Could “science” have morphed into a word that divides us?

The previous LOTRW post dealt with the struggles of scientists – of every stripe – to go beyond the boundaries of their discipline and apply their science to societal benefit. Wherever we turn, we see societal needs. We know our most recent research advances could make the world a better place. But how to accomplish this transition? A critical challenge!

Part of the problem is that our scientific training, by and large, is silent on how to put science to practical use. The observations, the equations, the modeling, the statistical analysis, offer no guidance. But the problem goes deeper. It hurts to say this, but the start, the very beginning, of the problem may be that we scientists self-identify as such. Today, especially here in America, the words “science” and “scientists” are no longer words of inclusion, but rather labels that divide. Our scientist-tribe’s brand has been tarnished.

A vignette suggests a possible origin – a time, and an event – for this.

Perhaps five or ten years ago (don’t remember the exact date), the Committee for Economic Development was rolling out the latest in their continuing series of studies on STEM education at a luncheon. Then-Congressman Rush Holt was the featured speaker. Can’t quote him verbatim but what he said on that occasion was that Sputnik, though widely credited with spurring American science,  had proved in fact to be a disaster for science education in the United States. He said this 1957 Cold-War Russian accomplishment triggered a lot of American soul-searching about the state of science education in public schools. Sure enough, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and other initiatives soon strengthened science education (all well and good), but – targeted primarily a small minority who were judged to have aptitude or enthusiasm for scientific work. This had the unintended consequence of creating an elite (at least as scientists see it). At the same time it engendered today’s generally held idea that it is okay for the vast majority of Americans to not be well versed in science, or even interested in it. This was not the case, Congressman Holt said, for other disciplines – say, being unable to read and write.


We see this every day. Someone who doesn’t know us well asks us what we think about climate change, and we start out innocently enough with some statement like “well, the science says…” If we’re sensitive, open to the cues provided by facial expressions or body language, we’ll notice that a fraction – maybe a large fraction – of our hearers shut down at that point, or get defensive. The curious may be interested in what we have to say next, but those who’d just seconds earlier had been wanting to share some thought or insight of their own have become hesitant, tentative. They may decide to clam up, or to brace themselves for some critique. They feel exactly how I feel if/when a football player comes up to me and says, however playfully, let’s arm wrestle.

Our reputation precedes us. The larger society may be fascinated by science (a sign of mental health!) but find scientists off-putting. That’s because in our science world, progress is made through continual criticism of claims. It’s as if we misheard Descartes to say I critique; therefore I am.

So our hearers have to gauge: does my credential in this area match those of this scientist? If they don’t, he/she will not listen to what I have to say on this subject. I haven’t “paid my dues” – done the lit review or taken the observations, or developed and run the models.

This sense of discipline is captured by definitions. Here’s a sample:


– a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws:

– the mathematical sciences.

– systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

– any of the branches of natural or physical science.

Systematic. Mathematical. Experimentation. Each of these words characterizing science is a barrier separating true scientists from others. This threesome isn’t in your background? Then, in the presence of a scientist, talking about science, safer to keep your mouth shut. Maybe, just maybe, venture a question. But even that poses a risk. We worry: if the question isn’t properly constructed, I might be diminished in this scientist’s eyes. (By the way, even scientists, maybe especially scientists, also experience this. When I’m with a particle-physicist, or biochemist, or sociologist, I’m cautious, self-protective.)

If this is the nature of individual transactions, especial our initial ones, little wonder that societal uptake of science is less than ideal.

Two closing points. First: you may think this concern too harsh, or even unwarranted – especially if you yourself are a scientist. Fair enough. But as we engage others, it’s not what we think about ourselves and how we come across, but the way they actually view us that matters most. I confess, my own thinking here is both rudimentary and emotional; your own view, knowledge – especially any of your social science – would be most welcome.

Second, you might reasonably ask: okay, Bill, what’s your suggestion, or your better idea?

It turns out I have one. More focus on the labels such as real, reality, realistic.

These are inclusive words. We all feel we’re realistic, and that our thinking is reality based. We’re comfortable with those ideas. Very few of us consciously or consistently think of ourselves as delusional.

Compare the definitions:


 – true; not merely ostensible, nominal, or apparent

– existing or occurring as fact; actual rather than imaginary, ideal, or fictitious

– being an actual thing; having objective existence; not imaginary


– the state or quality of being real.

– resemblance to what is real.

– a real thing or fact.

Whatever our walk of life, whatever our journey, we readily and comfortably see ourselves in the reality-based camp.

We began with a vignette – let’s close with one. When considering the title for this blog – and later the book by the same name – I found myself at a time when the words climate change and climate science were degrading into partisan labels. I wanted some way to discuss those and related topics without that baggage. Part of that was moving to the word real.

We’re living (inclusively!) on the real world.

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The struggle to realize societal benefit from S&T.

“The American Meteorological Society advances the atmospheric and related sciences, technologies, applications, and services for the benefit of society.” – the AMS Mission (emphasis added)

At one time or another, just about every member of the American Meteorological Society comes across this mission statement, with its emphasis on both the advance of S&T and the harnessing of those advances for societal good. Other science- and professional societies aspire to the same dual ends. The American Physical Society seeks the advancement of physics and the benefit of humanity. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) is dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity. The Geological Society of America seeks to advance geoscience research and discovery, service to society…

You see the pattern.

The reality for many (probably most?) members of these scientific communities is that as individuals we put rather more effort into the advance of our science and technology than into their application.

This is understandable. That’s where the majority of us have been trained; that’s what we’re best equipped to do. And truth be told, for most of the history of these societies (a century or some cases a bit more), the biggest limitation to societal benefit has been the rudimentary state of our respective fields. That training has taught us a very important lesson: it’s hard to make progress in any effort in an undisciplined, haphazard, happy-go-lucky way. So we fall back on what we know. We recognize that usually the best use of the next hour of our time is spent advancing our discipline, and we blaze that trail.

The resultant progress across the sciences and the engineering disciplines over the past century has been nothing short of phenomenal. And huge societal benefit is everywhere to be seen: increases in food production. Health care that can reduce mortality in childbirth and extend good years at the other end. Wealth and material well-being.

