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Getting science right

By   /   Monday, September 7th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Getting science right

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A group pulling world-class researchers together in Goleta wants to take the spin out of science in the public debate.

Novim brings small bands of researchers to the University of California, Santa Barbara, to tackle global questions. The idea is to get 10 of the world’s smartest experts in a room for a week, cut them loose on a problem such as the warming globe and then get the results out to the public quickly.

“We’re trying to help bridge that gap of getting great minds together and getting ideas into policy,” said Jim Knight, Novim’s executive vice president. “Right now, it’s not a clean path at all.”

Here is how Novim sees its mission: If all sides of a public policy question are on a stage debating, Novim’s job is to hand note cards up to the stage with a common set of scientific findings for the debaters to draw from.

Michael Ditmore, Novim’s executive director, doesn’t want the group labeled a think tank because it’s not in the tank for anyone. Its goal is to speed past bureaucratic and political foot-dragging to get some of the best available thinking into the public.

“Novim doesn’t take a position, doesn’t advocate a policy,” Ditmore said. “We provide a factual basis … so that policy makers can take a strong position on an issue and know that they’re backed up by the science.”

Changing public perceptions of science and science’s relationship with business is also part of the Novim mission.
“Not all corporations are evil, despite what you may have heard in movies and on television, and not all scientists are mad,” Ditmore said.

Novim has some big names in science on its advisory board: David Gross, Nobel laureate in physics and director of the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics at UCSB, Tom Everhart, past president of Caltech, and Venky Narayanamurti, former engineering dean at UCSB and now engineering dean at Harvard University. Novim’s approach grew out of the Kavli Institute, which for years has brought together top physicists to respond quickly to new developments in the field.

But the science board at Novim has deep connections. These resulted in getting Steven Koonin, a former provost at Caltech, chief scientists at BP and now undersecretary for science at the U.S. Department of Energy, to lead the group’s first study.

Novim picked a tough and controversial first topic to test out its neutral stance. The group’s first effort evaluated geoengineering, the idea that in a climate emergency decades from now, humans may need to take steps to cool the planet in a hurry.

Among even thoughtful people, the concept of tinkering with the global thermostat can raise fears of humans meddling in a system they don’t fully understand with catastrophic results. But, Ditmore said, the fact remains that current climate policy might not be enough to prevent major famine or other catastrophes of a warming planet.
“It seems scientifically irresponsible to us to wait until a time of crisis to develop these tools, and to not know their implications,” Ditmore said.

As a first step, Novim evaluated pumping aerosols into the atmosphere to deflect solar radiation, a technique that could temporarily cool the planet significantly in as little as a year. The idea comes in part from natural phenomena observed when volcanoes explode.

The group found that aerosol cooling is technically feasible but so much remains unknown about how it would affect weather, ecology and other parts of Earth’s delicate balance that it’s too risky to be contemplated without a great deal of further research. The Novim report then lays out a research and field testing plan that could be used to evaluate aerosol cooling, perhaps starting with a small test over the arctic.

Even though it lays out what research could be pursued, Novim stopped short of saying whether it should be pursued. The climate might just be too complex to meddle with. Or climate engineering as a fallback option might sap political will to tackle the more immediate problem of carbon emissions. If the world’s thermostat really can be reset, global conflict could break out over who controls it.

But to debate whether to go forward with climate engineering research, Ditmore said, policy makers need a scientific foundation.

“We can no longer have a rational discourse about many of these problems,” Ditmore said. “It’s almost become religious.”

Novim has a big challenge. In the post-everything socio-political milieu, it’s proven tough for any institution to claim freedom from an agenda or ideology. Some will find an agenda even in Novim’s choice of topics for study.

Novim is being privately funded, mostly by individuals and their foundations in the Santa Barbara area. And in its first report, Novim acknowledged that Koonin was serving as chief scientists at BP, one of the world’s largest oil companies, while producing the report on geoengineering.

Though BP had no money in the report or control over it and Koonin participated as an individual, Novim acknowledged that some readers won’t be able to accept Koonin’s conclusions as unclouded by his connection with BP.

But Ditmore said he’d rather practice full disclosure and move on. When it comes to climate change, he said, the world doesn’t have time to let politics and innuendo block the best available scientific thinking from reaching the public.

“The problems are not unsolvable, but we’re running out of time,” Ditmore said.

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