UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

Make Public Engagement a Professional Priority

During graduate school, I believed my responsibility as a scientist during outreach events was to share my work with as many non-scientists as possible. I assumed that my extroverted personality, boundless enthusiasm, and booming voice guaranteed my success at public outreach. I never considered improving or diversifying my communication skills, nor did I value the unique perspective that I might bring to science.

Like so many others, it wasn’t until the November 2016 election that I considered how I, the daughter of Indian immigrants from landlocked villages and modest means, came to study oceans and climate change. From this foundation, I gradually developed and now execute two public engagement aims that often intersect:

1. How the observations I make in the lab and field percolate into the communities around me.

2. The concerns facing marginalized communities, especially within science.

These efforts do not always take the same form, nor are they easy to pursue—certain issues can be especially difficult to write about—but I see that sharing painful stories about minority scientists increases the scientific community’s capacity for empathy, and communicating stories of innovation and progress in the battle against climate change imbues optimism and facilitates action.

Outside of my current position as a technician at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory, I work with a local organization dedicated to raising awareness about climate change and a national organization committed to talking about the issues confronting self-identifying women scientists. I also serve on the digital advisory board of a regional publication that is seeking to add diverse voices to conversations about natural science.

Public engagement is a scientist’s implicit responsibility and can be beneficial for the public and scientist alike

Public engagement is often seen as a low priority for academic scientists. Many scientists do not feel compelled to take their research outside of academia. Common justifications include that developing resources for public engagement siphons time and energy from research, misrepresentation in the media could damage reputations, or institutions lack incentives for engagement. While these concerns are understandable, reserving our findings for our colleagues limits the impact of our work.

As scientists, we strive for intellectual products that improve and enhance our understanding of the world around us. Tools for effectively communicating to technical and lay audiences are not in opposition, nor are they as disparate as many may think; thoughtful, clear, and succinct communication tools are ubiquitously useful. By carefully considering audiences beyond our target journals and scientific societies, we create opportunities to develop unique collaborations that can result in the co-production of knowledge.

Effective public engagement is manifold, but requires experimentation

In this era of technology and social media, successful public engagement does not necessarily require face time (although you can use FaceTime or Skype A Scientist). Public outreach often encompasses classroom visits, laboratory open house events, and public talks/demonstrations. While personal interactions are inarguably priceless, these activities are generally eschewed in favor of research due to their high time commitment. This is where digital media can intervene.

During the era of MySpace, Friendster, and LiveJournal the concept of ‘blogging’ emerged—an opportunity for anyone with an opinion and keyboard to share their opinions. While these ancestral social media sites have faded, blogging has been transformed into an opportunity to use our voices (and fingers!) to reach new audiences. Websites like Medium and WordPress make blogging accessible, and many website building/hosting services seamlessly integrate blogging into their schemata. The time commitment is dictated by the blogger and the topics that they choose to communicate. Many academics will admit to initiating and abandoning their blogs for this very reason, myself included.

Conversely, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—among many, many others—provide approachable, yet professional interfaces for casual and concise communication. While a short orientation may be required to acquaint yourself with these platforms, their rewards are bountiful. Through Twitter alone, my professional network has expanded geographically as well as across disciplines and industries (a Twitter interaction instigated this very blog post!). While I maintain a blog series with pie-in-the-sky long-term goals, I find that ephemeral, short-term social media interactions can sometimes be more professionally productive per unit of effort and therefore serve as an excellent gateway into public engagement.

Identify what motivates you to speak up and connect with your community

The November 2016 election was my catalyst for public engagement, but has not been my sole motivator going forward. Specifically, blogging has been an incredible learning experience for me, providing insight on the complexity of people, and the pressure that academia puts on those who don’t conform to its rigid framework.

Public engagement is not a part of my formal job description, but it is something that I make time for outside of my 40-hour work week. As scientists, we are driven by questions and certainly find our own work compelling. But we must unravel these complex questions and stories and find the thread that links us with our communities.

 

Priya Shukla is an ocean and climate scientist with the Bodega Ocean Acidification Research (BOAR) group based at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory. She received her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science and Management at UC Davis and earned her Master’s in Ecology from San Diego State University. Priya uses science communication to bridge issues concerning social justice, rapid environmental change, and the scientific community. 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Connecting the Dots on Climate Science: The Importance of a Complete Science Narrative

A 2014 session of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—a crucial "dot" in a connected climate science narrative. Photo: IPCC (Flickr)

In Walter M. Miller’s classic apocalyptic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, an atomic holocaust leaves the world in a modern version of the Dark Ages. In this post-apocalyptic world, books are burnt and cultural information destroyed by anti-intellectual mobs. The monks of a small knowledge-hoarding religious institution try to preserve, understand, and control what information remains.

A few pre-apocalyptic scraps of paper are unearthed and the writing on these is transformed into holy artifacts. One of these holy artifacts is The Sacred Shopping List, a hand-written memo by a long-dead engineer named Leibowitz, that reads: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.” With so little information available, The Sacred Shopping List becomes a pillar for the monks’ religious narrative.  The general population are just followers to the outlandish narrative the monks concocted from the holy artifacts.

A Canticle for Leibowitz depicts a classic problem that arises when people try to collect information to develop a narrative. The monks connected only the dots they could find, not having a clue that they had collected an incomplete and misleading set of dots. In science terms, the sample size was both small and biased, leading to their outlandish narrative.

In our own world, a functional science narrative requires a complete and well-chosen set of dots so scientists may connect them into a sensible narrative. Over the last few weeks, the Trump administration has eliminated several important dots (sources of information) about science, some openly and others more discreetly. These losses, when strung together, are significant –  they may drive us back to using our own Sacred Shopping List to develop our science narratives.

Climate science under threat

In 1989, President Reagan established the Federal Advisory Panel for the Sustained National Climate Assessment to help translate findings from the National Climate Assessment into concrete guidance for public- and private-sector officials making decisions about how to deal with climate change. This important National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) advisory group, a critical dot in this science narrative, was eliminated a few weeks back when the current administration chose not to renew the charter.

NOAA recently completed the first draft of the Fourth National Climate Assessment Report, which is intended as a special science section of the National Climate Assessment, congressionally mandated every four years. NOAA does not control how the information in the report will be used, and the loss of the Federal Advisory Panel leaves a vacuum in developing the guidance that should come from the Fourth National Climate Assessment Report. The draft report is under review by the current administration, which must approve it before the report can be published. It is critical that this important source of information be used in the science narrative about climate change.

The administration has also proposed a 2018 federal budget that zeroes out the United States’ nearly $2 million contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is crucial to coordinating efforts of several thousand scientists, industry experts, nonprofit researchers, and government representatives from across the globe who review reports that provide climate analysis for decisions ranging from the Paris climate agreement to the US military’s national security threat assessments. Eliminating funding for the IPCC would leave US scientists out of important scientific discussions and inhibit our country’s—and the world’s—ability to respond to climate threats.

Our congressional leaders will play a key role in determining whether IPCC funding will continue in the 2018 fiscal year. We need our lawmakers to uphold the United States’ climate leadership and commit to supporting funding for the IPCC. This is one dot we can’t afford to lose.

A path forward

One bright spot comes from our military, which continues to acknowledge the role of science in developing infrastructure that is resilient to the increasing national security risks from climate change. This is where the rubber meets the road. The US military is already dealing with threats from the growing numbers of refugees fleeing affected areas and numerous coastal military installations that will be impacted by climate change. They are using a useful set of dots to make their decisions.

We all benefit from these critical “dots” and need them to be connected into a sensible science narrative.  Many scientists like myself strongly support continuing funding for IPCC, bringing back the Federal Advisory Panel, and protecting federal climate science and research. It is important to use the knowledge of experts to evaluate and compare information and to be part of the plan for how the information is integrated into policy. The science narrative cannot rely on The Sacred Shopping List.

 

Keith Daum is an independent researcher who specializes in climate and environmental issues. In 2014, he retired from the Idaho National Laboratory after 24 years there. Previously, he served as a research scientist with RTI International. He holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Idaho and a BS/MS in Environmental Sciences from Texas Christian University.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Global Solutions Start at Home

Electric vehicle charging stations line the perimeter of San Francisco's City Hall. Photo: Bigstock.

“Think globally, act locally.”

