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.


Alfred said...

I quote you: money has too big a voice in federal support for research and development. Today’s politisation of research is a disturbing, perhaps damaging development

Ben van der Pluijm said...

To clarify, "money", as in external lobbies.