Scientists! Don’t just stand there; dance!

“Dance with your heart, and your feet will follow.” (variously attributed.)

“Make love your aim.” –the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 14:1)[1]

The 2020 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium is entering its second day, and I’m again reminded why it’s my favorite time of the year. Two dozen early-career scientists from all over the country (and with roots extending around the world) coming to DC (this year, virtually) for ten days of conversation with policymakers. The sole purpose? Learning how to work together to make the world a better place (for scientists, this means being as disciplined and responsible in engaging the policy process as they are in their approach to their science). 

Good company? A grand goal? What’s not to like?

Of course, these sessions only add up to a week; the participants have already been making the world better for years before they got here. And after they leave, decades of continuous good-doing and simultaneous learning lie ahead. But for many in similar cohorts from the previous twenty years, the experience has been transformative.

This year, participants were asked individually to declare a policy topic of interest to them. Their answers have been thoughtful and varied. A few examples:

“I am interested in ways to promote public trust in scientific findings, especially in climate change topic.”

“I am curious to explore the intersection between research and policy. In other words, how can we, as scholars, encourage policy decision making through our research? Who should we contact to get that ball rolling? I am also interested in making science policy more inclusive and making sure that underrepresented groups are represented in future legislation and budgets.”

“I am particularly interested in addressing the increasing K-12 STEM educational gap that is growing between the U.S. (formerly a leader in science education) and other countries. I am also interested in policies that have the potential to increase both sustainability and economic growth (e.g. investment in renewable resource technologies, creating a more efficient and accessible recycling industry).”

“I am interested in the relationship between research, policy, and the general public and how to increase trust and understanding within those areas.”

“…I am looking forward to getting a broader understanding of weather policy, but more specifically I’m really interested in learning more about the intersection of policy, advocacy, and the public trust.”

“I’m interested in learning effective methods for communicating science with policy-makers, particularly in translating ‘why they should care’. With my background in Atmospheric Science, I’m especially interested in policies that regulate the emissions of local air pollutants and greenhouse gases but also consider myself a generalist interested in science and technology broadly.”

After reading this, one of the participants, Toni Klemm, offered:

I’ve used the Compass Message Box file://localhost/(https/::www.compassscicomm.org:message-box-online) a few times to translate my science into non-science language. It’s an excellent tool to translate science into points relevant to policy makers. We even used it in a workshop on improving collaboration and communication. Shameless plug to a blog post I wrote about the workshop that used the message box, with an example of my current research:  https://toniklemm.weebly.com/blog/science-needs-collaboration-so-we-made-a-workshop-for-it

 His plug might be shameless, but Compass Message-Box tip is spot-on, and his blogpost itself is terrific, and worth a careful read. In it, he breaks down the scientist-to-rancher communication process into component parts, highlights the role and importance of each, and more.

Which brings us to dancing.

This is exactly how I’ve approached dancing. Analysis is very appealing to (this) scientific mind. Over the years, I’ve had the chance to have a lot of dance lessons. I listen carefully to the instructor explaining the steps. I work hard to remember the sequences – how each move leads in to the next. I break it down to components. Then I practice, practice, practice.

And the result is a nightmare. A crime against nature. A concatenation of errors. I’m not just clumsy, I’m an existential threat to my dancing partner – and perhaps to all humankind.

My wife and I met when we were in our early thirties. Even at that age, I’d only danced a relative handful of times. My high school senior prom was just about my first date ever (and a catastrophe of another sort; I’ll share the details only when and if you and I get to know each other better). By contrast, I don’t think my wife had ever known a time when she wasn’t dancing. When the music starts, her eyes light up. She begins to move and sway, effortlessly, gloriously. The magic, always there, becomes even more powerful. As she dances – and I stumble – she’s smiling, encouraging, whispering:

“Just let yourself go – just feel the music, let the music guide you.”  What she’s really saying is “Dance with your heart, and your feet will follow.”

Well the same principle applies to scientists communicating with non-scientists. The starting point is caring. (And, actually, proof-of-caring is when the starting point is listening; yesterday’s Colloquium speakers said as much in varying ways.)

Toni doesn’t need to be told this. He knows this so well it’s a given, instinctive; allowing him to move on, to focus on, and explain, the component pieces. 

But for the rest of us, if we keep firmly in mind how much the person we’re with matters to us; how their well-being is paramount, then science communication will be not one-way but two-way, and collaborations based on it will be as natural as breathing, and good outcomes will follow.

A postnote: my wife and I had a seven-week courtship, and a 13-day engagement (didn’t want her to have the time to let the implications of those two-left feet sink in); we will have been married, happily, for 44 years, later this month. I ‘ve danced with her with my heart that whole time.

Happy anniversary, darling.


[1]The verse immediately following Paul’s famous love chapter, that is a component of so many marriage ceremonies.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A sextillion little grey cells, all thinking fast-and-slow, all needing to up-their-game at both.

Me and mine are ready for global change. Are you?

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” ― Daniel Kahneman, (Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011)

“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! it has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.”– Proverbs 6:6-8 (NIV)

In his brilliant 2011 book, Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and (Nobel-winning) behavioral economist lays out the landscape and functioning of the individual human brain. He finds there – and illuminates – two systems of thought:

System 1. Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional stereotypic, unconscious(pinpoint the  source of a sound, read pop-up ad text…)

System 2. Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious(identify the source of that sound, evaluate a piece of complex logical reasoning).

His focus is primarily on the individual; he concludes, inter alia, in each of us there’s a tendency for these two approaches to be at war. (With considerable oversimplification – there’s obviously much, much more to explore here), our default to one or the other, and misuse of either and both, leads to errors, and ties in to over-confidence in our judgment.

Something of an analogy to this might be discerned in groups – in particular, to society’s approach to two major challenges. First, there’s the set of global changes slowly unfolding as going-on-eight-billion people consume food, energy, water and other resources more voraciously than the less-numerous, less-advanced societies of the past. These largely-negative changes have been growing visibly, irrefutably more evident for some time now, but individuals and nations have been responding slowly and hesitantly to the inexorable transformations. The demands on our logic, our ability to calculate, at a sustained level have required more effort than we’ve been able to supply. We can’t seem to hold that thought.

