Science in the Public Interest


President and Senior Scientist Dr. Eric A. Davidson

Throughout my career as a scientist, I have always assumed that scientific research is conducted in the public interest. Regardless of which way political winds were blowing, science was held in high regard as promoting the public good. Science and scientists are still generally well respected, but the perception of contributing to the public good has been called into question in recent years as our society becomes more and more polarized.

In modern times, the value of science to society was described by Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), who made the case for supporting basic science in his 1945 report to President Truman:

“New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science!”

One of the best modern examples of a technology that is transforming lives but that was developed incrementally from advances in basic research is the cell phone. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa 30 years ago, the subsistence farmers in my village had to wait for a truck to arrive in the village to buy their cash crops. No one knew when it would come or whether another one might come to offer a better price. If they waited, insects and rats might eat their harvest. Now, farmers in Africa and elsewhere can use cell phones to inform buyers what harvest they have to sell and to find out what prices are being offered by whom and when. This helps farmers get the best possible price and to minimize wastage to pests. Cell phones are also being used to distribute weather reports, agricultural extension advice on crop management, and availability of loans and crop insurance.

The cell phone technology did not simply appear “full-grown.” Rather, perhaps the most important push for miniaturization of electronics occurred with the Apollo mission to put a man on the moon. Ironically, our smart phones may be more powerful than the on-board computers of those days, but that exploration of space can be credited with providing the impetus for advancing the technology. I recall debate in the 1960s as to whether it was right to spend money on space exploration when people on Earth were hungry. Now, the subsistence farmers of Africa are benefiting economically and nutritionally, thanks to technology that basic science helped advance.

The mission of the Woods Hole Research Center is to advance scientific discovery and to seek science-based solutions to the world’s environmental and economic challenges through research and education on forests, soils, air, and water. Most of our scientists were initially motivated as students by the joy of learning about the astonishing workings of Nature by becoming privy to its secrets – how a leaf orients to the sun, how a river dissipates energy by meandering, how an atom of nitrogen enables life as it is passed from plant to herbivore to carnivore to detritivore and back to the plant. Equally important, however, our scientists have chosen WHRC as their institutional home because we make our science policy-relevant by seeking science-based solutions.

One of the environmental and economic challenges that we address is climate change – the biggest challenge facing society in the 20th and 21st centuries, save perhaps the challenge of avoiding thermonuclear war. We are changing climate at unprecedented pace, beyond the envelope ever experienced by humans since they invented agriculture some 10000 years ago. We are putting at risk agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and fresh water supply – which are essential to sustain prosperous and fulfilling lives for ourselves and our children.

I once thought that climate change would become so obvious, just as the hazards of smoking became so obvious, that good science would prevail to convince the public about the urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Virtually every mainstream scientific society has issued a strong and compelling consensus statement that climate change is already happening, it is caused by humans, and it is already creating environmental and economic damage. Good science will prevail eventually, but the obvious part of climate change has already arrived, and yet public sentiment seems to be going the other way. Just a few of the cases of extreme weather events1 in 2010 and 2011 that are consistent with climate change include:

  • the “Snowmageddon” storm in the eastern USA
  • opening of an ice-free passage in the Arctic Ocean
  • delay of freezing of Hudson Bay until mid-January
  • the need to import snow for winter Olympic games in Vancouver
  • record melting in Greenland including a massive calving event of a 100 square-mile ice island
  • the second worst coral bleaching year
  • the 2nd “100-year” Amazon forest drought in 5 only years which resulted in massive forest fires
  • a hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season
  • 21% of tropical cyclones reaching category 4 or 5 strength
  • a rare tropical storm in the South Atlantic
  • the strongest storm in Southwestern US history
  • the lowest barometric pressure readings ever recorded in the mid-continental United States which spawned 67 tornadoes
  • monsoon floods in China that killed an 1911 people and did $18 billion
  • no monsoon in India’s Southwest for only the 2nd time in 134 years
  • a Pakistani flood that was the most expensive natural disaster in Pakistan’s history — killing 1985 people and doing $9.5 billion in damage
  • deadliest heat wave in human history in Russia — killing at least 55,000 which caused massive forest fires and cut Russia’s wheat crop by 40% contributing to a sharp spike in world food prices
  • record rains that trigger Australia’s most expensive natural disaster in history with a price tag as high as $30 billion
  • the heaviest rains on record in Columbia which killed 528 people and did $1 billion in damage with 2.2 million left homeless
  • an epic deluge of more than 17″ of rain falling on Tennessee
  • one of the worst droughts in Texas history which destroyed crops and spawned wildfires with damages in the billions of dollars

More important than only one year of extreme events is the trend of increasing frequency of extreme events. As Tom Friedman has written, we shouldn’t be talking of global warming, but rather of “global weirding.”

In spite of being hit over the head with these impacts of climate change, one of the leading presidential candidates recently expressed disbelief in the scientific evidence for climate change, saying:

“I think there is a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”

In fact, the scientists accused of misconduct in the so-called “Climategate” incident have been fully cleared and their scientific conclusions vindicated. What concerns me the most about this statement, however, is that it sweeps away the long-standing foundational belief that science is for the public good, and instead relegates science and scientists to little more than yet another private interest group pandering for public money. Thank goodness that the scientists enabling space exploration in the 1960s were not similarly accused of pursuing narrow self-interests rather than promoting the basic research that has since led to so much beneficial innovation.

This attack on science is driven partly by greed of those who profit from selling coal and oil, similar to the way that tobacco companies obfuscated the scientific evidence about the deleterious effects of smoking on health. But another factor is the realization that doing something about climate change requires an important role for government. You and I can do our part by driving fuel-efficient cars, insulating our homes, and promoting green technologies at work, but to really move beyond our society’s dependence on fossil fuels, we need government policies that will stimulate scientific discovery and technological innovation in both public and private sectors.

Scientific knowledge does matter and it benefits society. We at the WHRC advance understanding of how people are affecting the climate and how the climate affects people and the resources upon which we depend for our prosperity. Our scientists combine analysis of satellite images of the Earth with field studies to measure, model, and map changes in the world’s ecosystems, from the thawing permafrost in the arctic to the expanding agriculture regions of the tropics. We merge understanding of the biology of forests with the economics of how people use forest resources and forest land. We work locally and regionally, with in-depth expertise and collaborations in North and South America and Africa; and we also work globally, with expertise on how humans are changing global cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and water. Our vision is a world in which the insights of science guide management of the Earth’s natural resources, so that we and future generations may sustain prosperous and fulfilling lives without degrading the ecosystems that support humanity and a diverse abundance of life. Science in the public interest is a pathway to that vision.

1 The list of extreme weather events was compiled by meteorologist, Dr. Jeff Masters and is available at: