Posted by: egutoday | April 8, 2011

Jean-Pierre’s column

The oceans provide a much valuable service to society by absorbing about one fourth of the CO2 released by humans into the atmosphere, thereby moderating climate change. However, this generates considerable changes in the chemistry of seawater (“ocean acidification”), among which an increase in its acidity. As this century progresses, ocean acidification has the potential to affect a wide range of marine organisms, food webs, habitats and ecosystems that supply important goods and services to humankind. However, the socio-economic consequences of ocean acidification are still unknown and hampered by the poor knowledge of the impacts on an ecosystem scale. It is unfortunate that so much uncertainty remains because human society needs to get information with a relatively high degree of confidence before it decides to regulate its activities. Even with a high degree of certainty on future climate change and its likely impacts on society and economy, the reduction of CO2 emissions is proving extremely slow and difficult to implement. Ocean acidification and its impacts on marine ecosystems may well provide an additional reason for reducing CO2 emissions but the knowledge generated up to now is patchy and sometimes uncertain and conflicting, making it difficult for policymakers to move ocean acidification higher up on the agenda. It is a top priority for the current national and international projects to fill the gaps as soon as possible.

Jean-Pierre Gattuso, CNRS and Université Pierre et Marie Curie-Paris 6
This column expresses the personal opinion of the author

Posted by: egutoday | April 7, 2011

Richard’s column

Do scientists need to be good communicators, or not? In the past I’ve swayed between yes and no. On one hand it seems like a good idea to be able to talk well about your research – especially if the public are paying for it. On the other, maybe what people expect is simply that scientists do good science, with other looking after the communication.

What is currently bringing me round to the first of those positions can be expressed in two words: Tohoku and Fukushima. People have been incredibly thirsty for this story; on the BBC website it has smashed all records for number of readers, for desire to know more, for specific web searches, and so on. And at the heart of the story is science.

Developments at the nuclear plant continue to surprise; and without the capacity of scientists to respond and analyse quickly and accurately, how are journalists to make sense of it? And unless journalists do make good sense of it, how are societies to make informed decisions on issues such as nuclear power – particularly bearing in mind the potential problems for climate goals if the technology is abandoned? Meanwhile, the human tragedy of devastated villages and peoples’ unknown fates has brought into focus once again the key role of researchers in the seismic disciplines.

The next Fukushima-sized story could happen in your field. A glacier lake outburst, a space exploration spectacular, a minerals discovery, a sudden climatic shift, a new deep-Earth organism… whatever it is, whenever it is, journalists will be knocking on your door for information and advice, and the words you choose will play a huge role in putting the event in context. It’s a challenge – but a huge opportunity too. Will you be ready?

Richard Black
Environment correspondent
BBC News

Posted by: egutoday | April 6, 2011

Jelle’s column

Scientists are a privileged species. We can do (almost) everything we want and where our scientific interests carry us. In the early nineties, I started “the carbon group” at the Alfred-Wegener Institute of Polar and Marine Research. Initially, my quest was purely curiosity and science driven and focused on understanding the global carbon cycle. This was hot in those days because of its connection to global warming and the exciting challenges it offered.

However, recognising that atmospheric carbon not only affected climate but also the marine ecosystem via ocean acidification (OA). I realised that this “double trouble” was more than just a scientific playing ground and might actually be one of the biggest challenges for future society! Suddenly, there was another dimension to my work and I understood my scientific obligation to do more than just investigating and understanding the Earth’s system for fun.

I started writing the European Science Foundation “Science Policy Briefing” and became involved in international working groups on OA. I also became a member of the international Reference User Group and initiated a number of outreach activities. I’m grateful to have many colleagues with whom I work together towards reaching decision makers and politicians and slowly working towards changing society for the better.
Jelle Bijma
Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine research, Bremerhaven, Germany
This column expresses the personal opinion of the author

Posted by: egutoday | April 5, 2011

Dirk’s column

“The fox knows many litle things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” (Archilochus, 7th century B.C.) This distinction nicely describes the challenge that we scientists face if we want our work to lead to a better future. Compared to the complexity of today’s globalised world, we indeed often know just one topic truly well, whereas we don’t know all the many little things that our one big topic might affect.

