Friday, May 8, 2009

Scientists Under Pressure: seeking answers in unprecedented times

I was reading a collection of abstracts covering scientific articles and studies involving climate and climate change, and it made me reflect on the enormous pressure that our scientific community is under. We, as a global society, are slowly becoming more and more aware of the many environmental challenges we face - from global warming to fossil fuel dependence to, well, you name it - and we are turning to science to provide the answers. But true science is very methodical, cautious, and perhaps even slow by our standards in analyzing, predicting, and developing solutions or alternatives in dealing with the issues we face.

But that desire for the quick fix, the silver bullet, is not the only complication to the scientists' work. They must also contend with the fact that we are in unprecedented times. The various impacts of human activities and the ripple or cascade effects they have on ecological and geological systems continually skew prediction models and analysis in new directions almost daily. Critics question the credibility of the scientific community because of changing models regarding polar ice melts, ocean acidification, or future species populations.
  • A study, reported in Ecological Complexity, addresses the problem in defining the impact on environmental systems with the conversion to "clean" energy because of the overall growing demand for energy, whether clean or not.
  • An article on climate modeling in Annual Review of Environment and Resources applauds the ability to predict past, present and future climate patterns. But it also points out the computational limitations as prediction models try to include more and more Earth-system processes.
  • In Climactic Change, an article discusses the challenge in predicting climate change accurately, despite compiling extensive data over long periods of time (to average out seasonal or spurious fluctuations) because of the increasing demand for energy (specifically coal) which skews the analysis in unforeseen ways.
With our current worldwide economic difficulties, economists and decision-makers are trying solutions that are new and untested to combat problems that are unique in our economic history. This leaves them open to criticism or questions as to the likelihood of success.

Scientists find themselves in the same situation but with the added burden that the issues they are addressing will effect more than just the health of our pocketbooks - they will determine the health and future of this planet.

Let's make sure they have the tools and support to succeed.

No comments: