What Would I do With an Earth Scientist?
Who will you meet?
Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a community in possession of a good population must be in want of an Earth Scientist.
OK, not true – but I wish it was. I think there should be more opportunities for community leaders to find and work with Earth scientists. It would be good for communities, good for science, and good for the planet.
In this blog, I’ll talk about some of what makes it so hard. Because I’m a scientist, I’ll mostly blame scientists, but I’ll also point out some of the ways scientists are fixing it. I’ll also ask for your help in identifying and tackling other hurdles to science-community collaboration.
Can Earth science really be useful for communities? I’m glad you asked. A lot of what communities are trying to accomplish relates to Earth science. Some examples:
- To save crops and conserve water, farming communities can use new data sensors to better monitor weather and soil conditions and time irrigation.
- To protect the health of low-income residents, neighborhoods can collect and share data about air quality inside and outside of homes.
- Small cities can reduce their carbon emissions and energy costs, and regions can develop coordinated approaches to climate-resilient infrastructure.
For four years, the Thriving Earth Exchange – TEX for short – has been helping community leaders and scientists connect and work together on projects, like the ones above, that advance community priorities. To do this, we draw from a network of over 150,000 Earth and space scientists, from all over the world, who are associated with the American Geophysical Union (AGU). AGU is the largest professional society of Earth and space scientists, and the founder and principal sponsor of TEX.
In the process, we’ve run into plenty of barriers that made it hard for scientist to do community-focused work. Here are some of the barriers we’ve identified, and our ways around them.
For most scientists, community work doesn’t ‘count’ for tenure or promotion the way that publications and grant money do. For now, TEX sidesteps all this by asking scientists to engage with their community counterparts pro bono –outside of their job. We also offer modest recognition: profiles in our magazines, sessions at science meetings, even a new AGU award for being an ambassador of science.
Scientists and community leaders, in general, don’t seem to run into each other much. TEX works with partners – like the National League of Cities, International City/County Management Association, and ICLEI, Local Communities for Sustainability – to foster connections. They help us find community leaders interested in using science and we find scientists with expertise that responds to community needs.
Working on community issues with, or as, a scientist requires a suite of skills that aren’t typically taught in school. We offer guides and coaching for both scientists and the community leaders to navigate this new terrain. Most recently, TEX co-developed the Resilience Dialogues, where scientists and community leaders worked together, with a facilitator, to launch local climate adaption efforts – and got to get some practice working together.
Almost every TEX project runs into the same technical hurdle – it is hard to combine Earth science data with data the community already has. It might be combining 911 calls with temperature to help residents deal with extreme heat or combining street maps with climate model output to anticipate future flooding. In each case, though, there are no good off-the-shelf tools that help integrate these data. Our newest TEX-initiative, Adaptation Analytics, aims to deliver these kinds of tools.
As cool as this is, it is just the tip of the iceberg. While that is an overused expression, is seems apt when talking about Earth science. What I mean is this – I have seen, among scientists, a growing interest in doing Earth science with communities and in ways that advance community priorities. We are in the midst, I think, of a shift in how we think about and do science.
For too long, science – even Earth science – has been dominated by theoretical work, measured progress in publications aimed at a small number of peers, and assumed a “loading dock” approach (just do the science, and someone will pick it up and use it). Arguably, this has contributed to the disconnect between Earth scientists and communities and maybe even to skepticism about some Earth science findings. It is, unfortunately, not a truth universally acknowledged that communities seek science, let alone Earth science. This is bad for Earth science, bad for the communities, and bad for the planet.
Fortunately, I think this is starting to shift. A recent analysis presented at AGU Fall Meeting documents the shift, observed here as an increase in the number of papers that mention “co-production.” A growing number of visionary institutions, like Arizona State University, are also starting to acknowledge and even reward their scientists who work with communities.
TEX is pleased to help nudge that shift. You can help, too. If you are an Earth scientist, you can embrace community work (you probably already do if you are reading this blog). If you are a community leader, you can reach out to Earth scientists and invite them into your real-world problems. (They’ll love you for it). And, if you are a visionary thinker (again, you are reading this blog) we can work together to tackle the cultural, social, and institutional barriers that separate science from communities. I’ve talked about some of the things we are doing on the science side of that separation – what kind of stuff is happening on your side? Or could be?
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.
More than ever, urban transit services are in need of sustainable and affordable solutions to better serve all members of our diverse communities, not least among them, those that are traditionally car-dependent. New mobility technologies can be a potential resource for local transit agencies to augment multi-modal connectivity across existing transit infrastructures.
We envision a new decentralized and distributed model that provides multi-modal access through nimble and flexible multi-modal Transit Districts, rather than through traditional, centralized, and often too expensive Multi-modal Transit Hubs. Working in collaboration with existing agencies, new micro-mobility technologies could provide greater and seamless access to existing transit infrastructure, while maximizing the potential of the public realm, creating an experience that many could enjoy beyond just catching the next bus or finding a scooter. So how would we go about it?