I first heard this phrase as a child who had just learned about Earth Day at school. To my 11-year old self, it felt empowering; I could help the environment by recycling and conserving water. While the idea of taking action to solve pressing problems continued to inspire me through to adulthood, I’ve recently come to fully appreciate the importance of local action.

Keep Hayward Clean & Green Task Force. Photo credit: City of Hayward

After I had spent several years in Washington, D.C., first as a legislative adviser in Congress and then as an analyst in the White House, life brought me to California where I now work as a technologist. Missing my connection to government, I successfully applied for an appointment to a standing task force in my city, Hayward, California. During this time, part of my technology work has included developing data-enabled solutions for distributed renewables such as rooftop solar and on-site batteries. While I left federal government believing I was leaving behind the ability to significantly impact policy issues that mattered to me, the intersection of my professional and my community work have shown me the importance of local government engagement.

Reflecting on my local engagement, two themes have emerged:

Local governments play a critical role in science-related policy issues, including those with global implications.

We often think of the most pressing science-related policy issues, such as climate change policy, as being national (or global) in nature. While many important policy decisions are made at the national level, local government can also play a significant role both as a testbed for new policy ideas and as the implementation arm for high-level policies.

An example of this is vehicle electrification, a solution advocated by Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) as part of a broader environmental and climate change mitigation strategy. At the national level, the Obama Administration set goals for expanding the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road. At the same time, states like California have been pioneering efforts to reduce emissions and encourage vehicle electrification. Municipal and regional governments provide the critical “last mile” for a comprehensive policy strategy. At this level, government policies can be as diverse as switching municipal fleets to EVs, ensuring the availability of charging stations in public garages, incentivizing or requiring EV-charging access in building codes, or implementing special permitting fees for EV chargers. To influence these crucial “last mile” policies, you must look to your state houses and city halls instead of to Washington.

There are few resources to help people, particularly engineering & science professionals, who want to get involved in their local communities…but we are trying to change that.

Once you appreciate the importance of local engagement, you may find yourself wondering where to start. While scientific professional societies have provided a conduit for informing engineers & scientists about national level policy issues for decades, fewer resources exist for helping people understand the issues and get involved in local (city, state, or regional) government. While a limited number of state-level fellowships provide the opportunity for a small number of engineers & scientists to work in state government, there are even fewer municipal programs.

You can, instead, create your own engagement opportunities. Visit your city’s website to read your general plan or learn about initiatives, attend city council meetings, request meetings with your city representatives—who are usually happy to meet their constituents—and apply for a board or commission. The latter is a particularly impactful, though too often overlooked, way to engage. Through my own task force involvement, I have had the opportunity to meet with leaders in my community and learn about issues ranging from gang prevention to compliance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

Despite its possibilities, local involvement seems to be the exception for people who are interested in science-related policy. Most of the scientists I know are unaware of how they can become involved locally and don’t realize they can have an impact. For this reason, I founded Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL).

ESAL is a non-partisan, non-advocacy organization dedicated to helping engineers & scientists increase their engagement in their city, state, and regional governments and communities. We are currently assessing interests and engagement levels of engineers and scientists. If you are a scientist or engineer, please share your interests and experiences with us through this survey.

The work of organizations like UCS helps engineers, scientists, and members of the broader public understand the critical role that science and technology plays across policy issues. This awareness has made technically informed discussions an integral part of policy formulation at the federal level. Local governments also grapple with important science-related issues. By getting involved as an engaged citizen, advocate, and volunteer in your local community, you can help shape local policies that align with global solutions.

 

Arti Garg is the Founder and Chair of Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL). She is a data scientist who specializes in industrial and internet of things (IoT) applications. Previously, she worked in the White House Budget Office overseeing a $5 billion portfolio or research and development investments at the Department of Energy. She also served as an American Physical Society-sponsored science policy fellow with the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She was appointed to the Keep Hayward Clean and Green Task Force in 2015. She holds a PhD in Physics from Harvard University and an MS in Aerospace Engineering from Stanford University.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Warehouses As an Environmental Justice Issue

Photo: Atomic Hot Links/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

When we think of locally undesirable land uses, we often think of large power plants, puffing single plumes of pollution. But many plumes of pollution from trucks traveling to and from warehouses can have equally large impacts on health. 40% of US imports enter through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Trucks travel frequently to deliver the goods to warehouses, and further move the goods from those facilities to more customers. In the era of e-commerce, high demand for express deliveries further contributes to the massive expansion of the warehousing industry.

As an Angeleno commuter, I am deeply impressed that a large number of giant warehousing facilities emerge in the suburbs along the Interstate 10 when I drive to work. But what do these facilities bring to our communities besides consumer goods?

The significant expansion of the warehousing industry

Figure 1 Percentage changes compared to the Year 2003 in the number of establishments in selected industry sectors (Data sources: County Business Pattern 2003-2015)

Over the last decade or so, the warehousing industry has expanded substantially, especially compared to the other industry sectors. In the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, the number of warehouses and storage facilities increased by 21% between 2003 and 2015 (see Figure 1). However, during the same period, the construction sector got a 9% increase, wholesale and retail generally remained the same, and the manufacturing sector experienced a 23% plunge. While these traditional sectors in the economy stagnate, the warehousing industry becomes a star that is experiencing continued prosperity in the recent decade.

Figure 2 Number of establishments in warehousing and storage industry in the largest eight metropolitan areas in the U.S. (Data sources: County Business Pattern 2003-2015)

Expansion of the logistics industry isn’t limited to Los Angeles. Among the largest eight metropolitan areas in the US, the number of warehousing establishments increased by at least 20% in six of them: Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia and Miami (see Figure 2). The growth rate in Houston reached as high as 40%. The spatial expansion of warehouses is especially dramatic in metropolitan areas with abundant cheap suburban land. Warehousing developers favor this type of land as it offers many conveniences for warehousing development: low rent, large parcels, weak regulations, and good regional connections.

What impacts can warehouses have on communities?

The increased number of warehousing facilities not only consume large tracts of land, but also bring about substantial environmental externalities. Freight trucks generate air pollutants, noise, pavement damage, and traffic safety threats while moving into and out of warehouses.

According to studies in public health and traffic engineering, a truck creates significantly higher environmental impacts than a passenger vehicle. The exposure of local residents, especially children and elderly people, to truck related emissions like NOX and particulate matter would cause health outcomes including asthma and respiratory allergies.

A street view in the City of Carson where trucks (right) occupy all road lanes next to a residential neighborhood (left) (Photo: Quan Yuan)

Roads filled with semi-trucks are a familiar sight in areas and neighborhoods with warehouses. It suggests the great impacts that frequent truck movement could have on the local communities. More and more residents are becoming aware of these externalities associated with warehousing activities. Some of them have organized to fight against the siting of new warehousing projects. For instance, the World Logistics Center, a major warehousing project under review in the City of Moreno Valley, is opposed by local resident groups, environmental advocates, and public agencies including the South Coast Air Quality Management District. This huge project, with floor space totaling around 40 million square feet, rouses concerns about the environmental risks associated with substantial truck movement.

Do some neighborhoods receive more warehousing facilities than others?

Figure 3 Spatial distribution of warehouses and two selected types of neighborhoods in the Los Angeles region (Date sources: Costar, Inc.; American Community Survey 2010)

Given that warehousing facilities are regarded as locally undesirable, an important question arises: are they disproportionately distributed? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. My recent analysis of warehousing location in Los Angeles revealed that low-income and medium-income minority neighborhoods contain a vast majority of warehouses and distribution centers (see Figure 3). Apart from traditional industrial clusters in the East LA and Gateway cities, suburban neighborhoods in the Inland Empire are rising hotspots for warehousing development. Econometric model results confirm the spatial patterns that minority neighborhoods receive significantly more warehouses than white neighborhoods, after controlling for household income, land rent and many other variables. The empirical evidence implies a classic environmental justice problem.

But why? Warehousing developers search for locations with low land rent, low-wage labor pool, weak political power, and favorable public policies. Economic, sociopolitical and institutional factors are equally important in the dynamics. When local authorities are indifferent about warehousing development, minority residents may not be able to resist this spatial inequity, or unequal spatial distribution of warehouses.

