Followed by… and following?

My morning rhythm includes joining 800,000 others (give or take) in a DC-area-wide Metro commute. During rush hours, this includes navigating crowded platforms to-or-from street level.

The key to success involves following.

The path from train exit door to any given escalator and street level (or the reverse) is always filled with people headed in the same direction, adjacent to comparable numbers headed in the opposite way. Following in the slipstream of those in front, approximately matching speed and direction, results in a smooth transit. To step outside those invisible and undulating lanes is to invite abrupt fits and starts, confrontations, and in the worst cases, jostling those you find rushing right at you.

Blazing your own trail is not necessarily your best idea.

Even in DC, a city riven by partisan, polarized politics, violent disagreement on every momentous issue – health care; tariffs, trade, and jobs; immigration; social equity; and more – each and every day begins with this massive, nearly perfect display of unity and collaboration. Even at street level, a mix of cars, trucks, pedestrians – and now, scooters – the same cooperative spirit prevails.

And it’s all founded on a willingness to follow.

Would that we could carry a greater element of that into the workplace itself! These days, it seems that following isn’t held in high regard. Take politics. Right now, over twenty candidates are vying in one party to carry the banner into next year’s presidential election. It’s more attractive to run oneself than pile on to support a colleague’s campaign. In the Congress, thousands of competing bills are introduced each year, only to neutralize each other. The merest handful develop any sort of following, let alone pass into law. Or take social media. Each day the blogging and the tweets dish out dirt, as an array of critics remind us that there’s no individual or group or cause on the planet worth our following and support.  And the detractors don’t just focus on a single shortcoming for any individual or institution. They’re generally able to come up with several.

This scenario is a fractal. It’s not confined to the top. In many offices across the city – whether public sector or private sector or NGO – teamwork, partnership and collaboration are always constrained. They’re compromised (either a little or a lot) by those who see this or that larger purpose incongruent with some self-interest. Bottom line? For every putative leader, there are dozens of others thinking: given that leader’s many flaws, I’d make an equally good or better trailblazer myself. Why follow him/her?

Which brings me to a second part to my morning rhythm: a Starbucks coffee and a few minutes with a current edition of The Economist. By chance (?), this morning’s reading led me to Bagehot, a regular feature of the magazine. The focus was on Britain’s followership problem.

Hmm. Sometimes it’s easier to consider a sensitive but important issue when seen through a remote lens. So here are a couple of snippets:

[in a 1997 conversation on leadership] came this “I don’t know why people are so fixated on the subject of leadership,”  [Peter Drucker] said… “What we really need to think about is followership.”

It is worth remembering Drucker’s words whenever people talk about Britain’s crisis of leadership. There is no doubt that Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are singularly unimpressive figures… Regardless of their abilities, political leaders have to perform before an increasingly hostile audience which routinely questions their motives and trashes their achievements. Followers are a tougher crowd than they used to be…

Walter Bagehot argued that, in order to survive, a political regime needed to gain authority from the citizenry, and then use that authority to get the work of government done. Since Bagehot’s time, British politicians have employed three mechanisms to gain that authority. The first is deference, when voters support leaders they consider their social superiors. The second is class-loyalty, under which people vote for those who represent folk like themselves. The third is competence, when people vote for a candidate the same way they might hire a plumber—because they can fix a problem.

On this side of the pond, you and I would likely have little appetite for deference or class loyalty, in and of themselves[1].   But setting that aside, the rest sounds similar.

This is cause for concern. We have great challenges facing us as a people: sustainability in the case of stressed resources; resilience in the face of hazards; environmental protection in the face of growing populations and economic pressures. To prosper, to live any life worth living, demands that the great majority of us pitch in to move forward a handful of big ideas, as largely framed by others.

In part, the solution requires each of us be bit more inclined to follow. Instead of standing in judgment and insisting on perfection, we might settle for aligning ourselves with those working, however imperfectly, on generally compatible goals. We could be more open to compromise; sometimes even accommodating major adjustments. We might fret less about who has the lead and be more appreciative of imprecise progress toward a common goal.

This same caution applies to the “leaders” themselves. Leadership isn’t a matter of imposing our will on others; it’s more about tapping into the common anxieties and hopes of others, giving those voice, and laying out a framework that will help people reach their ends.

Come to think of it, not much different from that morning-commute-hustle on the subway platforms: there we are content with achieving inexact convergence of interest rather than precise detail; adjusting moment-by-moment. We don’t question the credentials or intent of those ahead of us (any more than those behind us question ours).

Why should cooperation and followership end there?


[1] The original article’s fuller material gives a bit of context/deeper understanding of these preferences and their benefits, again, in the uniquely British setting. Accordingly, the column deserves reading in its entirety, but is difficult to access without a subscription.)

