to be repaid by someone. In the past, those costs have been recovered through a mix of subscription fees and author charges (page charges, charges for color, etc.) that are now under scrutiny. This business model matters existentially not just to my employer but also to other science societies generally.
  • The cost-savings implied by electronic publishing and advances in information technology notwithstanding, those costs look set to rise significantly in future years.
  • The trends responsible for all this are larger than science, outside of science.
  • But the threat to journals (and hence to science itself) feeds back – poses risks for our larger society.

This and a few succeeding posts (admittedly more focused on why we might care than what we should do) attempt to unpack these points. (Full disclosure; the posts are not self-contained; they merely provide links to a few points-of-entry for interested readers wanting to make the deeper dive.)

Wikipedia provides a summary that can get us started. The (fairly extensive) entry begins this way:

Open access (OA) is a mechanism by which research outputs are distributed online, free of cost or other access barriers. With open access strictly defined (according to the 2001 definition), or libre open access, barriers to copying or reuse are also reduced or removed by applying an open license for copyright.

Sounds simple enough. And on the surface, compelling. In particular, scientific research is funded by governments, and thus, ultimately by taxpayers. And isn’t information technology rapidly bringing down the costs of dissemination? In the year 2020, why shouldn’t everyone get free, immediate access to the research results? Why should any taxpayer have to pay twice? Why should they have to wait?

Strikingly, this particular Wikipedia open-access entry, though structured and extensive, begins with a caveat, repeated here verbatim:

This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards. The specific problem is: Need to reduce repetition across sections and make language more concise and avoid advocacy in favor of open access [emphasis added]. Also, lots of text on issues that are not specific to OA needs to be removed (inclusiveness of databases, criticism of IF) Please help improve this article if you can. (May 2018)

This is the kind of caveat usually reserved for stubs. In other words, Wikipedia, an institution synonymous with, indeed iconic for, open-access, suggests a need for much further reflection and dialog – and more balance – regarding the pros and cons of open access. Which brings us to:

Information wants to be free.

This Stewart Brand aphorism has been widely bandied about, but it’s no mere quote. It embodies the core spirit and vitality of the information age. That said, it captures merely one side of his fuller thinking. We find, from the Wikipedia entry devoted to his quote:

…attributed to Stewart Brand, who, in the late 1960s, founded the Whole Earth Catalog and argued that technology could be liberating rather than oppressing. The earliest recorded occurrence of the expression was at the first Hackers Conference in 1984. Brand told Steve Wozniak:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

(Wow. Information wants to be free? Only half the story, perhaps even less.) It turns out that information is not only valuable, it’s fragile. Information faces several risks: being diluted to the point of worthlessness, being inaccessible; or worse, being distorted, misrepresented.

There’s much more to this, but it’ll have to await future LOTRW posts.

In the meantime, a closing thought: Some 10% of U.S. beef cattle are raised grazing on federal lands. Why shouldn’t that beef should be free to the American taxpayer?

My guess is any reader would be instantly dismissive of this notion, and appropriately so. There are costs to protecting a herd, to transporting and butchering the beef, the preserving and testing it to ensure safe consumption, to packaging it for the consumer. But in many respects, science journals play a similar part in making science consumable/accessible to public that needs it. The analogy isn’t perfect, but neither is it misdirected. Think about it.

And voluntary contributions (a policy solution often suggested to provide the incremental funding journal publications need) are limited, intermittent, and fickle; they’re mismatched to the continuity and sustainability a robust journal infrastructure requires.

Case in point? The plaintive Wikipedia pop-up plea for donations that has intruded on my every use of the site this past month (probably dozens of times a day).

In years past, I’ve ignored the appeal. This year, I made my first donation. Ever.  

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Catch the Christmas/AMS Centennial Spirit

the actual James Glaisher — not to be confused with Eddie Redmayne

By now, you may have committed to coming to the AMS 2020 Annual Meeting, along with what looks to be a record number of others. Maybe you want to celebrate the closeout to our 100thanniversary year. Perhaps you want to take in the best Earth-science-and-services jam session on the planet – a once-a-year week of sharing data, ideas, and application of environmental intelligence like no other.

