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.

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