More recently, each of us has been caught up what feels like the opposite circumstance – the world’s wild, chaotic reaction to the covid-19 pandemic.  Peoples and nations, and their leaders, have responded instinctively, following pre-existing biases and proclivities. The emergency and the front-end loading of the necessary decisions has defied puny national efforts to respond more strategically. 

It would seem not just our individual thinking, but also our group-think, whether fast or slow, could stand improvement. This, despite the fact, as pointed out in the previous LOTRW post, as a species we have a sextillion neurons, an additional and rapidly-growing high-performance computing power, and other assets to bring to any such task. 

If the problem isn’t in any lack of aggregate brainpower, then it must lie in how we deploy it, bring it to bear. That has two dimensions.

The first is whether we coordinate and collaborate, or instead work at cross purposes. For years observers of the world scene have decried a growing polarization of society, along fault lines of income disparity, race, gender, politics, and more. Pick any topic; as each emerges it seems our first order of business is find a framing that drives us to divide into opposing teams, close to a 50-50 split; then each side works harder to achieve 51-49 advantage than to identify common ground. That’s happening in spades when it comes to climate change and covid-19.

The second is that we underinvest thought on topics that matter. We ignore long-term goals such as improved education, and educational opportunity for all, building a culture of innovation, managing big risks such as disasters, global change, etc. Our inability to cooperate and sustain cooperation motivates us instead to seek individual security and well-being – and focus on a short term gratification. Our individual problem with the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment scales up to a global one.

The existence of this problem – and its cure – have long been known. Every American studies it repeatedly in K-12 history classes. The founders of our country knew that it is human nature to act in short-term self-interest. They constructed the Constitution as best they could so that each American, by acting in that momentary self-interest, would contribute to a more enduring public good. The construct has creaked and struggled ever since. (Each generation sees a new set of flaws, or more frustratingly – a new expression of the old historic set. Slavery and racial inequality heading today’s list – surely a plague on our souls proving as endemic as any virus.) But we’ve persevered.

In short, the cure is – getting the policies right.

A few examples. We all agree here in America to drive our automobiles of the righthand side of the road. We do this without thinking. Similarly, the vast majority of us pay our taxes. An infrastructure of rules and regulations are constructed make actions such as this far easier for each of us than any alternative. We do these things without tying up many of the little grey cells – our compliance is nearly instinctive.

Ants have really mastered this. Individual ants are short on brainpower. They boast a mere 250,000 or so neurons each, versus your- and my 100 billion. But there are somewhere between 100-10,000 trillion ants (the more recent figure vs. E.O. Wilson’s mid-1990’s estimate) worldwide. That would give a number of neurons between 0.02 and 2 sextillion neurons (approaching the human-population figure at the high end, just as the total global ant body mass would approach that of ours).

It’s taken them 100 million years, but through trial-and-error they’ve gotten the policies right. For example, they’ve solved the global change problem. Ant hives provide nearly-ideal conditions of temperature and humidity, easy access for food and water, the needed means of waste disposal and protection against predators. It took ants tens of millions of years, but they developed the ability to survive at least one mass extinction (a success record we have yet to prove we can equal). They’ve done this, and continue to do so, in large-part by being cooperative to a fault. Nobody’s in charge! No ant can be accused of having the big picture! But they’ve got the policies right.

Back to human beings: it could be argued that science per se falls closer to the short-term. individual gratification end of the human activity spectrum than to the long-range strategic investment. Gaining knowledge and understanding can bring relatively immediate personal satisfaction and joy. But to stop there – particularly in those geophysical and social sciences that document human failure (inaction in the face of climate change, deficiencies in hazard risk management, declines in the protection provided by ecosystem services, etc.) – would be an essentially selfish act. 

Scientists in those fields shoulder special responsibility for getting the policies right – policies for harnessing scientific and technological advance to human benefit, actually solving problems rather than merely inventorying them. That requires equal discipline, but of a different kind. It requires attention to human relationships, to fairness and cooperation. It requires acceptance of delayed gratification. It requires insight into the emergent consequences of different policy options.

This is an existential challenge for natural- and social scientists (and, closer to home, a particular focus for the two dozen scientists who for the next ten days will participate in the AMS 2020 Summer Policy Colloquium).

And be of good cheer. We don’t have ten million years to figure it out — probably more like a handful of decades. But we’re brighter than ants. And we can change our policies on a dime. Each of us, acting unilaterally, can make building trust and cooperating our policy too. As the ants tell it, once we do that, it’s easy sailing the rest of the way.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Look to the little grey cells.

Poirot and Inspector Japp

“It is the little grey cells, mon ami, on which one must rely.”– Hercule Poirot (speaking literally under the authority of Agatha Christie).

Streaming video has made binge-watching a thing. But covid-19 has taken binge-watching viral[1]. Deprived of dining out, travel, and big-venue sports and entertainment, we’ve made streaming video a worldwide pastime. We’re spending our evenings on the prowl for fresh content. 

At our place, we’ve worked through a number of options: one recurrent theme (apart from videos of old live country music performances) has been British crime. So far we’ve worked through Morse, Lewis, Endeavour, Shetland, Hinterland, and Vera, among others, and we’ve barely made a dent (who knew the English were such a murderous lot?). We’ve also consumed Miss Marple.

Which brings us to Hercule Poirot. (Thirteen seasons. A couple of dozen single episodes, perhaps 30-40 more double episodes. Perfect, as the Belgian detective might say, “for the watching of the binge.” So far we’re only 20% through…)  

Poirot was one of a kind, unique unto himself. His companion Hastings described him this way:

… hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.

Ah, the Poirot brain. In each mystery case, Poirot’s little grey cells are his starting point, his sole focus and priority throughout, and his instrument for delivering the coup de grace at the end. Invariably the authorities and those around him approach each crime or conundrum in great states of mental agitation and with commensurate physical hyperactivity, little of which bears fruit. Meantime, Poirot has usually retreated to a Zen-like state of preternatural calm and thought, often at a fine restaurant, allowing him to distinguish between the essential – however seemingly inconsequential – and the superfluous, no matter how weighty in outward appearance. 

This trait is understandably annoying, the more so, since in Poirot’s own words Always I am right. It is so invariable it startles me… I must be right because I am never wrong. Hastings, Inspector Japp, and others constantly berate him for his refusal to lend a hand to the great efforts that test them. Agatha Christie herself said of him at one point that he was a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.”

But Poirot remains unmoved.

