December 19, 2014
Some of the most exciting and inspiring programming elements of the AGU Fall Meeting are the Union activities, specifically the notable speakers that share their ideas and insights during the lunch hour. These speakers provide AGU attendees the opportunity to listen to broad and innovative ideas applicable across all fields of Earth and space science. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend Monday’s Union Frontiers of Geophysics lecture of the Union General Sessions because of a prior commitment, but the sessions during the remainder of the week did not disappoint.
Tuesday’s AGU Presidential Forum featured Robin Chase, a transportation entrepreneur, and Wendy Schmidt, President of The Schmidt Family Foundation. AGU President Carol Finn introduced the speakers and shared that the goal for this session was for the audience to hear and reflect upon some outside-the-box thinking for how we (scientists) can make a difference. Robin, the founder and former CEO of ZipCar, began with a fascinating review of the history and philosophy of ZipCar and how users are not treated as consumers but co-creators. To invent a collaborative economy (not just with ZipCar), she challenged us to tap in to the excess capacity that already exists, utilize diverse peers (more networked minds is better than few “walled in” minds), and design platforms for participation to happen. One of the best takeways for me from her talk was the statement that we can’t solve an exponential problem with a linear solution, that we have to leverage excess capacity if we want to move very quickly. She has a book coming out about the idea of Peers Inc., which has me curious to learn more. [View the Robin Chase talk online]
Next up was Wendy Schmidt, who started with the clever title of “A Teacher, A Trope, and Tardigrades: Science in a time of transition and why we need to care.” Wendy also had some great takeaways from her presentation, stating that everything is a question of scale and impact, and her emphasis that visuals and networking tools need to be used by today’s scientists to communicate.
The audience questions were thoughtful and left the speakers as well as the rest of us in the room thinking – just how do we better tell our [science] story? Robin ended the session with a really important statement: “We live in an age of sound bytes. You guys need to speak up.” [View the Presidential Forum online]
The Wednesday session was titled Building Resilient Communities and featured Kathryn Sullivan, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. Having spent three weeks in September as a NOAA Teacher at Sea on the hydrographic survey vessel Thomas Jefferson, I was very excited to hear from this speaker. Dr. Sullivan started by defining why resilience is necessary, as our climate is changing, and there are harmful impacts from disruptions. She said when ecological/social/economic disruptions occur in our environment, we can mitigate, adapt & become resilient, or just suffer the disruptions. I enjoyed hearing Dr. Sullivan refer to NOAA as America’s environmental intelligence agency, which includes observations, monitoring, assessment, modeling, forecasts and products all relating to our planet. She described many of the scientific challenges we have as a nation, such as bridging the gap between short-range weather predictions and long-range climate predictions. She continued by describing the enormous water challenges we are facing in the 21st century, and how our oceans need modeling like what we have for weather.
Dr. Sullivan’s take-home messages were clear and had the audience silently nodding their heads in agreement. NOAA must put environmental information in the hands of people who need it, and those communications need to be clear in “making it matter,” that what matters is people acting wisely with this information. Dr. Sullivan ended with the statement: “I can’t think of a better time to be an Earth scientist. Your talents and energies are needed desperately.” Hopefully, all of the students and young scientists in the audience heard this plea and work towards building resilient communities – and more. [View Dr. Sullivan’s talk online]
Thursday’s Union Agency Lecture featured Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior. With the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and National Park Service under the Department of the Interior, this audience was filled with federal employees and many with a passion for the outdoors. Secretary Jewell acknowledged Dr. Sullivan’s talk from the previous day, noting that NOAA and the Dept. of the Interior are “joined at the hip” for addressing the most important environmental issues of our time. Secretary Jewell’s talk focused on the critical role government plays in science and research, and that most Americans do not understand government investments and impacts on science. She echoed the concerns voiced by previous speakers, noting that “the Moon shot we need to take now is on climate change – it is the defining issue of our time,” but to proceed with thoughtful regulation and sound science that is translatable and understandable by all individuals.
Secretary Jewell ended by asking the audience to complete three tasks. The first task is to work together for public and private partnerships, that we need to leverage and expand these networks. She provided an example of the citizen science project eBird, and the USGS NetQuakes program that has installed a seismometer in the basement of her home. The second task is for all of us to take credit for what we do, to let everyone know how important our work is to the lives of our family, friends, neighbors, etc. Her example here was a recommendation that The Weather Channel tag their forecasts with “brought to you by the National Weather Service and NOAA” (since it is NWS and NOAA satellites providing the data to The Weather Channel after all). The third task for audience members is to take responsibility for engaging the next generation. Secretary Jewell continued with this thought at the beginning of her press conference after the lecture, thanking the press for covering her talk and “for translating the complexities of our planet for consumption.” Scientists and science communicators all have much more that we can do to make progress towards task #3. [View Secretary Jewell’s talk online]
My favorite quote from Secretary Jewell was right after she listed these three tasks – “the best classroom is one with no walls.” I couldn’t agree more. But in this case, I am thankful that AGU provides a forum inside of four walls for members to hear from such powerful and inspiring speakers that believe in our work and provide such hope for the future of our planet.