“there has to be a tremendous amount of courage”

In early January, I attend the National Council for Science and the Environment Annual Conference in Washington, DC. This year, the conference theme was “Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure” – a topic that is right up my research alley. Although many of the conversations throughout the conference focused on a topic currently outside the scope of my doctoral research – climate change and the serious and threatening challenges we face due to climate change – I was intrigued and inspired by the ideas and discussions with fellow scientists from other disciplines and across all ages.

Climate change, or more accurately global warming, affects us all, and will certainly affect the next generations. Addressing and reversing the impacts of climate change and creating resilient communities will require all of us to change and chip in, for as I heard during those two days in DC, “no single discipline owns resilience.” Resilience is a verb – it’s the simple actions we take every day and the radical choices we make to ensure safe and prosperous communities for the future. So how do we get there? What is our job? What role(s) do we play? As I have reflected on the conference over the past weeks, three jobs for three different roles have emerged for me:

  1. My job as a scientist: tell the important stories
  2. My job as a(n aspiring) policymaker: innovate
  3. My job as a citizen: demand better

Storytelling Scientist

One would think that we wouldn’t have to ‘sell’ science to the general public. That the facts speak for themselves. But in the era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts,’ there is often a disbelief in science. As scientists and engineers know, we always deal with uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act. But for others, uncertainty means doubt which can be a reason not to act.

Therefore, as scientists, we have to connect science to people. We have to make it relevant. We have to tell the story. As was mentioned in the opening of the NCSE conference, “science has to be local.” People act on what is important to them, so we have to make science important and relevant.

In thinking about resilient infrastructure, today our infrastructure is exposed to not only acute shocks, like earthquakes, but also chronic stresses, like urbanization, aging and underfunded infrastructure, and changing tax-bases. So how do we help others to understand that our communities have changed and get them invested in solving the problems in our communities as they are now, not as they were 10 years ago? We tell them a story. We show them how are communities are changing. We use maps and graphics.

Friends of mine are incredibly interested in science communication – and I don’t think they should be outliers. ALL scientists and engineers should be invested in developing their communication skills and learning how to better explain and advocate for science and evidence-based policies. Being a storyteller is now a requirement for being an effective scientist.

Innovative Policymaker

So, if scientists and engineers are telling their stories and advocating for science, what role do policymakers have to play? Frankly, a big one. Innovations in technology can only go so far as the economic and regulatory systems will let them. We need not only innovations in technology, but also in business models and regulatory practices. It takes policymakers getting on board with science and allowing it flourish. When it comes to renewable energy, we need to make it competitive and rethink how and to whom subsidies are provided.

As for infrastructure and transportation planning, the current model is to “set it and forget it.” Politicians who serve two-year terms are making decisions with five-year budgets and forecasting for infrastructure that will be around for fifty or a hundred years. Buildings are designed for a single future scenario. But what if the hazards change due to changing climate. Are those structures still resilient? There were some folks presenting some cool work in forecasting for decision-making for building design at the NCSE conference, and we need more of this.

Active Citizen

So, what brings together the scientist and the policymaker – all of us. The citizens across our communities, states, and nations. If scientists can tell their stories to (re)convince people of the importance of science, the people then have to demand that policymakers and business owners act on science. Where do we spend our dollars? What businesses and campaigns do we support? Who do we vote for?

While this might all sound pie-in-the-sky or reveal some naivete, I choose to believe that there is hope. I, like many of my peers, have been disillusioned with our current political system that does not seem to work for the interest of the people. Some days it doesn’t seem like we are going to be able to make the changes we need to make to fight the pressing issues of our day. But I still believe in science.

So, whatever the role we are acting in, the climate (social, economic, political, or environmental) of today demands significant and eminent action. It requires that we drastically change the systems in which we have operated for decades (or centuries). It requires…a tremendous amount of courage.


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