Each of us – eight billion strong – blend bits of Hastings and Poirot. We constantly balance our proclivity for thought and our desire to act. Two great challenges, covid-19 and climate change, rivet the world’s attention these days. It’s vital that we take action with respect to each, not neglecting either totally in our need to deal with each other. But it’s equally important that we think through what action is needed before leaping into either fray. 

Fortunately, we’ve never been better equipped. When it comes to action, the past two centuries of technological advance and economic development, and deployment of trillions of dollars of energy, water, food, communications, and financial infrastructure have us favorably positioned. 

And when it comes to thinking, order-of-magnitude ten billion people with 100 billion neurons per person have at our disposal an astronomical 1021 little grey cells to bring to bear. In the meantime, we’ve developed digital supplements – information technology, based on the billion or so transistors in each chip at the heart of a cellphone, and in supercomputing of growing power, aggregating, according to one estimate 3×1021. A coincidence? Certainly. And fleeting; transistors are proliferating like rabbits, even as humans throttle back on population growth. 

(The comparison is a bit unhelpful. A neuron can fire 100 or so times a second; a transistor switches on and off a billion times faster. But a transistor has only three connections to the outside world, while a neuron can be connected to other neurons through as many as 10,000 synapses. It’s like comparing an apple with a cyber-orange.)

Fact is, we may be reaching a bit of a tipping point. Around the time most of us were born, human beings were clearly in the driver’s seat. But today, the IT world is giving us a run for our money. A century or so from now, historians, or their robo-counterparts, may see this transition as significant – perhaps more momentous in impact on human affairs than either covid-19 or climate change. Doubt this? Let me offer binge-watching as a case in point. Okay, a bit tongue-in-cheek; but the point is, we’re releasing the genie; going forward, we’re living with it[2]

But we remain in charge until further notice. Any artificial intelligence serves us, not the other way around. With that comes responsibility. 

Today, this Memorial Day weekend, we give thanks to those who sacrificed their lives on the field of combat so that we might enjoy the blessings of liberty and some measure of peace. Let us also give thanks to our predecessors who took advantage of that liberty and opportunity to advance the science, technology, and associated infrastructure that position us to meet today’s global challenges, which are battles of a different kind. Let’s do them honor by steadfastly (and thinking of today’s healthcare workers, even heroically, when necessary) wielding the new tools time and circumstance and their efforts have given us, and thus do our bit to build a better world. 

We can’t afford to dally! Neither can we jump in naively or willy-nilly. Let’s be thoughtful, and start, and continue as we proceed, to exercise the little grey cells.

Saving the binge-watching for day’s end.


[1]So to speak… Apologies, have been housebound far too long…

[2]As noted years ago in in Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery, edited by Lightman, Sarewitz, and Desser (2003).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Keep your eye on the (climate-change) ball.

“The trick is this: keep your eye on the ball. Even when you can’t see the ball”– Tom Robbins

In today’s all-covid, all-the-time world, coronavirus images such as that shown here have replaced the happy-face as the emoticon of choice. News and social media, ever hungry for new content and eyeballs seem intent on re-writing, re-framing every story ever written on any subject whatever, using covid-19 as the new starting point. The result is a blizzard of information, perspective, and emotion – much of it undeniably valuable, but making it hard to see much of anything else.

The situation is not unlike watching television in the 1950’s. When I was in fourth grade and we were living in Arlington, Virginia, our family didn’t have a television, so we’d see tv only when we visited our neighbors. Usually this was to watch a baseball game, which was a big deal for a young guy (and for Dad). Our friends’ rabbit-ears antenna and weak signal strength combined to produce images like this, that were largely obscured by a blizzard of another sort, visual noise called “snow” (for obvious reasons):

(scoured the web for an image as grainy as this one of an actual baseball game, but couldn’t find one, for understandable reasons)

Now – imagine trying to find the ball against the background of baseball field. You couldn’t! The ball was impossible to distinguish from any of the snow. 

So viewers did something else. We watched the fielders – and the base-runners. Who was moving? In what direction? And lo! 

By following the players, you knew where the ball had to be.

It’s possible to do something similar today. To see this, let’s look at a few players – from government, from industry, and from the private sector. What are they doing and saying? Here’s a very small sample – (TOTALLY cherry-picked…but remember, cherry-picking could yield thousands, not mere hundreds, of similar examples).

From the public-sector:

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse(D-RI). Here’s one of the Senator’s recent press op-eds, run by nbc news: Trump’s coronavirus response proves Congress once again needs its own science advisers. Coronavirus grabs the headline, but the Senator’s concern is about something far more-reaching, and more enduring: Congress’ need for science advice, clearly evident during the past quarter century since the shutdown of the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995, and sobering to contemplate as we look toward a future. The Senator notes:

Congress still faces challenges that demand the headlights of science, from climate change to artificial intelligence to genome editing to cybersecurity — not to mention this and future pandemics. Taking on those challenges will demand more and more of the best scientific expertise and data, something no single member of Congress can marshal without help. We will need the OTA more than ever in decades to come

He closes with this: 

Science provides society its headlights — showing us where we are going and warning us of dangers ahead. The steadily climbing death totals and dire economic fallout from COVID-19 are a price of driving without headlights.

As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. By restoring Congress’s own scientific ability, we will help to ensure that it understands the facts. We must switch on our headlights. Then, together, we will see the challenges ahead more clearly and rise to meet them.

The full op-ed is worth a careful read. 

President’s Science Advisor Kelvin Droegemeier. In mid-April, NASA published on behalf of OSTP a request for information (RFI) on predictability of the Earth system in its most fundamental sense, seeking input with respect to the following questions:

1. Needs and benefits: What are the major needs/requirements for enhanced Earth system predictions/projections (anomalies, extremes and trends), to improve societal resilience and inform decisions, that are being only partially met or are unmet because of limitations in our understanding of Earth system predictability? What would be the socio-economic benefits of more adequately fulfilling these requirements/needs? Which new and/or enhanced Earth system predictions/projections could result from a successful Earth system predictability R&D effort?

2. Gaps and barriers: What are the top three R&D gaps/barriers that are inhibiting progress in the understanding of Earth system predictability to meet needs/requirements (as highlighted under Question 1) across the following areas:  a) observations and process research; b) modeling, technology, and infrastructure; and c) coordination and partnerships?

