Ocean ecosystems in the age of Cassandra

As warnings mount, how can we speed science into policymaking?

Just within the past month, several news items underscored the dire situation our oceans face.  Kristen L. Marhaver, a Ph.D. Candidate in Marine Biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has the story in this repost.

Chemists warned that we must focus more attention on ocean acidification. As the seas absorb more CO2 emissions, pH levels decrease and wreak havoc on marine life, which is why the phenomenon is also called the “evil twin of global warming.”

Meanwhile, biologists warned that not enough attention is focused on the rapid extinction of the world’s species, some of which will disappear before we’ve discovered them. Just as researchers sounded those alarms, fishermen sought the cause of the collapse of California’s Chinook salmon fishery and marine biologists tried to determine the cause of a new disease spreading across Maui’s coral reefs. And that was all before a BP-operated oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and began spewing thousands of gallons a day of crude into the sea.

Humans have undeniably changed the chemistry and biology of planet Earth. We are now faced with the consequences of our actions as fish stocks collapse and diseases spread across ecosystems. As a Ph.D. student in marine biology, I’ve learned this truth from the world’s most prominent scientists. I’ve also watched coral reefs rot away before my very eyes. The oceans are indeed running out of fish and clean water. Together, these stories are crucially important for the world’s food supply, for human health, and thus for public policy. Why, then, do my fellow scientists struggle so mightily to get the public’s attention?

We scientists write journal articles, issue press releases, give lectures and interviews, contribute to blogs, build websites, make movies, and sit on advisory panels. But when the time to act is now, scientists still need better tools to get research relevant to policymaking directly into the hands of decision makers.

In his recent New York Times editorial, Adam Cohen called this the “Age of Cassandra” after the prophet from Greek mythology whose warnings were true but never heeded. Why, Cohen wondered, if experts predicted the flooding damage of Hurricane Katrina, picked up on the terrorist activity that preceded the September 11th attacks, and detected the fraudulence of Bernie Madoff a decade ago, are “well-founded warnings so often ignored”? Perhaps the struggle to sell a carefully honed expert opinion is not unique to science, but a burden shared by professions as diverse as civil engineering, intelligence gathering, and finance.

As it stands, scientists issue warnings and predictions in their publications, each momentarily covered by the media and barely heard by policymakers. A few years later, the scientists update the warning or confirm that the prophecy has become reality. The fishery completely collapsed. The corals were killed off by disease. Just as we predicted. We could have done something.

A crucial reason for this attention gap is the vast difference between the pace of science and the pace of journalism. I believe this disparity, once a nuisance to scientists, is now tremendously dangerous for society.

Scientific research requires years to plan, fund, conduct, analyze, and publish. Journalism operates with a one-day attention span. Therefore, an important scientific discovery that takes years to achieve will receive a short press release and, at most, one day of news coverage, even if it is critically important for society and for public policy. After years of development, it takes only 24 hours for a scientific discovery to become old news. Science shouldn’t be circulated for a day and then locked away behind a subscription wall. It should be a far more accessible form of information.

To shorten the distance between the laboratory and the policymaker’s desk, we should first knock down this pay wall and make more research freely available through open access databases. Especially when it is crucial for public policy, a research paper based on science supported by federal funds should be available open-access. Once liberated, scientific papers will be easier for policy experts to evaluate in real time. While the Internet has helped push some scientific journals toward open-access, Congress could support this step by passing the Federal Research Public Access Act, which would mandate that research papers financed by many federal agencies be posted online within six months of their publication date.

In addition to open-access publishing rules, a system for experts to highlight research that is critical for urgent policy decisions””like those that could save depleted fisheries “”would help scientists to solve real-world problems much faster.

Because scientific knowledge is crafted through a formalized process””with repeated measurements, statistical analysis, peer review, and editor oversight””researchers already have an infrastructure to identify the most urgent findings and, potentially, move them to the policymaker’s desk.

For all of the relevant journals, editors and reviewers could assign each scientific article a priority rating during the review process to reflect its importance for policymaking and environmental management, and a single database could then collect this information. There will be debate over the relevance and urgency of some findings, but anonymous peer review and evaluation by an editorial board is a better system than most for making these kinds of value judgments. It is a system in which scientists operate quite comfortably, and it affords some protection from political influence.

