Thursday, June 26, 2014

On "What is the Anthropocene about?" (lecture)

AGU posted my recent (May 2014) presentation, "What is the Anthropocene about?", as part of their Science Speaker Series. Might as well post it on my own blog too, although it is always awkward seeing and hearing oneself.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

AGU’s 2014 Science Policy Conference (Washington DC) - Day 2

AGU’s Science Policy Conference brings together scientists, local, state and national policymakers, and community and industry leaders.  Day2 follows the structure of Day1 (, except (early) opening with a plenary address.

I was looking forward to hearing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and was not disappointed.  Following the usual “about me” segment that described her youth, education and career before appointed office in the Obama administration, she emphasized the centrality of science in decision-making.  That was good to hear.  She also emphasized the need for better handshaking between natural science and social science to bring key messages to a broad audience.  She touched on the poor budget environment, but also that there is money in the government to move forward, perhaps in small steps.  I was glad that she included hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") as an example of poor communication and insufficient planning, both by government and industry.  She clearly embraces the connection between business and government, and that universities should continue to share discoveries for the greater good of human society, but that research independence should always be protected from the political debate.  Besides an engaging presence, her message sounded genuine and, frankly, inspiring.  Great start of the day.

The keynote offered a good segue into a panel on the Business of Science with a group of panelists representing industry and non-government organizations.  Industry is taking over some government activities, as money has too big a voice in federal support for research and development.  Today’s politisation of research is a disturbing, perhaps damaging development that breaks with our past tradition.  This disconnect is also reflected in a memorable statistic from the moderator that more congressional hearings were held on asteroids than on climate change (I didn't check this).  The consensus was that the development of national policies on both energy and climate are necessary.

Then session breakouts followed.  In Resources: Going to Extremes I was enthralled by the asteroid mining guy and the description of “urban mining” (high-end recycling for precious materials).  They, respectively, emphasize increasing the pie and reusing the pie, both of which are strategies we can all support.  I didn't know that a modern recycling plant is as clean as a food processing factory and that asteroid mining smallest problem is getting material back to earth (such as, platinum foam balls that float).  The development of asteroid mining benefits from being a rich guy’s playground (Google, Oracle and Virgin guys are among the supporters), but also crowdfunding through Kickstarter (

I must confess that I skipped lunch and one breakout session for “personal development.”  The Holland brigade had to defeat the Aussies to advance to the Final 16, and eventual WC14 championship, which they did (not pretty, but a win nonetheless).  Obviously, I have my priorities straight.

I returned for the final breakouts of the day and selected Flood Risk Communication.  Each of the panelists described with passion their program to reach the general public.  Clearly, if one wants to be informed, there are dedicated teams to make this possible.  Taking prompts from unusual events, such as a zombie outbreak (see,, offers valuable lessons for less exotic, but more likely and damaging events that include floods, storms and other geohazards.  As mentioned in my Day1 write-up, the message is clear.  Trust media folks to develop the message, while letting science shape the message.

Having a few days between the last conference day and a write-up is useful for reflection.  I made some AGU staff unhappy with my assessment of the politicians panel on Day1, but was taken by Sally Jewell’s inspiring address.  For me, the need for a mix of appointed and elected officials in D.C. is clear.  There is time for debate and time for action, with the latter our ultimate goal.  The value of science policy conferences like this one (and many others in the US and elsewhere), is bringing together different audiences.  However, the effective reach of science into politics and policy remains uncertain, and demands impact assessment by conference organizers.  For example, did Hill staffers stay after their bosses left?  Are white papers or policy briefs developed and used?  Lastly, I wish that climate change would not be the primary focus in most science policy discussions, as other, more imminent threats are also facing society.  In all, a good experience with opportunity to learn from many interesting and dedicated folks.

Note: You can see opening panels and keynote on

Ben van der Pluijm
Professor at the University of Michigan, EiC of AGU’s Earth’s Future

Day 1:

---The opinions in this blog are the author’s, and do not represent the AGU, the journal Earth’s Future or the University of Michigan.