This environmental justice problem is drawing the attention of the public, academia, and policy makers. Land use regulations, environmental standards, vehicle fleet upgrades, and techniques (such as using plants as buffers) are all potential options for alleviating the problem. As warehouse development continues to increase, let’s take seriously this environmental justice issue, and come up with feasible solutions that stop burdening our minority communities with air pollution.

Quan Yuan is a Ph.D. candidate in Planning and Policy Development at Sol Price School of Public Policy, the University of Southern California. His research interests mainly lie in urban transportation planning, freight, parking, and environmental sustainability.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

The Soil Solution: One Reason to be Optimistic About the Environment is Right Beneath Our Feet

As a young geologist, it took me a while to appreciate the importance of soil and the opportunity soil restoration presents for addressing key challenges humanity now faces. Over time, studying how erosion moves rock, sediment and soil to shape landscapes, I became familiar with how soil both influences and reflects the evolution of topography. We’re all familiar with the topographic displays of bare rock in the Grand Canyon, sharp-angled mountain peaks, and the smooth, rounded profiles of soil-mantled slopes in the rolling hills of California. But I also came to notice that prosperous regions tended to have rich, fertile soil. Impoverished ones did not.

The state of the soil was not just of scientific interest. It was of fundamental importance to human societies.

The oldest problem

My 2007 book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, grew out of an interest in how our treatment of the land influenced the longevity of civilizations. I found that soil erosion and degradation played a far larger role in human history than I was ever taught. Societies that degrade their land do not stand the test of time.

What lies at the root of the problem? The plow. Consider the state of a freshly plowed field. That bare soil translates into vulnerability to erosion by wind or rain. While it takes nature centuries to build an inch of fertile topsoil, an afternoon thunderstorm can strip as much off a freshly plowed field. Society after society in regions around the world gradually plowed their way into poverty, from Classical Greece to the American Dust Bowl.

Yet the problem of soil degradation is not just ancient history. It is still with us and one of the least recognized, and most serious, facets of the environmental crisis facing humanity today. In 2015, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that under conventional practices the world loses another third of a percent of its agricultural production capacity to soil degradation each year. And while the soil on about a third of the world’s cropland is already seriously degraded, U.S. soils have lost about half their soil organic matter. These trends seriously undermine efforts to feed the world’s growing population.

Soil cores with differences in soil quality resulting from differing farming practices. Photo credit: D. Montgomery

Nature’s hidden half

Fortunately, soil degradation is also one of the most solvable challenges we face. I didn’t learn this from studying history. I learned it in my yard, as my wife turned our Seattle lot into a verdant garden—and changed the way we saw soil.

When we bought our house, the yard hosted a scraggly lawn with wretched soil, hard khaki-colored dirt with about 1% organic matter and nary a worm to be found. Anne set out on an organic matter crusade, layering compost and mulch on garden beds to reintroduce organic matter to the soil. In just a few years time, we found our soil turning darker brown and our plants thriving.  Now, a decade later, the carbon content of our soil is up to almost 10%. We explored this transformation in The Hidden Half of Nature and came to realize the foundational role that microbial community ecology plays in soil fertility as well as plant and human health.

Growing solutions

Restoring the soil in our yard to build a garden happened far faster than nature could have made soil. And this led me to look at the question of whether we can rapidly reverse the historical trend of soil degradation—and whether solutions can scale from small subsistence farms in the developing world to large commodity crop operations in the developed world. To investigate, I visited farms around the world that had restored fertility to the soil and life to the land. In Growing A Revolution, I describe how adopting conservation agriculture practices—combining minimal ground disturbance, cover cropping, and complex crop rotations—can restore fertility to agricultural soils and help address critical issues humanity faces today: feeding the world, mitigating climate change, conserving biodiversity, and reducing pollution.

The author’s backyard garden. Photo credit: D. Montgomery

Naturally, specific practices to adapt these general principles will vary across regions with different soils, climates, crops, economies and cultures. The lack of a simple recipe presents a tremendous challenge.  But it also provides opportunities for scientists to work in conjunction with farmers to rethink conventional agriculture and evaluate the effects of regenerative practices on soil health. Basically, we need to put soil ecology back on par with soil chemistry and physics in our philosophy of farming—and invest in the science behind the transition to conservation agriculture.

I never thought I’d write an optimistic book about the environment. But the farmers I visited who had adopted regenerative practices were using far fewer chemical inputs and far less diesel, and were much more profitable than their conventional neighbors. Their stories offer hope for wider adoption of farming practices that are not only good for farmers and rural communities but also protect our environment and can help secure a sustainable agricultural foundation for humanity’s future.

WEBINAR: Turning Soils Into Sponges

Learn about the soil-building practices that reduce drought and flood frequency with Dr. Andrea Basche, author of the new UCS report Turning Soils Into Sponges, USDA scientist Dr. Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, and UCS senior Washington representative Mike Lavender.

Register for the webinar >

David R. Montgomery is a MacArthur Fellow and professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington. He is an internationally recognized geologist who studies landscape evolution and the effects of geological processes on ecological systems and human societies. He has authored more than 200 scientific papers and 5 popular-science books, and has been featured in documentary films, network and cable news, and on a wide variety of TV and radio programs. When not writing or doing geology, he plays in the band Big Dirt. Connect with him at www.dig2grow.com or follow him on Twitter (@dig2grow).

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

On Healing Sick Ecosystems

Part of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center site before remediation, October 2002. Photo credits: lgnc.org/conservation

I am a person who is fascinated by organisms of all kinds. I like the cute fuzzy ones that most people like, but also the scaly, leafy, prickly, stinky, or slimy ones, as well as the ones we can’t see without a microscope but that have outsized effects on the world around them. I am amazed by how many different ways there are to be alive on this planet, and moved by the intricate connections living things have with each other and their environments.

As I began to study the diversity of life, I noticed a pattern: many creatures are in danger because we humans are unintentionally destroying their homes. Whether by pollution, climate change, or clearing habitats to build things of our own, we have made much of the world less habitable for the living things with which we share it. We have already driven some species extinct, and many others are perilously close.

I believe there is a compelling moral case for preserving healthy, diverse ecosystems. There is also a strong practical case: we depend on intact ecosystems for services like clean water, fresh air, and pollinators that help our crop plants reproduce. Living near green spaces also improves our health and society as a whole. Thus, I chose a career studying how to help ecosystems best recover from our more destructive impacts. In my PhD research in Prof. Brenda Casper’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania, I studied how interactions between plants, soil-dwelling microbes, and heavy metals can affect the long-term development of ecosystems on metal contaminated soils.

One of the two zinc smelters responsible for heavy metal pollution in the Palmerton Zinc Superfund Site. Photo credit: Lee Dietterich

Pollution and remediation: one site’s story

I conducted my studies in the portion of the Palmerton Zinc Superfund Site owned and managed by the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. The site consists of over 2000 acres on the side of a mountain in upstate Pennsylvania that was devastated by heavy metal pollution from two zinc smelters operating for much of the 20th century. When the site was at its worst, local residents and passersby on the Appalachian Trail, which traverses the site, frequently compared it to the surface of the moon, or the aftermath of a bomb explosion.

The site badly needed some kind of remediation to remove or contain the pollutants and mitigate their threat to human and environmental health. It was (and still is) crucial that remediation be guided by our best scientific understanding of site histories and the effects of heavy metals on humans and the environment. Interference in the form of censoring data about such sites, or letting corporate or political priorities dominate discussions about environmental stewardship, can only make remediation longer and more difficult.

Part of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center site before and after initial remediation (left, October 2002; right, August 2006). Photos: lgnc.org/conservation

Today, after over a decade of intensive remediation work involving scientists, community members, and numerous federal, state, and private organizations, the mountainside would be unrecognizable from the moonscape described above. Grass species with low metal uptake were planted to build healthy soil while keeping the metals sequestered underground. These grasses, now taller than most people, tower and sway in the breeze. In many places shrubs and small trees are coming in, and in the patches of forest that survived the pollution, dense canopies create cool shade over lush carpets of ferns. Birds, grasshoppers, and butterflies are diverse and abundant, and it is not uncommon to encounter deer at dawn or dusk. Hundreds of hikers and thousands of schoolchildren visit the area each year, largely thanks to land management and educational offerings by the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, which now owns about a third of the site.

