ASP Seminar - Uncertainty, policy and atmospheric scientists

The Advanced Study Program 2013-14 Seminar Series begins with a seminar presented by Sarah Michaels of the University of Nebraska.

Atmospheric scientists play – and potentially could play an even more vital role – in public policy through their work in forecasting and predicting matters vital to societal interests. As decision makers increasingly recognize societal dependence on non-stationary natural systems they must use forecasts and predictions to make choices about the future. If so, how come the work of atmospheric scientists doesn’t always constitute a key contribution to salient public policy? For atmospheric scientists to become policy savvy begins with recognizing key dimensions of the policy making process. This is a critical first step for atmospheric scientists to determine when there is potential for them to contribute persuasively to policy and when there is not. If there is, such understanding provides the basis for engaging effectively in making strategic contributions to expertise-related policy.

A second vital step for atmospheric scientists in assessing their potential contributions to policy making is to develop an appreciation of uncertainty beyond their professional understanding of it. Policy makers as well as researchers outside of the atmospheric science community do not necessarily treat uncertainty as do atmospheric scientists. Rather than sorting through the many meanings of uncertainty, it is helpful to think in terms of indeterminism, which holds even if the current state of nature is known exactly there is no certain future. A basic consequence of indeterminism is the necessity of deciding absent perfect information. The extent and combination of different sources of indeterminism shape the potential of science to contribute to decision making. To illustrate how combining the natural and social sources of indeterminism matters four examples from socio-ecological system management are presented; Midcontinent Mallards, Laysan Ducks, Pallid Sturgeon, and Rocky Mountain Grey Wolves. Where natural indeterminism is low, reasonably accurate predictions may serve as decision making inputs. Where social indeterminism is high, scientists, while acknowledging the primacy of societal-based concerns, can enlarge the array of science-based possibilities considered by decision makers (Michaels and Tyre 2012).

The need to connect the atmospheric science community to policy making is well recognized (Morss et al. 2008). Yet, little explicit attention has been paid to how ensembles feature, if they do, in policy. This is problematic because ensembles, representing a range of uncertainties and possible future states, have become a mainstay of weather forecasting and climate prediction. What circumstances and factors influence the uptake of ensemble forecasts and predictions by policy makers? Addressing this question will advance our comprehension of the science-policy interface and contribute to strengthening links between atmospheric scientists and policy makers.

Source cited

Michaels, S. and Tyre, A.J. 2012. How indeterminism shapes ecologists’ contributions to managing socio-ecological systems. Conservation Letters 5:4:289-295.

Morss, R.E., Lazo, J.K. Brown, B.G. Brooks, H.E. Ganderton, P.T. and Mills, B.N. 2008. Societal and economic research and applications for weather forecasts: Priorities for the North American THORPEX program. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 89(3) 335–346.


Room Number: 
Main Seminar Room

Type of event:

Will this event be webcast to the public by NCAR|UCAR?: 
Calendar timing: 
Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - 11:00am