One memorable summer or fall day, probably over ten but less than twenty years ago, when I worked for the Forest Service, I attended some kind of conference (most likely planning) in Missoula. Missoula was very smoky from wildfires. Several colleagues of mine and I sought out a brewpub after the conference, but it was too smoky to sit outside, so I remember us getting a keg and retiring to a colleague’s home.
Now we know.. via many scientific studies, that wildfire smoke is bad for you. Perhaps we knew it then, but then it just seemed like part of life in wildfire-prone country. What has changed? Scientists have studied it extensively and found it to be bad for health. The same particles were always bad, but now scientific studies exist to tell us that they are bad. I think of scientific interest as a flashlight. The world goes on, but the part that gets highlighted as “science” depends on who’s holding the flashlight. This is much discussed in the history and sociology of science literature, but not so much questioned day to day information sharing and reporting.
And who is holding the flashlight is a complex multi-actor and institution process that is not well understood. If we look at relative funding for sociology of science, we can see why.
What made smoke suddenly more interesting and worthy of research? Was it the fact that highly populated areas were getting more smoke? Was it the fact that suddenly wildfires were “due to” climate change and there’s plenty of money in climate change?
I remember clearly one day when I worked in the WO in Vegetation Management and Protection Research, Elvia Niebla our USGCRP (US Global Change Research Program) staff person, came and said “there’s going to be huge amounts of money for climate change.” So I asked her “everything we deal with is affected by climate, so couldn’t anything be funded?” This seemed like a great deal for almost any researchers. But it couldn’t fund everything, so people had to decide what is more worthy in topic and approaches.
I attended an SAF meeting somewhere in New York (perhaps in the 80’s?) and a Station Director (FS research equivalent of Regional Forester) told me that his Station wouldn’t be doing much work with the National Forests anymore as they had tapped into climate change bucks and they were going to do “real science.”
And most recently, just a few years before I retired, I received a call from a nice woman in Missoula who had been tasked to ask research users what our social science needs were. After talking about it, it became clear that this was because they had received climate change funding, so they couldn’t actually study today’s problems and issues- only those due to climate change. Understanding how to reduce recreation impacts? Uh, no. Housing in resort communities? Well, perhaps if they were climate refugees.. Peoples’ attitudes toward prescribed fire? Yes, if due to climate change. It’s perhaps a slippery slope from rationalizing useful research by highlighting the climate aspects, to publishing studies that unintentionally encourage people to overlook other sources of problems.
I don’t think that we have adequately thought about how this infusion of money (and chasing after it) may have changed the way we view issues, the disciplines we hire (or don’t) and how that affects what’s illuminated by the flashlight, the way we approach issues about forests, and so on. And there is definitely a tendency for the volume control holders (media, foundations and interest groups) to highlight certain results. Certainly “climate change is not a big factor in this” is not as attractive as “climate change is going to have really bad effects.”
For whatever reason, there was a push for many years to value mitigation over adaptation. And the sciences involved in mitigation (atmospheric physics and chemistry) became way cooler and more important than say, hydrology or wheat breeding (adaptation sciences). If we look back at the history of science, we can just barely see the fingerprints of the physical sciences being way cooler than others (aka the well-known “physics envy”). Conceivably much of the funding could have been sent instead, once the climate problem was identified, to coalitions of engineering schools to figure out cost-effective ways to decarbonize. What factors of the scientific enterprise kept modelling so high in importance, and figuring out ways to fix that are relatively low in importance? And does this age-old historical bias against applied science and engineering unconsciously play out in what is covered in the media… leading to climate despair? And how does this play into the availability of satellite data (another flashlight) , journals favoring global conclusions, and studies getting further and further from real people (social sciences) and real places (the scale at which actions take place).
An example of the mitigation/adaptation disconnect is this Katharine Hayhoe (et tu, TNC, Chief Scientist?) interview on On Being with Krista Tippett. She says that Texans need to give up barbecue and pickups for a better world.. meanwhile, auto manufacturers are producing electric pickups.
We can look at other examples as we encounter them.