Still on the fence? You’re running out of excuses for not coming. In particular, it seems feds have dodged a repeat of last year’s government shutdown that resulted in so many no-shows in Phoenix. You can no longer plead that excuse. Or you may have secretly hoped that AMS members had learned a simple lesson from the past century of weather and climate study – that on any given January, holding a meeting somewhere along the ITCZ makes so much more sense than convening in Boston. But by now there’s no room for denial – Boston is where the action is.

Barring an apocalyptic snowstorm, that is. 

(Don’t shoot the messenger – just saying. At this writing the National Weather Service is still agnostic on any such prospects, but according to some private services that see this period as already within a zone of predictability, the outlook seems to be for warmer-than-usual weather approaching-and-at-the beginning of the meeting, dropping to colder-than-usual toward the end.)

So the question becomes: not whether to go, but rather: how to get the most out of the occasion? 

The answer is simple – by actively engaging as much as possible. Don’t wait until the day-of to crack open the Meeting program. Start boning up now on what’s happening, all the usual scientific sessions plus a huge gaggle of town halls, and a number of special sessions that this year’s AMS president Jenni Evans has organized. Let register the fact that this year the annual awards ceremony takes place Sunday afternoon, and that the usual Wednesday banquet has been replaced by a special evening of celebration. Channel your inner Aaron Burr: you want to be in the (right) room where it happens. 

Take some time between now and the meeting to reflect on what the AMS has meant to your career and life over these past years. Recall AMS-member contributions to science and services over the past century. Reflect on their efforts to develop radiosondes, weather radar, satellite instruments and platforms, digital computing and numerical weather prediction and to harness these. Admire the recent work of social scientists to improve uptake of forecasts and warnings. You and I only add few extra bits to the accomplishments of our predecessors.

But don’t stop there. Think through what AMS needs to do to remain as relevant in the next 100 years as it has for the past century. Inventory what you have to offer. Join with others attending the forward-looking sessions and events salted throughout the Meeting. Better yet, commit to actions you’ll take to put your gifts and potential to work over the next 5-10 years. Shape your own legacy.

The current holiday break provides the perfect opportunity for you to put yourself in the right frame of mind. Here’s a final suggestion that might help – especially when it comes to giving yourself a feel for what those early days of the Society might have been like: find a couple of hours to watch the Amazon streaming video entitled The Aeronauts.

This film doesn’t just take you back 100 years – but more like 150. It’s a fictionalized account of James Glaisher’s altitude-breaking balloon flight of September 5, 1862. Glaisher at the time was Superintendent of the Department of Meteorology and Magnetism at the Greenwich Royal Observatory. (He would later also serve as the president of the Royal Meteorological Society.) On that 1862 flight he took meteorological measurements up to an altitude of 29,000 feet, at which point he lost consciousness. The balloon continued to climb, according to estimates reaching a height somewhere between 31,000 and 36,000 feet ASL. Glaisher survived only because Henry Coxwell, his co-pilot, despite having lost all sensation in his hands, ultimately managed to pull the balloon’s valve cord with his teeth before losing consciousness himself.

One caveat: don’t look for historical accuracy. The movie claims only to be “inspired by actual events.” (I love this phrase, whose use by the film industry is relatively recent. It appropriately lowers expectations. In prior times, you’d tend to see the phrase “based on a true story,” which often over-promised.) A few of the movie’s departures from fact: in reality, Glaisher at the time was in his fifties, his scientific reputation well-established, and his balloon investigations stoutly supported by the community. In the film, he’s depicted as at an early-career stage, his reputation is in jeopardy, and more-senior scientists are keeping their distance. He has to seek private-sector funding for his enterprise. Added to the list of discrepancies, Henry Coxwell doesn’t appear at all. His place is taken by Amelia Wren, a fictional woman character who is a composite of several historical female balloonists of the time: one Margaret Graham, who was the first British woman to make a solo balloon flight, and a Sophie Blanchard, a balloonist widowed when her husband, French balloonist Jean-Pierre-Francois Blanchard, died in 1809 when he fell from his balloon after suffering a heart attack.

