29 June 2010

Nailing a storm forecast is easier than getting people to listen

Posted by

Margaret Davidson (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

Margaret Davidson is surprisingly plainspoken—surprising, because she is a federal government official, and a former lawyer. She’s worked for 15 years for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and is now director of their Coastal Services Center.

“The single greatest compliment that I get frequently, that I really appreciate a lot,” Davidson says, “is that I’m the Fed who speaks the most clearly to them—and who still holds [a government] job.”

She’s not a scientist herself, but it’s long been part of her career to speak clearly—and to get scientists to speak clearly and translate their findings into something practical. As an attorney, she worked with expert witnesses—and the trial lawyers who were going to put them on the stand. “I would have to figure out what it was that the scientists knew that could actually be useful in a trial setting,” she says, “and help them reframe how they would express it.”

Getting them to do so wasn’t always easy, though. “The thing about scientists that I find most interesting is the inherent hubris that comes to them with their great knowledge,” she says. With climate change, for example, “many [scientists] presume that if you just bring enough credible science to bear on a problem, understand[ing] as well as a solution will emerge. Not so.”

“The scientific work is really the easy part of the challenge,” she argues. “Knowledge without comprehension and without action is not really worth that much.”

Being able to talk clearly is more than just a good idea, in her view—it’s an obligation.  And, she makes that point in her typically unrestrained fashion: “Since most scientists are on the ‘public tit’, either directly or indirectly, … their ‘public service’ should include a requirement to get out and be social with the Rotary Clubs and other community-based organizations.”

A lot of federal scientists take the approach of information pushers, Davidson says. ”They’re pushing it out there and hoping that somebody picks it up and finds it useful.” However, “the reality of life is that you’ve got to have a transformation function, to make things accessible and useful.”

Storm warnings are a prime example of these problems of communication and translation. “We can nail the storm forecast track 72 hours out with a great deal of accuracy. We can probably, with another 100 million dollars of supercomputer time, nail the hurricane intensity,” she says. “But we still can’t get people to listen.”

Part of the problem is “the terminology—like ‘watches’ and ‘warnings’—are not intuitive to normal people,” she says. Also, “as we used to describe the storm surge, you’d actually have to know something about high-tide regimes.” Some of these problems have been fixed, but others persist.

Beyond speaking more clearly with the public, scientists should also put greater effort into making their results understandable to planners and policy makers, Davidson argues. One way is by taking complex findings and turning them into practical tools—which is a focus of the Coastal Services Center. The center takes complex results from computer models, for example, and uses geographic information systems (GIS) to portray them as maps. This helps make the information understandable to planners and policy makers, who have to decide among complex options.

Unless incentives change, however, it may prove tough to get a lot of scientists interested in going beyond their traditional role in research, she argues. “Too many feds, and university folks seem too often to be content with just doing whatever it is that they think that they do well. They are focused on outputs—model outputs, how many citations, etc.—not outcomes,” like whether they contributed to a new way of managing natural resources.

“We need to change the performance metrics,” she says. “We need to change the expectation of the ‘complete scientist.’”

Mason Inman, contributing science writer