Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast taken during a search and rescue mission by 1-150 Assault Helicopter Battalion, New Jersey Army National Guard, Oct. 30, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/Released)

We conduct scientific research. It’s what we do. We identify a question and apply all the techniques we can to obtain a solution. Then we publish our results for others to build upon and advance the science and our understanding of the earth, its environment, and the geophysical processes involved. It’s a beautiful thing.

Meanwhile, back in the “real” world, the broader public can be left behind. And along with them, the policy community, congress, and, alas, the federal agencies that they control. How can this be? Is this merely an expected consequence of the increasing specialization throughout modern society? Or is it an avoidable result of an operationally sequestered scientific community that has stayed in its ivory tower and eschewed contact with policy-makers?

This issue came to the fore at the recent conference on the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE), whose theme this year was the Food-Energy-Water Nexus. While numerous technical sessions explored the many aspects of the interaction between food, energy, and water, some focused more broadly on the ways that the scientific community can more effectively provide data, analysis, and advice to the world at large. Though in one keynote lecture, Paul Lussier explained that merely explaining the facts of our science is not enough to inspire the public to alter their behavior to avoid impending social and environmental problems.

It is our mindset as much as the words we use.

Consider the issue of the societal impacts of climate change. Sea level is rising twice as fast in the 21st century as it did in the 20th century because ice is melting and oceans are warming faster in response to radiative forcing. The public does not respond to descriptions of global data sets, measures of Arctic ice, or maps of sea surface temperature–a number like 3 mm/yr does not invoke a public response to alter behavior. They respond more immediately to their home washing away in a storm or to the threat of damage to things to which they are emotionally or financially connected. Emissions reductions and land use planning for sea level rise mitigation, water and energy use for resource conservation, and food production and diet for enhanced human health are only a few examples of areas around which behaviors could be altered for the public good. Yet behaviors are not changing because the knowledge generated by scientific inquiry is not disseminated in terms that the public understands or appreciates.

For example, scientists seek to be accurate and objective, while policy-makers want to be realistic and popular, the media needs to be dramatic and persuasive, and businesses must be accountable and visionary. These communities have very different goals, means, and measures of success, as well as contrasting and often conflicting operational languages. In order for the scientific community to help each of these communities to achieve their goals, including the ones they may have in common (such as leaving a planet for their grandchildren that can support them comfortably by providing a sufficient and sustainable flux of environmental goods and services), we must each couch our discussion in terms that have meaning for the communities we are engaging. Only then can our science be put to use for the benefit of society, and subsequently be appreciated, supported, and sustained.

—Dork Sahagian, Associate Editor, JGR-Biogeosciences; email:


Sahagian, D. (2016), The proof of our science lies in the telling, Eos, 97, Published on 08 February 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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