For some. Many, to be sure, but only for some. Societal uptake has been patchy – occurring effectively here and there, but leaving the lives of millions, perhaps even a billion or so, relatively untouched, unimproved. One example, close to home: here in the geosciences, hazards warnings (ranging from a few minutes’ notice of a tornado to unfolding risks of climate change), though significantly better than those of just a few years ago, too-often go unheeded.

In recent years, this has prompted meteorologists and other geo-scientists to take an additional step. Case in point? In an effort to be as disciplined in risk messaging, in communicating weather impacts as we are in risk detection, meteorologists have courted social scientists and brought them into our ranks as best we could. A decade ago, we established a “new” AMS journal, Weather, Climate and Society. We’re no longer content to operate on the basis of vague subjective impressions of the impact and value of our work. In the April 2018 issue of the journal (pictured), for example, articles look quantitatively at the impacts of changing climate on backcountry recreation, tease out data-based demographics of Romanian vulnerability to lightning strikes, the outlook for tornado damage in Florida, the effect of Midwest winter weather on Midwest aviation, and much more.

Social science integrated with meteorology? Definitely an improvement! But we’re not there yet. It’s early days, so there is reason for optimism; it’ll take a while to get the collaboration fully up and running, let alone see the impacts. However, it’s difficult to escape the nagging feeling that societal uptake is still too slow. Not measured relative to the past; we’re definitely doing better. But looking ahead? We are not making progress at the rate that the rapidly evolving, more complex, fast-paced, problematic world of the future will need.

In part that’s because social scientists, though social, are also scientists. Read their professional society mission statements and you’ll find they’re the same as those of other societies. Here’s one from the American Anthropological Association: to advance anthropology… (and) the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems. The American Political Science Association focuses on promoting scholarly research… and preparing citizens to be effective citizens and political participants. Their scientists are facing the same difficulties translating progress in understanding into widespread societal benefit as do their counterparts in the physical sciences.

But we face a more fundamental problem – our numbers. AMS membership lies between ten and fifteen thousand. Only two people out of every million worldwide are members. But even adding in every other scientific and engineering association of every stripe, scientists and engineers nationally and worldwide add up to only a tiny handful of humanity. By contrast, societal benefit can only be achieved through changes in the everyday decisions and actions of the 320 million people here in the United States, or the seven billion worldwide. That, as much as any cultural barrier, limits societal uptake of science and technology.

Speed of societal uptake varies; compare, for example, the uptake of cellular phones relative to the improvement in people’s diet in response to medical findings on nutrition. Both the successes and the struggles have much to teach us.

Making a difference requires fresh approaches. More soon – but don’t wait for me. Surely you have your own good ideas.

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No science, no sustainability… the implications.

If vigorous advance of science and technology is a necessary condition for sustainability, then getting the social contract between science and society right is vital to humanity’s prospects.

What features of that social contract matter? Today’s post considers one that’s particularly sobering.

First, let’s go over a bit of groundwork:

Think of sustainability as the ability to provide food, water, and energy for the world’s seven billion people (going on nine billion); simultaneously building resilience to hazards, and maintaining ecosystem services and air- and water quality; all the while preserving (or even adding to) the same opportunities and options for future generations. A clearly meritorious, perhaps even defining, societal goal.

Significantly, this goal can never be actually achieved – not in any steady state. It can only be sought, or perhaps neared, through continuous innovation, that is: through steadily maintained scientific and technological advance, accompanied by constant societal uptake.

Some might be dismayed by this. But in fact, given the wonderful way our lives work, this turns out to be  good news. Sustainability’s elusive nature gives each generation challenge, suspense – and in the process, meaning. Our lives and work – and similarly, the efforts and labors of our children, and theirs – will always matter. We all have to keep moving forward if we hope to postpone entropy’s inexorable drive toward decline and decay.

So – no science, no sustainability? That’s a reality[1] — one that will always be with us.

One implication?

If society is to be sustainable, science needs to remain non-partisan. This has been a fundamental, unshakeable tenet of the social contract between science and society as long as anybody can remember. Science is, and should be, fundamentally non-partisan. If critical thinking and innovation aren’t cultural values, universally held; if somehow support for science is confined to a single subculture; if science is supported only by members of one or the other political party – then the advance of science will accelerate or slow along with the fortunes of that party. In such a cyclical regime, when those favoring science are out of power, then entropy begins to win. Worse yet, because science is a long game, and advances best under steady, uninterruptible support, even in the “good times” of the political cycle, the progress of science and its ability to benefit society will be compromised.

Science and scientists were accorded such non-partisan favor by both Republicans and Democrats following World War II, and pretty much throughout the Cold War that followed. But over the past two decades, that social contract has frayed.

Success, not failure, of the innovation and public support for it has contributed to this problem. Specifically, physical science and technology, especially nuclear technology, helped the United States maintain its national security during the Cold War. Near the Cold War’s end, breakthroughs in the bio-sciences and technologies have contributed to medical care and public health. But the costs of the innovation enterprise have ratcheted up. Investments in science visibly compete with investments in other priorities of the national agenda – e.g., critical infrastructure and the social safety net.

Then there’s the matter of who pays for science – and who benefits. As the applications of science and technology have conferred benefit (whether in health care, or information technology, or the geosciences and social sciences), it’s at the same time become increasingly clear to the public that the costs and benefits of science aren’t necessarily equitably distributed – across states and communities, ethnic groups, gender, and more. Some are enjoying the full benefits; others are being left further and further behind.

Finally –and this is awkward – scientists themselves haven’t helped. It’s easy, and tempting, to point the accusing finger to the other side. There’s a certain chicken-egg quality to the disaffection of some political parties for certain branches of science, and the estrangement between scientists and politicians in return. However, there is no excuse for scientists to be complacent about any resulting distrust (or worse yet, enmity).

We need to do better – in two respects.

For starters, we’ve got to be resolute in our focus on science. However tempting or satisfying in the short term it might be to favor this or that political action in response to scientific findings – whether related to health issues such as vaccinations, or food issues raised by genomic-modification of plants and animals, we need to confine scientific input to the policy process to analysis of the impact of policy options – versus, say, favoring this or that particular option over another.

In the same way, we need to be broadband, full-spectrum, even-handed in our outreach. We need to court all political parties, all national constituencies, with respect to the importance of science, the need for STEM education and critical thinking in public school curricula, etc. In that regard one particular trend is worrisome – the trend over the years for Congressional Science Fellows to work in Democratic versus Republican offices. We can’t afford complacency; AAAS and the partners should be seeking to remedy this with vigor.