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The latest UN report on species extinctions – climate change’s “nuclear winter?”

Print and virtual media have been abuzz these past several days with the rollout of a new United Nations report suggesting that around a million species of animals and plants face extinction worldwide as a result of human activity. The report goes further, linking that species loss to reduced quality of life and perhaps even threatening human existence itself.  

Big news indeed.

But perhaps not really new? Scientists have been studying and reporting on human-caused reductions in biodiversity and associated declines in ecosystem services for as long as any of us can remember (think Endangered species Act).

Reminiscent of events a third of a century ago, with respect to the nuclear threat. During the Cold War years[1] (dating from the end of World War II through the collapse of the former Soviet Union), the general public rated nuclear conflict as one of its greatest concerns. But such concerns spiked in 1983 when Carl Sagan and co-authors added nuclear winter (a period of abnormal cold and darkness posited to result from a nuclear war, as it produced layers of smoke and dust in the atmosphere blocking the sun’s rays) to the list of impacts.

At the time, the great groundswell of public concern seemed puzzling. Here nuclear warfare threatened wholesale loss of civilian populations, resulting directly from bomb blasts in urban areas, followed by radiation sickness and decades of mutations and cancers for the survivors. Who needed to hear more? Wasn’t that enough to prompt calls for disarmament and peace? But for many people, the threat of cold, darkness, crop failures for months or years was the last straw.

Even early on, it seems that the current UN report, by virtue of the immense and widespread species loss it documents and the way it explicitly links that species loss to decline in human prospects, may have touched a similar public nerve. Perhaps this will prove to be the tipping point, coming on top of the other United Nations products – the periodic IPCC Assessment Reports, and special IPCC reports on extreme events and hazards, the difference in impacts between 1.50C and 20C of warming – that builds the level of public support needed to spur international action.

 We can only hope.


Speaking of hope, some might have noticed in the fine print that the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (commonly called the IPBES), which compiled the assessment, is chaired by none other than Sir Robert Watson. That’s the same Bob Watson who played a pivotal role in standing up the U.S. Global Change Research Program three decades ago (and, even earlier, giving the world’s ozone protocols a positive push) while working at NASA. He would come into interagency  planning meetings back then and instantly energize the room. Early-career geoscientists take note: this is proof of the importance of enthusiasm, insight, and staying power.

Good on you, Bob!



[1]And even since. Today those concerns get the occasional boost as tensions mount between the U.S. and Iran or North Korea, or the Middle East roils, or India and Pakistan get ructious.  

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A 72-hour exploration of the climate-change challenge – distilled into 5-10 minutes of your time.

Last Saturday (April 27th), at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, Ernest Moniz, former Energy Secretary for President Barack Obama, and Daniel Nocera, Harvard chemistry professor (and inventor of the artificial leaf and the bionic leaf) – longtime friends – held a conversation on “a path to a low carbon energy future.” Their talk was webcast live; an edited version will be posted online at some future date.

Hard to do justice to the conversation – only the actual video will do, and for that you’ll have to wait a bit. But here’s the pith[1] of it. Mr. Nocera opened with a bit of background on his artificial leaves (you can find links to articles or videos of different lengths and going into varying degrees of detail here). Both fascinating and encouraging.

For his part, Mr. Moniz began with a quick overview of energy policy. He decried what he called “the magical thinking” at both ends of the political spectrum – denial at the one end, and completely impractical ideas at the other (such as a carbon-free energy economy in five years). By way of contrast, he pointed out that the so-called Green New Deal offered much to like. Specifically, it spoke to less carbon (not zero), and it simultaneously tackled social equity; it avoided some of the regressive policy options often associated with different versions of carbon taxes. He argued, in the realistic spirit of the Green New Deal, for settling – that is, for “making progress as fast as we can,” versus “as fast as we need.” He reminded the audience that electrical power generation per se was the easiest bit to implement; decarbonization of transportation and other economic sectors was more difficult. He emphasized that the challenge consisted of numerous pieces: electrical power generation; large-scale grids; nuclear; fracking and CO2 sequestration during the transition; etc., etc. And he summed up by saying that to focus on any single favorite of these pathways would be to fail. Instead, he said we need to pursue all these avenues, in parallel – and what’s more, we need to “hit a home run,” do the absolutely best we can, in each.

Sitting there, my mind was half on the AMS workshop scheduled to start two days later (this past Monday, April 29th) entitled New Minds for New Science: The Forecast for Work in Weather, Water, and Climate. I was thinking that Mr. Moniz could well have added workforce to his list of areas where we needed to hit a home run.

