What Would I do With an Earth Scientist?

By Raj Pandya

Raj Pandya is an Earth scientist and director of American Geophysical Union's Thriving Earth Exchange.

Oct 3, 2017 | Resources, Technology | 6 comments


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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.

These aren’t hypothetical examples either. These are real examples from Barren River, Kentucky; Denver, Colorado; Eugene, Oregon; and Southern Florida.

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.

No Reward

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.

No Connection

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.

No Practice

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.

No Tools

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?

Discussion

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6 Comments

  1. Raj, good read and a great call to action. I’m going to reach out to my local university’s Earth and Ocean Science department and look into TEX further.

    I can appreciate your comments on the loading dock approach. Twenty-five years ago when I was in graduate school, I reacted against this mindset in academia and it pushed me into the private sector. I’m encouraged that we seem to be moving beyond the binary basic research – applied research framework to add the “co-production” option. Thanks for writing this.

    Reply
  2. Raj, what do you think about citizen-led science? Is there a role for Earth Scientists to engage in that growing sphere?

    You write: “it is hard to combine Earth science data with data the community already has.” What entry points have you found most productive at the city and neighborhood scale to do this? Through neighborhood associations? Through Mayor’s Office of Innovation? Are there science and technology offices at Mayor’s Offices to tap into?

    Reply
    • Hi Jesse,

      Great question. The best place of entree for us has been through partners like ICMA, ICLEI, or NLC – they know their members and know who is open and receptive to working with scientists – and they seem like they can vouch a little for AGU with people who might not be familiar. At the neighborhood scale, groups like Coming Clean and Flood Forum – a little more grassroots in nature – have been great allies and connectors. Direct outreach from AGU doesn’t often work quite as well – we just aren’t that well-known and my sense is that people in sustainability, information, and innovation offices are often so deluged by information that it takes a rec from a trusted organization to get noticed.

      Reply
  3. I think TEX is a great idea and it’s really impressive how successful it has proven to be. State and local governments need all the help they can get, and much of the time they are unaware of just what they really do need. If there were ways to get geoscientists more involved in the community planning stages, that would be cool.

    We are trying something similar in a couple of our projects, so you might check out Geology in the Public Interest at http://www.publicgeology.org. We’ve discovered that the limit on available pro bono manpower is directly correlated to our ability to get the word out.

    Thanks for your great work!

    Reply
    • Greg – sorry to take so long to reply. Thanks for your response. More importantly thanks for your great work and your approach. The dual-language logo is a nice representation of your approach and mindset. I would love to learn more about how you work, if you ever find yourself in DC (where AGU is based) or Boulder (where I am).
      Best, Raj

      Reply
      • Raj – Actually we are working now with AGU on a conference for next year, and we have a lot of other ideas as well. I’d be very interested in learning more about the workings of the TEX and your experience. I never get to the other Washington (I’m in Seattle), but my kids live near Boulder and I get down there a couple of times each year.

        Reply

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