Finding Common Ground between Research and Policy

by Leslie Irwin, NOAA Research, Office of Communications

“I think anyone trying to work in NOAA headquarters should be required to work in the field at some point in their career.”

This was the advice of NOAA’s chief operating officer and Deputy Under Secretary for Operations, David Kennedy, at one of our Knauss lunches.

Since most of us Fellows had come into our current marine policy “desk-job” positions after several grueling years of lab and field work, this advice was more for our consideration when dealing with other policy personalities in DC. We are lucky enough to understand the full path that science takes. Science grows from a research proposal, to data collection and analysis, to communicating the conclusions to policy-makers, to policy-makers pushing strategy plans, and hopefully agreeing to implement and carry out that plan.

Not many policy makers have the experience of working with the science that supports their decisions, and this lack of perspective can hinder the environmental policy progress that we need. This also highlights a main reason for why the public audience remains skeptical of research conclusions.

I immediately thought of NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Cruise completed back in August. I had just finished talking with Dr. Erica Ombres (Knauss Fellow in NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program) about her experience onboard and the significance of the research they were conducting.

OA cruise 2

“Although scientists were on this mission to better understand how ocean acidification affects ecosystems on the west coast, a research vessel is like an ecosystem unto itself once it leaves port and gets underway,” explains Ombres. “It takes many people working together to keep the boat on course, everyone on board safe and to collect quality scientific data.”

Ombres herself had to play the role of “sample cop” when doling out portions of water samples to a crowd of eager scientists who would each measure a different environmental characteristic of the water. I picture a research cruise as a constant state of organized chaos as captain, crew, engineers, stewards, and scientists all work together (and around each other) to ensure accurate collection of data and safe conditions. This cruise in particular was anything but smooth, and you should really check out their blog for more details on their experiences and research.

OA cruise 1

A research cruise is a huge undertaking. At the end of the day, these samples then go on to inform our scientific knowledge of our oceans and climate, which we attempt to package into a palatable presentation for public and political consumption. The entire process is seriously impressive.

All the audience really cares about are the results.  Hopefully, they understand our conclusions and the implications of those results as well, rather than dismissing them (this is something we can always improve upon). This is something my organization struggles with daily. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is about to release its Fifth Report (AR5), which incorporates data collected by numerous institutions (including many NOAA research labs) from cruises, satellites, sensors, and other monitoring and sampling efforts from around the globe since the last report was released in 2007. When people finally see this report, I doubt they will recognize the amount of work that actually went into its development. Maybe if skeptics took the time to consider the massive effort it takes for a group of people, like that on a research cruise, just to acquire the samples needed, they would recognize that after all that work, researchers are not taking the results and conclusions lightly. Given the current research results and projections for our future climate, I’m sure we all wish the outlook was different.

Scientists get this, but it’s not scientists we need to convince. I think the main problem is no one wants to admit responsibility, and taking any drastic steps to meet the challenges of climate change now is a sign of defeat to some.  I’m interested in seeing how the AR5 is received when it is officially released next week.

I’m not sure how wide of a reach this blog is even getting, but I figure it mostly consists of current fellows and science-minded people (and my mom). I’m preaching to the choir. I guess my take-home message after all of this is to remind scientists to talk about their work. I challenge you to tell the stories of how you got to your results to non-scientists. See if you can humanize the experience, because that’s what people connect to first, and once they connect to that, they will connect to your results.

And as we move forward in our DC marine policy adventures, may we never lose touch with the field work that got us here.


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