Sure enough, this week’s workshop reinforced that idle thought. Monday and Tuesday’s presentations and discussions made it clear: in each of the above areas in the energy challenge, in each sector of application (agriculture, industry, transportation, etc.), and in environmental intelligence itself (understanding how the planet and its lifeforms function and interact, and what they’ll do in response to human intervention), a diverse, inclusive, educated, trained, equipped, and motivated workforce will be the difference between success and failure. The workforce will need to master two skills:

  • IT generally, but in particular artificial intelligence, and
  • Social/collaborative skills

Workshop dialog also made something else clear. Both these capabilities will rest on the extent we can strengthen STEM education at every level: K-12, especially in public schools; undergraduate; graduate; and continuing education over a career or lifetime. But conventional approaches to learning, and traditional institutions, and even traditional disciplines, may be casualties in this future. We heard that both private- and government-sector employers are frustrated by the need to serve as “finishing schools” for entry-level workers, sometimes training scientists and engineers for 2-3 years in these skills before they’re useful, functioning members of the agency or company. At the same time, companies are reaching past universities down to the high-school level to identify and hire truly precocious talents (more reminiscent of the way professional athletes are identified, recruited, and developed today, skipping college either partially or entirely).

If artificial intelligence is to be the tool of the 21st-century workplace, then just as today’s students are “one-with-their-smartphones,” we can anticipate that future students at every level will be engaging with personal-AI – helping them learn, at their own pace, subjects largely of their own choosing, informed according to an individually tailored, AI-enabled, iteratively-developing understanding of what they like, what they’re good at, what’s meaningful, and what will earn them a living – their ikigai, as one speaker put it. It’s possible, perhaps even likely that instead of facility with AI being part of the finishing needed by physicists, chemists, biologists, meteorologists, sociologists, et al., that these disciplines of the past will be the finishing added-on to a generic, AI-enabled, learning-to-learn.


A closing vignette illustrates the essential importance of STEM education, not just for the workforce but for the broader society. We’re coming up on the 75th anniversary of D-Day in a few weeks. In historical accounts, much is made of the prevailing weather and the forecasts for same; the tides on the beaches; efforts to mislead German intelligence as to Allied intentions over that weekend, and so on. All these aspects determined Allied casualties and the day’s events. But the reality is that by that point the ultimate outcome of the war had been predetermined. Behind the massive armada of military and conscripted vessels, the soldiers, the tanks and artillery, and vehicles and supplies that would be landed on the beaches of Normandy over that 24-hour period, there was a far more massive pipeline of personnel and material extending across the Channel back to England, and across the Atlantic back to America, that would continue to pour soldiers and resources onto the European continent and sustain those human and mechanical assets for as long as necessary. Entire, unified populations in the Allied nations were accepting the accompanying priorities and the sacrifices needed.

In the same way, to cope with climate change, and an associated host of 21st-century resource-, hazard- and environmental challenges, we need not just the workforce of today, the workforce of the moment, but an educational pipeline producing and sustaining the workforce required across a succession of outyears, and a supportive, scientifically-savvy society committed to such investment over the long haul.

We have to hit a home run.


[1] “Pith” variously means the core or the essence of something – or in biology, it refers to tissue in the stem of vascular plants. Thus we have “pithy,” referring to “concise and forcefully expressive,” and pith helmets, made from pith material from an Indian swamp plant.

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Inadequate priority to STEM today? A compromised U.S. workforce – and a correspondingly weaker Nation – tomorrow.

Years ago, a friend of mine moved into a new house. In the process, he discovered one of the electrical outlets was non-functional. Curious, he pulled the cover and did a bit of disassembly, to find the outlet had been connected to a few feet of electrical wire that led nowhere.


The proposed administration FY 2020 federal budget repeats FY 2019 calls for cuts in some federal-agency STEM related programs, again citing a mandated strategic plan for these decisions. (You can start tracking down further details here.)

What remains in the budget requests are programs targeted at those on track for science careers, and programs providing education for those already in the workplace.

This strategy is reminiscent of my friend’s experience. Best he could figure, when the house had been under construction, someone had done the wiring infrastructure. Someone else had subsequently swept the flooring clean at day’s end, but the loose cable was left dangling over an edge, the unattached end invisible. Drywallers had come in, saw the bit of cable, and naturally enough cut a hole for the outlet. A finish electrical worker had duly wired it up. No single person was to blame. But the end result was dysfunctional.

