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Posts Tagged ‘science’

(NOTE to readers) Be sure to see the Pickles cartoon at the end of this editorial.

Global warming of the earth’s atmosphere has been attributed to increases in the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide emissions that have resulted from the burning of fossil fuels. Land use activities, such as tropical deforestation (such forests were once referred to as the “lungs of the earth”) are also contributing to the amount of CO2 that stays in the atmosphere.

Global warming and tropical deforestation are “creeping” environmental changes, where today’s CO2 levels are like yesterday’s and tomorrow’s levels will be like today’s. Like the frog in the boiling water analogy, there is no hard and fast indicator for when a dangerous threshold has been crossed with regard to greenhouse gas levels, but once it has been crossed, major irreversible adverse changes are expected to occur. At that point major environmental troubles for society become visible and, with the benefits of hindsight, become attributable to a major change in the earth’s climate. For example, though scientists tell us there will be more extremes, it is hard to see that from day to day. Even under ‘normal’ climate conditions, one must keep in mind that record-breaking climate and weather events are occurring somewhere on the globe every year.

It appears that NO GOVERNMENT DEALS WELL IN ADVANCE OF A CREEPING ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE, UNTIL A CRISIS HAS EMERGED BUT BY THEN IT IS TOO LATE IN THE DAY TO RESPOND EFFECTIVELY. As a result, societies end up having to cope with an environmental crisis situation that is often more deadly, more destructive and more costly than if they had dealt with the less threatening seemingly harmless incremental changes from year to year or decade to decade.

Governments, the big ones especially, are backing up into the future. How to turn them around to look into the future is the challenge that has faced older generations alive today. Despite new technological breakthroughs, trying to get governments to figure out why or how to cope with slow onset, incremental but accumulating adverse environmental changes is an almost impossible task. As I proposed at the Nepal Small Earth Network-CCB conference <www.smallearth.org.np/>, we need to come up with a “Plot to Save the Planet”… and very soon. It seems that developing that plot will be up to the youth to develop, not the climate change negotiators who have become mired in detail (e.g., “not seeing the forest because the trees are in the way”).

I have come to realize, following the conference in Nepal and the first few days at UN COP16 <see earlier editorials here>, that we have to re-think the concept of “youth”. It has different connotations to different people. Teens are youth to other people. People still in a university are considered youth by still others. To many, the young are small, child-like, harmless humans who are seldom listened to until they become adults: but, is that how young people want to be viewed regardless of age?

I suggest that there be a decade-wise view of humans where youth are up to the teens (high school and early college years) and succeeding categories are to be branded as “20somethings”, the “ 30-somethings”, the “40-somethings”, and so forth. One could argue that each of these age groups (age cohorts) are generally speaking more like each other in terms of knowledge, goals, enthusiasms, shared lived history, etc. than they are with their neighboring age groups. The lines separating the adjacent age groups are not sharply defined so there is some flexible overlap.

The above suggestion means that I am … gasp … among the 70-somethings, the age group with lots of information and experience but with rapidly waning power to influence! The 20-somethings (with a degree of overlap with “youth”) are in the process of gaining knowledge, training and experience. They hold the keys to safeguarding the future. They are young adults (although it is often used, I do not like this term as it labels them with a junior status) preparing to take on the world. They are no longer youth, playing in a sand box or youth in middle school, ignored for their thoughts. They are out in the real world. They are increasingly demanding to be listened to and still unencumbered by bureaucratic rules and regulations. So, youth, the 20-somethings, the 30-somethings, the 40-somethings, and so on, of the world unite and challenge those professing to want to save the planet’s atmosphere but whose activities do not support their words.

As for those age groups in front of yours, hold them accountable for their “damnages” to the planet. [NB: “damnages” is damage that a decision maker knows will occur (and does occur), as a result of his/her decision or indecision].

As a final point on this, I would also argue that the 20-somethings and the 70-somethings make the best allies, as the former gain the tools that they need to bargain while the latter have the experiences that can be used to mentor and guide them without expectation of personal gain.

The day I wrote the first draft of this editorial I noted in my local newspaper the following cartoon called Pickles (free at http://comics.com/pickles/). It underscored the need for making explicit the possible contributions, at least in terms of mentoring, that older generations alive today can provide face to face to the younger generations.

From Blind Copying (bcc) to Basics (abc) in Science

Ilan Kelman, CICERO, Norway

Science has become mired in blindness: it is dominated by bcc representing “blind copying”. That is, blindly copying what has gone before without innovative thought. In science today, bcc means Bureaucracy, Corporatism, and Conservatism.

Bureaucracy. Science is being bogged down in interminable reporting, complicated paperwork systems, and paperwork for paperwork’s sake. Rather than scientists, senior researchers are morphing into bureaucrats. That does not mean reducing accountability or project management. Those are feasible without snowing people under with paper and checklists. Science is becoming increasingly bureaucratic without any increase in accountability.

Corporatism. Political leaders are heard today claiming that all money invested in science must have a business payback. Scientists are pummelled with corporatespeak such as visions, stretch goals, identities, and objectives. Those are useful approaches for structuring thoughts in certain contexts. They cannot apply to all contexts, especially exploratory research where the pathways and outcomes are not known–cannot be known–beforehand. If all research pathways and outcomes were known in advance, then we would not need research.

Conservatism. Increasing expectations from science focus on outputs, such as counting the number of peer reviewed papers and ticking off the list of deliverables. Any attempt to take a risk is discouraged because, heaven forbid, results might not be publishable. New case studies can be nixed because it is not known what is there–which is precisely why those case studies should be researched. A culture of fear prevails that we might actually learn something different from what we expected in the first place.

How could the bcc situation improve? We must move from the bcc of blind copying to the “back to basics” of abc. What is the basic purpose of science? To search for explanations and to gain knowledge. abc achieves that through Action, Boldness, and Curiosity.

Action. Much of science plods along, week to week, hoping for a breakthrough or to find something publishable. That should not preclude excitement, dynamism, and acting on desires to know and learn more. No punishment should exist for taking action to pursue a query where potential exists for important results, even if that means deviating from the original plan or using the assigned budget for other activities. Note that action does not necessarily mean activism. The action can be along the lines of simple scientific enquiry, following a lead that appeared even if not listed in the initial project plan.

Boldness. Science should not be afraid to take risks. Risking a project or part of a budget on a daring move, an odd case study, or a unique situation has the potential for immense gains. Even if 99% of bold decisions to strike out in new directions fail, the 1% success rate will pay back dividends that are orders of magnitude greater than the expense. The evidence? The transistor. The discovery of pulsars. The proof of the CFC-induced ozone hole. Amongst many others.

Curiosity. Scientists these days frequently seem scared to ask deep questions. For example, challenge a leading scientist in climate change to prove assertions made and the consequence can be ostracism from the clique along with personal attacks. Dare to pursue a topic because it interests you and the consequence is being hauled before bureaucratic superiors to justify your use of time and budget. Try to shift a budget line to take advantage of recent developments and the consequence is being labelled a troublemaker by the granting agency who must use time (and hence money) to determine whether or not to approve such a small change. Investigation for “sheer curiosity”–just because it is there–is frowned upon. What is the point of research if we cannot follow the tendrils of our minds?

Science is being killed by blind copying. We are losing creativity and innovation. Society loses in the long-run by having fewer explanations and less knowledge to apply for a better world. Where are the scientific visionaries and leaders today who can bring science back to life–back to basics?