All this discussion hints brings us to the second implication:

If society is to be sustainable, science needs to become (more effectively) partisan. We don’t face a mere challenge – we face a true conundrum[2],[3].  As soon as science isn’t something pursued on a purely individual basis – as soon as science is supported in financial and other ways by society – then at that very moment, science has inherently become political – and in most societies worldwide, that means science has become partisan. (Fact is, since science is a human construct; we’ve been living with this reality from the get-go.)

There’s no escaping this. The only choice then becomes – will science and scientists become astutely, adeptly political? Or will we blunder through the political policy process – breaking things and building up animosity as we go? One metric of our political competence might be something like the following: political competence (or competent partisanship?) is the ability to solve a given problem without compromising our ability to solve the next one. At a minimum, this means we can’t focus solely on science; we have to keep one eye out for how our science is being used by society.

One way out, that at least deserves further thought: if partisanship creates the conundrum, then perhaps scientists, in addition to favoring STEM education, public support, and all the rest, might reasonably also study what makes societies partisan, and perhaps even consider whether or how society might possibly trend less partisan, without losing any precious diversity.

And lead the charge , by modeling the desired less-partisan behavior ourselves.


[1]And the subject not just of the previous LOTRW post, but also of eight years of blogging, as well as the book by the same name.

[2] Conundrum a an intricate and difficult problem

  • He is faced with the conundrumof trying to find a job without having experience.

b a question or problem having only a conjectural answer

  • … the political conundrumsinvolved, particularly the problem of how the richer areas … can be made to subsidize the poorer.

[3] Bill Gail is the master of conundrums, as the collection of ten in his 2014 book powerfully demonstrates. So it’s fitting to accompany this assertion with an apology for today’s presumption, with a tip of the hat in his direction, and with a reminder to everyone who hasn’t yet done so, to drop what they’re doing and buy and read his book.)


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No science, no sustainability.

On August 26, 1999 – almost two decades ago – Allan Bromley, science advisor to George H.W. Bush from 1989-1993, contributed an op-ed to the Washington Post, entitled No Science, no Surplus.

His basic point? That America’s healthy finances and position in the world at that time owed less to any fiscal chops than to past investments in science. A powerful insight!

And yet it grossly understated the existential importance of advancing science and technology (and their application for societal benefit). Master innovation, make it a way of life – and humankind can prosper indefinitely. To be content with the status quo – to lapse into complacency – is to invite social collapse. The choice is that stark.


To see this, let’s start by digging a little deeper. Mr. Bromley began his op-ed this way:

America is on a roll. We’re balancing the federal budget, reforming welfare and making retirement secure. Sound like a breakthrough in fiscal management? Not exactly. Our awesome economic success can be traced directly to our past investments in science. The problem is, this year’s federal budget for science is a disaster, and it compromises our nation’s economic and social progress.

Here are the latest budget numbers: NASA science is slashed by $678 million; science at the Department of Energy is cut by $116 million; and the National Science Foundation ends up with $275 million less than the president requested. Clearly, Congress has lost sight of the critical role science plays in America.

Federal investments in science pay off — they produce cutting-edge ideas and a highly skilled work force. The ideas and personnel then feed into high-tech industries to drive the U.S. economy. It’s a straightforward relationship: Industry is attentive to immediate market pressures; the federal government makes the venturous investments in university-based research that ensures long-term competitiveness. So far, it’s been a powerful tandem…

He closed as follows:

…Americans hold more than $5 trillion in communications and technology stocks. Our mutual funds, our 401K plans and IRAs are stuffed full of high-tech investments. The retirement security of Americans now depends upon the steady flow of innovations from technology companies. In turn, those companies rely on the steady flow of discoveries and trained work force generated by the scientific community. No science, no savings.

Scientific research at our universities and national labs is now a foundation of the economy and thereby vital to the success of social legislation. But rather than reinforcing the foundation, Congress is eroding it. That action couldn’t come at a worse time.

America’s science infrastructure is in decay — aged science buildings on our campuses, dated laboratory equipment, antiquated computers. During the Bush administration, the Office of Science and Technology Policy estimated the cost of rebuilding our science infrastructure at $100 billion. The Clinton administration has done little to address the problem. The budget Congress is proposing guarantees continued decay…

His 1999 bottom line?

For the sake of the country, I hope Congress will recognize the significant role science plays in society. Without science, there won’t be a surplus.

Spot, on, insofar as it goes. Mr. Bromley continued to speak and write in this veinfor the rest of his life. His ideas influenced others. In 2012, during the Obama-Romney presidential campaign, Neal Lane, former science advisor to President Clinton, in a New York Timesop-ed, doubled down:

Mitt Romney said in all three presidential debates that we need to expand the economy. But he left out a critical ingredient: investments in science and technology.

Scientific knowledge and new technologies are the building blocks for long-term economic growth…

So it is astonishing that Mr. Romney talks about economic growth while planning deep cuts in investment in science, technology and education. They are among the discretionary items for which spending could be cut 22 percent or more under the Republican budget plan, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the plan, which Mr. Romney has endorsed, could cut overall nondefense science, engineering, biomedical and technology research by a quarter over the next decade, and energy research by two-thirds.

Mr. Romney seems to have lost sight of the critical role of research investments not only in developing new medicines and cleaner energy sources but also in creating higher-skilled jobs…[the full text inserts supporting detail here]

…If our country is to remain strong and prosperous and a land of rewarding jobs, we need to understand this basic investment principle in America’s future: no science, no growth.

Mr. Bromley argued science and technology investments made possible a balanced federal budget, even a surplus. Mr. Lane asserted that innovation was essential not just to federal budget health, but national economic growth.

This viewpoint continues to be widely held. In a comment on the previous LOTRW post, Rick Spinrad, former NOAA Chief Scientist, reminded me that he and other chief scientists from five major federal agencies made a similar point back in 2015:

While the pioneering spirit has not changed and the pace of technological revolutions remains strong, there are three areas where America must make headway in order to keep our rightful place as leader in science and technology:

First, we need more American pioneers to develop the innovative technologies needed to build more resilient, sustainable communities, protect human health and make progress in improving quality of life. We can do this through continued support of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, which is the catalyst for spurring and maintaining a highly-skilled American workforce.