But these weaknesses add corresponding plusses. The cheat on Glaisher’s age and the substitution of Miss Wren allow the movie to cast Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in the starring roles, bringing back to the screen the skills and chemistry that made them such a hit in the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything

Jones (who also was a compelling RBG in On the Basis of Sex) comes across in this film as the braver, stronger, savvier, and better-grounded (okay, not the best metaphor for an aeronaut) figure of the two. Nevertheless, her character and the way it was developed and she was portrayed became the target of critical reviews in the Washington Post (in fact, the reviewer found very little to like in the movie as a whole), refinery29, and Time.

The reviewers make good points. But the film’s flaws and the critiques together can serve as a springboard for private reflection, as well as dialog with others on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion – as played out with respect to both gender and early-career. To a lesser extent, it raises questions of private- versus public funding for science. What’s not to like[1]?

Want to get into the Christmas spirit? You can watch, for the nth time, reruns of It’s a Wonderful LifeMiracle on 34thStreet, and White Christmas (each worth an (n+1))But then prepare for the AMS 2020 Annual Meeting; give The Aeronauts a look. Draw inspiration from both the real and re-imagined James Glaishers.

See you in Boston!


[1]Full disclosure? Have to confess I also fully enjoyed The Day After Tomorrow, when it came out in 2004, and Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which came out the same year, both to robust scientific criticism for their distortions and mis-handling of climate–change findings. C’mon, folks! Let’s all lighten up! Fiction is fiction.

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What scientists want… and the lump of coal in this year’s Christmas stocking.

“Only sick nouns need adjectives.”– Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor(1989)

In the old days, children were told that if they’d been good all year, Santa would bring them gifts to enjoy on Christmas Eve. But if they’d chronically misbehaved, then all they’d find Christmas morning would be a lump of coal[1].

Scientists want, above all else, for our science to benefit life. And the larger world seems eager to give us that chance. This year’s stocking is stuffed with the usual Congressional budget bounty, with some additional bulges hinting at several big new proposals. But any joy we scientists may feel should be tempered by the lump of coal the White House (through OSTP/NSTC/JCORE) is providing in the Christmas stocking at the same time.

No, that’s not the misdirected and ineffective attempts to subsidize continued use of coal itself, or any of the several other forms of climate-change denial. It’s not a set of immigration policies that constrain the arrival of bright young scientists and engineers from abroad. It’s not the rollback of environmental regulations or leasing of mineral rights on formerly pristine federal lands or attempts to politicize agency science advisory committees.

Scientists (and indeed a majority of Americans) hate these things, but it’s none of these things. These may be happening to science institutions and scientists, but they don’t reflect bad behavior on our part as such. 

No, the lump of coal has arrived in the form of a seemingly innocuous OSTP notice in the Federal register: a request for information on the American research environment. Here’s some of the language from that RFI: 

[SUMMARY] On behalf of the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC’s) Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE), the OSTP requests input on actions that Federal agencies can take, working in partnership with private industry, academic institutions, and non-profit/philanthropic organizations, to maximize the quality and effectiveness of the American research environment. Specific emphasis is placed on ensuring that the research environment is welcoming to all individuals and enables them to work safely, efficiently, ethically, and with mutual respect, consistent with the values of free inquiry, competition, openness, and fairness.

[SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION] NSTC established JCORE in May 2019. JCORE is working to address key areas that impact the U.S. research enterprise; enabling a culture supportive of the values and ethical norms critical to world-leading science and technology. This includes the need to improve safety and inclusivity, integrity, and security of research settings while balancing accountability and productivity.

