The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Don't Major in Sea Ice

The New York Times has a story about the astonishing decline in sea ice this summer.

An interesting twist appears. If sea ice continues to vanish, it's a fertile research topic, likely to be funded, likely to be published. Unless, that is, it goes away altogether. When the ice cover becomes purely seasonal, it becomes a less interesting phenomenon for field study or modeling. The problem is that this may happen sooner than expected.

A sardonic quote from an Alaskan geophysicist about this is nevertheless not entirely a matter of grim humor:
At a recent gathering of sea-ice experts at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Hajo Eicken, a geophysicist, summarized it this way: “Our stock in trade seems to be going away.”
Anyway, even if Eicken isn't serious, I am. Should we be as concerned about the glaciologists as about the polar bears who are under the same threat? More so? Less so?

How much risk should scientists be taking in the event that their field goes out of fashion (or, in this case, out of existence)? There are a lot of intrinsic reasons to do science, but there are some extrinsic reasons not to bother. What should be the fate of the person who bets on the wrong scientific horse?

Scientists historically traded off the possibility of wealth for a life of calm contemplation, not one of personal financial risk. If the deal gets worse, fewer people will become scientists. This matters.

5 comments:

Hank Roberts said...

The old British method:

Banish them to the Antipodes!
(at least for the N.H. summer months)

Howie Richey said...

The world has too little science study as it is. I believe we need more vocal scientists!

Michael Tobis said...

Hey, Howie.

Your point ties in with mine.

Traditionally vocalizing is for people with Nobel prizes. If science says the world is in trouble, the rank and file tenure track guy whose salary is on the line is not going to make waves.

Academic freedom does not in practice apply in the sciences these days. Not before tenure at least, and at that point people are already in the habit of laying low.

Make things too easy and lazy people will just take advantage and coast, true, but make them too nasty and ambitious people will just stay away. We need to make both amateur science and professional science more attractive and appealing.

Bruno said...

Andy Revkin's article states "the striking Arctic change was as much a result of ice moving as melting, many say." I think that until we have a better understanding of sea ice, there will be a need for more sea ice specialists, not less. If the ice goes away permanently, the ice scientists will still have transferable skills (e.g. analyzing data to determine trends and correlations) that can be utilized in making a vocational adjustment to other employment useful to society, such as stockbroker, insurance underwriter, or bartender.

The polar bear would at first blush appear to be the classic buggy whip maker with no transferable skills. But Lomborg states they "will increasingly take up a lifestyle similar to that of brown bears," which it seems to me would require starting a new diet, losing weight and stopping smoking. But there you have an economist's answer to a biological/ecological question, which brings me back to why I don't trust economists.

Anonymous said...

Science going in and out of fashion...this kind of thinking could only come up in the climate of American pop culture. If Newton only studied falling apples because it was in fashion...same for Darwin on different topics.

"Why are you researching this?"
"How will you know you attained understanding?"

I think all grant applications that contain the words "gain understanding" should be denied funding.

Biomedical research is full of studies linking to potential cures for cancer. Really, are we going to cure cancer? Are we really going to solve climate change? How do we know that we found a solution?

But we're guilty of not acknowledging that we're in it for the easy buck sitting in an ivory tower.