October 01, 2009

Lost in Translation: CNAS Event Recap

For an event centered on how the scientific and policy communities have a difficult time communicating, the discussion was certainly lively last night at Lost in Translation, a community event cosponsored by CNAS, The Joint Global Change Research Institute and Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center. Scientists and policy makers met together at the University of Maryland to look at problems in how these two groups communicate and what barriers stand in the way of effective collaboration using the most up-to-date climate science.

The event started out with a panel discussion with Maria Blair, Deputy Associate Director for Climate Change Adaptation for the Council on Environmental Quality, Philip DeCola of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, and Major General (USAF, ret) Rich Engel of the National Intelligence Council. Each panelist spoke to their own expertise, which provided views from a wide range of users and producers of climate change information.  The event then turned to a moderated Q&A session where the audience and panelists examined possible solutions to common problems with communicating.

One theme was that the problem of a user-friendly system to find information is key. Across the spectrum, policymakers were concerned with the time it took to hunt down the science they needed and what that meant to their overall ability to access the best information on climate change. Many present voiced a strong preference for updating old systems rather than changing to new ones. One  participant made the point that the current system is barely possible to navigate by those who spend all their time with the issues and that we need to think of the local decision maker when figuring out how to address this problem. I appreciated this point quite a bit because many actors on climate change are community leaders, not big government agencies. Looking at community-based needs thus opens up a whole user group that may have been untapped.

Outside of better information pathways, leaders seemed to agree that a shift in research needed to occur. Models and more accurate predictions are of limited to use for policymakers. Instead, they really need reports that include the human element of climate change as integral to their findings. When a policymaker looks at a report they want to know how it impacts people. The “So what?” of reports needs to be expanded on.

One of the aspects I found most interesting was that the scientists present cared, a lot, about what the needs of policymakers were. Instead of writing them off, they are actively engaging with them to try to find how to utilize current data in new ways and how to plan long-term research projects based on their needs. Policymakers are responding by working directly with the scientific community and holding discussions like this one we held last night.

Overall, the event was a huge success. The two groups carried their conversations on long after the panel  concluded. Hopefully, everyone was able to build useful relationships to talk about these important issues more frequently.