“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):
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.
While I agree that Congress needs its own science advisor(s), it is far more important that Congress – indeed all of us – learn how to use experts’ advice. You point to the importance of models and modeling, but the economic havoc that governments’ reaction to the SAGE pandemic model has created in the US and the UK should sound a cautionary note. Our non-expert leaders (and all of us who vote) really need two users’s guides – one for expert advice and the other for the results of modeling.
In that regard, I was really disappointed in the press conferences relating to the response to Covid-19. Where were the knowledgeable science reporters who know enough to ask the right questions about the science? Instead we get political potshots flying both ways – perhaps entertaining, but an opportunity missed to really inform the public.
Well said, on all counts (again). And it addition to those user’s guides, we need considerably more hands-on experience. Another analogy might be that temporary permit we get when first learning to drive a car. The instruction and coaching are vital — but it’s also a matter of practice, practice, practice. Unlike a car, as the challenges being modeled and the models depicting them grow more complex, and as things speed up, the skill-level needed ramps up.