3. Opportunities and activities: What are the top three R&D opportunities and related activities for making substantial progress in the understanding of Earth system predictability towards the enhancement of Earth system predictions/projections?

The motivation for such inquiries? Global change in all its facets, including climate change, looms as a challenge far more forbidding than any single pandemic. The covid-19 event has refocused eight billion people on the importance of predictive models. Modeling/predictions of infectious spread are essential tools for formulating national- and even state and local level policy with respect to containment in the absence of vaccines. The world emerging from this pandemic will be more accepting of the importance of climate models in guiding environmental and energy policies (and much more). At the same time, world publics will be more demanding of the performance of those models with respect to outlook time horizon, accuracy, and utility. The work being initiated by the White House now will be vitally useful to the world of the future, just as epidemiological modeling is an essential guide today. 

Private sector. Worldwide, investors see losses to the global economy over the 21stcentury amounting to as much as $100 trillion. Understandably, their demands for corporate action are growing more pointed. BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world, controlling over seven trillion dollars of investment has made it policy to avoid investments in companies that have a high sustainability-related risk. JPMorganChase shareholders are pressuring the firm on its fossil-fuels portfolio. Other examples are easy to find.

Academia. Nationwide and worldwide, research universities are focused short-term on hiring freezes, furloughs, and just how to reopen this coming fall safely and sustainably (that is, how to reduce the risk of facing yet another emergency shutdown in the face of a resurgence of covid-19 cases). But longer-term, they’re still paying attention to the Earth sciences agenda. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) have just published a new vision for NSF Earth sciences from 2020-2030 (specifically, the solid Earth), addressing investments in collaboration, workforce, and infrastructure over the period. NSF is now asking NASEM to mount a similar study looking across the Earth sciences (including atmospheric sciences, oceanography, etc.) more broadly.

What to make of all this? Just the simple point that despite the current global attention riveted on the covid-19 health threat and related economic impacts, efforts to head off a series of Earth-system threats and take fullest advantages of corresponding opportunities continue. 

Working in Earth observations, science, and services? It’s more important than ever to keep our eye on the ball, to the exclusion of the crowd noise, that windblown plastic bag tumbling across the infield, and other distractions. 

You’re a player! Act so that others can know where the climate-change ball is… by watching you.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

BC and AD: today’s new meaning for legacy acronyms?

Dionysius Exiguus

“What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”– Jesus (Luke 13-20-21, NIV)

Today’s LOTRW post celebrates Dionysius Exiguus (Dionysius the humble), who was born in Scythia about 470, but subsequently relocated to Rome; there he made a life’s work translating hundreds of Greek canons into Latin. Along the way, he invented the Anno Domini era, used to number the years of the Gregorian and Julian calendars. Nowadays the idea of “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini” (the year of our Lord) is so deeply imbedded in our current culture and language that few give it any conscious thought,regardless of religious heritage.

In the sciences, the time t plays an unquestioned central role, but scientists feel free to establish what might be considered the starting or reference point

t=0.

Cosmologists might take this to be the moment of the Big Bang (or perhaps the most recent/present Big Bang). Physicists studying simpler systems might make other choices (for example, the motion of a simple pendulum might be described adopting t=0 as the instant of release). Archaeology, geology, and some other disciplines sometimes make use of BP (that is, Before Present). Is that a less familiar one? Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Before Present (BP) years is a time scale used mainly in archaeology, geology, and other scientific disciplines to specify when events occurred prior to the origin of practical radiocarbon dating in the 1950s. Because the “present” time changes, standard practice is to use 1 January 1950 as the commencement date (epoch) of the age scale. The abbreviation “BP” has been interpreted retrospectively as “Before Physics”; that refers to the time before nuclear weapons testing artificially altered the proportion of the carbon isotopes in the atmosphere, making dating after that time likely to be unreliable.

Which brings us to the year 2020 (that is, 2020 AD). 

Current events make it tempting to repurpose Dionysius’ initials as follows: Before Covid, that is, BC; and Anno Disruptio (the year of rift) or Anno Discidio (the year of disruption), that is (AD). In the space of a few months, the world’s peoples have progressed from comfortable complacency, to awareness of a new infectious disease threat confined to China, to cowed living-at-home under the pall of a global pandemic.

At the start, the world saw this as a momentary interruption of normalcy, to be followed by a quick return to status quo.  Now many, perhaps most people would say instead that covid-19 signals a transition to a new normal. Experts point to the emergence of what some are calling a 90% global economy. But the missing 10% belies a more visible impact. In the United States, 40% of the country’s poorest prior to the pandemic are now unemployed. What’s more, the pandemic has brought the restaurant-, hospitality-, tourism-, sports-, and entertainment sectors to a standstill. That was the icing on the economy’s cake. At the other end of the spectrum, the reboot of the country’s schools (both K-12 and institutions of higher learning) in the fall also seems problematic. That’s an attack on the world’s seed corn. The word endemic (natural to or characteristic of a specific people or place; native; indigenous) is entering into the media coverage of the contagion. Covid-19 looks to be something we have to live with, rather than an aberration we’ll be able to correct: a player in global affairs for a longish time. Perhaps all that makes it appropriate to reset history’s clock to a new t=0.

Covid’s biggest impact may be as much mental and spiritual as economic. A colleague whom I admire and respect greatly speaks often in private and to public audiences about the need to balance confidence and humility. Covid-19, at this moment in history, has driven all humanity to a great rebalancing of these two mental states. With some oversimplification, 2019’s confidence (with its close cousins – complacency and overweening pride) of peoples across the developed world has given way to 2020’s preponderance of humility, or self-doubt, or actual fear. Even the best off – the fittest both physiologically and financially, are running a bit scared. Only the least imaginative, or most short-sighted, think seriously that things are better and the future looks brighter now than they last year.

Hope might seem in short supply.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. This is where Dionysius (intriguingly, Dionysius the humble) and the event he gave a name re-enter. That BC-AD transition, marking the life and ministry of one Jesus of Nazareth, really signaled, according to that Jesus, something bigger – the arrival of the kingdom of God, or, somewhat interchangeably, the kingdom of heaven, which he would invariably say was “among you,” or “at hand,” or “within you.”

Kingdom of God? Among them? At handWithin them? Jesus’ hearers were oppressed on all sides – by the hypocrisy of their own religious leaders of the time and by Roman ironfisted rule. Hope was in short supply then as well. They of course wanted more background on this good news, which Jesus supplied. For three years he spoke of nothing less than a restoration or reset of the relationship between God and humankind.

