NEWS Can Networked Knowledge Help Communities Thrive on a Turbulent Planet?

Arti­cle by Andy Revkin:

Arti­cle URL:

 Sci­ence has long been focused mainly on knowl­edge fron­tiers, with uni­ver­si­ties often seem­ing to track “impact fac­tors” of pub­lished papers more than a researcher’s impact in the real word.

But there’s been a wel­come effort, of late, par­tic­u­larly in fields rel­e­vant to sus­tain­able devel­op­ment, to shift pri­or­i­ties toward help­ing com­mu­ni­ties address chal­lenges as humanity’s “great accel­er­a­tion” plays out in the next few decades. An early iter­a­tion of this call came in a 1997 essay on “the virtues of mun­dane sci­ence” by Daniel Kam­men of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, and Michael R. Dove of Yale. (I dis­cussed the essay in a lec­ture last year.)

It seems such efforts are gain­ing steam. For exam­ple, con­sider the growth of the Thriv­ing Earth Exchange, an effort by the Amer­i­can Geo­phys­i­cal Union to help con­nect its global net­work of sci­en­tists with com­mu­ni­ties seek­ing science-​​based solu­tions to a vari­ety of vex­ing problems:

Cap­tion: Some exam­ples of ini­tia­tives on which com­mu­ni­ties have sought advice from sci­en­tists through an online exchange.Credit Thriv­ing Earth Exchange

When the ini­tia­tive launched in 2013, the direc­tor Raj Pandya, wrote an arti­cle for Eos, the Amer­i­can Geo­phys­i­cal Union mag­a­zine, explain­ing the goal is “to enable com­mu­ni­ties to part­ner with Earth and space sci­en­tists and access the exper­tise needed to address prob­lems aris­ing from haz­ards, dis­as­ters, resource lim­i­ta­tions, and cli­mate change.”

The exchange has accu­mu­lated quite a list of projects at var­i­ous stages of analy­sis and com­ple­tion. I hope you’ll explore them here. I also urge you to lis­ten to this short, suc­cinct and com­pelling talk in which Pandya illus­trates the mer­its of get­ting the right sci­en­tific exper­tise to the right prob­lem by show­ing how tar­geted mete­o­ro­log­i­cal fore­cast­ing helped improve the deploy­ment of lim­ited sup­plies of menin­gi­tis vac­cine in sub-​​Saharan Africa, sav­ing lives and money.

An early iter­a­tion of such a net­work, now dor­mant, was Sci­en­tists With­out Bor­ders, cre­ated almost a decade ago by the New York Acad­emy of Sci­ences (I wrote about it in 2008). This is an arena where trial and error are both vital.

In a related and cred­itable move, the White House and some part­ners today announced the launch of “Resilience Dia­logues” — a way for com­mu­ni­ties at risk from cli­matic or coastal threats to con­nect with experts to reduce their vul­ner­a­bil­ity. In an email this evening, Amy Luers, the assis­tant direc­tor for cli­mate resilience and infor­ma­tion at the White House Office of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Pol­icy, explained that sci­en­tific exper­tise is actu­ally a smart part of what’s needed:

This effort is focused on respond­ing to com­mu­ni­ties’ request for guid­ance in their resilience plan­ning by match­ing experts from a range of sec­tors (mostly not sci­en­tists) to meet the needs that com­mu­ni­ties have iden­ti­fied. These experts come from a range of tech­ni­cal assis­tance pro­grams in both fed­eral agen­cies and non-​​governmental groups. They are peo­ple who under­stand the reg­u­la­tions, man­age grants pro­grams, have devel­oped and/​or worked with tools that explore trade­offs, and who have exper­tise in com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pub­lic engage­ment. In fact, in the pilots, I would say that only about 10 per­cent of the sub­ject mat­ter experts were Ph.D. bio­phys­i­cal scientists.

I spent time a cou­ple of years ago on the engage­ment com­mit­tee of Future Earth, an inter­na­tional enter­prise aim­ing to shift research invest­ments in sci­ence toward goals that serve soci­etal needs. As a result, I was a (minor) co-​​author on a paper in Global Envi­ron­men­tal Change ear­lier this year aim­ing to illus­trate “how sci­ence might con­tribute to the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of desir­able and plau­si­ble futures and pave the way for trans­for­ma­tions towards them.”

It’s excit­ing to see this hap­pen­ing, includ­ing through another idea-​​sharing ini­tia­tive that I recently high­lighted: “Seeds of a Good Anthro­pocene.”

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Please spread the word or give both the new White House ini­tia­tiveand Thriv­ing Earth Exchange a test drive if you have a resilience issue in search of solutions.

Fur­ther read­ing | Daniel Sare­witz, an ana­lyst of the inter­face of sci­ence and soci­ety who teaches at Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity, recently wrote an extra­or­di­nary and com­pre­hen­sive essay warm­ing of per­ils ahead for both sci­ence and soci­ety if insti­tu­tions of sci­ence don’t shift pri­or­i­ties. The piece is in The New Atlantis, a jour­nal on tech­nol­ogy and soci­ety. Here’s his takeaway:

Advanc­ing accord­ing to its own logic, much of sci­ence has lost sight of the bet­ter world it is sup­posed to help cre­ate. Shielded from account­abil­ity to any­thing out­side of itself, the “free play of free intel­lects” begins to seem like lit­tle more than a cover for indif­fer­ence and irre­spon­si­bil­ity. The tragic irony here is that the stunted imag­i­na­tion of main­stream sci­ence is a con­se­quence of the very auton­omy that sci­en­tists insist is the key to their suc­cess. Only through direct engage­ment with the real world can sci­ence free itself to redis­cover the path toward truth.

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