Federal inattention to K-12 STEM education has the same flavor, and risks leading to the same sorry result. Certainly the fundamental policy premise of public education is local (maybe state-level) control, with all the diversity, high degree of motivation and attention, and other benefits that approach brings. Stultifying federal regulation is contraindicated. But that doesn’t mean the federal government should be hands off. It can and should supply critically-needed resources. Education funding and other resources (teachers, classroom equipment, etc.) available at local school districts vary widely; many districts struggle. And K-12 education for millions of kids powers the workforce of tomorrow. Limiting federal STEM funding only to the downstream end (the adult workforce) is equivalent to installing an electrical outlet without looking at its connection to the energy source.

The United States comprises only 4% of the world’s population. A highly educated people is essential to our future prospects: sustaining our fundamental values, maintaining innovation, ensuring our national security, and for that matter, the world’s geopolitical stability.

(Last year the Congress failed to support the proposed FY 2019 cuts.)


Three closing comments.

  1. This coming Monday, the AMS begins a two-day workshop here in DC looking at workforce issues. Considerations of K-12 STEM education won’t be the sole focus, but will be woven through the conversation. You didn’t register? We won’t hold it against you. If you have the chance, please sign up and show up.
  2. The AMS runs an Education Program that works with K-12 teachers and reaches deep into schoolrooms across the country. Young people’s interest in weather and related topics constitute a portal for STEM education more broadly. Chances are good, if you’re reading this, you can help and be involved.
  3. Federal attention to education actually needs to extend to pre-school ages – much earlier than the point at which Head Start kicks in. This coming Monday, ZerotoThree, a non-profit, will highlight such issues by bringing babies and their families to the office corridors of Capitol Hill in an outreach they call Strolling Thunder. (Full disclosure: my daughter works there.) Gotta love the meteorological theme and the reference to the Vietnam veterans’ Rolling Thunder coming up over the memorial Day weekend.
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How to close out Earth Day, April 22, 2019

The sun is setting on Earth Day 2019. All the commemorations, celebrations, and orations – a world of them! – are winding down, wrapping up, time zone by time zone.  

Perhaps the Day’s festivities and more solemn observances have consumed you, either because you were staging them or you were pouring yourself into some form of active participation. Alternatively, your plans for Earth Day may have gone awry, escaped your grasp, eluded you entirely. For you, today may instead have been ruled by competing claims for your attention, whether the daily cacophony of work or family that dominates our 21st-century first-world routine, or emergencies ranging from the merely urgent to the truly dire.

At either end of this spectrum, that excess of passion or those jangled nerves are begging you for some kind of reset – something focused on the Day and its meaning, but not just piling on more of the same. Something different.

Problem is – it’s the end of the day. You don’t have all the time in the world. So it’s got to be a little something – brief, and yet absorbing.

Here’s a suggestion – music. One special beauty of music is that it can’t be rushed, but only experienced as it was intended – a note and a chord at a time. 

But today it can’t be just any music. After all, it’s Earth Day.

So – try this: a short instrumental piece composed by Patrick Williams, entitled Theme for Earth Day, performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra, under the direction of John Williams (no relation). Dates back to the early 1990’s, but chances are good you haven’t heard it. And even if you have – especially if you have – you’ll want to hear it again. You can listen here.

But don’t multi-task. Stop what you’re doing. If you have access to that Earth Day sunset, watch it. Contemplate it. Stuck in an urban canyon? Then close your eyes as you listen. You have a favorite evening beverage? Okay, that’s permitted – but that’s it. Let the music permeate your soul.

4 minutes and 16 seconds of your time – in exchange for 

  • appropriate closure for Earth Day 2019,
  • and maybe, just maybe, a new lease on life?

A decent trade.

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New Minds for New Science: The Forecast for Work in Weather, Water, and Climate.

The American Meteorological Society’s Policy Program is hosting a workshop here in Washington, DC, on April 29th-30th, examining the future of work in weather, water and climate. You can (and should!) register here.


Andy Miller, an AMS Policy Fellow, has organized the workshop. On the AMS workshop website, he’s articulated the rationale as follows:
As society goes through a period of rapid technological and societal change, only a small fraction of the current workforce is trained to take full advantage of machine learning, quantum computing, next generation satellites, and new sensor technologies. That same workforce, if it is to benefit society, must also master the formidable array of social skills needed to build diversity and inclusion, foster effective teamwork, and collaborate with outside groups. There is tremendous opportunity to advance weather, water, and climate science and apply the resulting information for the benefit of society in the coming decades. To meet these demands, our workforce must evolve.
However, employers face challenges in attracting sufficient talent in these developing fields, in part because students and early career scientists struggle to receive adequate training. At the same time, large numbers of government employees are expected to retire over the next ten years leaving leadership with the task to replace experience with the skill set required for decades to come. As societal demands on our community become enhanced, we must navigate a complex landscape in workforce evolution while increasing participation of women and minorities, striving to improve education at all levels and aligning incentives of career development with workforce need
s.