He also said, as in today’s quote, that this kingdom would spread, like an infection. But the metaphor he used was not a plague – though well-known to his audience, plagues had a negative connotation. Instead he spoke of an equally familiar – and far more positive – bacterial spread: the leavening effect of Saccharomyces cerevisiae in dough, in the making of bread. Of course he didn’t use any pointy-headed, scientific jargon, but instead the label they all knew – yeast.

Jesus’ audiences were the poor, the disenfranchised, the ill; his core group – his posse, in today’s vernacular – were no better, a ragtag, motley lot, equally poor, of no particular qualifications, and demonstrating minimal leadership potential. So his prediction (as my colleague would say) was on the bold end of the confidence-humility spectrum.

But it verified. People might disagree on whether the kingdom of God is merely an idea or an actual thing (full disclosure, I’m on the actual-thing side) – but there can be little disagreement on the way a little leaven has leavened the entire lump. In 2020, perhaps a quarter of the world’s population self-identify as Christian. 

And we should not confuse that perfect ideal (or (actual, perfect) thing called the kingdom with the demonstrable, all-too-evident faults of millions of message-bearers over two millennia. Whether “Christian” or “non-Christian,” we are all confronted daily with the hypocrisy and other personal failings of those with that label. But just as covid-19 has an identity separate from those of us responsible for knowingly or unwittingly transmitting the disease, the kingdom of heaven, with its promise of love and all the traits of equity and inclusion and relationship that stem from that love, has a reality and existence independent of the nature of those who “test-positive” as carriers of Jesus’ message. Covid-19 has arrived on the scene late, and encountered an entire population with a pre-existing condition – one that has arguably strengthened rather than compromised our immune systems. It’s stumbled on a world of hope — not a delusional, unmerited optimism, but a realistic, positive view of the present and the future that might be as important to overcoming the pandemic as any awaited vaccine.

Today as we join thousands of others home-baking bread, a rediscovered pastime that has become part of the world’s coping strategy for dealing with the pandemic, perhaps we could take a moment to reflect on that pandemic-in-the-dough itself. You might also recall the pandemic that began 2000 years ago that is now itself endemic – so ingrained it might as well be in our DNA. 

And we should therefore choose to leave the meaning of BC-AD as is.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Seeking your help – to build the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium v2.0

“Our progress won’t be in science alone. It will also be in our ability to make sure everyone benefits from that science”– Bill Gates, (speaking of measures to cope with the pandemic), The Economist, April 25-31 print edition op-ed

The 2020 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium[1]– coincidentally, the twentieth– will be like no other. We could use your help – not just to contribute in the usual way, as speaker or participant, but to (re-)build it. 

To see why, let’s start with today’s quote.

Mr. Gates’ thought is an important one, and apropos – but perhaps not so new. It comes exactly 400 years after this observation from the inimitable natural philosopher Francis Bacon:

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”

Bacon’s language is Elizabethan – a bit flowery, to modern ears – but the idea is the same. In the four centuries since, scientists and engineers have given primacy to advancing knowledge, but have also kept one eye on application. 

Societal benefits to any such end-use of S&T begin immediately, with the early adopters, but become consequential largely to the extent they ultimately become widespread – in today’s vernacular, as they scale. (Mr. Gates knows a lot about this: the difference between Bill Gates, hugely bright but otherwise unremarkable guy, and Bill Gates, billionaire and major actor on the world scene, is in the scaling-up.)

Here’s where policy comes in. Nations and peoples find public policies important tools for scaling-up, and for realizing the fullest measure of benefit from science, innovation, and wisdom. The Ten Commandments could easily have been called the ten policies. (It’s wise to provide for parents in their old age – your children, witnessing this, will do the same for you. It’s wise to revere life; to hold marriage sacred; to respect property rights; to tell the truth; and so on. When all of us, or nearly all, buy in – when we do these things, the people are at peace and prosper. As participation declines, the benefits decrease.) The benefits of driving on the right-hand side of the road are greatest when everyone does it. Vaccinations are most protective when widely adopted. Education is most valuable when all enjoy access. Harnessing food, water and energy resources; building resilience to hazards; protecting the environment and ecosystems? These aspirations can be achieved in the face of population growth only to the extent policies foster widespread, expeditious societal uptake of new knowledge and innovation.

For nineteen years the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium has worked toward a simple goal: equip early-career scientists and engineers to be as disciplined (and therefore effective) with respect to engagement in the policy process as they are with respect to their research and development. Scientists and engineers can no longer afford to wing it. World exigencies, and need for scientific input, are too momentous, too complex, too urgent to accommodate any such happy-go-lucky, leisurely approach. Instead, scientists, political and business leaders, and the general public have to work in close, sustained coordination to agree upon and achieve favorable outcomes, anticipate and accommodate for unfavorable unintended consequences, etc. Scientists need to understand that their mathematical equations tend to be silent on how the policy process works – but that the policy process nevertheless has rules. And policymakers do best when they comfortably and intelligently tame and harness science rather than reflexively fight it. Work together, within that framework and those rules, and we can accomplish great things.  In particular, we can see our science and technology applied for widespread societal benefit. And an appreciative society will continue to provide the educational system, funding, and other infrastructure allowing science and technology to thrive.

The Colloquium has used the technique implied in its name: an annual face-to-face colloquya discussion or dialog, between a cohort of some 25-35 early-to-mid-career participants on the one hand, and a succession of speakers and panelists on the other side, extending over a ten-day period in Washington, DC. 

For the first nineteen years, the flow of information has been asymmetric. The scientists are in town to listen and understand – and not least to rid themselves of misguided stereotypes about policy, politics, and life and work in “the Washington swamp.” The speakers and panelists (drawing on years of experience working in the halls of Congress, at the White House, in the State Department, DoD, and other federal agencies, working as corporate contractors to the government, in NGO’s, etc.) are there to impart knowledge. They rid themselves of un-useful stereotypes as well. Most come away with renewed enthusiasm for scientists, especially the early-career variety. But by and large, they’re the ones who “know how things work.” 

This year is different. In prior years, despite perturbations introduced into the policy process by the events of September 11, 2001, the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and political dustups accompanying changed hands in the executive branch and Congress associated with each election cycle, the machinery of the policy process could be considered “a given.”

