Science Policy & Funding Editors' Vox

The Proof of Our Science Lies in the Telling

Communicating our science for the benefit of society

By Dork Sahagian

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.

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: [email protected]

  • Philip Gaut

    Interesting… the article is about Communicating Science for the Benefit of Society. The posts here, so far, offer the clearest possible evidence of how woefully the communicators have failed, and how desperate is the need for clear communication. Just mention sea level rise and the discussion, such as it is, descends immediately into an exchange about whose beach is vanishing fastest and how it can’t be happening anyway because the Bahamians still have their heads above water. I wonder if the communicators realise just what they are up against.

  • Thinkingman2025

    Sea levels are not rising in any significant way. What the photos in this piece show is damage from a storm surge, and its what you get when you build on a sand bar. People knew this thousands of years ago, and even the Bible has admonitions about building a house on sand.

    • JB

      You might want to check some of the convincing data for sea level change –

      Of course people who live on sand bars will feel it first, but we will all be impacted because of the costs to infrastructure – think NYC with flooded subways…

      • Starman535

        Ha ha ha. The EnviroNazis rule the roost at NOS and NOAA. They are political appointees, and will be out of the office and unable to slant the data anymore in a short time. I live in Miami, FL, and the Bahamas are not going underwater, neither is Florida, so the effects of “sea level rise” which should be felt everywhere, are only local. Lauel in Oceanside, CA should look at local breakwaters for the structures impeding natural beach renourishment, not blaming a fictional sea level rise that is not occurring at any significant rate.

        • JB

          Talk to your local water authority to see how long it will be before you’re pulling salt water through your tap…

          • Starman535

            If it happens at all, it will be because another million residents moved here, not some hippie fiction like “sea level rise” in the distant future. The Miami-Dade Water & Sewer dept. moved the well fields 15 miles inland about 20 years ago to avoid that problem. Sea water intrusion is occurring along the canals and from coastal resident’s pumping of irrigation water for their lawns. Most of the canals have now been plugged with salt dams, but they cannot keep water levels high enough to keep coastal salt intrusion at bay without flooding areas west of the coastal ridge.

    • [email protected]

      Sea levels are most definitely rising where I live in Oceanside, CA. My beach My beach is gone! I have not seen tide so high in a regular, non stormy season as it currently is and has been for the past 4-5 months. There was once a beach that could be traversed during high tide from here to the next city for at least 15 miles. Now, it is underwater all day. Low tide allows you to quickly run from rock to rock not to become soaked. And we do sand replenishment projects every year! This time it failed. I am glad I live on the top floor because that ocean is most definitely rising around here.

      • Thinkingman2025

        Don’t conflate localized beach erosion from global sea level rise. They are two different animals. Sea level rise operates everywhere at the same time, and this is not happening today, nor has it since the Great ice sheets melted ~12,000 years ago. How do I know? I live in S. Florida, and sea level is not rising either here nor in the nearby Bahamas. Those islets are very low, and if sea levels were really rising, those places would be immediately imperiled, yet they are not. The sheeple like to blame sea levels for the flooding that occurs on Miami Beach at high tides of Fall & Spring, but the fact is, Miami Beach is built on a sandbar, and sandbars move. Sea levels are scarcely rising at a cm per century, let alone fast enough to create a problem.

  • Onur

    I congratulate the author Dork Sahagian, emhasizing grim realities of our nature and society challenging living-beings on the earth planet..