WAS*IS, 2011-style

Last year about this time, an early post on this blog described an innovative program hosted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and its Societal Impacts Program. The name of the NCAR effort? WAS*IS (Weather and Society*Integrated Studies). As I write this, the 2011 Boulder WAS*IS session is underway.

Historically (if you wish to use that term for a program that’s been around only since 2005), the program has set out to help meteorologists make use of social science to enhance their contributions to society.

Those social sciences? They’re so many in number and so broad intellectually as to match the diversity of the Earth sciences and related disciplines such as biology and ecology. They include economics, communication, political science, psychology, sociology and even cultural anthropology and similar disciplines – and this is just to start. In fact, these disciplinary communities are far larger in numbers than are the meteorological and related disciplines.

However – again “historically” – only a minute fraction of social scientists have applied their work to Earth sciences and science-based services. Take those interested in risk communication. Such experts apply their skills and experience to public health issues in large numbers – communicating the risks of smoking, or of obesity, for example. Only the smallest fraction are plying their wares in the earth sciences arena.

But that is changing. The dysfunction of climate-change messaging and the stakes for humankind are attracting some of the finest minds in communication research – Ed Maibach and Anthony Leiserowitz and Dan Kahan and many more. The communication of weather risk – hazards such as floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes, is also drawing others in. Many of these social scientists are at an early stage of their careers. This influx therefore promises to have an impact on the field for decades to come.

In fact, WAS*IS can justifiably take some credit for encouraging this trend. And now, there are signs the positive feedback is flowing back into WAS*IS itself. The organizers of this year’s sessions have been quite encouraged by the number of social scientists – communication specialists, psychologists, and sociologists – who are participating over the eight days. They make up a record percentage of this year’s group. In turn, that changes the character of the questions and discussion, and that will also re-shape the outcomes from the effort. In addition, a large fraction of participants this year are broadcast meteorologists – both the practice of communication and the science behind it are foremost in their minds.  In the future WAS*IS will increasingly be a portal introducing social scientists to opportunities to apply their work in the Earth sciences

One feature of the first full day of each WAS*IS session? A panel of program alumni talk about the impact WAS*IS has had on their lives and careers. That impact has been substantial! In this year’s group, academics and government agency scientists spoke enthusiastically and at length about how they’ve been able in the years since participating in the program to develop new societal dimensions to their research. As a result of what they’ve learned in WAS*IS and the contacts they’ve made they’ve been far more disciplined in their approach to these issues.

The AMS Policy Program has been fortunate to have two of its staff participate in the program over the years. One was in the initial 2005 Boulder group. She has since participated in several subsequent WAS*IS classes as an alumna panelist but also as an expert resource/facilitator with respect to her current communication research. Another is in this year’s cohort. I have no doubt that WAS*IS will inspire and influence her work and that she’ll be drawn back as a resource in future years, paying it forward. Both have been active in building programs at AMS Annual Meetings and at other AMS events that broaden the exposure of our community to WAS*IS and harness its potential.

The focus of WAS*IS, like much of social science, is place-based. The NCAR managers of the program have been vigorous in taking WAS*IS on the road, putting on sessions in Oklahoma, the Caribbean, and in Australia, as well as Boulder. The program and its ideas are therefore taking root worldwide.

Just one example of the kind of emergent change that is on its way to making this real world – and our lives on it – different and better.

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