Tuesday, January 31, 2017

In Defense of Science

Comments and actions from both elected and appointed national leaders have raised serious concerns in academia and the science community about the communication and funding of science.  One example is the house bill that was introduced several days ago to prohibit US contributions to the IPCC, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Green Climate Fund.

An example of draconian measures being proposed to silence or limit science communication in the US
In this post, I'd like to take the opportunity to share my experiences concerning the importance of science funding for innovation and economic growth in the United States based on my 30 year career as a student, researcher, and educator in the areas of weather and climate.

I grew up in a small town in rural upstate New York, graduating with a class of 45 from Perth Central School, which included grades K-12 in the same building.  My father was an engineer and a first-generation college graduate who required a "gap year" to earn enough money to start community college a year after he graduated high school and went to night school to complete his BS.  I was fortunate to be raised in a home that valued education, and to have many outstanding teachers.  However, attending a small rural school meant that there were as few as 3 other students in some of my college prep classes and that I had no AP credits.

When I started at Penn State, I had no idea I would eventually be a research scientist.  I thought I would be a TV meteorologist, as that was taking off in the 1980s thanks to The Weather Channel.  I plugged along through classes and, at one point as a junior or senior, my undergraduate advisor, Craig Bohren, commented that he thought I had the stuff to go to graduate school.  That was all fine and dandy, but then he mentioned that one can often earn a modest salary (about $13000-$15000/year at the time) and be granted a tuition waiver to attend graduate school in engineering and science (as well as other disciplines).  Get paid to go to college!  Ah, I was hooked.

That was essentially the first time that I learned one of the advantages of science funding for innovation and growth in the United States.  Research grants, given to US colleges, support graduate students, who are able to then obtain a higher education and ultimately contribute to innovation and knowledge advancement.  I doubt I would have considered graduate school without the benefits of a research assistantship.  

Of course, one might argue that such knowledge advancement isn't all that useful.  After all, scientists can go off on all sorts of tangents that appear to have little connection with reality, and sometimes I'm guilty as charged.

However, that was not my experience in graduate school.  I worked with the MM4 and MM5 mesoscale models, which were developed by Penn State and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.  These models were just beginning to be used outside those institutions for a variety of applications.  They were eventually replaced by the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model.  That model now has over 30,000 registered users in over 150 countries and is used by many private companies in the US.  Some of my fellow students at the University of Washington went on to form or work in private companies that use the WRF and other models and statistical techniques for renewable energy forecasting.  An example is 3TIER in Seattle (now owned by Vaisala), a renewable energy forecasting company.  The WRF model is also widely used today by weather companies providing content for broadcast and online media.  It represents an excellent example of the trickle down of research into future innovation and economic growth.

In 1995, I began my tenure on the faculty at the University of Utah.  Academics like to joke that you can only reproduce yourself once (i.e., have one PHD student) unless you are at Harvard and then you can do it twice.  This is a good quip, but also out-dated, at least in my field where my students remain gainfully employed in government and private sectors.  The government jobs are often related to weather forecasting, public safety, homeland security, or national defense.  The private sector jobs include a number of technical positions in the renewable-energy, insurance, and national-security sectors.  Here's a list, although I've written it in a quasi-anonymous way:

PHD#1: Lead Forecaster, National Weather Service
PHD#2: Private sector national security firm 
PHD#3: University professor
PHD#4: Several positions involving numerical modeling and forecasting for insurance and wind-power firms
PHD#5: Joint research appointment with renewable energy company and university
PHD#6: Researcher at government lab
PHD#7: Research meteorologist, National Weather Service
PHD#8: US Air Force
PHD#9: Numerical modeling and forecasting with private sector firm

As can be seen above, investments in research by the US government create the technical and scientific leaders of the future.  It develops capable young women and men who contribute to the greater good of the country not just at universities, but also in the government, private, and military sectors.  Threats to science discourse and funding, including in the Earth sciences, are not just threats to science, but also long-term innovation, economic growth, and homeland security. 


  1. Great thoughts Jim.

    Small world - I grew up just down Route 30 from Perth, in the "metropolis" of Amsterdam :-)

    1. I lived in Amsterdam through 4th grade before moving to the "sticks." Send me a note at jim.steenburgh at gmail.com.

  2. Two questions I’ve been mulling:

    1.What is science
    2.Are academically trained people who advocate for climate change policies such as a carbon tax scientists or lobbyists

    I’ll share my thoughts as a means to understand President Trump’s view climate science is “junk” and the new policy proposal by Congressional Republicans to defund the study of climate change. My hope is people who are involved in climate study will adhere more closely to logic and data and avoid the policy debate. The American people, as depicted in the U.S. House of Representatives, clearly have an ambiguous view of climate change and those who study it. Given this ambiguity, my argument is those of us who believe in climate change best serve the cause by refraining from speculation and limiting our statements to what is shown to be true by the data.

    My belief is increasing the carbon load in the atmosphere from 320 when I was born to 400 now seems likely to change the climate in the future and seems likely to have contributed to if not caused the observed increase in temperature in the instrumental record over the last century or so. I want to emphasize this is a belief and the truth is nobody knows what is going to happen or why the observed increase in temperatures has occurred.

    Is science the application of the scientific method? Developing a hypothesis and conducting an experiment to evaluate whether the hypothesis is true? If science isn’t testing rejectable hypotheses, the application of the scientific method, what is science?

    The key in the scientific method is the ability to reject the hypothesis based on the results of the experiment. In this sense “climatology” is a better description than “climate science.” We can study the climate, collect data on it, but we have no ability to conduct controlled experiments on it. This truth is the logical basis for the President’s assertion climate science is junk.

    Effective action on climate change requires convincing a large majority of the American people it is real and if it continues the best outcome that can be expected is the melting of the polar ice caps which will put Florida and Manhattan under water. The best way to convince people is to stick to the facts. Statements such as 99% of scientists believe climate change threatens humanity alienate the voters we need. Patient, respectful, reasoned analysis of ongoing change based on logic and data will ultimately sway the electorate. Meantime funding to collect data and train people in the logic of the climate is going to be cut.

    The U.S. will continue to have elections every two years. The challenge for those of us who believe in climate change will be to communicate with the voters in a way that earns their respect. My belief is the reasoned approach I advocate will ultimately convince the vast majority of the American electorate the climate is changing, people are causing it, and it is unlikely to be good. But it will take time, perhaps a decade or two.

    1. Peter:

      You ask some deep, challenging questions that I ponder frequently. The issues related to climate science vs. climate policy (or advocacy) are something that my field has long struggled with. Many people do not discern a difference between climate science and climate policy and this is understandable given how both are presented by the media. I suspect that there are scientists who also conflate the two, although most do recognize a difference.

      Every scientist has political views and opinions. Trying to minimize the influence of personal bias on our research findings is important. In most instances, I think scientists do a good job of this. In instances where they don't, the scientific community in general ferrets it out eventually. I do not believe the sometimes argued viewpoint that we all suffer from "group think" is accurate. Science is a "contact sport" and I have seen heated arguments over just about every aspect of climate science over the years.

      Whether or not a scientist should become involved in advocacy for specific climate policies is a personal choice. Some scientists do, some don't. As a general rule, I don't endorse specific climate policies or align with advocacy groups. My personal views in this area are summarized at http://wasatchweatherweenies.blogspot.com/2016/09/personal-reflections-on-advocacy.html.

      That being said, I very clearly conclude that we need to do something about carbon emissions and global warming. This reflects both my scientific understanding AND my personal values. Much of the political debate today is about the latter, not the former, although some would like to suggest it is the former.

      If people ask my opinions, I will sometimes share that I do support a carbon tax, but that view is not based on expertise. I am not an economist nor a politician. I have been exposed to vigorous discussions about climate policies and their various strengths and weaknesses, but otherwise I'm not different than anyone else.

      My viewpoints on these topics are, however, always evolving.


  3. Just to be clear Jim, I'm not criticizing you personally. I think you are great and your conduct is the epitome of professional.

    I'm mildly peeved meteorology got changed to atmospheric science and people who used to be meteorologists are now atmospheric scientists. My view is if you are not doing controlled experiments, you are not a scientist, but I understand I'm not going convert you to my view.

    My point is in the 2016 election U.S. Representatives from the Republican Party got in aggregate 1.5 million more votes than Democrats. The typical member of the House Republican Caucus is a very intelligent person who is sympathetic with my view of what activities constitute science and they are offended tax dollars support advocacy for policies they disagree with. The people who voted for these representatives are OK with this position.

    Given this is the state of play, to continue funding for science, as you define it, is going to require all scientists to behave like you do. Gather data, apply logic, make statements supported by the analysis. In contrast, when Jim Hansen makes statements like “game over for the climate,” you and I may think he’s right, but he annoys folks like the elected official from the Uintah Basin I talked to a few years back during a cold snap. “If we are having global warming,” he said, “why has the day-time high at my house been 10 the last month.” You and I both know the answer, but we can’t deny there is a certain earthy logic behind this statement.

    And there will be elections every two years. My argument is scientists help make the best policy by focusing on the results of their analysis and conveying these results to the public in a respectful way. To be clear, I think you do this. My point is not all scientists conduct themselves by your standard, and it would be better if they did. It doesn't take but one person like Jim Hansen making loose statements to change a representative's vote on funding a program like the IPCC.

    So what can you do? Encourage other scientists to act like you do.

    1. I think much depends on what you mean by "controlled experiment." One can test hypotheses, for example, using numerical models. Some people do not consider that to be science. I disagree, but I've also never been a very rigid or organized scientist.

      I have been involved in many discussions in which people raise the points that you do. It's a complex subject, with many perspectives. If you haven't already, read the Honest Broker by Roger Pielke Jr. as it delves deeply into it.


  4. I benefited from a tuition waiver and a paid assistantship as well in graduate school. It is in the best interest of our government to support science of all disciplines. One does not have to conduct experiments to be a scientist. I worked with many colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who analyzed data and applied statistical analysis to the data. That is not conducting an experiment.