Therefore, we possibly best con­tribute to a better future by clearly and impartially communicating our findings to society and policy makers. The shared knowledge of all the stakeholders embraces eve­rything -both small and large- and is necessary for weighing one thing against another.

We could, however, always aim for our findings to stand out from the crowd. For this, two factors are crucial. The first is credibility. Without credibility, the impact of our scientific findings on decision making will justifiably be minute. The second factor relates to the reliability of our findings. We must communicate that allow­ing for a measure of uncertainty actually increases the reliability of our findings. Because non-scientific predictions often lack this measure of uncertainty, they are invariably perceived as more reliable than our findings. This perception, I believe, we must try to change.

Dirk Notz

Max Planck Institute for Meteorology
Hamburg, Germany

Posted by: egutoday | April 3, 2011

Andy Russell’s column

Sir John Beddington (Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government) stirred up some controversy during his recent address to a Government Science & Engineering conference:

“We are not […] grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method.”
He then urged his audience to “go out and be much more intolerant.”

I’ve been thinking about how this applies to my area of interest – climate change – where the lines between scientist, sceptic, contrarian and denier have become blurred. In this arena, engaging with true scepticism can reinforce research findings but debating with deniers is often pointless. Maybe Beddington is proposing that certain arguments can be brushed aside with a simple put down: Pseudoscience! If so, how do we determine which arguments?
And, of course, there are two sides to this story – how energetically should we also challenge those who extrapolate the scientific evidence to an alarming level in an effort to accelerate political action?
In short, how can intolerance of pseudoscience be employed whilst maintaining a professional appearance and the principles of the scientific method?

By Andrew Russell, Brunel University, UK.

See also Andy’s blog Our Clouded Hills

Posted by: egutoday | March 20, 2011

EGU Today 2011

From the Editors

This year, our daily column in EGU Today will focus on the question of the role of science in society. How can scientists help to find solutions that allow us to adapt to a changing environment? How can science contribute to energy conditions or help to avert hazards?

The tragedy in Japan clearly shows the critical role of communicating scientific results to the victims of natural disasters. Communicating science is not a luxury, but a vital instrument for a healthy society. It can literally save lives.

Please comment here, or send us your reactions, ideas and news by email,, or Twitter: @DickEGUpress.

Posted by: egutoday | May 6, 2010

Science under Fire 5

Friday’s column in EGU Today:

Urgent need to build a general public culture in climate science

The public debate on climate change is driven by confusion between climate scientists, environmentalists and politicians. Major scientific challenges are linked with monitoring, understanding and anticipating the behaviour of the climate system. When we explain the state of affairs regarding climate research, including uncertainties, most people express that “if this is true, it is serious and has to be addressed”. This leads to political, technological and economical challenges of adaptation and mitigation. The public debate on climate change is more focused on the climate science challenges (“is this really true?”) than on the political challenges…

Uncertainty is an intrinsic part of science, and scientific controversies follow basic rules that include the demonstration of statements through observations or modelling, and peer-reviewed publication. However, the public stance on climate research does not follow scientific ethics. In a mockery of scientific debate, the media harbour simplistic views, such as: only greenhouse gases act on climate (the “environmentalists”), or that all but greenhouse gases are at play (the “sceptics”).

Unfortunately, most people lack the basic knowledge on climate to act as referees for this public debate. Education is therefore fundamental. As scientists, we are duty-bound to make our methods, results and publications freely available. The open-access publications of the EGU are an important step forward in this direction.

Valérie Masson-Delmotte
LSCE, Gif sur Yvette, France

Posted by: egutoday | May 5, 2010

Science under Fire 4

Thursday’s column in EGU Today:

We all carry an innate desire to understand, feeding our search for the answers that seem to elude us. Consequently, we look to the scientific community to fill the gaps in our knowledge. Yet, by the same token, we have a distinct tendency to swallow the kind of quick fix so frequently pushed upon us by those, for example in the media, who stroke the egos of Big Business and others with vested interests in pacifying the ignorant masses.

