Science

September 2011 Newsletter

Click here to view our September 2011 newsletter.

The Pew Center's September 2011 newsletter highlights a new intiative focused on expanding carbon dioxide enhanced oil recovery, a new brief on international climate assistance, the lessons we can learn from Hurrican Irene, and more.

Crunch Time for U.S. Science Funding

Researchers must make a stronger case for funding in the face of a perfect storm of budget cuts and eroding political support, says Jay Gulledge.

This op-ed appears in Nature magazine.

September 2011
By Jay Gulledge

The current U.S. debt crisis sets the stage for a potential tipping point in federal science spending. The ideology that government-sponsored science is crucial to the well-being of society has eroded along with the cold-war security agenda, which embraced and fortified science for decades. Meanwhile, science has been pulled repeatedly into political clashes on cultural issues. Against this backdrop, the global economic crisis portends a decade-long reduction in federal budgets. To avoid a permanent retraction of government support for research, the science community must be more strategic and aggressive in conveying the value of its work to society and in gaining robust support from politicians.

US federal science spending has long been rooted in the national security agenda. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was established shortly after the Second World War “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense”. NASA was established less than 10 months after the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, in a frenzied response to the Soviets’ early lead in developing ballistic missiles. Through the decades of the cold war, support for science straddled party lines.

But, after the fall of the Berlin wall, the United States stood as the sole great power and shifted its strategic emphasis from establishing scientific superiority to cultivating democratic movements in the developing world. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks reinforced this shift: security analysts believed that Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the main US enemies, would be defeated by winning hearts and minds, not by building a better mouse trap.

The erosion of the cold-war security doctrine therefore removed the bipartisan backstop to science funding. The quest for economic competitiveness might reasonably have replaced it, but has not done so. For example, the America COMPETES Act, passed in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010 by Democrat-run Congresses, planned to expand the NSF’s budget from US$6.6 billion in 2008 to $8.1 billion in 2010, but appropriators froze NSF budgets   in response to the economic crisis. The current Republican-led House of Representatives is unlikely to support the increase of science budgets. Representative Ralph Hall (Republican, Texas), the recently installed chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has said that the America COMPETES Act is “just too heavily drowned in money”.

Add to this the ‘culture wars’ that have gripped the United States for some time. They split the nation into two camps along divisive issues such as abortion, gun control and gay rights. In recent decades, some of the most contentious issues have put science in the crossfire, from evolution to tobacco health effects, stem-cell research and most recently my own area of expertise — climate change. This year, an informal survey of US Earth-science teachers found that climate change was second only to evolution in evoking protests from parents and school administrators (S. Reardon Science 333, 688–689; 2011).

These divisions threaten science budgets. Hall has expressed doubts about the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change and recently sponsored an amendment to the 2011 spending bill to stop the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from spending money to set up a national climate service; the bill passed with support  from 227 Republicans and 6 Democrats.

Economic shock
In the midst of all this, the debt-ceiling deal — formally the Budget Control Act of 2011 — has the potential to administer a massive shock to science budgets. The law requires non-defence discretionary spending (which includes science funding) to be cut by $917 billion over the next ten years, an average of 15 percent per year. On top of this, an automatic trigger will reduce spending on defence and on social entitlements — the sacred cows of Republicans and Democrats, respectively, if by the end of the year Congress cannot agree on ways to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next decade. The two parties will therefore be strongly motivated to cut non-defence discretionary budgets as much as possible.

Whether future Congresses will soften the impact of the debt-ceiling deal depends on the pace of economic recovery, the evolution of the culture wars, and the public’s perception of the return on taxpayer investment in research. The scientific community can directly influence the last of these, but it needs a coherent strategy to do so. Like industry, it needs to document its net value to society and flaunt it. Unfortunately, through decades of cold-war complacency, the scientific community has developed a culture that runs counter to doing this.

