Friday, September 20, 2013

There’s no such thing as a climate scientist

 Here in Australia, the new Coalition government, which won office in 2013 on a head-in-the-sand approach to climate change, is busy dismantling all of the federal early warning and advisory bodies on climate.  There are snide gloating remarks floating around the internet to the effect that the climate scientists have been exposed, and that the conservatives need to cut the dole before these fake scientists can get any more government money. The election of Donald Trump to the American presidency in 2016 has generated similar chatter on their side of the internet. However, these ungracious comments also suffer from factual deficits.  There are no climate scientists; there are only scientists who study climate.

       Most of these scientists are Earth scientists. However, a substantial and growing proportion of them are also physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, meteorologists, and other physical scientists. The type of scientist generally describes how they attack scientific problems, not which problems they attack.

     A person who has mastered the physical and chemical tools that allow us to understand the Earth system can apply those tools to whatever knowledge suits their fancy.  I know el Niño experts who started out on gold mines, and frackers who started out studying el Niño.  I know isotope specialists and paleontologists who have applied their skills to both ocean heat uptake and oil & gas exploration.  Even Tim Flannery, the recently sacked chief of the climate commission, had a previous career in vertebrate paleontology.  

       So you don’t need to worry- or gloat- that the end of climate funding will mean these climate scientists will have nowhere else to go.  Sure, they will be disruptions, but the same skills that make them good at climate will let them pursue other Earth Science goals, or other careers that value the ability to constrain complex systems with limited and unusual data.  Many of these folks may even stay in climate, generating predictions that inform insurance companies who to raise rates on, or hedge funds who to divest out of. In fact, they might even end up better off.

There is an oft repeated criticism of climate researchers that they are only in it for the money. But nothing could be further from the truth.  Most recipients of university and advanced degrees in physical science are able to pull down significant salaries, because people who have these skills can solve a wide variety of important and lucrative problems. It is hard to say exactly how much a climate scientists is underpaid by, since academic career tracks are notoriously fickle, and comparative industry tracks often have share options, bonuses, profit sharing, or other financial inducements which can be difficult to predict. But by applying a broad uncertainty envelope, I think it is safe to say that from the moment a geologist finishes their undergraduate university degree, choosing a career in climate research rather than energy or mineral resource extraction generally results in a lifetime earnings deficit of somewhere between one and five million dollars. So climate researchers are not fattening up at the research funding trough. They are quite literally sacrificing a fortune to determine what kind or world we will be leaving our children.

    What this means is that the recent shuttering of government climate organizations will not mean the end of climate scientists, or even of climate science.  It simply means that Australians- and now possibly Americans- as a whole will no longer be the beneficiaries of their immense talents. Even if you, the reader, don’t have a job, these scientists will. It’s just that they won’t be working for you- or the rest of the public-  anymore; they’ll be working for someone much richer than you are, who probably doesn’t share your interests or values.

updated: 14 June 2017

Thursday, September 12, 2013

You had me at “citation”

I recently attended the 2013 Goldschmidt conference in Florence Italy.  This is the largest geochemistry conference in the world.  It migrates between Europe and North America every year, with occasional forays into the Asia-Pacific region.  It is a big conference, with attendance in the mid thousands.
Unlike workshops, symposia, and little topical conferences, big conferences serve more as social and professional networking events than scientific problem solving sessions.
Senior scientists present the direction of their big projects.
Grad students show what they are capable of.
Junior scientists make sure they get widely known enough to pass their tenure review.
For young scientists looking for their next career move, it is important to meet people in their field.  Having been asked for advice on this topic, I thought I’d present the basics:

It is important to match those names that block out half a page of your thesis references with a face. These people will probably evaluate your proposals, work with you or your colleagues, and review your papers. 

The best way to do this is just to introduce yourself.

Try not to be nervous.  Or at least strive to be nervous gracefully.  And if you are nervous, don’t cover it up by trying too hard to show how smart you are.

The basic point is that if you see the name of a paper you like on a nametag, say hello.  Let the person know you liked their work.  There are very few scientists who don’t like being told that their research is interesting and useful.  Tell them you’re basing your work on theirs, and you’ll have them at “citation”