Why is it so much simpler to accept the authority disseminated by the popular press with its strategy of dumbing down, TV programmes with answers to everything and nothing, and the countless know-it-all websites that serve as breeding grounds for charlatans?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that as much as we wish to place our trust in bona fide scientists, we often feel belittled and beset by their methods and mannerisms. Too often the scientific community comes across as an alien species that is intent on stupefying us with its trusted brand of scientese.

Surely it’s high time for the learned community to start fighting fire with fire in order to create a level playing field. When all is said and done, the only thing that truly matters is getting the right message across. For some, this will mean resorting to tactics that seem to contradict everything they stand for.

Andrew Gilman, Assistant Press Officer, EGU

Posted by: egutoday | May 5, 2010

Science under Fire 3

Wednesday’s column (longer version)

A lot of us are working on understanding the sequence of big earthquakes happening on the Sunda megathrust west of Sumatra. This is an important problem and we are making good progress. The recent earthquakes have left a yawning gap under the Mentawai Islands; the megathrust hasn’t broken under the gap since 1797, it is strongly coupled there, it is now loaded more than it was when it last failed and interaction stresses from earthquakes in 2005, 2007 and 2009 have pushed it even harder. All of us are convinced that another big earthquake is imminent and the city of Padang (population 840000) sits on the Sumatran coast broadside on to the region of highest expected slip.

Do we agree on the detail of the science? Of course not. One of the few things we are certain about is that we don’t understand the process properly. So should we be talking to the Sumatran people about things we don’t fully understand? I strongly think that we should. There is an overriding consensus that a great earthquake and tsunami is possible; we all agree on that even though we don’t agree on the detail. On 30 September last year an earthquake M7.6 shook Padang demolishing whole areas of the city and killing 1200 people. This was not the earthquake we were waiting for but no one in Padang knew this at the time. People did not uniformly do what scientists would have liked them to. Many ran to the shore to see if the sea was receding before evacuating, others in their tens of thousands took to their cars and bikes clogging the roads and preventing escape on foot. But had there been a tsunami many people who evacuated as they had been told would have been saved and the death toll from the event would have been much smaller than it might have been. The 2009 Padang earthquake was a partial vindication for scientific intervention in social organisation though more work remains to be done.

Earthquake science is still a young game. We don’t know all the answers, we probably don’t even know all the questions but we do know enough to make a difference. Over the entire globe we can identify cities which are threatened by big earthquakes, we can’t say when they will happen and we can’t forecast their detail but we do know they are inevitable. This information will save lives if we can bring it forcefully to the right people. Medical science doesn’t understand breast cancer properly yet lives are saved every day by the application of incomplete knowledge. Earthquake science can do the same.

John McCloskey, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Ulster

Posted by: egutoday | May 4, 2010

Science under Fire 2

From science to understanding

In principle, it’s the same: It doesn’t really matter if we say “It’s probably getting a few degrees warmer over the next century”. Or if we tell a person overlooking an Arctic fjord “This kind of view will most likely disappear from our planet. This glistening whiteness of sea ice and snow and glaciers will soon no longer exist in the way you see it now. If you want, you could start saying farewell to this landscape.”

In principle, it’s the same. Both statements are backed up by the best science we know today. Both statements are true with the same likelihood. Both statements are objective and hence, by definition, free of any political agenda. And yet, the second one feels so very different. It feels different because it’s a translation of the first statement into something that people really can understand. It’s a translation that allows the listener to make a more informed decision, because its wording is more accessible to the non-specialist.

Such objective, unbiased translation is more than ever needed to maintain (or to rebuild) the credibility of our scientific findings for the general public. And it’s needed if we expect our findings to have just the impact that they realistically deserve. It’s that easy. And yet so very, very difficult.

Dirk Notz, Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg, Germany

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