Specifically, JCORE is working to:

 Ensure rigor and integrity in research: This subcommittee is identifying cross-agency principles, priorities, and actions to enhance research integrity, rigor, reproducibility, and replicability. This includes exploring how Federal government agencies and stakeholder groups, including research institutions, publishers, researchers, industry, non-profit and philanthropic organizations, and others, can work collaboratively to support activities that facilitate research rigor and integrity through efforts to address transparency, incentives, communication, training and other areas.

Coordinate administrative requirements for Federally-funded research:This subcommittee is identifying and assessing opportunities to coordinate agency policies and requirements related to Federal grant processes and conflicts of interest disclosure. Additionally, this subcommittee is also exploring how persistent digital identifiers and researcher profile databases can be used to reduce administrative work and track agency investments.

Strengthen the security of America’s S&T research enterprise:This subcommittee is working to enhance risk assessment and management, coordinate outreach and engagement across the research enterprise, strengthen disclosure requirements and policies, enhance oversight and vigilance, and work with organizations that perform research to develop best practices that can be applied across all sectors. The subcommittee is taking a risk-based approach to strengthening the security of our research enterprise balanced with maintaining appropriate levels of openness that underpins American global leadership in science and technology.

Foster safe, inclusive, and equitable research environmentsThis subcommittee is convening the multi-sector research community to identify challenges and opportunities, share best practices, utilize case studies, and share lessons learned in order to promote practices and cultures that build safe, inclusive, and equitable research environments.

The Federal Register RFI then expands on all this in considerable detail, asking questions about specifics with respect to each of these aspirations. Scientists are asking the questions. Participation is voluntary. The aim is clearly to help. 

So why should scientists be anxious? 

We should be concerned because OSTP is not chasing some will-o-the-wisp. There would be no request for information on these topics if there were no problem. Further, when it comes to these matters, especially the first and the last, the concern is largely resulting from scientist-misbehavior, not culpability on the part of the larger society. And the problem isn’t confined to a few extreme instances and a handful of bad actors. The problems are often more subtle – but rather more pervasive. 

Science as we practice it here in the United States could stand some improvement. The U.S. research environment is not “fully welcoming to all individuals” – not to the LGBTQ community, not to underrepresented ethnic groups, not even to the female half of the population. Not all scientists are able to “work safely, efficiently, ethically, and with mutual respect.” On-the-ground reality is not everywhere consistent with “the values of free inquiry, competition, openness, and fairness.”

If administrative burdens have increased in recent years (another of the OSTP concerns), it’s at least in part because agencies and policymakers are attempting to compensate for the science community’s inaction in the face of these increasingly visible realities. If administrative burdens fall heavier on us in the future, it will likely be the result of regulations attempting to enforce a degree of rigor and integrity, and levels of safety, inclusion, and equity, that we’ve been proved unable or unwilling to provide on our own. Universities, corporations, agencies, and non-profits are all trying to mend the situation, through means such as policy statements, codes of conduct, training, and greater efforts to recruit from under-represented groups. Perhaps it’s early days, but any improvement seems ephemeral: minimal, sporadic, anecdotal, and fleeting.

It’s therefore likely that in time, OSTP requests for information like this one will be followed by Congressional and executive-branch-wide imposition of new rules and regulations. That will lead to heavier, unwanted administrative burdens, but we will have brought this on ourselves.

In light of all this, what should scientists do? It’s tempting for the institutions most affected to point to the actions they’re taking – those afore-mentioned policy statements, training programs, recruiting measures, etc. – and say “we’re doing all we can.” But such top-down, command-and-control measures are unlikely to work.

Here are two additional ideas. Both are individual actions you and I can take coming out of the gate; they don’t require that we get buy-in from others, or wait for anyone else to join. In and of themselves, they won’t be enough to change things. But they will start to change the way we engage with others, and ultimately, drive outcomes in a better direction.  

  1. Own the problemAlcoholics Anonymous covers this, stressing the importance of a first step: “admitting we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” In the same way, you and I need to be unflinchingly realistic and evidence-based about our shortcomings. We need to acknowledge, at least to ourselves, or starting with ourselves (because AA’s twelve steps only begin here; they move on to accountability and other measures). The alcoholics at greatest risk from their addiction are those who remain in denial. In the same way, until we’re open to our own complicity when it comes to scientific rigor and integrity, we’ll remain content simply to judge others and do little more. Too many of us in the science community think our methods of reasoning, and reasoning power, are superior to that of others. And we don’t stop there. We think we’re not just more rational, but actually better people. This is hardly the best foundation for self-improvement. It’s far more realistic and healthy to see ourselves as possessing the massive character flaws that are so evident in everyone else we know. 

A colleague here at AMS reminds me occasionally (and compellingly), “the scientist should always be the severest critic of his/her own work.” In the same way, each of us needs to be the severest critic of our own integrity, our own ethical standards and values. We need to add this topic to our discourse, but we also need to model the desired behavior.

  • Ownership having been established, engage in some self-reflection. The Eugene Peterson quote at the top of the post speaks to this. Peterson, a pastor himself, said at the outset that the very notion of “pastor” should imply “contemplative.” Adding that adjective should be unnecessarily redundant. He went on to argue that pastors should also be inherently, and by their inmost nature, unbusysubversive, and apocalyptic. But, he says, look at the pastoral community, and you’ll find some of the most stressed, anxious, timid, establishment-minded people you’d ever hope to meet.

In the same way, no one should have to say, the honest scientist; thee inclusive scientist; the non-abusive scientist.

You and I would do well to contemplate what it was that made us eager to enter science in the first place: a sense of wonder at nature, a curiosity about how things worked, and the unmatched joy that comes not just from advancing knowledge, but seeing it used to better the human condition and the planet itself. We didn’t enter science to become rich, or famous, or powerful, or any of these inferior things.

The holiday season might be a good time to recommit to this.


[1]Interested in a bit of this seasonal history? You can find a fuller account (one of many) here.

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What scientists want… and what may be in the Christmas stocking.

Recent LOTRW posts have focused on what scientists want – occasions and means to take their science to the next level – to use their research to build a better world.

New opportunities may be in the offing. Here are a couple of examples – just a few of the many being floated.

A Schumer proposal for a new research funding entity

According to an American Institute of Physics (AIP)/FYI report: at a conference held by the… National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, [Senator Chuck Schumer, D-NY] said the entity would focus on funding research related to emerging technologies such as AI, quantum computing, robotics, and 5G telecommunications.

Referring to the proposal as in a “discussion draft” stage, Schumer said it has not yet been “firmed up” and that its proponents have not settled on how to structure the entity. However, he said the current idea is for it to be a “subsidiary” of the National Science Foundation that would work “in concert” with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and be governed by a board of directors.

According to Schumer, the objective would be for the entity to spend $100 billion over five years, with funding flowing to universities, companies, and other government agencies. For comparison, NSF’s annual budget is currently $8.1 billion while DARPA’s is $3.4 billion.

Schumer did not indicate whether the entity is intended to be permanent or if it would expire at the end of the five-year period he mentioned

Lofty, both in aspiration and in dollar amount. 

Meanwhile, a bit closer to earth, Ernest Moniz is arguing for an $11B carbon removal initiative. Again, as reported by AIP/FYI: 

Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is working to build support for a 10 year, $11 billion plan to drive down the cost of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The effort would span 10 federal agencies and explore a broad range of technologies and associated carbon storage methods.

The Energy Futures Initiative (EFI), a research nonprofit Moniz founded in 2017, released the proposal in September. Calling for swift action, it argues mitigation measures alone will be insufficient to reach net-zero global carbon emissions by midcentury, a target that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded is necessary to keep the rise in global temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

For its part, Congress has recently shown interest in directing funding to carbon removal technology development. Next week, Moniz is testifying at a hearing on DOE’s role in addressing climate change held by the House Appropriations Committee, which has proposed to launch a carbon removal initiative within the department.

Speaking about the proposed initiative at an event held last month by the Bipartisan Policy Center, Moniz explained the intent is to fund a portfolio of research, development, and demonstration projects to assess the commercial scalability of candidate technologies.