Sustained collaboration between scientists, land managers, and community members has been essential to this remediation effort. Early in the process, researchers made valuable contributions by documenting effects of the polluted soils on the site’s plants, animals, and microbes and by testing numerous revegetation strategies. Remediation of a polluted site had not been attempted on such a large scale before, and this early testing was key to the successful establishment of large-scale plantings.

Wildlife returning to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center site. Photo credit: Lee Dietterich

Continuing challenges

Remediation of disturbed landscapes is an ongoing task, and both basic and applied scientific research are crucial to understanding how to do this task well.  Many fundamental questions remained when I began working in the site. For instance, we knew that a group of soil dwelling fungi called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF; soil dwelling fungi that trade plants nutrients for sugars) were important for the growth of many plants there, but we had little idea how AMF might affect plant metal uptake or metal tolerance under field conditions. After a couple years of work at the site, in the lab, and on the computer, I found that mycorrhizal fungi have little effect plant metal uptake, but that there is a remarkably close relationship between a plant’s species identity and the chemistry of the soil underneath it. This suggests that once plants are growing in an area, adding AMF will have little effect on their metal uptake. However, knowing what plants are growing in a certain patch of soil can tell us a lot about that soil’s chemistry.

The researchers and managers of the Palmerton site also feared that an uninvited tree species, gray birch, accumulated such high leaf metal concentrations that its leaf litter would elevate metals at the soil surface and poison neighboring plants, including the grasses they had worked so hard to establish. This pollution of soil via leaf litter has been hypothesized to occur but it has not yet been thoroughly tested, and the Palmerton site seemed like an ideal setting for such a test. Again, I investigated, and after a couple years of study, including planting, monitoring, harvesting, and analyzing nearly 500 oak and maple seedlings in the site, my colleagues and I found that metal-contaminated birch leaf litter does not increase surface soil contamination or poison other plants, but that soils under the birches and grasses differ in their concentrations of metals and organic matter in ways that could shape the continued trajectory of plant community development in the site.

Science-based decision making helps us reclaim and remediate ecosystems. Photo credit: Lee Dietterich

How lessons learned from remediation help us rebuild ecosystems better

These findings are already shaping the course of continued remediation and broadening our more general understanding of how metal polluted ecosystems work. We now know that efforts to control plant metal uptake may be better served by altering soils or plant communities directly than by manipulating AMF. We also know that gray birch does not threaten remediation as was feared, though concerns remain that it may shade out the desired grasses or introduce metals into the food chain via its leaves. Furthermore, thanks to the work of dozens of other scientists in this and other contaminated sites, we are learning important information about the continued legacies of pollution, such as how metals do and do not move in groundwater, and the effects of contaminated sites on migrating birds that rest and feed there.

It is clear that conserving healthy, intact ecosystems remains preferable to disturbing them and then trying to rebuild them. As with most diseases, prevention remains far easier and cheaper than cure. However, for those landscapes we have already damaged, science is providing local residents and land managers with tools to improve their lives – and those of their invaluable fuzzy, leafy, or slimy neighbors—by reclaiming and restoring healthy ecosystems.

 

Lee Dietterich is an ecologist studying how interactions between plants and soils affect the movement of elements such as carbon, nutrients, and heavy metals in and through ecosystems.  He is currently a postdoctoral scholar in Prof. Daniela Cusack’s lab at UCLA.  When not doing science or exploring nature, he likes to play the piano and clarinet. 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Six Selfish Reasons to Communicate Science

First, a confession: I never meant to be a science communicator.

I’m an aerospace engineer specializing in fluid dynamics, the physics of how liquids and gases (and granular materials and pretty much anything that’s not a solid) moves. As an undergraduate, I fell in love with the subject in part because of the incredible photos my professors used to help us see and understand how fluids behave. As a PhD student, I was frustrated by how little information there was online for the public to learn about this subject that impacts our daily lives.

From that frustration, my website FYFD was born as a place where I could share the beauty of my subject with the world at large.

An example of flow visualization, a technique physicists and engineers use to understand flows. Here fluorescent dye is painted on a model placed in a wind tunnel to reveal flow patterns. (Photo by NASA.)

Like many scientists, I began communicating science for selfless and altruistic reasons. But along the way, I learned there’s a lot to be gained for the communicator as well. So I’d like to share a few of the selfish reasons to communicate science.

The first one may seem a bit obvious, but engaging in science communication is a great way to hone your communication skills. Whatever path your career leads you down, those skills are key. Communicating science to the public, whether online or through local means, is generally a low-risk operation, but it’s an opportunity to practice and improve your skills so that when it really matters you can nail that job interview or research proposal.

Communicating science regularly can hone your skills for when the big moment arrives. (Comic by Jorge Cham/PhD Comics)

Participating in science communication regularly is also a great way to develop expertise in your subject area. When I started writing FYFD, it seemed like spending part of every day reading journal articles that had nothing to do with my research might be a waste of time. After all, learning the latest on how droplets splash was not going to help my work on high-speed aerodynamics. But toward the end of my PhD—after a few years of writing FYFD—I noticed that when professors and other students had questions that reached beyond our own area, the first resource they turned to was not Google Scholar—it was me.

The first time a professor asked me if I knew anything about the unexpected behavior they were seeing in an experiment, it was a revelation for me. I had unwittingly turned myself into an expert, not simply on the subject of my own research but on fluid dynamics in general. That broad familiarity with the field continues to be valuable today. It allows me to see connections between disparate studies and subjects, a skill that’s key to discovering new avenues for research.

If you choose to use science communication to raise awareness of your own work, it can help you gain exposure. A recent study showed that social media use can help increase a scholar’s scientific impact. It can also help you gain the notice of journalists, and there is evidence that media coverage of papers leads to more citations. Personally, my science communication efforts have almost exclusively highlighted the work of other researchers, but I have nevertheless benefited in terms of networking and new opportunities within my field.

A communicator’s excitement for a subject can galvanize their audience, as seen here when a post about unionid bivalves by the Brain Scoop’s Emily Graslie inspired Tumblr user artsyandnerdy to draw unionid fanart. (Image by artsyandnerdy, used with permission.)

Of course, setting up a Twitter account or a blog is no guarantee that you’ll start seeing your papers in The New York Times. Fortunately, that kind of audience isn’t necessary to see some personal benefits. One of my favorite aspects of science communication—especially in-person—is witnessing a positive-feedback loop of enthusiasm. When you’re genuinely excited about a subject, whether it’s fluid dynamics or unionid bivalves, that enthusiasm impacts your audience and can get them excited. Seeing that excitement in others simply reinforces your own enthusiasm.

Maintaining that reserve of enthusiasm for your subject is vital for motivating yourself when things are going poorly. As an experimentalist in graduate school, I faced a series of setbacks in my research, including spending half of the last year of my PhD rebuilding lab infrastructure instead of gathering data. We all periodically face moments when we ask ourselves: why the heck am I doing this? For me, spending a part of every day searching for a piece of my subject to share with the world was a chance to remind myself of what I love about fluid dynamics. Communicating science is an opportunity to see your field anew and renew your motivation to carry on in spite of the daily frustrations.

As you can see, there’s a lot to be gained, both personally and professionally, from engaging in science communication. If you’d like some resources or guidance on how to begin, UCS is a great place to start. AAAS also offers resources for scientists and your professional society may as well. For guidance to better online science communication, I recommend Science Blogging.

Good luck and remember to have fun!

Nicole Sharp is the creator and editor of FYFD, a fluid dynamics blog with a quarter of a million followers that has been featured by Wired magazine, The New York Times, The Guardian, Science, and others. Nicole earned her M.S. in aerospace engineering from Cornell University and her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University with experiments on the effects of surface roughness on airflow near a surface moving at Mach 6. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado, where she enjoys hiking, cycling, and skiing. You can find her online at @fyfluiddynamics or nicolesharp.com.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Environmental Injustice in the Early Days of the Trump Administration

When the EPA was established in 1970 by Richard Nixon, there was no mandate to examine why toxic landfills were more often placed near low-income, Black, Latino, immigrant, and Native American communities than in more affluent, white neighborhoods. Nor was there much recognition that communities closer to toxic landfills, refineries, and industrial plants often experienced higher rates of toxics-related illnesses, like cancer and asthma.

Yet these phenomena were palpable to those living in affected communities. In the 1970s and 80s, local anti-toxics campaigns joined forces with seasoned activists from the civil rights movement, labor unions, and with public health professionals and scientists, drawing attention to the unevenly distributed impacts of toxic pollution, and forming what we now recognize as the environmental justice movement.

The new administration has mounted a swift and concerted attack on the federal capacity and duty to research, monitor, and regulate harmful pollutants that disproportionately affect women, children, low-income communities, and communities of color.  Two examples demonstrate the potential consequences: overturning the ban on chlorpyrifos, and a variety of actions that reduce collection of and public access to the data on which environmental justice claims depend.

Overturning the ban on chlorpyrifos

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt overturned the chlorpyrifos ban, despite the fact that EPA scientists recommended that the pesticide be banned because of the risks it posed to children’s developing brains. Photo: Zeynel Cebeci/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

Chlorpyrifos is a commonly used pesticide. EPA scientists found a link between neurological disorders, memory decline and learning disabilities in children exposed to chlorpyrifos through diet, and recommended in 2015 that the pesticide be banned from agricultural use because of the risks it posed to children’s developing brains.

Over 62% of farmworkers in the U.S. work with vegetables, fruits and nuts, and other specialty crops on which chlorpyrifos is often used.  These agricultural workers are predominantly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, living under the poverty line and in close proximity to the fields they tend. A series of studies in the 1990s and 2000s found that concentrations of chlorpyrifos were elevated in agricultural workers’ homes more than ¼ mile from farmland, and chlorpyrifos residues were detected on work boots and hands of many agricultural worker families but not on nearby non-agricultural families.

In March 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt publicly rejected the scientific findings from his agency’s own scientists and overturned the chlorpyrifos ban, demonstrating the Trump administration’s disregard for the wellbeing of immigrant and minority populations. Farmworker families could be impacted for generations through exposure to these and other harmful pesticides.

Limiting collection of and access to environmental data

Because inequitable risk to systematically disadvantaged communities must be empirically proven, publicly available data on toxic emissions and health issues are crucial to environmental justice work. The Trump administration has already taken a number of actions that limit the collection and accessibility of data necessary to make arguments about environmental injustices that persist through time in particular communities.

Houston has a number of chemical plants in close proximity to low-income neighborhoods. Photo: Roy Luck/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Workers, especially those laboring in facilities that refine, store or manufacture with toxic chemicals, bear inequitable risk. The Trump administration has sought to curb requirements and publicity about workplace risks, injuries and deaths. For example, President Trump signed off on a congressional repeal of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which required applicants for governmental contracts to disclose violations of labor laws, including those protecting safety and health. Without the data provided by this rule, federal funds can now support companies with the worst worker rights and protection records. President Trump also approved the congressional repeal of a rule formalizing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) long-standing practice of requiring businesses to keep a minimum of five years of records on occupational injuries and accidents.  While five years of record-keeping had illuminated persistent patterns of danger and pointed to more effective solutions, now only six months of records are required. This change makes it nearly impossible for OSHA to effectively identify ongoing workplace conditions that are unsafe or even life-threatening.

Another example is the administration’ proposed elimination of the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, a program that provides toxicological assessments of environmental contaminants. The IRIS database provides important information for communities located near plants and industrial sites that produce toxic waste, both to promote awareness of the issues and safety procedures and as a basis for advocacy. These communities, such as Hinkley, CA, where Erin Brockovich investigated Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s dumping of hexavalent chromium into the local water supply, are disproportionately low income.

Responding to Trump: Developing environmental data justice

Data is not inherently good.  It can be used to produce ignorance and doubt, as in the tactics employed by the tobacco industry and climate change deniers.  It can also be used to oppressive ends, as in the administration’s collection of information on voter fraud, a phenomenon that is widely dismissed as non-existent by experts across the political spectrum.  Further, even the data collection infrastructure in place under the Obama administration failed to address many environmental injustices, such as the lead pollution in Flint, MI.  Thus we would argue that promoting environmental data justice is not simply about better protecting existing data, but also about rethinking the questions we ask, the data we collect, and who gathers it in order to be sure environmental regulation protects all of us.

 

Britt Paris is an EDGI researcher focused on environmental data justice. She is also a doctoral student in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, and has published work on internet infrastructure projects, search applications, digital labor and police officer involved homicide data evaluated through the theoretical lenses of critical informatics, critical data studies, philosophy of technology and information ethics.

Rebecca Lave is a co-founder of EDGI (the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative), an international network of academics and environmental professionals that advocates for evidence-based environmental policy and robust, democratic scientific data governance. She was the initial coordinator of EDGI’s website tracking work, and now leads their publication initiatives. Rebecca is also a professor in the Geography Department at Indiana University.

 Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Pesticide Action Network

Timing, Pollinators, and the Impact of Climate Change

Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus). These flowers have a scent similar to overripe rotting fruit, and are visited by sap beetles

Periodically in the spring, I have the pleasure of teaching Plant Taxonomy to students at a small college in Asheville, North Carolina. Among other things, I love the way that teaching this class forces me to pay close attention to what is coming out of the ground, leafing out, or flowering at any particular point of the season in the Blue Ridge Mountains where our campus is nestled. Each week, I fill the classroom with clippings from plants for my students to examine, up close and personal, as they learn to recognize different families of plants and how they compare with one another: how trilliums differ from jack-in-the-pulpits, or spring beauty differ from rue anemone.

But a couple weeks into the semester this spring, it became abundantly clear that I was going to need to scrap my syllabus and completely rearrange my labs. A very warm and short winter followed by an early spring meant that many of the plants I depend on appeared to be blooming weeks earlier than usual. While I initially doubted my intuition, based solely on passing observations, I then pulled out my collection notes for lab on March 6 and found it was dated April 6, 2013. My intuition was right on target. The flowering period was three to four weeks earlier than when I last taught the class, just four years ago.

In my research, too, the early spring was evident and influential. I study pollination and floral biology in sweetshrub, Calycanthus floridus, which has wine-red-colored flowers with the scent of overripe, rotting fruit that attracts their pollinators, little sap beetles that crawl into the flowers and feed there. I’ve been following the timing of flowering and fruiting in this plant since 2007, and the data so far show that in years with an early, warm spring, the plant flowers earlier…and the beetles are nowhere to be found. The flowers are there in their glory, flooding the area with their intoxicating sweet aroma, but they are holding a party with no guests—and this does not bode well for their future. The plants depend on the beetles for pollination and subsequent seed production, and in years when the beetles don’t visit, their reproductive success drops to almost nothing.

Author (Amy Boyd) teaching pollination biology to students in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Phenology and climate change

Timing of biological events—such as flowering and leaf-out in plants or egg-laying in insects—is called phenology, and increasing attention has been given to the study of phenology as we face a changing climate. Many organisms depend on climatic signals such as temperature as cues for their timing during the season, and so as the planet warms, their response to these cues will cause them to leaf out, bloom, mate or lay eggs earlier.

But here’s the rub: many organisms, like the sweetshrub, depend on relationships with other species…and not all species use the same cues. One may use mean daily temperature as its phenological cue while another uses day length. If two species that depend on their interaction with one another use different cues in a changing environment, or respond differently to similar cues, they may end up missing each other entirely—what is likely happening with the beetles and the sweetshrub.

Plant-pollinator mismatch

Scientists keeping watch over phenology are accumulating more and more evidence that our changing climate is affecting many diverse species and potentially disrupting the interactions among them. For example, a study of bumblebees and the plants they visit in the Rocky Mountains has found that the timing of both has shifted earlier, but not by the same amount. The shift in flowering has been greater than the shift in bumblebee timing, resulting in decreased synchrony—and both plants and pollinators may suffer as a result. In Japan, biologists have followed a spring wildflower (Corydalis ambigua) and its bumblebee pollinators and similarly found that the plants were more sensitive than the bumblebees to early onset of spring. Reduced synchrony of bees and flowers resulted in lower availability of pollinators for the plants, and potentially also lower availability of food for the pollinators.

As the planet warms, plants and pollinators alike may adjust to the changes in different ways, leading to mismatches between these symbiotic partners. This impact of climate change on phenology compounds all the other challenges facing pollinators today, like the loss and fragmentation of habitat, disease, pesticide use, and the spread of invasive species.

Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) flower being visited by carpenter bee pollinator (Xylocopa virginica)

Consequences for agriculture

So why should we care about such disruptions in phenology? Being forced to scrap my syllabus is a very minor consequence compared to the potential impacts on agricultural production. By some estimates, 35% of all crop species worldwide depend on or benefit from pollination by animals (including bees and other insects). Some 16% of all vertebrate pollinator species (such as hummingbirds and bats) are threatened with extinction, while at least 9% of all insect pollinators are threatened as well. Pollinators are essential partners with farmers who grow fruit, vegetables and nuts; without them, our own species faces loss of an important component of its food source. Similar mismatches may also change and disrupt relationships between crop plants and pest species, creating new challenges to agriculture or enhancing existing threats.

Farmers see the changes in phenology in their own fields, and they are already concerned about the future of agriculture in a changing climate. But we all need to be aware of the impact of climate change on the web of interactions that make up the world around us, so that we can support lawmakers and others who are ready to stop the human activities impacting our planet’s climate. Many biologists are out there watching, accumulating evidence with the systematic eye of science.  We must support their efforts—and listen to their messages about our impacts on the planet and our future.

 

Amy E. Boyd is Professor of Biology and Chair of the Division of Natural Sciences at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. She is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist whose research currently focuses on plant-pollinator interactions and phenological patterns.

 Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

American Prosperity Depends on International Science: Our Border Policy Should Reflect That

At first, the new ‘laptop ban’ sounded like a minor nuisance. This is a part of a recent executive order prohibiting large electronics as carry-on items on flights to the U.S. from eight countries in northern Africa and the Middle East. Only when I saw a Facebook outburst from my American colleague in Africa did it become clear how even a small encumbrance like this can cast a devastating blow to science.

This travel restriction is one of several that could fast cripple scientific and technological progress in the US. That is bad for the US economy and the livelihood of its citizens. Here’s why.

Christine is a climate change scientist working in Kenya. She posted to Facebook:

“This latest [Executive Order] just eliminated four out of seven of my major routes home from Nairobi. As a professional scientist, I cannot travel without my laptop. I see devastating impacts on collaborations with professionals from the targeted countries, and those who live in Africa and Asia and use these airports to connect to the U.K. and the U.S.”

Sure, technically she could check her laptop, but would you abandon yours to the potential of being rained on, crushed, stolen, or “examined” by security agents, risking the leakage of personal data and the loss of your primary tool? Obstacles like this, combined with sweeping immigration bans, will steadily reduce our scientific connectivity to the world.

The position of the US as a frontrunner in science is sustained by engagement with the international scientific community. We need foreign partnerships because societies across the globe face a suite of common challenges. Many are interconnected by economies of trade, others by planetary physics. And many of these challenges require science-based solutions that are not resolvable in national isolation. Three examples are climate change, emerging technologies, and sustainable food production.

Climate change

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but the responses of some regions will have greater impacts on future climate than others. For example, tropical forest biology is a driver of atmospheric circulation. The US Department of Energy funds US scientists to travel abroad for tropical research, because biological responses to climate change there have the potential to alter weather, and thereby energy security, in the US.

We need to work with scientists around the world to learn about climate migration and displacement from sea level rise and other climate impacts. Photo: Jason Evans/Georgia Sea Grant

The human response to climate change is another shared problem. The US is far from immune to population displacement by future sea level rise. We would be smart to work with social scientists abroad to learn how climate migrations are being managed elsewhere.

But we cannot simply travel abroad and study at will. Doing my dissertation work in Brazil, I learned that international partnerships are carefully cultivated through fair, reciprocal exchange. If we hassle our foreign partners to hand over their social media passwords upon entry to the US, how welcoming will they be to us?

Emerging technologies

China and India are now two of the world’s leaders in investment in renewable energy. Saudi Arabia and Morocco are funding ambitions for large-scale solar. Each country will be innovating to overcome the significant challenges of production, storage, and distribution that an energy market dominated by renewables faces. The latter two countries have air hubs on the laptop ban list.

As Africa’s tech workforce grows in numbers and ability, other useful technologies are emerging such as mobile-phone banking, and nimble cloud-computing services. These technologies are likely to become imports to the US, just as the crisis-mapping software Ushahidi, originating in Kenya, has been adopted for disaster relief coordination and elections monitoring around the world. It will be difficult to import Africa’s experts to develop similar technologies here if we eliminate skilled worker visas.

Sustainable food

As we deal with drought here in the US, we have a lot we can learn from scientists abroad. Photo: NASA JPL.

Much of our imported food production depends on fossil water—water in aquifers that will not be replenished in our lifetimes. That includes sources in Mexico, our dominant international supplier. Determining the longevity of deep reservoirs is a hard scientific problem. Through international research collaborations, we can aid in predicting the sustainability of water sources on which our food supplies depend, and help develop appropriate farming practices. We can again look to Africa for expertise, where indigenous superfoods are gaining popularity as vegetables that are more nutritious and require less water than our staple European brassicas.

Here again, US scientists may be reluctant to cross the border for collaborative research with Latin American suppliers if we are subject to unlimited laptop and cellphone searches upon re-entry. And Mexican industries may not welcome our scientists if our leaders continue to paint the country in an unfavorable light.

International collaboration promotes science and peace

Just as face-to-face communication with international colleagues fosters trust and begets lasting collaborations, fair and open international exchange cultivates mutual understanding and respect between countries. Our border policies must carefully balance the tradeoffs between restriction and openness. Where possible, we should seek synergies. By facilitating collaboration with other countries on shared problems, we can encourage both peace and expedient solutions.

What can you do to help? Share this post, and present the central concept to your senators and representatives. Share the insight that our country’s economic prosperity and peace depend on international scientific exchange.

I am grateful to my international scientific colleagues for valuable comments on this essay: Dr. Christine Lamanna (American in Kenya) in Kenya; Dr. Bernardo Flores (Brazilian); Dr. Alberto Burquez (Mexican); and Dr. Karen Taylor (American).

 

Dr. Tyeen Taylor studies the shifting ecology of tropical forests amid the onset of rapid climate warming. He avidly shares the joy and practicality of scientific knowledge with non-scientists through films, photography, writing, and public events. Public Facebook page: /TyeenCTscience. Twitter: @TyeenTaylor. YouTube: Tyeen Taylor. Website: www.ttphilos.org

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Climate Risk in the Spotlight of Chevron’s Annual Shareholder Meeting

Midland sits on the West Texas plains, an art deco mid-rise skyline rising over the broad landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see, dotted with pumpjacks, drill sites, and bright green-blue containment ponds.

I journeyed to Midland to attend Chevron’s annual shareholder meeting, held on May 31st, because I wanted to let the company know the importance of planning for a low carbon future. A resolution on the Chevron shareholder ballot requested that the company issue a report to assess how it can respond to climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy by altering the company’s energy mix or by acquiring/merging with companies that feature low carbon or renewable energy assets or technologies.

I set out to Midland along with Barbara Briggs from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Dr. Wendy Davis, a scientist from Austin, to voice our support for proposals that increase corporate transparency with regards to climate change.

Midland

In Midland, petroleum is a way of life. Around the city and even at the airport, the influence of the oil and gas industry is ubiquitous, with many billboards advertising equipment and technology to improve and enhance oil recovery.

On our way into town, we stopped at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, which outlines the geology of the Permian Basin, its history from the wildcatters to today, and the role of petroleum in our daily lives.

The 1923 discovery of oil in the Permian Basin shifted what was a small ranching and railroad community into a major hub for the US oil and gas industry. The Permian Basin Petroleum Museum even hosts a Chevron-sponsored exhibit called “Chevron Energy City” that teaches children about various forms of energy.

Dr. Wendy Davis, Stephanie Thomas and Barbara Briggs at the Permian Basin pump jacks display in the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Midland, TX.

The Shareholder Meeting

The shareholder meeting itself was a brief affair. After passing through intense security (no purses, no electronics of any kind, no notebooks!), I made it into the building and took my place in a seat in the hall.

Some have asked me why I decided to go to the meeting. I happen to be a Chevron shareholder and a former Chevron employee. I have a background in Earth Science and have both studied ancient climate change and worked as a petroleum geologist.

I currently work with Public Citizen, a nonprofit organization that focuses on protecting health, safety, and democracy. When I heard that UCS was planning to attend the meeting, I jumped at the opportunity to join them. UCS brings a strong, clear voice for science, and I deeply respect their work on climate and beyond.