Andy tells us the 1.5 days will focus on 3 topics:

  1. How will new technologies affect society and the workforce overall?
  2. How will these changes translate to the Weather, Water and Climate community?
  3. How do these changes affect the knowledge, abilities and skills required to succeed in our community?

Our discussions with leaders at federal agencies, corporations, and academic institutions over the past several months show these to be existential concerns. Ask these executives and policy officials to identify the biggest challenge posed by climate change, by natural hazards, and sustainable development? They’re likely to put workforce recruitment, development and retention first – ahead of budget constraints, ahead of convincing skeptical political leaders or oblivious publics to see such needs, ahead of any single gap in scientific understanding or technological capability. The right workforce can address all these. But if the brainpower and the passion and the diversity aren’t there, if the appetite and talent for collaboration and putting science into practice is lacking – then every aspiration of environmental intelligence and its use to benefit society is compromised.

Ask yourself: do you want your views on these issues to be heard? Do you want a chance to shape public-, corporate-, and academic policy governing the working environment you’ll encounter for the rest of your career? Do you want to tailor your workplace for maximum effectiveness and job satisfaction? Or are you content to let others make these decisions for you? If the former, then please register, and we’ll look forward to seeing you, listening to you, and working with you on April 29th-30th.

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“A $100 Trillion here, a $100 Trillion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

The “wizard of ooze”

I’d apologize to Everett Dirksen, but according to those who’ve actually checked, he never really said, “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.” Some argue his actual quote was “a million here, a million there,” but that by the time he voiced the idea, it was already necessary to inflate the figure considerably to have any desired impact. So people did; hence “billions.”

Perhaps you’d rather read about something other than the Mueller probe this weekend. But you want subject matter that’s comparably weighty. 

Here’s a candidate: $100 Trillion. 

LOTRW readers might recall that mention of this tidy sum has come up before. Today’s context is a bit different, but related.

Brian Riedl, an economist at the Manhattan Institute, recently tweeted this admittedly back-of-the-envelope figure as his estimate of the cost for the proposed Green New Deal. Unsurprisingly, opponents of the so-called Green New Deal quickly made this notional price tag a rallying cry. For example, the president is quoted as saying “They want to take away your car, reduce the value of your home, and put millions of Americans out of work, spend $100 trillion, which, by the way, there’s no such thing as $100 trillion [sic].”

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Some commentary:

Some proponents of the Green New Deal are pointing to the lack of any deep underlying analysis behind this conservative pushback. That’s true enough. Green New Deal advocates could also note that most of the total – perhaps 90% – is the “cost” of guaranteed jobs and universal healthcare, that is, the New-Deal part versus the Green part. But Green-New-Deal proponents haven’t carefully done the sums either; order-of-magnitude estimates might therefore be a good place to start.

Perhaps better to note that expenses and incomes roughly balance. Economists have taught us this. For smaller transactions, say $100, payers and beneficiaries might be different. But when scaling up by a factor of a trillion, the money involved cascades through a series of transactions. It can’t be confined to a single segment of the population. No small group pays, nor can benefits be collared by some single small faction. Everyone is paying, but all are also benefiting. We’re essentially compensating ourselves. What’s more, through multiplier effects, the pot is growing; it needn’t be zero-sum.

To continue, there is such a thing as $100T. Global GDP already approaches this figure – and is steadily ratcheting up, year on year, in response to population growth and innovation. Economists figure global GDP will likely top $200T/year by 2050 and $500T/year by 2100. By then, the quadrillion dollar global economy will be in sight. The Green New Deal bill doesn’t come due in any single year; it’s spread over decades. A figure that today looks intimidating will feel like chump change by the end of the century.  

What’s more, the $100T is money we have to spend anyway. Spending $100T necessarily creates jobs; it does the opposite of putting people out of work. Some – the merest handful – may not consider healthcare a universal right, but it’s hard even for them to deny it’s a universal need. And the 10% of the Green New Deal, the green $10T that’s targeted at U.S. critical infrastructure – energy, agriculture, transportation, dams and levees, etc. – is a bill that has long been due. None of us wants to live in a world where the majority of people are out of work, have no access to necessities such as food and healthcare. No national leader can allow his/her country to enter such a swoon – as Venezuela’s Maduro is discovering.

But a very real challenge does remain. Given that we have the money to spend, and given that we have to spend the money (two different realities), the sums are so vast we have to spend wisely. We can’t simply squander these funds, whether through poor governance (e.g., Venezuela) or simple ignorance. We must invest– and realize a high return on that investment. 