He noted there are three main approaches to carbon removal: “natural techniques,” such as afforestation; “technologically enhanced natural processes,” such as the uptake of carbon in rocks through accelerated mineralization; and purely technological approaches, such as direct air capture, which uses chemical processes to absorb carbon from ambient air. Some removal techniques also require associated storage solutions, such as incorporating the carbon into new products or sequestering it underground. Justifying a broad approach, the EFI report argues it is “too soon to declare a ‘winner’” among the techniques.

An initiative surfacing just as the world realizes limiting global warming to a couple of degrees Centigrade can’t be accomplished by transition to renewable energy sources and emissions reductions alone. Definitely timely.

The White House is piling on. This (also from AIP/FYI):

Within the next year, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology plans to recommend ways to jumpstart progress in areas such as quantum information science, artificial intelligence, and advanced manufacturing. The council will also consider options to bolster the U.S. STEM workforce and deepen federal laboratories’ engagement in the U.S. R&D enterprise.

Meeting for the first time on Nov. 18, the newly reconstituted President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology received its marching orders along with the message it has little time to waste. Observing there is only one year left in the current presidential term, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier told it to keep a tight focus on “important policy achievements and policy actions to make a difference.”  

Droegemeier, who chairs the council, explained that for now the current iteration of PCAST will not follow its predecessors in producing detailed reports. Instead, he said it should make “actionable” recommendations to advance existing efforts in three “priority workstreams”: advancing “Industries of the Future,” bolstering the U.S. STEM workforce, and better engaging federal laboratories in the U.S. research enterprise.

As the council discussed its agenda, it became clear that its efforts will be tightly anchored to the Industries of the Future rubric. First articulated by OSTP earlier this year, the term originally encompassed four areas: artificial intelligence, quantum information science, 5G telecommunications, and advanced manufacturing. However, Droegemeier indicated that number now stands at five, with synthetic biology added to the roster.

Three concluding remarks. First, speaking of biology, the Congress is also proposing plus-ups for the NIH budget in the 4-7% range. Political leaders are clearly signaling their desire for help from the R&D community with respect to a number of national challenges – not a mere handful of parochial interest to LOTRW readers. Even in the face of many competing budget claims directed at urgent, short-term needs, Congress is working to fence off and protect funding that will provide researchers with the tools to accelerate and sustain needed innovation[1]across the board. 

Second, some might note that much of the emphasis in these budget initiatives is on technology– especially IT – as much or more than science. But if the goal is to make science more useful, to harness science for societal benefit, then initiatives in artificial intelligence, next-generation computing and the like promise to break new ground as much or more than a Large Hadron Collider or the James Webb Space Telescope[2].To start, they should actually extend the power and value of these extraordinary tools. But they’ll do more than foster advances in particle physics and cosmology (with associated societal benefits, to be sure, but likely visible only over the longer term). They’ll foster new and relatively immediate breakthroughs across the whole of the human endeavor and improve prospects for every human aspiration.

Third, as for that Christmas stocking, these funding initiatives, and all that past, present, and future support for science isn’t intended as a gift. There are strings attached. With every dollar comes responsibility. It’s incumbent on us, individually and as a community, to be good stewards of this vote of confidence. We need to earn the trust that Congress and the American people they represent have conferred.

 Let’s keep at it.


[1]Based on recent reports, in the past few days, even against the background of impeachment proceedings, the Congress and the White House have reached basic agreement on $1.3 trillion of 2020 budget that will likely prevent a repeat of the previous cycle’s government shutdown.

[2]Or, for that matter, a permanent human presence on the Moon.

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What scientists want, redux: APLU structural recommendations for academia.

As set forth in the previous LOTRW post, what scientists want most is to see their research and advances in understanding applied for human benefit (and for the benefit of life more broadly). This hunger is universal and runs deep.

