EGU Day 3 – cycles of change (climate, vulnerability and professional behaviour)

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You know when you are at a conference and the days seem to sort themselves into themes? Regardless of the subjects of that talks you go to and the posters you see? Well for me, Day 3 was all about change. Change that was happening, change that was recorded, change in subject silos and change that I wanted to see.

The first session of the day was NH9.7 Resilience and vulnerability assessments in natural hazards and risk analysis

An interesting session, with an inclusive approach to social and physical data, the session explored many aspects of risk analysis, from social vulnerability, to assessing impacts and examining factors of sensitivity, this was the session where I wanted to see change. In the sessions that I saw the main issue I felt was that the social side of the data did not go far enough, the population was reduced to another set of data points – you are vulnerable because you live on this street, with this income and this family. In risk assessment a lot of resilience comes from the perception of risk (Slovic, 1987) and despite data, people can often be more or less susceptible to hazard because of the way that they think about it. Flooding, which has been a big part of this conference, is a particularly good example of this with people that have been exposed to a small scale flooding event changing their attitude and therefore being less likely to respond to the hazard in the same way (Grothmann and Reusswig, 2006). I find it hard to agree with risk assessments that claim to include social science, but ignore the qualitative altogether – there is a need for both forms of data in this field.

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The next session I went to was the Penck lecture (which I just realised was autocorrecting to Planck on Twitter – oops) on Geomorphology by Dr Ann Rowan, titled ‘What can mountain glaciers tell us about climate change? Quantifying past and future discharge variations in the Southern Alps and Himalaya’ a brilliant talk about climate change and also a change to the way that Geomorphology is done. According to Andreas Lang, the convenor, European geomorphology breaks down into two camps – the outcrop based and the process based. Ann’s lecture combined these two camps to give insight about climate change, as mountain glaciers respond much faster than other glaciers and ice masses to global temperature changes. There were many interesting parts to her talk – the fact that some mountain glaciers don’t look the way we think they do because they are covered in debris, and that can help them last longer because of insulation and reduced albedo…

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But also that glacial landscape record climate change, and this I found particularly interesting as mountain glaciers provide evidence for anthropocentric climate change. According to Ann’s research usually mountain glaciers in the northern and southern hemisphere operate on a cycle. When glaciers in the north are advancing, glaciers in the south are retreating (and visa versa), and this has been true according to the data for the last few thousand years. However, in the last 100 years, for the first time, both sets of mountain glaciers are retreating. This was really interesting to me and another example for how change is evidenced not just in the results that we get as scientists, but the way we do science!

 

After the Penck lecture I nipped into a talk on Bárdabunga (GMPV6.1 The Bárdabunga rifting event and associated volcanic eruption) becuase, why not, and learnt that because of an extremely timely award for additonal monitoring of volcanes in Iceland in 2013 scientists were much better able to track earthquake swarms as they moved around the volcano and also deformation. Then I nipped over to G1 to see a talk by Plymouth University’s own Andy Merritt on Landslide Monitoring (NH3.4 Characterising and monitoring landslide processes using remote sensing and geophysics).

The afternoon I spent in a different kind of session; EOS8 Geoethics for society: General aspects and case studies in geosciences. This was a session that examined the changes we as scientists need to make to ensure our continued reputation as responsible and trustworthy  champions of our data. The session covered industrial, professional, academic and hazard communication ethics, as well as our ethical reponsiblity as storytellers and communicators. There were representatives from professional bodies, industry and academics from all over the globe – including a very interesting talk by Megumi  Sugimoto on the ethical probems that contributed to the distaster that followed the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. One talk in particular that stood out was presented by Ruth Allington and she mentioned the importance of a professional standard for both industry scientists AND academics, because, as she correctly stated, academic scientists and professional scientists are not members of a different world, they just have different responsibilities. We should all be behaving in a professionally responsible way and providing examples of this in our own behaviour. After all, we are the guardians of the public as well as of science!

 

I ended the day in a short course on applying for grant funding (SC39 Finding funding: how to apply for a reserach grant). The course was brilliant – succinct and specific, it changed the way that I thought about applying for grant funding (something basically unachievable) and made me see it as something taht I could actually do. The main points  were to be confident in your ideas, separate your work from your supervisor’s and host institution (you need to be seen as a research leader) and don’t underbudget- cheap research is not better research. All in all a very enlightening day!

  

Voice of the Future 2014

Last week on Wednesday the 19th March, I got the chance to attend an event called ‘Voice of the Future’ that allows early-career researchers and students to ask questions about science policy directly to the politicians who make the decisions. This event happens every year as a part of National Science and Engineering Week and draws student representatives of some of the largest scientific societies in Britain. I was asked to be a representative for the Geological Society, and I couldn’t have been more excited! Especially as it seems like so much happens behind closed doors that the ‘air of mystery’ is more of a fog…!

Representing the Geological Society

Representing the Geological Society

All those who attended had the opportunity to ask a question of the ‘witnesses’ (who would normally have been scientists, economists, etc; but this time were the politicians) and although there were far too many questions submitted than could possibly be asked, most of us at least got a chance to sit at the round table, just like in a real select committee meeting. One of the funny things was that you could be assigned a question asked by someone else, which was a little confusing, especially as you then didn’t necessarily know the background to the question. The questions ranged from public perceptions of scientists, to government funding, to evidence based policy making, and were split into four sessions, each with different witnesses.

Set up just like a real Select Committee Meeting.

Set up just like a real Select Committee Meeting.

The meeting was chaired by Victoria Charlton, from the Select Committee for Science and Technology and the meeting was opened by the Speaker of the House of Commons: John Bercow. Mr Bercow started the meeting by welcoming all the participants, but saying that he had had no interest in science at school – that it frightened him. I’m always saddened when I hear of a subject frightening a person – when knowledge and curiosity are something that is scary; I feel that’s when something has gone really wrong in that person’s educational experience. However, he moved on to say that he now thinks science is an important part of a rounded education (which is true!). He also moved on to describe the two types of politician according to the late Tony Benn; signposts (who have a fixed opinion and never change it) and weathercocks (who have no opinion at all). I was a bit concerned that these were described as the only types of politician as I would much rather have a politician with an opinion, but who was willing to change it in the face of good evidence, but maybe that’s just me!

Sir Mark Walport

Sir Mark Walport

We were then introduced to the first session of the day, with our witness Sir Mark Walport, the current Government Chief Scientific Advisor. Sir Mark answered questions on medical technology, Care.data, gender equality in science, the UK’s role in the international scientific community, evidence based policy and how to become Chief Science Advisor. The first question he was asked was about how to tackle the current negative perception of science and scientists, which he answered with my favourite quote of the day:

“You talk about the public understanding of science, but it’s equally important that scientists understand the public as well and so I think we are in a world where we need a public engagement actually – it’s about a two way conversation between the scientific community and all the publics.”

He then proceeded to refer to the recently published Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) survey which highlighted that actually the public don’t seem to perceive science and scientists negatively at all – quite the opposite in fact! This kind of question was repeated in the second session as well, which led me to think firstly that maybe scientists have a defensive view of how we are perceived by the public and also possibly that not many of the question askers were aware of the PAS study (either the most recent one, or any of its previous versions) as this seemed an unusual point to be labouring.
Another question Sir Mark was asked was:

“Do you think the media is dangerously irresponsible in the way that it reports on scientific topics?”

His answer to this was really interesting in my opinion, as he said that perhaps it wasn’t that the media was dangerously irresponsible, but more ‘dangerously variable’. That we can’t think of the media as a single element, and that some reporters work hard and are very effective. He also noted that it ‘takes two to tango’ that scientists must not ‘over claim’ and beware of their data being sensationalised.

The Science and Technology Select Committee

The Science and Technology Select Committee

The second session was with members of the Science and Technology Committee; Andrew Miller, Pamela Nash, David Tredinnick, David Heath, Stephen Metcalfe, Sarah Newton and Jim Dowd. This was very interesting as the panel format gave rise to more of a debate between witnesses and also created my second favourite quote of the day. In response to the question:

“How important is it that the general public understand the true value of the medicines that they take and have the opportunity to have a say on this?”

David Tredinnick brought up the subject of homeopathic medicine in response to this question, but I couldn’t help but think that this was TOTALLY the wrong crowd for that. I mean you are speaking to a room full of early careers researchers, who in many cases have had to fight and claw for the little funding they have managed to secure and they are researchers representing the Society of Biology, the Biochemical Society, the Society for Applied Microbiology, the British Pharmacological Society, the Society for Endocrinology, the Campaign for Science and Engineering – and the rest who may not have been medical researchers, but still tend toward the skeptical end of the spectrum!! Still David Heath stepped in with the brilliant reply:

“I feel like I’m being drawn into an argument I don’t want to have, I just prefer evidence rather than… magic.”

You could tell that his response went down well in the room! Other questions asked in this session related to the Haldane principle, the science curriculum, nuclear reactors, access to scientific information, what researchers can do to become more engaged with Parliament, GM crops and evidence based policy. The panel were also asked:

“What single major scientific discovery would you hope to see in your lifetime?”

The answers were varied and interesting, from room temperature superconductivity, issues around resistance to antibiotics and deep space exploration. David Tredinnick suggested electricity transmitted ‘through the ether’, and whilst David Heath initially plugged for supermarket packaging that you could actually open, he actually wanted to see medical tri-corders invented (extra points for the Star Trek reference). Stephen Metcalfe wanted a better understanding of the origins of disease and Andrew Miller finished with a big picture wish – to better learn how to manage the limited resources of our planet.

Jim Dowd wants room temperature superconductivity developed.

Jim Dowd wants room temperature superconductivity developed.

The witness for the third panel was Liam Byrne, the Shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills. He answered questions on life science investment, evidence based policy, Scotland’s potential independence, MP’s access to scientific advice and retention of young scientists and engineers. He also answered the question:

“If the Government’s ambition to obtain highly skilled professionals from all backgrounds was real, would the first step not be to extend student loan funding to Masters level students, enabling a greater number of students to undertake professional postgraduate study?”

Mr Byrnes answer was yes, as he understood now that in some fields in order to distinguish yourself you need to have postgraduate study, and that we cannot leave our workforce’s career development in the hands of the large banking corporations.

David Willetts MP

David Willetts MP

The fourth session was attended by David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science – who was late. When he did arrive, he was quite short with his answers (and I understand that it was Budget Day, but a) I think that applied to everyone else as well and b) if he was too busy he should have just said no), but answered on the topics of science teachers, the focus of funding research, the privatisation of NERC research centres, encouraging diversity, development of space technology, immigration and the skilled researcher brain drain.
The meeting was concluded by Andrew Miller saying that whilst the meeting was a good start, it was incumbent upon us to keep in contact – tell our MP’s about our research, send in evidence for consideration and to keep talking about policy that we value.

“We need your help” he said, and of course, he is right.

 

So I know this was a long post, but I think it was worth it. The photographs were used by kind permission of the Society of Biology (contact Dr Rebecca Nesbit) and if you want to see the meeting, the video of the session is avalible here.