The week before the shareholder meeting, UCS organized a panel discussion on climate change and risk that highlighted some of the major risks corporations and communities face with regards to climate change.  That discussion confirmed for me that collectively, we need to act quickly.

Initially, there had been two items on the shareholder ballot dealing with climate change.

The first, a proposal for Chevron to report on company plans to deal with climate change-related risks, was withdrawn after Chevron published a report in March entitled “Managing Climate Risk: A Perspective for Investors.”

The second proposal calling on management to report on the transition to a low carbon economy got 27% of of the shareholder vote—a healthy showing that will have the board’s attention.

Another shareholder resolution called upon Chevron to disclose company spending on lobbying.   CEO John Watson’s commentary as he discussed management’s opposition: “We [Chevron] have the right and responsibility to represent our interests.”

When Barbara Briggs asked about Chevron’s relationship with ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Commission), an organization that creates shadow legislation and has actively denied climate change, Watson upheld ALEC as a “leader” that played a “constructive role” in climate change policy discussions.

From what I heard at this once a year meeting with its shareholders, it seems as though Chevron’s major plan for handling climate change is to focus more deeply on natural gas and efficiency.  CEO Watson even commented that there will be “plenty of time” to respond to “risks” like production decline and environmental regulations. Physical risks, like the risk of storm surge, would be covered under the corporation’s comprehensive risk management plan.

Interestingly, at least half of the meeting was devoted to discussing climate change. And after the results of the ExxonMobil shareholder meeting, it seems like the movement pressing energy companies to plan seriously for a low carbon future is gaining traction.

As the meeting came to a close and people took to the exits, I overheard another shareholder say to a company employee, “With all this talk about climate change, has Chevron looked into hydrogen?”

 

Stephanie Thomas, Ph.D. is an earth scientist, researcher, and organizer with Public Citizen and an advocate for clean energy. She holds a Ph.D., M.S. and B.S. in Earth Sciences from Southern Methodist University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Tulane University, respectively. Follow her on Twitter at @theHouston13.

 

Science Needs to Learn Lessons from the LGBTQ Rights Movement

The recent March for Science did not help public support for science. That is what the majority of Americans told a recent Pew Research Center survey and what certain news outlets are quick to put in their headlines. My response: Who cares? If my years of organizing for LGBTQ rights taught me anything, it’s that the success of the march should not be measured by the day, but by the movement it creates.

I am a scientist by academic background. However, I spent more time organizing protests and rallies in support of LGBTQ rights than I ever did on my physics homework (and I have the grades to prove it). At one point, I even joined the board of a newly formed local grassroots LGBTQ rights organization. The group had a few very energetic members who were always looking for the next reason to hold a protest in downtown Boston, one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in New England.

Events like these were incredibly important, but we were not able to single-handedly change the hearts and minds of the country on issues like marriage equality through the cunning use of protest signs. Despite the beautiful artwork and creative slogans, the only people who really saw them were people who agreed with us. Even worse, after spending some time looking at the communication of climate science, I’m fairly certain that our signs would only harden the opposition in their worldview.

Knowing that these protests would be a total waste of time unless it led to direct political action, I organized a volunteer team to go through the crowd at every rally armed with clipboards. Their instructions were to get the contact information for as many people who attended the rally as possible. We then recruited people from those lists to be volunteers on future actions that were focused on political impact.

In the months that followed, we put them to work making phone calls and knocking on doors all over New England. The goal of this effort was to identify registered voters from neighboring states who supported marriage equality and ask them to directly lobby their state representatives. It was part of a broad campaign to win marriage equality throughout all of New England and, five years later, we succeeded.

This amazing feat was not the direct result of any one of our marches or rallies. Those events were simply a catalyst used to build momentum for our cause. The real impact came from the hard work our rallied-up supporters took on in the years that followed.

Tens of thousands of science supporters braved the rain to support the March for Science in Washington, DC. Photo credit: D. Pomeroy

With this perspective, I think it’s fair to declare the March for Science a huge success. Tens of thousands of people braved the weather to show up to a sopping National Mall in Washington DC, stand in a downpour for four hours, and then march through the rain to Capitol Hill. There were also more than 600 satellite marches across the world. Thousands of people showed up in places like Boston, Los Angeles, New York and as far away as Sydney.

Whether or not the March will have impact on public support for science is now left up to what we do with the energy of the crowds we turned out. To be successful we will need to get people involved in every aspect of the movement. We will need scientists to speak out in their local communities to explain the importance of their research. We will need supporters to attend local school board meetings and ensure the next generation receives a science-based education. We will need everyone to go to their local, state, and national legislators and demand evidence-based policy. Some of us may even need to leave the lab and run for office.

Luckily, we are not starting from scratch in this endeavor. I am hopeful that long standing science advocacy organizations, like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, will be able to team up with newly forming organizations, like the March for Science and 314 Action. Together we can take this momentum forward and make real change. However, it will take time and it will take a sustained effort.

In the meantime, if you’re able to make it to a Pride event this month make sure to sign a petition or two. If an organizer follows up with you, don’t be afraid to take the next step and become a volunteer. Your involvement will not only be good for the cause; it will teach you a bit about political organizing. And, if we’re going to turn the massive crowds at the March for Science into a movement, we’re going to need as many organizers as possible.

 

Dr. Dan Pomeroy received his Ph.D. in physics from Brandeis University in 2012 studying high energy physics as part of the ATLAS experiment at CERN. He then served as a post-doctoral fellow, at the National Academy of Sciences and as a AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellow in the office of Senator Edward J. Markey.  He also has extensive experience in grassroots political organizing, running LGBT rights campaigns as well as field offices during the 2008 elections.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 

An Insider’s View on the Value of Federal Research

Not long after receiving my doctorate in biochemistry I took a research position with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the main research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Prior to retiring in 2014 I had spent my entire career, 33 years, with ARS. I had a chance to see federal research from within the system. Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s been my experience that federal research is solutions-oriented, transparent, and nonpolitical.  

Mike and his technician, Karen Wagner, developing a new method for biodiesel synthesis. Photo: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

Among the key aspects of that system were the following, which I believe pertain to federal research in general (exclusive, in some cases, of defense-related work):

  • It was problem-solving in nature, with research goals based in the country’s needs. These goals, for example, could be safer or more nutritious food, improved soil health, new uses for crops produced in excess of current needs, or any of a myriad of other topics.
  • There was daylight everywhere: Programs, goals, and outcomes were clearly published and publicized.
  • The work was not conducted to advance the sales of any commercial product, as some work in the private sector might be. It was problem, not profit, oriented.
  • The process had integrity and autonomy: Our results and conclusions were not dictated to us by management or the Administration.  During my career I published over 120 articles, including approximately 80 research papers in peer reviewed scientific journals, a dozen book chapters and half a dozen U.S. Patents. I gave over 100 oral presentations describing work.  Not one word that I authored was dictated to me by management. I am not aware of any colleague for whom that was not also true.
  • We were allowed and encouraged to patent any invention that we made. Patents were licensable under terms that were designed to aid the flow of technology to the private sector rather than to generate large sums of money for the inventor or the government.
  • We had full professional autonomy and were encouraged to interact with all parties (other than individuals and organizations from state sponsors of terrorism) as necessary to advance the work and disseminate its results. Among our partners were citizens as well as peers in academic, private sector or federal research, be they domestic or international, large or small firms. Large companies often have their own dedicated research and development teams, serving their interests. I came to see that in many ways we were the Research and Development team for the smaller firms and young industries – startups or small operations lacking the funds and staff to do dedicated research.  We collaborated with all comers, irrespective of size.
  • Research programs were up to 5 years in length, and continued beyond that if such could be justified. This led to the kind of long term, higher risk type of work that is in some cases needed and in many cases rare these days.
  • In cases of ‘crisis’ – some incident that needed a rapid research response (e.g. outbreak of a new plant disease, food poisoning incident….) – researchers were detailed into that area to assist in quickly developing appropriate responses to the threat.

Aerial shot of the Eastern Regional Research Center, USDA, near Philadelphia. Photo: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

I spent my career at the Eastern Regional Research Center near Philadelphia, one of the ARS ‘Utilization labs’ that were built in the late 1930s as part of a major effort to develop new uses for the crops produced by America’s farmers. Out of this work have come thousands of research publications and patents, which developed or assisted in developing a host of new products and processes including dehydrated mashed potatoes (and hence Pringles!); soy ink; permanent press cotton fabric; frozen foods with increased retention of flavor, color and texture; Lact-Aid; and more efficient processes for the production of biofuels.