Toward this end, environmental intelligence is vital.  We need to identify – in advance, not after the fact – energy-, food-, and water resource development that is sustainable and won’t be compromised by future extremes of flood or drought or by climate variability and change. We need to build resilience to hazards before disaster strikes. We need to preserve ecosystem services, rather than allow them to degrade and only belatedly attempt to restore them. Success here requires both advances in scientific understanding and accelerated application of emerging new knowledge – at the front end of the $100T investment, in time to guide it. 

Though such capabilities are not yet at hand, they are within reach – and the remaining investments in Earth observations, research, and services are relatively inexpensive. They amount to mere billions of dollars, not trillions. 

To paraphrase the Senator – a billion spent on environmental intelligence here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking trillions of dollars return on investment.

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Making science more moral

A bit over a month ago, Raj Pandya , who directs AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange, shared a blog post with me that he’d published on the website of AGU’s Ethics and Equity Center[1]. What a great set of thoughts! Thanks, Raj, for giving permission to reprint it here. And thanks as well for your decades of leadership by example – doing your bit every day to make science (and its applications) more moral.



Photo courtesy of Nathan Fried-Lipski photography

By Raj Pandya, Director, Thriving Earth Exchange

There is a neighborhood near my grandfather’s house in Mumbai that is one of the largest unplanned urban neighborhoods in the world—what is more commonly, but not nicely, called a slum. It’s a densely packed region of narrow dirt lanes where whole families live in tiny rooms, sometimes in houses constructed out of salvaged materials, without trash collection, running water, or sewers. People who live there live without property rights—without any assurance that everything they have won’t be taken from them when a decision is made to redevelop or ‘beautify’ the area.

Running through that neighborhood is a pipe that delivers clean water to my grandfather’s affluent neighborhood. There are no public taps in the pipe, so people in the slum can’t access the water. The pipe runs alongside a former stream, now a concrete walled-flood channel, that is choked with debris and polluted with human waste.

It might be comforting to think this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the US.

It does.

In communities across the US, the Thriving Earth Exchange has worked with people tired of being on the receiving end of the noise and waste and hazards of the roadway fracturing their neighborhood, the factory spewing noxious fumes, or the rivers that bring contaminants and floods into their homes. Many are communities of color and poor communities, who are disproportionately likely to suffer polluted air, water, and soil. Many of these communities feel like science is being used against them—large corporations, enthusiastic developers, and inattentive local leaders are using science to downplay the impact on neighborhoods—even though people in the neighborhood can smell the fumes, see the emissions, and watch the floods get worse. Often, these neighborhoods have been historically and systematically denied access to the resources they need to protect themselves from natural hazards. Sometimes, they can’t even prove they own the land because there was no sanctioned system to register deeds.

This disproportionate environmental burden imposed on poor communities, seen the world over, raises questions about the morality of science and technology. Why is it okay to run a closed pipe through a poor neighborhood to provide water for rich neighborhoods? Why do we accept the destruction of a natural ecosystem and rely on technological solutions? Why is it okay to magnify the vulnerability of poor neighborhoods by turning a floodplain into a channel or building a factory nearby?

For too long, I think, we scientists have been able to dodge moral responsibility for impacts like this. We dodge by appealing to the intrinsic morality of advancing knowledge, pretending that science is objective, separating what we discover from how it is used, partitioning science from other ways of knowing (and often holding it above other ways of knowing), and gatekeeping who can be part of science and who gets to ask scientific questions [1].  In a book of sermons titled Strength to Love, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that, as we try to determine and act on what it means to live a moral life, “our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power.” How can we bring the two back into balance?

  • We need to pay attention to the applications and impacts of our work, especially negative ones. Many of the horrifying examples of immoral science are associated with a myopic focus on discovery and a failure to consider impact, especially on the vulnerable. The Willowbrook experiment, in which some institutionalized adults were deliberately infected with hepatitis to study the disease’s transmission, offers one example. Even unintentional impacts of science and technology—the ozone hole, climate change, and antibiotic resistance—represent a failure to fully consider and invite broad deliberation about the uses of new discoveries. Often, this failure falls hardest on the vulnerable and the excluded.
  • We need to accept, perhaps even embrace, the imperfect nature of science. When we work in our labs, write our codes, or study our subjects, the tentative nature of understanding is a foundational principle. We need to apply that same idea to the practice of science. You can’t get better if you think you’re already perfect.
  • We need to welcome diverse people, voices, perspectives, and even epistemologies. We have to reach for perspectives and ideas from beyond science—from ethics, spirituality, humanities, religion, and art. We should invite experience and viewpoints from beyond our scientific ways of thinking. Science, alone, isn’t enough to address the moral challenges it creates. Our science has to be a participant in a larger civic discourse about where we want to go, and that discourse needs to guide what science we do, where we do it, and how we do it.
  • We need to acknowledge our values and act on shared values. Too often, we imagine scientists are purely rational actors who make decisions based on evidence. But evidence isn’t the only guiding force for scientists, nor should it be. Equity, for example, is worth pursuing because it is the right thing to do. We protect vulnerable people because of shared values, not because of a scientific argument. Instead of pursuing an ideal of objectivity, we need to recognize that values will help guide science and think carefully about what we want those values to be.[2]

