State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Our Economy Depends on Earth Observation and Scientific Research

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

Since the mid-1970s I have studied and worked as a practitioner in the areas of environmental policy and public management. In helping to build the academic field and profession of sustainability management, I have had the opportunity to combine these areas of study. One of the founders of the field of management was a brilliant and practical man named Peter Drucker. A famous “Druckerism” is: “If you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it.” Without measurement, you can’t tell if your management decision-making had made the situation better or worse. In order to measure something, you must observe it. Earth observation is a central need of sustainability managers. Is the air getting cleaner? Are there toxics in the fracking fluid? Is our waste leaking toxics? Is the water safe to drink? If not, why not? What is the source of the pollution?

Here at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, a great resource for answering these questions is our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. That scientific powerhouse is situated on a beautiful campus 20 miles north of New York City overlooking the Hudson, has a $100 million endowment, but remains largely dependent on winning highly competitive federal science grants for most of its annual budget. Columbia’s scientists are world-class and win many of the competitions they enter, but the amount of funding available is now threatened by the president’s proposed budget. The effort to add to the military budget without increasing the deficit, raising taxes or cutting entitlements threatens to destroy this critical earth observatory and institutions like it at research universities all over America. The cuts are not limited to earth science. Medical research is also cut by the proposed federal budget.

Our security is threatened by crazy people with weapons, but it is also threatened by human impacts on our planet that we either ignore or do not yet understand. There is a great deal about the natural world that scientists do not understand and are working hard to observe, analyze and explain. Human population and our impact on the planet continues to grow. The three billion people that lived on this planet when I grew up now number seven and one half billion. Our technology has advanced, our economies have grown, and our impact on the planet has never been greater.

If we are to continue to grow our economy without destroying the planet’s basic systems that sustain human life, we need to learn a great deal more about our planet and the impact of human activities on natural systems. As we learn more, our ability to manage those impacts grows, and that in turn enables us to direct our economic activities in ways the cause the least possible damage. Human damage to the environment cannot be avoided or eliminated—but it can be managed. That management requires that we learn more about the earth’s ecological systems. We know how to measure some of the impacts that we have on our air, land and water. But our ignorance is staggering.

So too is our ingenuity, creativity and ability to deploy the scientific method to increase our understanding of earth systems. But scientific expertise costs money. We need labs, supplies, equipment, ships, vehicles, satellites, drones and people trained to use this equipment to collect and analyze data. We need computing power and highly educated scientists to build computer models that use data to project impacts. We need to attract the world’s best minds to our laboratories, and we need to provide them with the tools they need to learn, invent and problem-solve.

The United States government has been the largest source of funding for scientific research in world history. Starting with land grant college-based agricultural research in the 19th century, to wartime research during the 1930s and 1940s and peaking during the space and munitions race of the mid-20th century, America’s research laboratories have been a central part of American economic and military power. Medical research, materials research, engineering, earth systems science, computer science and dozens of other fields of study have transformed the world we live in. That has all been put at risk by an administration that does not appear to support government funding of science. As Jeffrey Mervis observed recently in Science magazine:

“The new president is no fan of research, and his administration has no overarching strategy for funding science. Deep proposed cuts to research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offer evidence that Trump doesn’t see science—of any kind—as a spending priority. And along with neglect there’s indifference. The budget blueprint says nothing about spending at the National Science Foundation (NSF), for example. It’s also silent on the research portfolios of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, although science advocates are not sanguine about their prospects.”

For climate science, indifference would be a step forward, since several new appointees to the Trump administration have expressed hostility toward climate science and climate scientists. People who completely deny the facts of human-induced climate change see no reason for additional “fraudulent” research. People who believe that climate science is “inconclusive” might well see additional research as a method for reducing uncertainty, but seem to believe that the money might better be returned to the taxpayers or spent on something more useful.

We live in a world transformed by technology, and that transformation shows no sign of slowing down. Your household and auto are increasingly managed by computers. Information and communication keep getting less expensive. America’s research universities are a key part of this nation’s comparative advantage in the global economy. When linked to government and corporate laboratories, our science establishment remains capable of stunning achievements. But it is under attack. The intense demand for short-term profits has destroyed many corporate laboratories, and cuts in federal funding could impair university-based research. Discouraging immigration also makes it more difficult to attract the world’s top scientists.

Despite these threats, America still retains tremendous scientific assets. Our universities are funded by states, cities, private individuals, philanthropy and their own intellectual property. The federal government is a critical and irreplaceable source of funding, but it is not the sole source of revenue. America also has a culture of individual freedom and support for exploration and risk-taking that is essential to creative, path-breaking science. Our culture remains not simply achievement-oriented, but attracted to novelty and innovation.

Scientists are attracted to Columbia’s Earth Institute and our Lamont campus because it brings them into an exciting intellectual community of like-minded researchers and educators. In the case of the Lamont campus, many of our scientists take a bus every day and reverse commute from their apartments in Manhattan to their laboratories in Rockland County. They endure traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge for the opportunity to interact with their colleagues. This phenomenon is repeated in great universities from MIT to Georgia Tech, from the University of Texas to Berkeley and Stanford.

One of science’s great contemporary challenges is presented by the public’s demand for economic growth. The internet has enabled people in the developing world to see and demand the lifestyle we enjoy in the developed world. The world’s peace and stability requires that this demand for development be met. Sustainable economic growth requires a deeper understanding of human impact on the planet and the invention of technologies designed to reduce that impact. These inventions are on the way: from anaerobic digesters to process food waste to solar cells and batteries that enable people to power their homes without fossil fuels. The process has begun. But the basic science that’s required for sustainability management requires government subsidy. That funding is now under threat, and it is very important that proposed cuts to the federal science budget be restored before the budget is finalized.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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