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The Changing Climate of Science

Written by Brandon Wolding, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student for the Department of Atmospheric Science.

The Denver March For Science

I was cold. I knew I should have worn a sweatshirt. Clutching my mug for warmth, I looked pensively at the sky, and then decided to drink the last of my coffee. It had been raining on and off for the last couple of hours, but it looked like the sky was about to clear, just in time for the march. There was a feeling of nervous excitement in the air, and people around me were finding comfort in chitchat. I met Mary from Castle Rock, CO, who likes to write in her free time, and works as a Zoologist. I met Megan, Bob, and their son Luis, who were from Niwah, CO. Megan and Bob spend most of their weekends biking, and both work as doctors. I met Jeanette and Deb, who had beaming smiles, and Paul, who loves photography and watercolor. We had all come, along with the thousands of other people gathered around Denver’s Civic Center Park, to join in the March for Science.

According to the March for Science Facebook page, the goal of the march was to “… defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.” Marching with Mary, Megan, and Bob, I found myself wondering how it had come to a point where our scientific institutions needed to be “defended.” I couldn’t imagine there were many people that didn’t like Mary, Megan or Bob. I also couldn’t imagine that there were many people who thought that what they did wasn’t useful. But it seems that when Mary, Megan and Bob are viewed as part of a larger collective, as part of a broader scientific institution, it becomes easier for false narratives to arise about who they are, what they do, why they do what they do, and why it does or doesn’t matter.

Putting Faces To Science

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that false narratives can arise about our scientific institutions, narratives that are counter to who scientists are as individuals. We scientists are particularly adept at abstracting our individuality from our work. It is trained into us through years of schooling and research. Our papers, our talks, our presentations, they all have the same predictable storyline: introduction, hypothesis, methods, results, and finally conclusions. We are largely trained to give explanations of our research devoid of personal information about who we are and why we do what we do. But the growing distrust of scientific institutions highlights the importance of the broader public identifying with scientists as individuals, as friends, neighbors, and family, not as strangers in a lab in some remote land.

This blog was an opportunity for me to try something different, to present my work in a fashion different than my usual introduction, hypothesis, methods, results, and conclusions. Given the changing climate of science, I thought there may be as much value in introducing myself as there would be in introducing my work.

I Am A Scientist

Hi, my name is Brandon. Here is a photo of me with my wife Jennifer, and our two dogs Dobie and Kaia.

Jen and I grew up in rural Wisconsin, and have been living in Colorado for 6 years now. We love the mountains, and just like many other mid-west transplants to Colorado, we spend every free weekend climbing, biking, and camping in the mountains. We also binge-watch Netflix and HBO every time a new season House of Cards or Game of Thrones comes out. Jen works as a speech-language pathologist in a grade school just down the road from our house, and I recently completed my Ph.D. in atmospheric science. I love the drama of research, the rollercoaster of excitement and frustration in trying to understand something new. Digging through data sets feels like a giant treasure hunt to me. It almost makes me as happy as surfing and climbing, almost. I am often kept up at night running over equations in my mind, looking for a solution I haven’t found yet. I am a scientist.

What I Research And Why It Matters

I have spent the better part of a decade researching a completely different type of organization than that which occurred in Denver this weekend; the organization of clouds, and how this organization will impact our changing climate. Look at any photo of Earth taken from space, and one of the first things you will notice is that clouds cover a large portion of the Earth’s surface. You may also notice that the clouds are not randomly scattered, but instead tend to organize into clusters or groups of various sizes. The tendency of clouds to organize into groups affects the weather that we experience, as well as the climate of our planet. My research is focused on understanding why clouds like to organize, and how this may impact the Earth’s changing climate. Understanding how clouds, and their organization, will change as the climate warms is crucial to answering one of the most important questions of our time: How warm is our planet going to get?

Last year the United States became a signatory of the Paris Climate Agreement, a primary aim of which is to hold “… the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.” The role the United States should, or should not, play in combating climate change has become an incredibly contentious issue. Taxpayers want to know how much it is going to cost, and parents want to know if it will be enough to secure a safe future for their children. Understanding “feedbacks” between clouds and climate, which my research aims to do, is absolutely central to answering both of these questions.

The Importance of Communicating Who Scientists Are

History has taught us that there is a very simple formula that can be used to pit ourselves against one another. Step one is to make “them” be seen as different: to erase the commonalities we share, which are many, and exaggerate the differences we have, which are few. This experiment of division need not be repeated again. Just as creating change requires people to act at both an individual and an institutional level, creating unity requires people to be understood at both an individual and an institutional level. If the changing climate of science is to be combated, it is important that scientists and scientific institutions put as much effort into communicating who they are as they put into communicating what they do.

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