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Importance of Justification

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 12:26 PM GMT on October 21, 2008

Justifying Climate Science: In May I attended the World Modeling Summit for Climate Prediction at the European Center for Medium-range Weather Forecasts. This summit received some press coverage, most notably in Nature. At this summit were a number of themes that have been around for years, notably, big computers, extremely high-resolution models, the relationship between weather and climate, and frustration.

In the 1990’s I worked for NASA, and there were these continuous exercises of justification. In fact, we even had to write position papers on why NASA employed scientists. There was a practically continuing exercise to justify taking measurements of the Earth. To people working in Earth science, this continuous exercise often seemed counterintuitive because we did not see similar arguments over large observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope. Earth scientists felt as if they were observing and understanding the environment of the planet on which we depend. There was more than curiosity as a motivator, more than discovery at stake. There was the habitability of the planet; this science, the science of the Earth, was intrinsically important. Why, therefore, was this continuous justification required?

Over the course of the years, I have analyzed this question and the next series of blogs will consider some of these issues.

At the May 2008 Summit at ECMWF this same question was raised. Why do arguments for a major telescope or the Large Hadron Collider seem more easily made than for the resources to support climate modeling? Speakers talked about the history of the development of the Large Hadron Collider, and whether or not there are lessons to be used from this history. (It is also worth taking inventory of the dollars spent on Earth science to place Earth science in relation to other fields of science.)

I maintain that mega-projects like the Large Hadron Collider and the great telescopes do not rely on the same types of motivators and arguments as the resources to support climate science. There are a number of fundamental differences.

The first difference is that these discipline-wide resources promise the discovery of phenomena that are fundamentally new. They will see farther; they will see smaller; they will see more and different. Seeing farther and smaller, these instruments will allow the confirmation or the refutation of phenomena predicted by theory. And without these discipline-specific facilities it will not be possible to makes these observations. There is something fundamental in humans that calls for the discovery of that which is new, and these facilities feed, directly, that fundamental human quest for discovery. (It is also true, that the funding of these facilities is not without controversy within the discipline communities.) Earth science is, really, the piecing together of a complex system that works with fundamentally simple physics and chemistry; the discovery that comes from Earth science is, today, subtle.

The second difference is that once a facility such as a telescope is planned and built, it has a lifetime of many years. In the case of, for instance, the Large Hadron Collider there is a subset of people in the field that is anticipatory, and the unique observations from the facility are a threshold to something that is, likely, fundamentally new. Careers are made on the observations. Existing theories are nuanced, rejected, and new theories are developed. Seeing farther and smaller is moved to a new regime. It takes time to develop the plans for the next facility; hence, the current generation facility feels like a one-off development. The expenditure will lead to something fundamental and new, and it will be a long-while before the next facility is needed. There is not a similar feeling for facilities to support climate science. Observations need to be taken for decades, for centuries, forever. Large computer systems are thrown away every 4-5 years. Rather than a feeling of one-off expenditure followed by basic discovery, there is a need for a continuous program. My friend Maurice Blackmon used to argue that the DOD’s need for aircraft carriers was a better funding model to emulate.

The final difference is, perhaps, the most fundamental. It is the principle of consequence. There is no doubt that the investigation of climate, the prediction of climate change, and the compelling of a need to do something about climate change touches the very fabric of our society. It confronts energy usage; hence, economic success. Hence, there are deeply rooted vested interests that might benefit from climate research and, similarly, those which see climate research as a threat. Hence, the arguments for facility instruments are far more than an argument for money. There are subtexts brought forward by the interests that elect and fund our representatives. The consequences of climate research are far more tangible, in the here and now, than the likely, immediate consequences of a fundamental discovery by a telescope. The human response is far more complex than the satisfaction of the quest for discovery. It is the consequential importance of climate change that, ultimately, demands the continual justification and the high barriers that must be overcome for new initiatives.

Figure 1: September global average surface temperature from the National Climatic Data Center. “The combined global land and ocean surface temperature for September 2008 tied with 2001 as the ninth warmest since records began in 1880. The September global land surface temperature tied with 2004 as the eleventh warmest on record, while the global ocean surface temperature tied with 2001 as the seventh warmest in the 129-year record. The January-September year-to-date land and ocean temperature was the ninth warmest on record.”

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.