An institution representing the U.S. science community is needed to undertake a broad, ongoing, quantitative assessment of the overall contribution of science to society and the economy and communicate these effects to the public and politicians through the media and other channels. As ever, the contribution to national security is a good place to start. Neutralizing today’s threats — terrorism, biological and chemical weapons, nuclear proliferation, and cyberwarfare — is an intensely scientific undertaking. Social sciences are needed to tackle joblessness, food and energy insecurity, financial   disruptions and climate-change-induced destabilization of developing countries. Economic development, cost savings through innovation and efficiency enhancement, environmental quality, mental health and happiness are all affected by scientific research and development.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the traditional home for such cross-cutting efforts, and its work is laudable. But the ongoing public misunderstanding of science shows that the established approaches are inadequate.

There are signs of new ways of thinking. In March, the American Geophysical Union hosted a gathering of the presidents and top administrators of 17 US scientific societies and research consortia, from a broad spectrum of fields, to discuss how they might cooperate to improve public understanding of climate science — a unique and remarkable effort that should be expanded.

At the same time, science institutions need to enhance their value to society by incorporating socioeconomic benefits into their missions. Although some branches of academies already embrace this role to some extent — medical, law and engineering schools, for example — basic-science and social-science schools traditionally eschew it. In part this is because the production of social benefits is scantily rewarded. In the words of Anthony Janetos, director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland in College Park, at a 2009 meeting of the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC: “Nobody asks me, ‘How many policy decisions did your work inform?’ Instead they ask, ‘How many papers did you publish and how much grant money did you raise for the institute?’” Both should matter.

Peer-reviewed publications, research grants, and professional impact should remain the core metrics of success in academia. But the remit should be broadened so that recognized publications include assessment reports and science-based articles in public-policy, interdisciplinary, and business journals. Recognized grants should include those from mission-oriented agencies, foundations, and non-governmental organizations. And recognized impact must include influence on government, business, and civil-society decision makers.

The drive for international superiority during the cold war passively nourished a wide spectrum of sciences, the true value of which manifested in an array of benefits outside defence. In today’s chillier strategic and political climate, the scientific community must work hard to enhance and advertise those benefits. Those in academia who worry about the erosion of curiosity-driven science should have a greater fear: the erosion of science in general.

Jay Gulledge is the Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

by Jay Gulledge--Published in Nature magazine

Adding More Weather Risk to the Climate System

This op-ed appeared in CQ Researcher.

September 2011

By Jay Gulledge

The risk of extreme weather is rising because of climate change. In the United States, long-term trends show an increasing number of heat waves and heavy downpours and longer, more destructive droughts and wildfires. Climate models simulate these same trends when scientists examine the effects of increases in global warming’s main ingredient – greenhouse gases.

Risk is the best way to understand the link between climate change and extreme weather. Just as smoking and high cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease, natural cycles and global warming are risk factors for extreme weather. This year’s weather impacts have been particularly severe because multiple risk factors are aligned: A long, intense La Nina – a temporary cool period in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that is associated with extreme temperatures, droughts, and flooding in other parts of the world – is occurring at the same time we are experiencing the warmest decade in at least 130 years. The big difference between these risk factors is that natural cycles come and go, whereas global warming increases over time as atmospheric greenhouse gases grow, constantly adding more weather risk to the climate system.

Escalating weather impacts are cutting deeply into the economy. The world’s largest re-insurance company says the number of weather- and climate-related disasters worldwide more than doubled over the past 30 years. Economic losses attributable to weather variability run $485 billion annually. Several multi-billion-dollar events have occurred this year, including Texas’ worst single-year drought, the Mississippi floods, and Hurricane Irene, which is expected to rank among the ten costliest hurricanes in U.S. history.  As the weather becomes more volatile, economic risk will continue to grow.

As recent weather events teach us more and more about our vulnerabilities, the taxpayer-funded National Flood Insurance Program is already $18 billion in debt. Because most of the damage from Hurricane Irene is not privately insured, this financially-strapped program is under pressure once again. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is running out of money to respond to disasters, even as Congress bickers over how to refill the coffers.

Flood insurance is the federal government’s second-largest fiscal liability after social security. Ignoring rising climate risk will only allow these hidden costs to suck up more taxpayer money. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to changes already under way bends down the risk curve, just as exercise and medical insurance lower health risks. If we don’t take these steps, our children and grandchildren will inherit a more dangerous and costlier climate.