Covid-19 has changed all that. The stress test has exceeded the elastic limit of the prevailing science policy system and process. The Washington professionals at the science-policy-politics nexus know how things once were, but they too are in the dark about how things will change and the new ways things will work going forward. Participants will be meeting with policymakers as both groups are picking through the ruins and trying to figure out what “recovery” looks like. For starters, what will the 2020 national, state, and local elections look like in a time of social distancing? Given the present polarization, will any electoral outcome go unchallenged? How will members of Congress and staff even work in the shadow of the pandemic’s possible resurgence? The nation will naturally and appropriately be preoccupied with the science and technology of disease surveillance, vaccine development, etc. What about budgets for other areas of science in the face of trillions of dollars of new debt, as whole economic sectors, state and local governments, and clamor for even more help? What is the future of the big research universities? The big federal research and science-based service agencies? What will the fall bring for K-12 and higher education? Where are the new workforce needs? What is the outlook for diversity, equity, and inclusion? If policymaking and science are all about relationships (the latter more than some might like to admit), how do we build those in a time of social distancing? These are only the minutest sample of the questions and issues out there.

As a consequence, this year’s Colloquium, more than most, will be about a “common search for truth, ideas” rather than a one-way imparting of information. Speakers and participants will be on a bit more-level playing field. The two dozen folks who’ve signed up to participate this year will be constrained to starting out virtually (we live in hope that we’ll be able to schedule 5-6 days on face-to-face sessions here in DC sometime later in the summer or in the fall, but uncertainties don’t allow fixing a date just yet).

But the potential upside is huge. 2020 Colloquium participants are in on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They’re going to be present at the creation – better yet, contributing to the creation – of the new post-covid-19 science-policy process. How can virtual platforms best be used to support the conversation? What should be the salient topics, and the best virtual session formats for addressing those? Virtual sessions will also allow more flexibility, better preparation, and as well as more opportunities for extended follow-through. In all these respects, we’ll be redesigning the Colloquium while we’re conducting it.

Your ideas and suggestions for topics, formats, speakers are most welcome and needed. We want input from this year’s participants and speakers: what would you find most helpful? But we also want to hear from Colloquium alumni. What have you found most useful since your participation? What do you think merits special emphasis today? Then there are those of you who haven’t yet participated. Why not? What has been missing from the Colloquia to date that would make a difference as far as you’re concerned?

Please get in touch! Post a comment here on LOTRW, or send me an e-mail. Or better yet, register and participate. It’s late, but we still have a few slots open.

Thanks in advance.


[1]Want to learn more? You’re in luck. LOTRW has focused on the Colloquium before…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Facing the future – without that face mask.

“My good players have all broken their noses a couple of times.” Clark (Ted) Miller, while football coach at Wilkinsburg High School, ca. 1950’s[1].

a face-mask-free zone… and no social distancing

Face mask? Not talking about that cloth thing that we’re all wearing nowadaysRead on.

Every one of us wakes up each morning to confront a set of fresh and ongoing tasks and responsibilities – things that need doing. Most of us tackle and finish a handful, make a bit of progress on a few more – and kick the rest down the road, adding them to tomorrow’s list.

That said, there’s one task we cannot duck – moving another day into the future. We don’t remain in some fixed past. Not an option!

Most days, and most of the time throughout the span of our lives, that’s not a big deal. That new day and new future looks pretty much like yesterday. It’s only the slightest, merest bit different, maybe undetectably so. But our lives also include a handful of days where and when things change a lot for us as individuals. We graduate from school. We start a new job. We get married. We leave one town and go to another. We have that first child. We fall ill. We lose a loved one.

Then there are the milestones – the times when things change a lot – not just for us alone, but for everybody. The company goes into bankruptcy and half the people in town are laid off. The drought hits and the crops fail. This time, the hurricane makes landfall on our stretch of coast. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the “Big Bopper J. P. Richardson are killed in a plane crash, and “the music dies.” We go to war. Or…

…we suffer a global pandemic.

With the onset of covid-19 a long run of past weeks and months and years that had brought a stifling, oppressive sameness, a mire of meaningless routine and repetition, has been transformed – into the “good old days.” We long for that old normal. We flinch in the face of the now-uncertain future.

Flinching? Exactly what my high school’s football coach didn’t want to see[2]. Helmet face masks were a thing by the 1950’s, but in the hardscrabble steel-mill towns of western Pennsylvania not so much in evidence at the high school level. Our coach wanted players who would keep their eyes riveted on the opposing ball carrier and the ball, up to and including the moment of collision. He didn’t want them flinching before impact, turning their heads ever-so-slightly sideways to soften the blow, giving a good runner opportunity to shift stance and direction, and gain an extra yard, or elude the tackle altogether. If that meant a few more broken noses over a player’s career or a season, then so be it. (Coach Miller got results: Wilkinsburg won the Western-Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) Title for Class IV football my sophomore year.)

Football a metaphor for life itself! The future belongs to those who will embrace it.

As in embrace fully – from life’s broader aspects down to the details.

One of those details – and a place where I’ll be seeking your help if you’re willing – is with respect to the 2020 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. More in the next post.

A (highly questionable) bonus. One person in this block of Wilkinsburg-High-School seniors from our 1960 yearbook might look familiar:


[1]Not the first time I’ve drawn on this example in LOTRW, but it’s been a while.

[2]Full disclosure: As I said back in 2010, also in a footnote, I didn’t play football at that level. I was my current height and weighed 143 pounds, and the wishbone offense was in vogue in those days. I visualized the wishbone as the defensive tackle grabbing my left leg, and the defensive end grabbing my right leg, exclaiming, “make a wish!” Basketball beckoned.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Last chance!

not the cover on my office desk copy from back then, but good enough

“Covid-19 is not the end of the world but you can see it from here.[1]


World leaders have their hands full at the moment with covid-19. Why should they lift up their gaze and make the case for climate-change research and action? (And that’s precisely what some are doing.) Why now? Surely that challenge can wait another day.

Maybe it’s because the covid-19 experience has the feel of a preview of something bigger – a mere trailer for “Climate Change: the Movie.” 

Maybe it’s because they’re coming to grasp the meaning of “last chance.”