Filling up a truck on biodiesel. Photo: Spencer Thomas/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

The increased market share for biodiesel alone is a success for federal research. Beginning in the early 1990s, the desire to promote energy independence in this country and to provide new markets for our crops led researchers to begin exploring the production of what became known as ‘biodiesel’. Made from vegetable oils and animal fats, biodiesel can replace petroleum-derived diesel fuel while burning cleaner and thus reducing the emission of pollutants.  It was an obvious new outlet for U.S. lipids, and so my group and others in ARS began investigating various aspects related to its production and use.  Today biodiesel is an accepted fuel used throughout the country (and world), powering vehicles and generators and heating homes.  It is a true success story, one in which my lab, other USDA labs, and many other researchers played a part.

Based on my experiences, I see federal research as extremely valuable. As I have outlined above, it is dedicated to improving the quality of life of all Americans, and is conducted within a framework designed to maximize its integrity, reliability, impact and availability. It is also very efficacious: I am aware of two studies conducted during my career that assessed the economic impact of ARS research. These analyses determined that every dollar invested yielded between 14 and 20 dollars in benefits for the country. That’s a strong statement of the value of the work, a measure of what will be lost to all of us if programs are dropped, and a return on investment that I’ll sign up for any day.

 

Following receipt of a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the U. of Wisconsin, Mike Haas went on to a career with the Agricultural Research Service of the U. S. Department of Agriculture.  During his over 30 years with ARS-USDA his research ranged from sophisticated studies of applied enzymology to the development of the simplest of methods for the production of biodiesel, a renewable fuel produced from U.S. farm products that both replaces and burns cleaner than petroleum diesel fuel.   During his research career Mike also served as an officer in relevant professional societies and as Associate Editor of a scientific journal.   Now retired, he serves as a student mentor with the National Biodiesel Board and, after 40 years in labs and offices, enjoys a multitude of outdoor activities.    

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

The Ill-logic of Alternative Facts (sic)

Philosophers of science are always on the lookout for the logic underlying the successful practices of the scientific community.  For us, that is a window into epistemology more generally, how humans manage to acquire knowledge of nature. The recent surge of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and claims that accepted science is a “hoax” propagated inside some conspiracy is not just disturbing, but threatens to undermine the hard-won authority of scientific facts. What’s going on, logically speaking, beneath the surface of these attacks?

Webinar Today: Scientific Facts vs. Alternative Facts

How can we understand and respond to “alternative facts” when they are presented as of equal value as scientific facts? The UCS Center for Science and Democracy joins with the Philosophy of Science Association to invite you to participate in a webinar to investigate the differences between scientific facts and so-called alternative facts.

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The phrase “alternative facts” was introduced by Kellyanne Conway to describe false claims by Sean Spicer about the number of people who attended Trump’s inauguration. While we might agree with Chuck Todd that “alternative facts are lies,” for a philosopher it is important to understand how they work in order to know how to respond to the challenge they present to legitimate facts. Appeals to “alternative facts” reveal a pattern of reasoning that is in stark contrast to the ways in which scientific facts are supported. What’s the difference?

Science comprises a set of practices that generate our most accurate views of what nature is like. That is why we appeal to scientific results to guide our choices of what materials to use to build a bridge or what drugs to take to treat a disease. Humans have their limitations: our first impressions are often wrong, and our in-house perceptual and cognitive abilities are not as acute or unbiased as what we can get by outsourcing to computers or to microscopes, telescopes, spectroscopes etc. The natural conditions we initially confront may obscure causes and confounding influences, and so science crafts experiments that strip away the clutter to expose the main effects, the most relevant variables, the predictive features.

The justification of the results of science is a community affair, founded on critical examination by replication, peer review, and multiple forms of checking structured by the assumption that any fact, data, explanation, hypothesis or theory might well be false or only an approximation of the truth. Science works because it is rigorous in these ways, and that’s what warrants its authority to speak truth to power (or to wishful thinking, or to non-empirically supported beliefs).

The rigorous practices of the scientific community are founded on the most objective procedures humans can implement. The life history of a scientific fact might begin with a hypothesis, or a hunch, or a new application of a well-accepted theory, but to mature into a fact it must pass through the gauntlet of experiment, replication, critical challenge and scientific community skepticism. The logic of accepting a scientific fact goes as follows: If there is good, reliable evidence for it, then it will be accepted (as long as there is not better evidence for a different claim). Its persistence as an accepted fact is not guaranteed, however, as new challenges must be survived when new data, new ideas, or new technologies suggest refinements or adjustments.

Alternative facts follow a different course. They might also begin as a yet-unsupported hypothesis of how things are—how large a crowd might be, how humans might not be causing climate change.  But then the life history looks very different.  Rather than appealing to objective means of determining IF the world matches the hypothesis, purveyors of alternative facts instead consult their ideological, economic or political interests.  Non-objective procedures kick in to cherry-pick data, appealing only to what supports the hypothesis, ignoring or debunking data that contradicts it.  The critical scrutiny of the scientific community is replaced by the sycophantic agreement of those that share ideological, economic or political interests (e.g. “people are saying….”).

The ill-logic of accepting an alternative fact (sic) goes like this. If the hypothesis conforms to one’s interests, accept it as a fact and barricade it from any impugning evidence. If there is some isolated evidence that supports it, treat that evidence as definitively confirming. If there is evidence that contradicts it, ignore, debunk, or deny that evidence. If others who share the same interests voice support for the hypothesis, treat that community as a justifying consensus that the world is the way that group wants it to be.

In short, alternative-fact logic replaces evidence of how nature is with personal preferences for how I want the world to be. Data from experiment or observation, and survival of critical challenges by replication, meta-analysis and peer review, are replaced by what “fact” would be best to increase profits (smoking isn’t addictive), or reduce the need for regulation (CO2 is not a major cause of climate change), or bolster some ideology (most Syrian refugees are young men).

By misappropriating the language of “fact,” this practice undermines the authority of science to speak for nature. Policies that should answer to the facts are no longer constrained by the non-partisan procedures of testing and critical challenge. Instead they are guided purely by partisan interests.  The acceptance of scientific facts is not determined by how we want the world to be. The acceptance of alternative facts is determined exclusively by those preferences.

The consequences of treating “alternative facts” on a par with scientific facts can be dire. The claim that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine can cause autism was proposed in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield, a UK doctor, reportedly based on faulty analysis and a financial conflict of interest. Wakefield had developed his own measles vaccine and was funded by those suing the producers of MMR. His paper was later retracted and his medical license revoked, but his “alternative fact” continues to be promoted and believed.

Dozens of scientific studies have shown no relationship between MMR and autism, but do show that the vaccine is 93%-97% effective at preventing measles. In the decade prior to the introduction of the vaccine in the US in 1963, millions contracted the disease, and an estimated 400 to 500 people died from measles each year. By 2000 measles was no longer endemic in the US. One study estimates that between 1994-2013, 70 million cases of measles and 57,000 deaths were prevented by the vaccine. In recent years there has been a rise in measles in the US, with the majority of cases occurring in unvaccinated individuals. In 2014, 85% of those who got measles declined vaccination due to religious, philosophical or personal objections.

People may choose what they want to believe, but they do not get to choose the consequences of those beliefs. Because measles is so highly contagious, it takes 90-95% of a population to be immune to protect those who are vulnerable (too young or medically compromised to be vaccinated). Relying on “alternative facts” about measles vaccines by even a small percentage in a community can have harmful effects on those who cannot choose.

By exposing the underlying logic of defenses of “alternative facts” we can move beyond the standoff (that’s your fact, this is my fact) to a conversation about what counts as evidence, and how it contributes to what we should believe about nature. Do you really want the pill you take for hypertension to be the one that most increases profits, rather than the one that is most effective and has the least side effects?

 

Sandra D. Mitchell is professor and chair of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh and is the President of The Philosophy of Science Association.  She teaches courses on philosophy of biology, the epistemology of experimental practices, morality and medicine, and practices of modeling in science.  Her research has focused on the implications of scientific explanations of complex systems on our assumptions about nature, knowledge and the ways to use knowledge in policy.  She is the author of Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity and Policy (2009)

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.