Community science—when scientists and communities, especially historically marginalized communities, work together to design and do science that advances community priorities—is a way to accomplish these things. In community science, scientists and communities work together to decide what science to do, how to do it, and how that science will be used. Working together creates a space to draw on multiple kinds of experience and knowledge. In designing for real-world impact, community science necessarily grapples with ethical and moral questions about who uses science and to what ends. By respectfully partnering with diverse communities, we access a broader range of values, ask questions that haven’t been asked before, and avoid the inadvertent use of science to enhance inequity. Most importantly, by designing science with communities, community science allows us to grapple with moral issues, consider values, and weigh options in a much larger and more inclusive context.

[1] Peer review has many advantages, but if all the peers are white, middle class, and privileged, it is hard to see how the concerns and issues of minority and disadvantaged populations influence a research agenda. That is gatekeeping.

[2] We also need to respect differing values – some problems with science arise from assumptions scientists make about the superiority of scientific values.


[1]AGU’s new platform to help advance and promote a positive work climate in science, providing tools and resources for researchers at all career stages.

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Think like a leader. You can’t start too soon.

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”– Peter Drucker

Have the feeling you’ve seen this quote before? Since you’re reading this post, chances are good you have; for example, you’ll find it in the February 14 2019 LOTRW post, and perhaps one or two more; it’s also in LOTRW-the-book.

Why the emphasis? Because even with more than seven billion people, today’s world suffers from a shortage of leaders. In a way that’s to be expected. Most of us report to someone higher-up, and are rewarded for doing things right– that is, as defined by that higher-up. Very few are in positions where they’re rewarded for doing the right things – which can usually be identified only by absorbing a diverse range of outside perspectives, accompanied by a deep process of reflection.

But here’s the stern reality. It’s a mistake to think complacently like a manager on your climb up the employment ladder, with the notion that once you reach the top, you’ll flip a switch and from then on think like a leader. Doesn’t work that way. By the time you get “there,” (and “there” is almost always another step away), thinking like a manager will be ingrained, and you’ll discover you have very little countervailing experience thinking like a leader. It’ll be too late. 

So it’s not too early to start. Most fundamentally, while still in a managerial or subservient role, you have to add an overlay to your thought process: if I owned the company, or ran the agency, or led the university, what would I do?

Easier said than done! So to jump start the process, you should be seizing leadership development opportunities every chance you get.

Here’s good news. There’s one right under your nose, and the timing is perfect. It’s the AMS Early Career Development Academy, just now seeking applicants for its second cohort. (The deadline for applications is March 8.) The website supplies full information; here’s an excerpt:

With support provided by IBM, the American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) Early Career Leadership Academy (ECLA) aims to build and sustain a diverse network of early career leaders in weather, water, and climate science. ECLA will bring together a select group of early career individuals—in particular, women and underrepresented minorities—for an immersion experience in leadership, such as creative problem-solving, conflict resolution, building trust, and enhancing communication skills. We seek early career individuals from a wide range of professions, interests, perspectives, cultures, and experiences.

You know you want to do this. 

Don’t believe that you should start now? Feeling pressed for time and tempted to wait until next year? Perhaps these two examples will change your mind. 

The February 9thprint editionof The Economistcontains an article about an upcoming election in Nigeria. The reporter documents reasons for skepticism about prospects for good governance or improved living conditions under either Mr. Buhari, the incumbent seeking reelection, or his challenger, Mr. Abubakar (both men are in their 70’s). But the reporter closes with this: 

Four times Mr Buhari has blocked reforms that would strengthen Nigeria’s electoral commission. Such intransigence frustrates Samson Itodo, a founder of the “Not too young to run” campaign, which is trying to clean up elections and make political involvement easier for the three-quarters of Nigerians who are under 35. “We are tired of these same old leaders,” he says. “We are laying the foundation for a revolution in 2023.” Until then, Nigeria will be stuck with mediocrity.