Friday, June 20, 2014

AGU’s 2014 Science Policy Conference (Washington DC) - Day 1

AGU’s Science Policy Conferences brings together scientists, local, state and national policymakers, and community and industry leaders.  The third SPC, Finding Solutions to Urgent Challenges, focuses on natural hazards, climate change and natural resource challenges.  The program and other material is on the website, at  

Day 1 started with a panel of three US representatives, after AGU's Chris McEntee’s opening words.  The opinions of the three science-supporting, Democratic politicians sounded good to the audience.  Few, if anything they said raised eyebrows as the panelists all agreed that science needs more support, that science issues such as climate change are unquestionable realities, and that we need to prepare for major societal challenges.  However, little action can be expected from today’s divided congress, we were told, so one is left with the sensation of a custard-filled donut: comfort food.  This panel did little for me to understand today’s political gridlock, solutions, or the reservation among so many on the Hill about science (especially climate science).  My notes have the usual items, such as competitive edge, national security, global lead, etc.  I was glad to hear that the panel agreed with audience/twitter comments about the long-term value of greater research funding, in real dollars.  It is maddening to hear perfectly sound views from elected officials, but realizing that progress is not in our immediate future. Sometimes the trivial offers some surprising moments, such as one reps lead in the Algae Caucus (yes, algae: and another’s reps urging to use more “serious” project titles.  Not yet sure how to get national security into my fault rock research, but working on it.  

The conference is structured around three themes, mentioned above, each of which has a parallel breakout session.  The sessions use the familiar theme of brief presentations by engaging panelists, sometimes coordinated, sometimes not, followed by a Q/A session.  I picked one of each, with disaster monitoring and risk prediction as my first.  I much enjoyed the presentations on earthquakes and extreme weather, which would be useful parts of a college curriculum on these topics.  The earthquake early warning presentation stood out for me, both in its execution and realizing that warning means seconds to a few minutes response time.  Enough time to take cover and to shut down sensitive systems (such as trains), so an obvious target for implementation in the US.  We’d be following several other countries in doing so, illustrating our lack of preparedness for imminent hazards.  As before, lack of funding is the catch.

I had the opportunity to speak about the open-access journal Earth’s Future ( to the conference attendees during lunch, following AGU President Carol Finn’s introduction.  After only 6 months we already have a rich and diverse slate of 30+ publications and opinion pieces that are widely downloaded.  Interest is high, so the journal’s future is looking good.

The climate preparedness session offered practical and compelling examples of the impact of environmental change and our need to mitigate more aggressively.  Instead of returning damaged infrastructure to its original state, we should adjust and modify when rebuilding.  Yet, this is often not possible under existing regulations and insurance policies.  Also, in many cases local willingness to do thing differently would violate state or federal law.  Perhaps the federal response on a disaster by disaster basis is a mistake.  Instead. let local governments and communities take more responsibility, as the willingness and urgency lie there.
The resource session I attended focused on water and, specifically, our interaction with stakeholders.  Panelists offered practical advice about dealing with the media, about being on message, and about content.  The presentations highlighted different approaches, illustrating that best practices are not the same.  One speaker urged no more than three items per presentation, followed by a speaker describing 10 bullets.  The third speaker noticed the irony and mentioned that she will be in the middle, with 5 take-home items.  Each one made good points.  The discomfort that many scientists feel with the media was recognized, so the advice that let media folks do what they do best makes sense.  The challenge is to present key information and not get bogged down in detail and uncertainty arguments.  Distinguish noise from signal and go with the latter for media interactions; leave the noise to the scientific paper.  Lastly, an important distinction was raised between influencing people’s attitude and changing people’s behavior.  Make sure you decide on the goal of your interaction with the media and general audiences.

Meanwhile, August came early this year to DC, with city temperatures at 100F.  Looking forward to Day 2, which will start with remarks by interior secretary Jewell.  Stay tuned.

Ben van der Pluijm
Professor at the University of Michigan, EiC of AGU’s Earth’s Future

Day 2:

---The opinions in this blog are the author’s, and do not represent the AGU, the journal Earth’s Future or the University of Michigan.