Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Research and science policy share the stage at the 2016 AGU Fall Meeting

As it has for decades, the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) took place this month in San Francisco, CA. AGU is a professional society representing earth and space scientists, who study a broad variety of sub-disciplines such as Hydrology, Biogeosciences, Atmospheric Sciences, Seismology, Oceanography, Geophysics, and more. Although each of these specialties sound fairly niche on their own, together they compose a huge community of scientists. The AGU Fall Meeting attendance in 2015 amounted to 24,000 people, making this conference the largest annual gathering of geoscientists in the world. Every day while walking up the stairs of the conference center, I remarked to myself that the geoscientists on each floor looked like ants flooding out of a mound.

The AGU Fall Meeting includes hundreds of oral and poster presentations. World-class scientists from all over the globe attend this meeting to present recent scientific findings and meet with old and new colleagues. As a result, the networking opportunities at the AGU Fall Meeting are unmatched, and students have easy access to renowned researchers throughout its duration.

With 2016 being an election year, this year’s Fall Meeting included several notable talks related to science policy and politics. California Governor Jerry Brown spoke to the crowd on topics related to science funding for the geosciences, as well as “green” policies that California state legislators have spearheaded.

Sally Jewell, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, was another notable speaker at this year’s meeting. Secretary Jewell spoke of the importance of ensuring that science has a seat at the table, because “if you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” She also emphasized the need for scientists to fight disinformation with relatable facts, which requires effective communication of science’s real-world impacts. In addition to speaking, Secretary Jewell attended the conference, and even stopped by the poster session. The networking doesn’t get much better than this, folks!

In addition, Dr. Waleed Abdalati, former NASA Chief Scientist (2011-2012), gave an enlightening talk on the history of earth observations from space. He highlighted several old NASA promotional materials and news snippets from decades past that emphasized how much we’ve learned about the earth in a short time period. For example, it wasn’t until 1969 when satellites captured imagery of Hurricane Camille that we understood the scale, magnitude, and organization of hurricanes. That’s only 37 years ago! Dr. Abdalati ended his presentation by sharing some of his wisdom on the topic of science communication, particularly on potentially divisive issues:

As you may have noted, talk of science policy and politics always veers towards the topic of science communication. AGU’s operations include staff devoted to science policy. This group of public affairs specialists and analysts hosted several events at this year’s Fall Meeting, which speaks to how expectations for scientists to communicate effectively are increasing. At some of these events, you could find science communication cards that highlighted how commonly-used words in science can come across as confusing and misleading to laypersons:

Effective science communication was also in focus at the poster sessions. Thousands of students present posters, and about 5,000 choose to compete for the Outstanding Student Paper Award (OSPA). Of these 5,000, the top 3-5% presenters in each sub-discipline of AGU will be awarded with an OSPA. Scientists attending the conference are asked to judge the posters. The judges never reveal to presenting students that they are judges, which requires all presenters to give their best throughout their allotted time in in the poster session – I thought this was a great idea! I presented two posters this year: one in an educational session, and one in a session on hydrology:

The Fall Meeting is always in San Francisco, but, due to renovations taking place at the conference center in which the meeting is hosted, next year’s conference is coming to New Orleans, LA! For those of us in Florida, that makes for a much shorter journey, which is a great opportunity. Don’t pass it up!

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