As traditional journalism continues to erode and science journalism has been washed to sea, this type of information shortcut from scientist to policymaker is needed more than ever. Policymakers cannot wade through dozens of scientific journals and parse from the flood of papers what is most urgent. And they cannot wait years for reports from NGOs and working groups. Fisheries collapse and corals die much faster than consensus documents are written. Policymakers need a way to get closer to key information, faster, without relying on journalists. It is now up to scientists and scientific journals to make this happen.

I believe that any policymaker should be able to consult a single database, type “salmon run” or “coral reef decline” into a search box, and immediately see the most authoritative and important scientific knowledge on that subject, with policy recommendations alongside.

In addition, each scientific article in this system should be accompanied by a summary for the broader public. In this curated collection of policy-relevant research, scholarly commentary and debate over the findings and their urgency should be indexed alongside the original work. News and blog coverage could be linked in real time as well.

Importantly, the database would also have links to the original scientific articles, made available at no cost or accessible through an open access policy. Access to this knowledge should be free. Furthermore, managers, scientists, and policymakers in developing countries deserve an opportunity to avoid mistakes already made by others. Scientific knowledge is meticulously crafted, but it should never be a luxury item.

Scientists may object to a ranking system that so clearly places value on applied science versus basic research. In addition to citations and press coverage, this could be yet another form of attention for which scientists feel they must compete. But science cannot advance policy through a single day of news coverage or by garnering a large number of citations over the course of a decade. Nor can it bear swiftly and heavily on policy while locked behind a subscription wall.

As a young scientist in a changing world, I am often told that communications skills are the key to making a difference. But if we simply invent new ways to mix the slow craft of science with the nearly extinct craft of science journalism, we’ll never save a rapidly dying planet. This may be the Age of Cassandra, but it is also the Age of Google. In this brave new world, science itself must be more brave, honest, and transparent by subjecting itself to new forms of ranking, sorting, and publicizing. Science produces some of the world’s most powerful information and we should be harnessing the full power of the information age to compile this knowledge and transmit it to policymakers. Otherwise we will simply be documenting, in exquisite detail but out of earshot of our decision makers, the death of planet Earth. From what I have learned underwater, in the literature, and from my mentors, science has enough of the world’s problems to tackle without being a problem in itself.

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12 Responses to Ocean ecosystems in the age of Cassandra

  1. TAFL says:

    Thanks, Joe for this re-post by Kristen Marhaver. It is more relevant than ever. Science and technology in general seem to have a credibility gap to fill with the general populace. This we have known. What I find new and shocking is how little we have learned to listen to whistle-blowers whose job was to blow their whistle or to warn of impending danger! The cases sited are indeed mind-blowing. New Orleans was identified as being at high-risk due to poor flood control in Scientific American pubished in Oct. 2001 after years of warnings from a number of experts and several near-misses with hurricanes before Katrina in 2005. Bernie Madoff was identified as a fraud by an industry analyst who tipped the SEC in 2000, but Bernie continued his ponzi scheme until 2009. Bin Ladin’s terrorists that perpetrated Sep. 11 2001 were noted and registered by FBI agents while they were taking flight lessons in 1998. And so on. Maybe this is the angle that should be used to debate climate-change denialists: that they are ignoring whistle-blowers in a culture which has ignored whistle-blowers several times before at huge costs that were entirely avoidable.

  2. Kota says:

    In my opinion you don’t need ‘to’ Google, you need ‘a’ Google. I’ll call it ‘Google eaarth’ after the book.

    Apparently you can’t change policy without buying the politicians campaigns, the news papers and television stations.

    There are millions of us out here waiting to do the right thing, willing to buy the right products. We not only need Energy Star, but Science Star so we know what to do in our area to help reduce the use of carbon based energy.

    Imagine a web site that combines Facebook, with Consumer Reports, with Google, with a neighborhood element and throw in a green E-Bay. Stop thinking energy policy and start thinking energy individual.

    I for one am sick to death of being told to call and write our representatives. I’m sick to death of campaign speech talk that disappears once the politician is elected. And our earth … it’s just sick to death.

    There must be a way we who care can go down fighting, and if we are to go down I want to know I was on the side of our beautiful planet and all its creatures not just the humans.

    Changing my light bulbs may have reduced my carbon consumption, but I want personal steps to REPLACE my carbon energy use with clean energy. I didn’t need a policy change to move from newspapers to the personal computer.

  3. John McCormick says:

    Kota, I hear your frustration with the politics of climate change solutions but you must also see the enormous task of relying upon individuals to replace carbon energy with clean energy if there is no centralized approach that moves us in that direction.

    There are 330,000,000 moving parts in America’s carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide equivalent emissions reduction efforts. How to mobilize the whole of America’s population (not just those who believe and are devoted to changing their standard of living to save our planet)?

    In my family of four it is a constant struggle to cut back on wasted electricity and gasoline and I am sometimes the guilty party. I cannot afford new windows, solar panels, an EV or Prius so I change out the incandescent bulbs, turn off computers and TVs, etc. Microscopic results, yes. But, I could accomplish more if electric rates and gasoline costs were much higher and our family budget had to adjust to them. That happens with politicians enacting laws to increase the energy costs and subsidizing or at least supporting wind and solar alternatives to carbon fuels.

    If that proves less than possible, then we are soon past the turning point and believers and deniers are all in the same lifeboat.

    John McCormick

  4. Leif says:

    A few relevant quotes from Bertrand Russell:

    “A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”

    “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

    “The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.”

    “If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we would have paradise in a few years.”

  5. Kota says:

    I’m just sayin – all the people in the US didn’t have to get behind automobiles first to change from the horse and buggy.
    All the people didn’t need to get behind email first to change from letter/memo writting.
    All the people didn’t have to get behind the search engine to change from the library.

    All the oil wells in the gulf didn’t have to blow up to wreck the eco-system.

    It certainly can’t HURT to get a ground swell of individuals adopting new energy technology. Libraries, schools etc. had to adopt the computer! They were playing catch-up to what the individuals had already adopted. Make the institutions scramble to catch-up. How many politicians are now on Facebook and Twitter? They didn’t start those things and my guess is they would rather do without them but follow or be left behind they must.

    Give me a clean energy battery to run my computer like my back-up battery and I’m early adopting just like I did my old FAT MAC back in the day. From the early adopters big things can happen!

  6. J Bowers says:

    This TED Talk by Jeremy Jackson of Scripps Institution of Oceanography is a further warning. It made my jaw drop at times.

    ‘How we wrecked the ocean’

  7. paulm says:

    We as a race are drunk in our success and now languish, oblivious to our purpose.

    We have sipped from the cup of fossil fuels and in the party that started we have forgotten about our future.

  8. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Perhaps it is time that environmentalists started campaigning seriously for the only viable solution in sight to the ocean acidification problem,
    namely, (and in addition to phasing out GHG outputs), the estabishment of a gigahectare of native afforestation worldwide, optimised for climate mitigation in general and carbon recovery in particular.

    Calling it “the only viable solution in sight” is something of a challenge: does anyone know of a comparable solution ?

    The idea that, given time, the natural carbon sinks will make a significant difference to airborne carbon ppmv, and so avoid the need for engineered carbon recovery, is mistaken.
    Firstly the sinks are currently removing only around 1.0ppmv of CO2/yr: i.e. getting from a peak of at least 400ppmv to the pre-industial level of ~275 ppmv would take at least 125 years, thus succeeding long after the oceans were long dead;
    secondly those carbon sinks are themselves liable to decline (not least through ocean acidification);
    thirdly the interactive feedbacks are already accelerating towards the point of swamping the carbon sinks with material from destabilized carbon banks – e.g. old forest wildfire, ex-permafrost, etc.

    Only by the most rapid of action to recover airborne carbon do we have any serious prospect of conserving the planet’s marine ecologies. Restoring the third of the planet’s forest cover that has been lost to human interventions, (which amounts to around a gigahectare of forest), is the logical, effective and potentially sustainable means to that end.

    The address below links to a remarkable campiagn in Bihar state in India, where a single state official organized the planting, and ongoing nurture, of nearly one billion trees in a single day.

    Given a planting density of ~3,000 per hectare, this equates to the planting of around one third of a million hectares. Planting a billion hectares will require around 3,000 times the effort of that one day, in one state, in one country. Given a good few years of persistence, such a goal is eminently acheivable.

    So how many share an interest in resolving the acidification issue ?



  9. paulm says:

    I have to agree unless we start planting shrubs and trees at an unprecedented rate the race is lost (and cutting our gasses). There is no other realistic solution.

  10. Individuals are not going to solve any of this… it takes collective action, policy, resources, organization and leadership. Start organizing at the neighbourhood level and working together….otherwise….

  11. Raul M. says:

    Once I thought I’d run for office using an electric car with solar
    panels and travel through the state for office. I could say that
    my travel mode was continued through a gift from God. Then I thought
    that I would probable be the most hated concept in the race, for I
    would remind so many of their own situation.

  12. Raul M. says:

    Perhaps producers and directors may find the proper actors
    for the fairy tale to become popular.