Not too young to run? What a great name for a political party. But perhaps Mr. Itodo needn’t have waited so long…

Consider thirteen-year-oldAlexandria Villasenor and this article from Tuesday’s Washington Post, entitled How a 7th-grader’s strike against climate change exploded into a movement. It begins this way:

NEW YORK — On the ninth Friday of her strike, 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor wakes to a dozen emails, scores of Twitter notifications and good news from the other side of the planet: Students in China want to join her movement.

Every week since December, the seventh-grader has made a pilgrimage to the United Nations’ headquarters demanding action on climate change. She is one of a cadre of young, fierce and mostly female activists behind the School Strike 4 Climate movement. On March 15, with the support of some of the world’s biggest environmental groups, tens of thousands of kids in at least two dozen countries and nearly 30 U.S. states plan to skip school to protest.

Surely that draws you in. Sarah Kaplan’s full article on Alexandria merits your careful reading. Ms. Kaplan ends it this way:

His presentation done, de Menocal hands the clicker over and Alexandria straightens in her chair. “Okay,” she says. “Here’s the update.”

The professor leans forward as the 13-year-old launches into a description of the global strike — all the support it has, all the attention it has received. In 30 years of studying climate, in all his uncountable hours of attempting to convey the scope of the crisis, he has rarely felt so humbled, he says — or so filled with hope.

“Do you have a statement I can read somewhere?” he asks.

“Sure,” Alexandria says. “We have a mission statement and a media advisory on our website.”

De Menocal mouths “wow” and turns around to give the girl’s mother an amazed grin. Afterward, he pulls Alexandria aside.

“Thank you for what you’re doing,” he says, shaking her hand. “Thank you so much. What can I do to help?”

She tells him about the scientists who are writing a letter of support and suggests that he get involved.

“He can organize the adults,” she says later. “We’re ready for them now.”  [Emphasis added.]

Want to come alongside Mr. Itodo and Ms. Villasenor? Apply for the 2019 ECLA. Dial up your leadership mojo.

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The AMS: a single “point of light?” Or some (much) larger number?

Just what is the American Meteorological Society? Ask this of most of our 13,000 members, and chances are good that you’ll hear one of two pat answers: “it’s a science society,”or “a professional society.” The former might usually be the reply you’ll get back from researcher-members. The latter comes from those applying the science for societal benefit. This second demographic comprises NWS weather forecasters or private-sector meteorologists providing services to agribusiness, the transportation sector and so on; broadcasters, remote-sensing experts/engineers building satellite systems; and others.

You’re unlikely to hear “the AMS is a point of light.”As in, former President George Bush(41)’s inaugural reference to “a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good.”

That’s perhaps understandable…but at the same time, a bit unfortunate. First and foremost, it means that meteorologists, whether researchers or service providers fall into the same trap that ensnares most of our fellow workers of every stripe. We’re getting lost in the drudgery and wearying effort that comes with every job (as my wife likes to remind me, “that’s why they call it work.”), and losing sight of the daily/hourly ways each of us is making the world a better place. We forget we’re helping put food on the world’s tables, water in the world’s taps, and energy in the world’s outlets; saving lives in the face of harsh weather; and protecting the environment and ecosystems. Perhaps you can take a moment to give yourself a bit of grace – and reflect on your contributions before diving back into the job.

That lack of self-awareness also suggests members may be failing to recognize the ways the AMS helps us accomplish this, and the full extent of the AMS local footprint in every American community: 

  • Hundreds of operational weather service forecasters, stationed at 120 offices nationwide, who help thousands of communities stay weather-ready.  
  • Some 1500 broadcasters who are meteorology’s face on public and social media. 
  • Thousands of teachers directly or indirectly using AMS training and educational resources to present the geosciences to 
  • millions of K-12 schoolkids, who then take home that excitement and practical knowledge to their parents. 
  • Over one hundred local chapters, comprising members of all these groups as well as university students and faculty. 

In these ways and more, AMS members can and are doing good, and doing it tangibly and locally. So, however you choose to do the sums, AMS aggregates to some number between one (counting AMS as a single entity) or 13,000 individual points of light across the United States and the world. 

It doesn’t stop there. On closer examination, our members, even as their work is supported by AMS journals and technical meetings, are also providing the knowledge and understanding underpinning the work of perhaps more familiar points of light: The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and many other environmental groups, for example. 

Bottom line? Both AMS members and the larger American society alike are likely inadequately monetizing the true AMS value, which combines elements of scientific and professional society with community-action organization. As individuals and institutions, we can and should do more to make up that difference – through donations over and above the member fees, but also through more active engagement, especially locally. 

By way of encouraging accountability, I’m pledging here and now to do both. Maybe you can do the same. Let’s stay in touch as we go forward. 

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