Jay Gulledge is the Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

by Jay Gulledge--Published in CQ Researcher

Irene’s Impacts Hit Home

During the last weekend of August, the Eastern U.S. braced for a walloping. Hurricane Irene spiraled up the Atlantic coast, ripping trees out of the ground in North Carolina and drenching much of the rest of the coast. When I heard that Irene was making her way up toward my hometown of Ridgewood, NJ, I had flashbacks to Hurricane Floyd, a devastating storm in 1999 that brought us much destruction and devastation.

Climate Debate in Word Clouds: The Conflicting Discourse of Climate Change

Like it or not, climate change is now part of the “culture wars.” Like abortion, gun control, and health care, climate change divides conversations along political battle lines of left versus right. But if you listen closely to what is being said, you will find that people are talking past each other, engaged in a debate that has little to do with an evaluation of climate science. Instead, it is a clash about values, beliefs, and worldviews. Opinions are based largely on ideological filters that people use to understand complex issues, influenced strongly by the cultural groups of which they are a part and the opinions of thought-leaders and pundits whom they trust. The arguments are constructed around the frames by which people view the science, not the science itself.

Learning about Our Risks from Hurricane Irene

So how bad was Hurricane Irene? Some commentators seem to think Irene didn’t match up to the media, yet  preliminary assessments suggest Irene will be one of the top 10 costliest hurricanes ever in the United States. New Yorkers are indeed fortunate that the worst case scenario did not play out in their fair city, but that doesn’t mean there were no worst case scenarios elsewhere.

The worst fears about wind intensity did not play out, but a different devastating outcome did occur: Historic inland flooding across a huge swath of the interior Northeast. From New Jersey to Vermont, as much as 12 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours, swelling creeks and streams to well beyond flood stage. Paterson, New Jersey, is still under several feet of water five days after the storm passed and many residents have not be able to return home. Thirteen towns in Vermont were cut off from the outside world, and relief workers were unable to reach one town for days. More than 250 Vermont roadways are damaged and 30 bridges were destroyed.

Hurricane Irene: Climate Connection?

“Don’t wait, don’t delay, we all hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” President Obama’s statement on Hurricane Irene urges the public to take precautions before one of the most significant northeast hurricanes in recent history. Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for much of the Atlantic seaboard, including coastal areas of New York City. All lanes of one major highway in New Jersey are headed in one direction only – west. The safest course of action is always to get out of the way of an approaching storm – to minimize the risk of harm when you can.

The 2011 Texas Drought in a Historical Context

Texas climatologists have recently stated that the ongoing dry spell is the worst one-year drought since Texas rainfall data started being recorded in 1895. The majority of the state has earned the highest rating of “exceptional” drought and the remaining areas are not far behind with “extreme” or “severe” ratings by the U.S. Drought Monitor. So far, Texas has only received 6.5 inches of the 16 inches that has normally accumulated by this time of year.

Risk to Livestock during Heat Waves

Cattle deaths have been mounting in the central U.S. as the recent heat wave has pushed heat indices above 120 degrees in a number of states. Faced with dry pastures, rapidly depleting hay supplies and drought stressed surface water sources, ranchers in Texas are engaging in a significant  livestock sell-off, referred to in one press account as culling into “the heart of the herd.” The size of the U.S. herd is now at a record low as farmers liquidate, enticed by high beef prices and expensive feed. The situation is dire enough that the government has stepped in with low interest loans to ranchers and direct payments for farmers that lost animals due to the extreme weather. Under the Livestock Indemnity Program, cattle lost to extreme weather are reimbursed by the government at 75 percent of their value, a significant expenditure when cattle losses are counted in the thousands. Texans are already looking for ways to adapt to the drought and improve their climate resilience. Henderson County is hosting a training session on August 22 entitled “Managing the Effects of Drought for Beef Producers.”

Excessive Heat Across Eastern U.S.

Over the weekend, the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning across a huge swath of the country, putting 132 million people under a heat alert. This warning is only issued when a heat index of at least 105°F is expected for more than three hours per day on two consecutive days or when the heat index is expected to rise above 115°F for any length of time. Recently in Iowa, the heat index reached  131°F, a level normally found only along the Red Sea in the Middle East. Scientists warn that these types of events could become much more common in the future, thanks to climate change.

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