My own lifelong preoccupation with “last chances” came at an unlikely time from an equally unlikely and somewhat obscure source: 1979, when the eminent physical oceanographer Owen Phillips turned his attention from wind generation of ocean waves and the physics of the ocean mixed layer to write and publish The Last Chance Energy Book.

The book was short (only 142 pages) and crisp. In preparing this post I stumbled across a contemporary Air University review[2]. An excerpt: 

Our history of energy development has emphasized pragmatic concerns over either scientific or humanistic values. Phillips sees technology as a force destroying itself by the very social norms it has created; specifically, cheap energy has created a materialistic life…But since the energy sources exploited to build this ever-expanding life style are finite, an ultimate modification of this life-style is unavoidable.

But I have to confess that for most of the past forty years, I’d mislaid Phillips’ larger point. What I have remembered and thought about frequently was the argument Phillips made about our need to develop additional energy sources. He pressed the importance of making such adjustments was “while the lights were still on.” In other words, we have to develop new energy sources well before the old ones have run out.

All of us live a nano-version of this experience every day. Need to arrange a meet-up (okay, with social distancing maybe that’s no longer a thing)? Or your car broke down and you need road repair? Or you want to ask your life partner what was it again you were supposed to bring home from the supermarket? Easy, if you remembered to bring your cellphone. Easy, if your cellphone has charge. But a mini-nightmare otherwise.

Covid-19 is giving us a look at that more distant future. Inadequate education and training. A dysfunctional economy; massive unemployment and poverty. Wretched public health, and an overtaxed healthcare system. Crumbling infrastructure. Fragile food supply chains.

And focusing thought. What better time than now, while the images are fresh, and while we can still control our destiny, to begin to head off those scenarios?

To ponder such things is not to be alarmist. The brink, the edge of the cliff , the end of the road need not be a cause for fear. All of us have at some point been in that place; fact is, we’ve often sought it. The vistas have been breathtakingly beautiful. The air in our faces fresh and invigorating, uplifting the imagination, prompting new insights, expanding our mental and spiritual horizons. We’ve shared the experience with friends, built treasured memories. But all that comes from knowing where the edge is, respecting it, adopting appropriate near-edge behavior, allowing the experience to change our lives in fullest measure – not rushing blindly, unthinkingly, pell-mell toward it.

Thoughts for today. And while you’re pondering…

…In 2009, the musical group LostProphets released a single by the title “It’s Not The End Of The World But I Can See It From Here”; the sound is a bit jarring, but if you wish you can find and experience the video here.


[1]Something of a zipper quote: you’ve seen similar references to locations, etc.

[2] Air University Review, Volume 31, Issue 4. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Political leaders make the case for climate change.

“Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips.”– Proverbs 27:2 (NIV)

Yesterday’s LOTRW post closed noting that geoscientists and their engineering and social-science colleagues currently confront a dilemma. In the face of the covid-19 crisis, how to tug at the sleeves of beleaguered policymakers, make the case that global change is a bigger problem still – an existential challenge, with multiple such pandemic-sized problems embedded in it? How to make a compelling argument that global change merits continuing attention and action even in the midst of the current worldwide disruption and dismay? How to do this without coming across as hopelessly insensitive to the needs of today, self-absorbed and clueless, jealous, and/or shrill?

(The answer? While we’re thus preoccupied, perplexed about what to do, we look up and notice, to our surprise and relief, that the world’s national and global leaders are, unprompted, making our case for us. Problem solved.) 

A few days ago, on Earth Day, the Washington Post video-streamed live a conversation between John Kerry (Democrat) and John Kasich (Republican) on Leading the Fight against Climate Change. You can find it here.

The current (April 25-May 1) issue of The Economist is running the first of a six-part series on the climate change. The entire May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, entitled The Fire Next Time, is devoted to the subject, including a notable article by two former Republican Secretaries of State, James Baker, and George Schultz, who argue that climate change is not simply an environmental risk but also a strategic opportunity. The same issue contains a piece by John Podesta and Todd Stern, who ran the Obama climate-change portfolio. They make proposals that would reestablish America’s international leadership in the face of the challenge..

Then there’s the op-ed from Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, published in this morning’s New York Times: A Time to Save the Sick and Rescue the Planet. He makes a strong case for tackling both covid-19 and climate change simultaneously. Some excerpts:

The Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest test the world has faced since World War II. There is a natural tendency in the face of crisis to take care of one’s own first. But true leadership understands that there are times to think big and more generously. Such thinking was behind the Marshall Plan and the formation of the United Nations after World War II. This is also such a moment. We must work together as societies and as an international community to save lives, ease suffering and lessen the shattering economic and social consequences of Covid-19.

The impact of the coronavirus is immediate and dreadful. We must act now and we must act together. Just as we must act together to address another urgent global emergency that we must not lose sight of — climate change. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization released data showing that temperatures have already increased 1.1 degrees centigrade above preindustrial levels. The world is on track for devastating climate disruption from which no one can self-isolate

Addressing climate change and Covid-19 simultaneously and at enough scale requires a response stronger than any seen before to safeguard lives and livelihoods. A recovery from the coronavirus crisis must not take us just back to where we were last summer. It is an opportunity to build more sustainable and inclusive economies and societies — a more resilient and prosperous world.

Secretary-General Guterres then goes on to propose six “climate-positive actions:”

  • As we spend trillions to recover from Covid-19, we must deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition. Investments must accelerate the decarbonization of all aspects of our economy.
  • Where taxpayers’ money rescues businesses, it must be creating green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth. It must not be bailing out outdated polluting, carbon-intensive industries.
  • Fiscal firepower must shift economies from gray to green, making societies and people more resilient through a transition that is fair to all and leaves no one behind.
  • Looking forward, public funds should invest in the future, by flowing to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and climate. Fossil fuel subsidies must end and polluters must pay for their pollution.
  • The global financial system, when it shapes policy and infrastructure, must take risks and opportunities related to climate into account. Investors cannot continue to ignore the price our planet pays for unsustainable growth.
  • To resolve both emergencies, we must work together as an international community. Like the coronavirus, greenhouse gases respect no boundaries. Isolation is a trap. No country can succeed alone.

This sample, though admittedly small and biased, offers comfort. It hints that world leaders, including ours, are not myopically reacting only to the present distress. They’re multi-tasking. They retain situational awareness of longer-term aspirations and needs. They preferentially select those short-term options and fixes that at the same time ratchet governments, corporations, and peoples toward desired larger ends.