Second, we need a renewed commitment for critical investments which provide the funding and resources our scientists in basic and applied research fields need to do their jobs. And in following these tenets, we need to fund projects that our well-trained scientists believe will lead to major breakthroughs.

And now more than ever, we need more policy champions to keep the trust in his vision and help promote the basic research our agencies, our research partners and our commercial industries need to keep the U.S. on the leading edge.

As chief scientists of U.S. federal science and service agencies, we are committed to keeping the U.S. at the forefront of science and technological innovation as the frontier of opportunities continues to expand


The societal stakes are higher than these perspectives suggest. Fact is, there is no steady-state means by which seven-going-on-nine-billion people can continue indefinitely to meet basic needs for food, water, and energy; maintain resilience to natural hazards; and protect habitats, ecosystems, and the services they provide. We can never achieve these goals so much as through continuous innovation buy time[1].

The current rapid advance of science and technology is good news. Indications are that in principle, not only can we buy time, we can buy lots of it. The tricky bit is that innovation is about more than R&D – it’s about societal uptake. And this latter step requires consistently supportive public policies, providing: sustained investment, at meaningful levels; strong public education; robust democratic institutions; and trust – nothing less than a culture of innovation– prevailing country by country, and indeed on global scales.

This has implications for the social contract between scientists and society. More soon.


[1]The argument is laid out more fully in Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Can Save the Planet(American Meteorological Society press, 2014)

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You’ve got Mail!

Time was, e-mail was rare, and all e-mail was exciting. Today’s title phrase channels that 1990’s buzz. Baby boomers and perhaps a few Millennials recall dial-up (!!!) e-mail and AOL (the two were practically synonymous then) and this iconic AOL tagline.[1]

In 2018, of course, we’re all drowning in e-mail. Only a fraction of the Inbox merits more than a meh.

But if you’re scientist of any stripe, one e-mail arrives about this time each year that causes a bit of a stir: an annual White House memorandum, co-signed by OMB and OSTP directors, directed to the heads of executive departments and agencies, and laying out administration priorities for an upcoming government R&D budget. Those agency heads in turn quickly forward it down the chain to their professionals and simultaneously blast it out to stakeholders (including corporate leaders, university research administrators, and the occasional NGO), who pass it along to their respective communities. Sooner or later it finds its way to the likes of you and me.

This year’s full version, dated July 31, highlights these R&D priority areas for FY 2020:

  • Security of the American People
  • American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Information Sciences, and Strategic Computing
  • American Connectivity and Autonomy
  • American Manufacturing
  • American Space Exploration & Commercialization
  • American Energy Dominance
  • American Medical Innovation
  • American Agriculture

It also lists these “R&D priority practices”:

  • Educating and Training a Workforce for the 21st Century Economy
  • Managing and Modernizing R&D Infrastructure
  • Maximizing Interagency Coordination and Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration
  • Transferring Technology from Laboratory to Marketplace
  • Partnering with Industry and Academia

The complete memorandum, which runs a few pages, expands on each bullet, clarifying intent and adding nuance. Examining one bullet gives the flavor:

American Energy Dominance

Fueling America’s greatness requires access to domestic sources of clean, affordable, and reliable energy. Unleashing these abundant energy resources will require investment in next-generation energy technologies to efficiently convert them into useful energy services (e.g., light, heat, mobility, power, etc.). Agencies should invest in early-stage, innovative technologies that show promise in harnessing American energy resources safely and efficiently. Federally funded energy R&D should continue to reflect an increased reliance on the private sector to fund later-stage research, development, and commercialization of energy technologies. Agencies should invest in user facilities that can improve collaboration with industry and academia and achieve advancements across the full spectrum of discovery, from incremental improvements to game­ changing breakthroughs.

Comparing versions year-on-year, or even better, from different administrations, yields further insights. For example, here’s a link to an Obama-era edition, dated July 9, 2015, listing multi-agency S&T priorities for FY 2017:

  • Global climate change
  • Clean energy
  • Earth observations.
  • Advanced manufacturing and industries of the future
  • Innovation in life sciences, biology, and neuroscience
  • National and homeland security
  • Information technology and high-performance computing
  • Ocean and Arctic issues
  • R&D for informed policy-making and management

It also devotes separate attention to the following topics:

  • R&D Infrastructure
  • Other R&D Program Guidance
  • STEM Education Guidance

Some priorities appear on only one or the other list. Space exploration. Global climate change. Earth observations. Ocean and Arctic. Other priorities may be labeled slightly differently but clearly are common to both: National security. Information technology. Manufacturing. Life sciences/medical innovation. Energy.

Drilling down a bit further on this last (energy) piece: the Obama version emphasizes clean energy, versus the Trump emphasis on energy dominance. That difference carries over to the fine print. The Obama version offers this:

Clean energy.

The President has stated a goal for the United States to lead the world in clean energy. His Climate Action Plan outlines several key objectives in this domain that should be given priority in the 2017 Budget, including promoting American leadership in renewable energy (including manufacturing for these technologies and a modernized electric grid); unlocking innovation in other key clean energy technologies; building a clean and efficient 21st_ century transportation sector; and cutting energy waste in homes, businesses, and factories. In transportation, there is a particular need to support R&D that can advance multiple transportation modes and fill knowledge and technology gaps. As part of this focus, agencies should also support technology development that has the dual benefit of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and bolstering the resilience of our communities. For example, agencies might consider technology development that leverages renewable energy to power water desalination or purification – reducing the GHG footprint of drinking water and bolstering the resilience of communities in drought-prone areas.

Quite a difference in rhetoric – and entirely consistent with the differences in over-arching objectives of the two administrations that Americans can glean from news media coverage. But read more closely, and the differences tend to disappear. If you have the luxury, you might take the time to reread these two passages and reflect: how are these passages similar or different in substance? To what extent are any differences mostly a matter of word choice? (Still have time? Then go back and compare some of the other bulleted priorities side-by-side.)

Up to this point, those hard at work on Earth observations, science, and services might experience an anxious twinge. That portfolio is all about helping the Nation meet its needs for food, water, energy and other natural resources, building resilience to natural hazards, and protecting the environment and ecosystem services. Much of this seems explicit in the Obama-era document, but is less visible in this year’s version.[2]What’s the future for this work?

The short answer? Despite the lack of text, still good. By and large, the memoranda priorities aren’t focused on particular scientific and engineering disciplines. They’re essentially silent on the particulars of any physics, or chemistry, or social science breakthroughs needed. But they’re strong on “what’s in it for the American taxpayer footing the bill.” Natural resource needs? They’re tied to national security. (What’s more, the current priorities separately break out agriculture. The text might be light on science, but American farmers are utterly dependent on innovation to maintain their success in international markets.) And environmental and energy needs are joined at the hip; they’re inseparable. Although social science is never mentioned in either year – it nevertheless underpins the whole of any national agenda that happens to (blush!) involve people. Both documents emphasize workforce issues, R&D infrastructure, manufacturing, tech transfer, public private – all activities relating to societal uptake of research advance.

So your research, whatever it may be, is always in there, whether explicitly or implicitly. And that’s reflected in budget appropriations, which have been kind to science the past year or so.

That reality reflects the R&D document’s dual purposes. It is aimed not at one, but at two audiences. To scientists, the message is an admonition. You’re being funded by taxpayer dollars. Never lose focus on the ultimate societal benefit from your R&D. Good advice! Turned around, the message to Congress and the American public is a marketing piece, touting how the Nation needs and benefits from all science: Innovation is vital to America’s future, and that of the world, and that innovation is needed across the board. This science and technology is our path to get there. You ought to be happy about the work scientists do day in and day out for the Nation.

A final thought. From time to time, even the most focused bench scientist – no matter how absorbed in the observations or the equations and models – wonders about the black box that is policy for science (loosely speaking, funding decisions), and science for policy (loosely speaking, how S&T advances inform policymaking, identifying and even expanding future options for maintaining basic American values and achieving universally-sought goals).

Scholars work 24/7, year-round on all this. But you and I, even if we spend only an hour or so every few months reflecting on the latest R&D priorities document and its relation to public dialog on jobs, education, health, and security, can gain valuable insight into how we might make our science count, make it more relevant.

We can all afford that investment of time. The meh e-mail stack can wait. And we’ll equip ourselves to resolve an existential global challenge: sustainability. More in the next LOTRW post.


[1]And of course the 1998 romantic comedy by that name, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (you can never watch it too many times – thank you, Nora Ephron).

[2]Or last year’sfor that matter.

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Confirmation hearings – then and now.

It’s the year 2018. The president has nominated you to serve as his science adviser. You’re seated before a committee of Senators. They’ll make an initial call on whether or not you should be confirmed. One asks, then another (with variations on the same theme): Is climate change real? What should we do about it?[1]

Sitting there, with the lights up, the video running, the cameras clicking, you know two things of a certainty.

First, the people who sent you here, the people who nominated you, have expectations about your answer. They’ve asked you the same questions – repeatedly – in interviewing you for the job, and they’ve heard, mulled over, and reacted to your answers. They’ve made clear what attributes (substance, stance, tone) they consider preconditions for the job, not just for the hearing but for the remainder of your tenure. The community you hail from, that is, your fellow scientists from your discipline, your fellow faculty members, your family – the people who shaped you, made you who you are – they have expectations too. Everyone wants to hear you to say certain things in a certain way.

The intersection of all these expectations is essentially a null set.

Second, you know that whatever you say, however you say it, your answer will serve as a springboard for criticism from every quarter – from the Senators present, from the scientific community, from the news media. What’s more, much of what those people will say has already been predetermined – rather than having much to do with what you will actually say. In part, that’s because we human beings don’t always just believe what we see. To a great extent we see what we believe. We find what we’re looking for.

Rorschach had it right.

To emphasize: the substance and the tone of the tweets, the blogposts, the op-eds, won’t just be a reaction to what you say. It may have been planned in advance. Even if not, it’ll reflect the writers’ and speakers’ upbringing, their previous life experiences, their employers’ or constituencies’ expectations and demands – the folks social scientists these days label their “culture” or “tribe.” (Full disclosure, though there shouldn’t be any lingering doubt; that applies to these LOTRW posts as well. Take them with a grain of salt.)

How do you respond?

Before we turn to that question, it’s worth noting that things haven’t changed all that much. Case in point: some 2000 years ago there was another conversation, really a confirmation hearing of a sort, considered so remarkable by those “in the room when it happened” that they carefully, meticulously, passed the transcript down through the ages. Very few documents have survived from that period, but this one did. It mattered that much.

It’s c. 30/33A.D.Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

 Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.[2]

They were indeed amazed… and so are we, even millennia later. What an answer!


Again, how do you respond?

A final observation. There’s little joy in debate. Not for you, certainly, but for not for anyone else in the hearing room either. Fact is, any satisfaction from scoring debating points is fleeting at best. The antibodies you build up on the other side endure.

But it’s possible to make it clear, perhaps not in so many words, but through tone, that you’re not interested in adding to the country’s polarization, fractiousness, division, distrust, and pain. There’s more than enough of that to go around. But if the people in the room want to join in a search for truth (including but not limited to what does scientific evidence say about climate change? What mitigation and coping options are available to us?) – you’re all in.

This is not a new thought. The best nominees move discussions in this direction, and the most satisfying confirmation hearings wind up on a similar positive note. That guy from 2000 years ago? He said,

You shall know the truth, and truth will set you free.”[3]

Let freedom ring.


[1]Note that there are many other such vexing questions at the intersection of science and policy, touching on when life begins, creation and evolution, the health implications of nanotechnology, genetically modified foods, vaccinations, and more.

[2]Matthew 22:15-22 NIV. Of course, this was a confirmation hearing of a different kind. Jesus made a simple claim, that he was the son of God. He had quite a resume: wise insights, healings, even bringing a friend back to life. But based on this hearing,  and others, people were troubled. The concern was non-partisan. Not one, but all parties – Romans, the Jewish leaders, the people – agreed he should be put to death, and carried out the execution. But there’s been continuing disagreement about what happened next.

[3]John 8:32

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The president names a science adviser.

Tuesday I was composing a post for LOTRW. It began in this vein…

This past week saw the Washington Post run yet another story on the lack of a presidential science advisor in the current administration. The story’s author, Ben Guarino, noted this was cause for concern: Congress established the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, in 1976 as a way to channel scientific analysis and advice to the president. Most presidents also gave OSTP directors the title of assistant to the president for science and technology. That appointment allowed advisers to directly and confidentially communicate with the president.