A case could be made that the gap between research and application is experienced most viscerally on university campuses. Researchers in government laboratories are closely connected daily to larger agency missions, legislative mandates, and the public purpose for their work. Scientists in corporate laboratories get marketplace signals on the reception of products and services derived from their research. Feedback, whether affirming or negative, is immediate and clear. By contrast, for many years academics have been working under a model that stresses basic research that may or may not see societal uptake. Impacts of their work are evaluated in terms of proxies: peer review, the citations/impact metrics resulting from their publications, etc. For academic researchers, the end value of their work can often be hard to see.

Universities and the national institutions funding basic research are aware of this problem and have explored different remedies. This is particularly true at state-supported schools, whose charters date back to the Morrill Act of 1862, explicitly purposed to foster agriculture and the mechanical arts (and hold the Union together during the Civil War). Performance evaluation for university faculty is typically couched in terms of three dimensions: research, teaching, and societal/community engagement. However, the first of these three is often given greater weight in promotion and tenure decisions. Funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation ask that research proposals speak to both intellectual merit and broader impacts, but in practice it is often the former that is evaluated with more rigor and emphasis.

Last month, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) weighed in, with a significant new report entitled Public-Impact Research: Engaged Universities Making the Difference[1]. The report is less of an ad-hoc fix and more a deep study of possible structural changes that could be made throughout the academic enterprise. The goal is not so much to supplant the current emphasis on basic research as to offer a clear complementary path for faculty whose skills/contributions fall more naturally on the applications side.

The report merits a thoughtful, complete read. The major findings give the flavor and at the same time motivate such a thorough study. So here they are, verbatim:

1. Adopt the overarching term “PIR” to better demonstrate value to the public.

  • Integrate PIR into advocacy for government and private support, showing how PIR relies upon and feeds fundamental research.
  • Contribute examples of how institutions and stakeholders use PIR in their messaging.

2. Conduct PIR more purposefully by adopting a variety of institutional approaches.

  • Identify PIR approaches that best reflect your own institutional and stakeholder cultures.
  • Adapt lessons from the experiences of other institutions, including international collaborations addressing global challenges.

3. Engage stakeholders broadly and across the entire spectrum of PIR activities.

  • Before launching a PIR initiative, consider whether the program meets the test proposed by the Kellogg Commission as the benchmark for an engaged institution and develop a plan for improving your engagement practices.
  • Identify key research strengths and how they align with important issues and needs within communities, with appropriate attention to special needs of diverse populations. Universities and partners ought to work closely with communities affected by these issues.
  • Work with partners to assess the cost of engagement as part of a PIR initiative and ensure that those costs are covered by project budgets.
  • Work with partners to develop goals for PIR initiatives and determine how progress toward those goals and the project’s community impact will be measured.

4. Communicate about PIR to all stakeholders to better convey significant public dividends.

  • Invest in communications, including human capital and dissemination tools.
  • Weave training for communication scholarship and impact to the public into the fabric of institutions.
  • Involve stakeholders (in content and, if possible, delivery) in highlighting the importance of PIR.

5. Build specific campus and stakeholder structures and policies to encourage PIR.

  • Build commitment among potential funders for research that addresses important social issues.
  • Continue to change the disciplinary-publication-focus of faculty advancement guidelines. Incentivize transdisciplinary research through explicit funding of cross-college/crossunit activities; examples include seed grants and provision of funds to the VPR to support transdisciplinary faculty hiring. Develop and share guidance for evaluating the quality and impact of non-traditional forms of academic outputs and work with stakeholders through APLU.
  • APLU and its member institutions should discuss with sponsors the possibility of using PIR and its associated typology as a means to provide consistent guidelines for measurement and evaluation of broader societal impacts.

Whew! A big list! But there are opportunities for every academic to plug in. And spread in this way over the entire academy, not only doable, but worth the effort, as society faces ever-bigger challenges of greater complexity and urgency. Public-Impact Research: Engaged Universities Making the Difference is a needed and welcome addition to an ongoing national conversation.


[1] My thanks to Roger Wakimoto, Vice Chancellor for Research at UCLA, former past AMS president, and contributor to this APLU report, for bringing it to my attention.

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