They’re doing their jobs? This frees scientists to do what we do best – gather evidence, collect data, build and test hypotheses and models, improve forecasts, and support policymakers as they do the sifting through alternative policies and actions. We needn’t over-anxiously attempt to take politics into our own (clumsy) hands… and politicians don’t need to boast about their scientific chops. (Most) politicians and (most) scientists alike acknowledge the wisdom of Proverbs 27:2 – something we’ve “always known,” most likely drilled into us by mom and dad. 

Let others be your advocates.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

You’re a scientist? Uncle Sam wants you.

And well he should.

Here’s the background.

The greatest generation was born into an era of rapid IT innovation that gave us the telephone and radio (and hinted at television). They then endured the Great Depression, a decade of hardscrabble economic times facing farmers and industrial workers alike. They earned their spurs thwarting the ambitions of despotic leaders in Germany, Italy, Japan (and ultimately, the Soviet Union) seeking to dominate a debilitated world.

The greatest generation accomplished this in great part through months and even years of unselfish military service. The true heroes were those sacrificed their lives on the front lines.

That 20th-century narrative finds a mirror in present events. Today, covid-19 confronts our generation with three daunting challenges we have to overcome simultaneously[1]:  (1) economic – wresting food, energy, and water from the earth while at the same time revitalizing global commerce; (2) maintaining and improving public health and safety in the face of natural hazards; and (3) slowing the pace of environmental degradation, habitat loss, and biodiversity[2].

This time around the heroes are the world’s healthcare workers in the hospital ICU’s and ER’s. For weeks they have done their best to save lives in the face of shortages in beds, basic medicines, as well as medical gear ranging from ventilators to protective garments, face masks, etc. Their days have seen too much death and tragedy up close; their evenings have been consumed by the additional measures needed to spare their own families and loved ones any secondhand exposure to the virus. Add to them the larger group who have taken on extra risk in order to keep the food chain going from the farm or ranch all the way to the work-from–home crowd, as well as maintain the functioning of other infrastructure critical to the survival of today’s modernized, urban, interconnected world.

Rosie the riveter

Armies fought World War II, but industrial might played a large role in the outcome. American industry, protected from the worst of the conflict by two major oceans, was pivotal. And so was America’s enlistment of women  in the war effort (The conflict favored nations that embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion even more broadly – though not by today’s label.)

Which brings us to science and scientists.

In World War II, science and technology made a huge difference. First it was radar – pivotal in the Battle of Britain. Then the bomb – which hastened the surrender of Japan. Penicillin and anti-malarials (the latter especially in the Pacific theater) also played their part.

Expect science and technology to be even more pivotal in greatest generation – the sequel. Here’s why. 

Leaders and analysts are beginning to assess the long-term consequences of the trillions of dollars being spent now to keep nations and peoples worldwide on life support. Eye-watering levels of global debt will need to be repaid. Governments face hard choices: raise taxes; default on debts, either explicitly, or (more likely) through inflation; or grow their economies. In reality, governments will resort to various combinations of all three.

When it comes to the needed economic growth, innovation is the key. Tomorrow’s real world problems cannot be tackled successfully with yesterday’s tools. Even prior to covid-19, Americans had been spending nearly 20% of GDP on healthcare, essentially the costliest worldwide. The pandemic has only increased everyone’s desire for personal safety in the face of health threats. Expect therefore that much government investment and private-sector attention will initially focus on advance and application of IT (exascale computing, big data, data analytics, artificial intelligence) to healthcare and public health. Expect as well a rebalancing in emphasis. In recent years, innovation in infectious disease had taken a back seat to research on chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. Look now for increased attention and investment in disease surveillance and early detection, testing, vaccines, and more. 

STEM education in both K-12 public schools and in research universities needs innovation across the board. In the lingering aftermath of World War II (the so-called Cold War) Russian launch of Sputnik served as a wake-up call: American youth needed more rigorous science education. The result was the National Defense Education Act. Something similar is required today. But the NDEA fell short in a major respect. It strengthened U.S. science, but made a difference only for a relatively small fraction of the population. The outcome was a US culture in which science could become the province of a few “nerdy kids” (full disclosure: I was one) instead of something more universal.

(A digression. In recent years, the German educational system has been held in high regard globally. The reason?  It has trained and prepared virtually all young Germans to enter careers in high-tech, manufacturing jobs. This has made Germany a rich exporter, able to maintain high wages in the face of stiff competition from China and others with much lower labor costs. This time around, U.S. STEM education needs to do the same. The US, with only 4% of the world’s population, cannot hold on to world leadership unless it is also the most innovative. Virtually every U.S. economic sector, every field of endeavor, every government institution and every corporation is constrained by the shortage of professionals facile with today’s IT. The U.S. also needs to be the most inclusive; diversity, equity and inclusion have never mattered more.)

Closer to home: what are the implications of all this for Earth scientists? It’s important that in the emphasis on IT and its application to public health the Earth sciences shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle. 

But to argue this now is to walk a fine line. 

The case needs to be made. Natural scientists – who study the Earth system, its physical, chemical, biological, ecological, and human and social components, who apply emerging technologies to these fields, and who provide products and services based on these sciences and technologies – have never been more needed. The world will be making massive investments – in food, water and energy infrastructure; in building community-level resilience to hazards; in protecting the environment – over coming decades. The insights our environmental intelligence provides can help ensure those investments are made productively and wisely, not squandered. Success requires rapid scientific advance; we don’t have all the science we need. Here tomorrow’s needed tools include:observing instruments of great diagnostic power; models and data analytics realizing the full capabilities of exascale computing powerpredictions comprehending the fully-coupled environmental/human system.

But in the current political climate it’s easy for such calls to seem shrill, or jealous, or self-absorbed. We need to balance our requests for more attention and funding with the strongest possible support for STEM education, for advance in IT and its applications more broadly. Otherwise, we risk looking (and actually being) self-serving in the face of bigger, more immediate world concerns.

What, then, to do? More in the next post.


[1]A recurrent theme of LOTRW – both the blog and book.

[2]And those despots? Newly ascendant, finding opportunity and seizing extraordinary powers while the world is preoccupied with the virus. The current issue of The Economist lists leaders from Turkey, South Africa, Uganda, and Singapore, among others.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments