Last week I attended the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Science Policy conference with this year’s theme of “Preparing for our Future.” The second annual conference seeks to bridge the gap between science and policy (a mission UCS strongly believes in). I learned a lot of new information about policy on diverse scientific topics—from ocean acidification to carbon sequestration to asteroids impacting Earth—but one thing I learned really took me by surprise.
On the first day of the conference, the AGU surveyed conference attendees (both in-person attendees and webcast viewers) on a simple question: In your opinion, which of the following is the biggest gap in our funding for scientific research?
Respondents were given three options:
- Basic research
- New infrastructure
- Long-term, continuous monitoring and data collection
With these options, I might expect a group of scientists to be fairly mixed in responses. There is certainly much support for basic research in the scientific community. (And this was most evident in recent actions taken by members of Congress to undermine it.) And new infrastructure is fantastically exciting for a scientist, as it opens new possibilities in terms of research areas. The third option of monitoring and data collection is the least new and thrilling, so I might expect this to get the least votes.
Live polling at #AGUSPC – 67% say biggest gap in fed science funding is long term data collection & monitoring
— AGU Science Policy (@AGUSciPolicy) June 25, 2013
But I stand corrected. Two-thirds of the conference attendees believed that the biggest gap in our funding for scientific research was long-term, continuous monitoring and data collection. Sixty-seven percent!
When I considered it further, this answer made sense. A recurring theme of the conference was about risks—characterizing them, predicting them, and responding to them. I learned about the latest in tsunami warning systems. I heard about the studies that are starting to show the global effects that Arctic sea ice loss may have. And I discussed our current scientific understanding of risks from sea level rise. All of these research areas require long-term, continuous, and reliable monitoring of the environment.
Such measurements are one of the only tools we have to understand and keep pace with our changing world. In the case of global warming, many of the effects we are now observing have only been detectable in the last few years. Scientists need all the data they can get so we can understand, and most importantly, predict and react to these changes. Better estimates of sea level rise and storm surge, for example, will better enable coastal communities to anticipate and manage the risks. Baseline and continuous monitoring of air and water quality in places with unconventional oil and gas development via fracking will enable communities to identify health risks and to determine liability when contamination occurs.
Another reason AGU conference attendees may have focused on monitoring and data collection is the reality that funding limitations have threatened monitoring systems and data collection recently. Data-rich satellites may soon be out of operation and surface weather observations are facing cuts. Also at risk is funding for ocean observing systems, including long-term fisheries and ecosystem surveys that are performed on all coasts.
When we have to cut back, we should consider what we are giving up. While data collection might not have an obvious and immediate payback, it is essential to effective policy making around environmental changes. To make decisions based on the science, we need to understand what is happening now. As Robert B. Gagosian of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership noted in a Forum article in AGU’s Eos newsletter last month,
“We know that sea levels are rising, that warmer ocean waters will likely create more powerful storms, and that there will be future tsunamis, tornadoes, and oil spills. However, we do not know when or where they will occur or of what magnitude they will be. So it is critical for the predictive capability and preparedness of our nation that the geosciences address these significant and growing challenges that lie ahead.”
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