In the past, science advisers guided presidents during disease outbreaks, natural disasters, biological weapons attacks and other national crises. The advisers also led the OSTP’s review of federal research and collaborated with the Office of Management and Budget to develop a research budget.

Science advisers to the president typically hold advanced degrees and have leadership experience in research institutions. The job requires comprehension of dozens of branches of science and fields as varied as national security, climate and artificial intelligence…

…On Monday, Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) sent a letter to Trump urging the president to select a science adviser. “Currently, nine out of ten key OSTP staff positions remain vacant,” he said.

Nothing less than U.S. scientific leadership is at risk, Coons warned. “I remain quite concerned that, when it comes to science, America is falling behind its major competitors,” he said, citing a skyrocketing trend in Chinese research and development…”


What a difference 24 hours can make! Before the day was out, the news media were stating that the president intends to nominate Kelvin Droegemeier to the post.

Some reflections:

1.A truly distinguished selection! Kelvin Droegemeier is an eminent researcher, teacher, and science administrator. His numerical predictive modeling of weather extremes on the mesoscale, and his application of adaptive-grid techniques to such modeling, has proven cutting-edge with respect to both advancing fundamental scientific understanding and computational technique. His leadership potential was recognized early on, while he was a Center Director at the University of Oklahoma. His tenure as OU’s Vice President for Research and his accompanying stint on the National Science Board overseeing the National Science Foundation broadened his experience with and feel for issues and challenges spanning the whole of science. His more recent additional duties as science adviser to the governor of Oklahoma have shown that he can match science to societal needs. Throughout he’s maintained high positive energy and exhibited and honed extraordinary interpersonal skills; the people who know him the best like and respect him the most.

2.Can all that ability be translated into effective performance? Time will tell. The president’s science adviser doesn’t directly supervise thousands of professionals. Nor does he (or someday she!) control billion-dollar budgets, such as those of the federal science agencies. Instead, the adviser’s stock in trade is the trust of two quite distinct and different parties – the small, but broadly powerful White House, comprising the president and his staff; and the equally important but larger and far more diffuse and multi-faceted science community. At this initial moment, it’s clear both groups trust him personally. Otherwise the White House would not have surfaced his name… and the initial science community reaction wouldn’t have been so uniformly positive.

Should he be nominated and confirmed, Mr. Droegemeier’s success (and ultimately, his legacy) will be measured by the extent to which he is able over time to encourage: (1) both White House and scientists to be a bit more trusting of each other; (2) work together a bit more smoothly on salient science bits of the national agenda; and (3) repeat. The recent relationship between White House and science has been contentious. As a result, several iterations of this process will be required before U.S. innovation will be once again proceeding with the vigor and the sense of common purpose needed to keep pace with the growing needs of the Nation and the world for water, food, energy, and other resources; for improved public health; for safety in the face of hazards and national security more broadly; for protection of vital ecosystem services; for robust critical infrastructure; and for economic growth and technological advance; and more.

It’s widely argued and generally understood that trust must be earned. Fair enough. But in this circumstance, it’s important that we all understand, political leaders and scientists alike, that trust is also something we grant (see also this earlier LOTRW post from 2011). Accordingly, our job is less to sit in judgment of Mr. Droegemeier than to rally around behind him – that is, if we want humanity to prosper and the U.S. to retain a vital role in world affairs.

In this regard our history is checkered. When John H. Marburger III accepted the invitation of then-president George W. Bush to be his science adviser, his reward was to be widely reviled by scientists for what were perceived as shortcomings in his performance in that role, and even for agreeing to serve in the first place.

Mr. Marburger deserved better – and so will Mr. Droegemeier. When he struggles from time to time with the job – and he surely will – let’s stand by today’s initial positive judgment. Let’s not jettison our current high regard in favor of tongue-clucking. Instead, let’s recognize he faces tasks and circumstances far more daunting than those confronted by science advisers in recent experience. And let’s pull a little harder to keep science and our country moving in a positive direction. Let’s keep in mind that to the extent he struggles, we have ourselves to blame. And as he succeeds, we might each indulge ourselves a small congratulatory pat on the back.

Chances are good the confirmation hearing will provide all of us – political leaders, the general public, and scientists alike – an early Rorschach test. Right out of the box, we’ll hear a question along the lines of “Dr. Droegemeier, is climate change a problem? What should we do about it?” How we feel about and respond to his answer to this – and his answers to dozens of other similarly polarizing questions – will reveal more about us than about him.

More in a later post.

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Twenty Questions: hazards-style.

“A river is made drop by drop.” – Afghan proverb.

Last week, the 43rd Annual Natural Hazards Workshop ran July 8-11 in Broomfield, Colorado. Several features make the occasion unique. For example, though the meeting is largely invitational, every year about a third of the participants are first-timers. The crowd is international and diverse. The organizers work hard to get academics in the same room with practitioners. The result is a lively learning environment!

The workshop is hosted by the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center. The newest Center director  – Lori Peek – has taken a more hands-on approach to crafting the workshop than some of her predecessors. This, her second meeting, comes hard on the heels of a catastrophic 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, California wildfires, and volcanic activity on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Workshop sessions treated in succession twenty questions, designed to get past mere understanding of the causes of disaster losses and concentrate minds on the actual reduction of risk and loss on the ground:

  1. Question 1: What is our moonshot—that big, exploratory, ambitious, groundbreaking idea—for the hazards and disaster community?
  2. Question 2: What environmental and social conditions produce cascading disasters, and how do they, in turn, ultimately influence what society can deal with and what it cannot?
  3. Question 3: How can the public sector, investors, and capital markets be encouraged to invest in risk reduction and resilience building activities?
  4. Question 4: To what extent, and under what conditions, do culturally competent initiatives increase representation of and reduce disaster vulnerability among underserved communities?
  5. Question 5: We know that natural hazards mitigation saves, but where do we go from here?
  6. Question 6: How can we best encourage a culture of preparedness, communicate risk, and promote meaningful action from the public?
  7. Question 7: How do we align research questions and policy applications to save lives, reduce injury, and improve mental health outcomes in disaster?
  8. Question 8: In light of recent catastrophic environmental extremes, how can we ensure that communities that experience “low-attention” disasters get the resources and support they need?
  9. Question 9: How do we plan for just and equitable disaster recovery?
  10. Question 10: How useful is the continuing expansion of disaster research and its regular creation of new concepts and jargon?
  11. Question 11: How do we best use hazards information to reduce disaster losses?
  12. Question 12: How do we continue to address the needs of vulnerable populations in emergencies, while also working more systematically to reduce social, economic, and health disparities?
  13. Question 13: How can we imagine equitable and resilient infrastructure design when so much of our existing infrastructure is in such dire need of repair?
  14. Question 14: If there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster, then who should be held responsible when catastrophe strikes?
  15. Question 15: Considering the investments being made in emergency response and recovery in the areas affected by recent major disasters, how can we also ensure resources and attention are dedicated to those who are at high risk of disaster, but that haven’t recently experienced one?
  16. Question 16: How can we better coordinate post-disaster research and integrate the findings from those efforts into education, training, practice, and policy?
  17. Question 17: What would it take to build a national movement focused on hazards mitigation, while still supporting local, grassroots mitigation champions?
  18. Question 18: What did the 2017 disaster season teach us that we did not already know?
  19. Question 19: How do we ensure that those who care for survivors—the first responders, volunteers, and others caught up in the disaster aftermath—receive the proper health care and support that they need?
  20. Question 20: Why, if this is so easy, is it so hard? What is stopping us from taking decades of knowledge and moving it into action?

Whew! What a mix! Expansive breadth, big-picture, rich detail. The several days barely allowed time to scratch the surface of these topics. And it by no means ends there. If you’ve read this far, chances are good you can raise additional issues meriting equal attention.

The make-up of the list invites a couple of conclusions. Consistent with the charter of the Center, the emphasis is not so much on the advance of knowledge per se but on converting that knowledge into societal benefit. Second, societal uptake of knowledge doesn’t seem to have progressed much in the seventeen years since the classic paper by Gilbert White, Robert Kates, and Ian Burton, Knowing better and losing even more: the use of knowledge in hazards management (Environmental Hazards 3 [2001] 81–92). Losses from hazards vary significantly year on year, but generally ratchet upward, as shown below:

White, Kates and Burton offer four putative explanations for the dreary trend: (1) knowledge continues to be flawed by areas of ignorance; (2) knowledge is available but not used effectively; (3) knowledge is used effectively but takes a long time to have effect; and (4) knowledge is used effectively in some respects but is overwhelmed by increases in vulnerability and in population, wealth, and poverty.

Contrast this with another arena, one in which knowledge about the root causes of catastrophe is put into practice to reduce losses more effectively – commercial aviation:

This graph shows that despite a four-fold increase in air traffic over the past half-century, losses have declined since about 1970. As has been noted in previous LOTRW posts, this inflection in what had been a steady prior rise in aviation fatalities is roughly coincident with the establishment of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB is central to the commercial aviation community’s effort to make air travel safer. The NTSB/community response to an aviation accident or (importantly) to any near-miss is to learn from experience, that is to assert “this must never happen again.” Important to note here is that the NTSB adjustments can be sweeping but also quite particular.

While an NTSB and an associated national policy framework is hugely helpful, perhaps it is not absolutely necessary. The lesson for the natural hazards community is that efforts to reduce losses can be guided by general principles, many of which are implicit in the framing of the twenty questions, but can only be accomplished by concrete individual, place-based actions. Here’s one example of such local action, this from Yankeetown, Florida – interestingly, one accomplished in the face of an unsupportive policy environment.

We need more of such initiative.  A river is made drop by drop.

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Doug Lilly, 1929-2018

Doug — and that signature smile.

Last night’s inbox contained the kind of e-mail string none of us wants to see, but the sort that nevertheless insists on showing up all too frequently:

Dear AMS Council Members  –  We lost an AMS Honorary Member yesterday;  see message from Kelvin Droegemeier below.  I was privileged to serve on the School of Meteorology faculty with him for 22 years, and enjoyed eating lunch with him every Friday.  He had a wonderful grasp of physical processes and a great sense of humor.


Begin forwarded message:

 …Dear colleagues,

 Just a quick note that the Nation lost an amazing scientist and former OU School of Meteorology faculty member yesterday.  Doug Lilly, our only National Academy of Sciences member, passed away yesterday at age 89.   Doug joined OU in 1982, I believe, and with me in 1988 wrote the proposal that established the Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms.  To say he was brilliant is a VAST understatement.  Every paper he wrote was seminal.  Doug retired from OU in 1994 and mentored some of our most amazing graduates.  After retirement, Doug and his wife, Judy, moved to Nebraska to be with their daughter and family, and Doug’s health had been declining in recent months.  Doug was one of those wonderfully gruff but brilliant people who one loved to be around…. a rare mind that truly transformed science.  He will be missed.


Fred and Kelvin have spoken correctly! But (they would be the first to agree) there’s so much more to Doug’s story (as Kelvin’s brilliant=vast understatement remark suggests). Two classes of audience would like to read more: those who knew him, who’d like a trip down memory lane – and those who didn’t know him, but are open to being inspired.

That doesn’t leave many people sidelined! Fortunately, there’s material on-line that meets the need. It’s a brief bio excerpted from a 2004 Cambridge University Press book, Atmospheric Turbulence and Mesoscale Meteorology: Scientific Research Inspired by Doug Lilly Edited by Evgeni Fedorovich, Richard Rotunno and Bjorn Stevens[1].

The bio starts out this way:

Douglas (Doug) Lilly was born on June 16,1929 in San Francisco, California. He grew up on the San Francisco peninsula where,as he describes it, “there is not much weather!” He states that he was interested in weather and the atmosphere starting from his years in high school in California. The predominant cloud features there were stratus decks that would come into the bay area,stay for a while, and eventually break up. He used to borrow the family car to drive up hills to observe these stratus decks. One might say this was his high school hobby. Doug attended Stanford University and completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics in 1950. At Stanford, he was a member of the rowing crew and of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program. From 1950 to 1953, during the Korean War, he was on active duty in the Navy. He was stationed for a while in Hawaii, and then later on a minesweeper off the coast of Korea. After completing his military service Doug decided to pursue a graduate degree in Meteorology. It was early in his graduate studies at Florida State University (FSU) that Doug first met Judith (Judy) Anne Schuh, who would later become his wife. She was pursuing a degree in Education with a minor in German. They dated for one year and married on August 12,1954 (the year Judy graduated) in her home town Jacksonville, Florida. Their first child, Kathryn Elizabeth,was born July 19,1955 in Tallahassee, Florida. In this same year, Doug completed his Master of Science degree in Meteorology at FSU. During their time living in Florida,and driving back and forth between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, Doug was fascinated with the tropical convection and spent a good deal of the rides with his head out of the car window! In 1956,Doug took a job with Radio Free Europe and the family moved to Munich, Germany. His responsibilities there included prediction of wind directions and weather conditions for the purposes of launching balloons with news pamphlets into Eastern Europe during the early years of the cold war. This was a nice opportunity for Judy to perfect her German in which she had earned a minor in college. Doug also learned German there and later also some French. During this year they lived in the apartment of a retired opera singer…

Hopefully this includes a few morsels about Doug you didn’t know, and (continuing the metaphor) whets your appetite for more. If you do follow through, and give some time to the pdf today, as your  way of privately celebrating a life well lived, you’ll come away inspired. You’ll set the bar for yourself a bit higher. And whether that extra push  proves enduring or only lasts a day or so, it will make you so much more effective you’ll more than recoup the time invested.

You’ll have carried Doug Lilly’s legacy forward.


A small postscript: years ago, when I started this blog, the second post unpacked the Charles Darwin quote on the LOTRW masthead – and tied it to a brief vignette – a seminar Doug gave during the time he lived and worked in Boulder.


[1] Brilliant? There’s an evidence-based litmus test. When the published literature includes a volume entitled Scientific Research inspired by (insert your name here), you’ll know you have arrived.

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The future is in good hands: Chapter 18.

(Older guy’s annual question) What’s the favorite hobby of people my age?

(early-career group’s annual answer) Travel? Golf?… Reading?… Bridge?… (old guy shakes his head, prompting increasingly sarcastic guesses) Bingo?… Naps?

(Older guy) No… the favorite hobby of people my age is getting together with each other and saying “The world used to be terrific but now it’s going to hell in a handbasket…”

(early-career group – laughter, flash of recognition; after all, they’ve all watched this scene play out at home, year after year – at the dinner table, while growing up; at family reunions; on holidays…)

(Older guy, continuing) …but the cure for that is hanging around you all! To do so is to realize that the future is in good hands.

2018 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium participants

In a wonderful TED talk, Shawn Achor posits that the barrage of news each day – dwelling as it does on sordid aspects of politics, terrorism, war, social inequities, natural disasters, and the acrimony and polarization characterizing national conversations on all this – insidiously gives us the false impression about the reality of the world we live on. The negative emphasis blinds us to all the powerful, positive trends underway – worldwide reductions in poverty, gains in agricultural productivity, progress towards renewable energy, statistically verifiable reductions in the rate of violence, and more. It breeds those twin imposters for wisdom – cynicism and pessimism.

Worse – this negative view inhibits our common progress towards building this better world. Mr. Achor argues that the end of each day we should reflect back for a few minutes on the day’s events – identifying three aspects for which we were grateful, and journaling about one positive event. He asserts that such a daily practice will develop in us an attitude of looking, searching for – and expecting– the positive. His studies suggest that this simple attitude adjustment makes us more successful in work and the rest of life.

For the past eighteen years – predating Mr. Achor’s talk and work by a few years, it’s been my privilege to see this in action – not intentionally, but as a happy incidental consequence of something else entirely. When I arrived at the American Meteorological Society in 2000, Ron McPherson, then the Executive Director, set me to work establishing an AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. His idea was the Colloquium would be the policy counterpoint to the eminently successful NCAR Summer Colloquium(then over 30 years old, and continuing to this day), which each summer brings small groups of students and faculty to Boulder for a period to consider a specialized scientific or technical topic[1]. The plan was – every year – to bring some 25-40 early- and mid-career professionals from our Earth observing, science, and services community (spanning public, private, and academic sectors) to DC for ten days. They’d meet with counterparts from Congress and Congressional staff, the White House, State Department, federal agencies, and the private sector (many – a slight majority – with scientific backgrounds themselves). They’d dialog about science policy. The Colloquia wouldn’t be enough to ground Colloquium participants fully in federal policy for science, and science input into policy and politics; they could only provide a taste. But ten days of such conversations would whet participants’ appetite to learn more. The encounters would equip and inspire them to engage more effectively and actively with political and business leaders going forward.  And they’d get to know each other. Over the years, as the number of Colloquium alumni grew, our geosciences community (or Weather Enterprise – or whatever alternative label you prefer) would grow more effective in helping society realize benefit from our work: more rapid growth in food, water, energy, and transportation sectors of the economy; increased community-level and national resilience to hazards; protection of the environment and maintenance of critical ecosystems services.

That has been the plan. Even after eighteen years, there’s still room for improvement in both the substance and logistics of the Summer Policy Colloquium. But there’s one area that hasn’t needed upgrading. That’s the participants’ strength of character, intellect, positive energy, and shared desire to help the seven billion people build a safer, more prosperous, greener world for themselves and future generations.

Over the years, more than six hundred professionals have been through the program. Hardly a day passes without e-mail exchanges or phone calls or face-to-face encounters with one or two, or reading about some of their latest accomplishments.  Usually enough, by itself, to meet Mr. Achor’s standard of three pieces of good news each day. But for ten days every year, when the Colloquium is running, the vitality of the conversations, the inspiration of the personal narratives, the sheer vigor and potential of the group is something special.

But the secret sauce is not the 40 people in the room. What makes the Colloquium uplifting is the breathtaking extrapolation it reveals. Just short of 700 people participating over nearly 20 years? A drop in the bucket compared with the world’s 7 billion. The vast majority of these aren’t waiting for a Colloquium experience to do something positive. They’re already working in their respective, diverse ways to make a better world – and there are ten million times as many. The next time you’re on the sidewalk, or in traffic, or in your office or the neighborhood – look around you. You’re part of a seven-billion-person support group – people just like you who wake up each morning with a common thought – to do good[2].

Thanks to all of you. Looking forward to meeting another contingent at the Colloquiumnext year – and once again having my faith in human nature reaffirmed.


[1]The focus varies each year.

[2]Okay, so we all differ a little bit on just what it means to do good– but that’s a detail.

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