Lessons learned from Google: Toward a participatory model of atmospheric science

Raj Pandya
Director, SOARS (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science) and UCAR Community Building Program

Raj Pandya

I write this column to ask you to join me in embracing an emerging way of doing atmospheric science, one that integrates the broader society outside UCAR/NCAR into the everyday process of our science and embeds collaboration into each and every step of our research, from setting priorities to sharing results. We already do this in many parts of UCAR/NCAR. Now, however, we have a unique opportunity to apply this strategy more broadly, and to get even better at meeting the challenge laid down 50 years ago by Walter Orr Roberts to do “science in service of society.”

In the last few years, we have seen a growing demand for our science. Global warming has become a rallying call on college campuses around the country, and climate change was second only to terrorism on a list of long-term business concerns in a recent international poll conducted by a Hong Kong bank. At the same time, though, what is asked of scientists is changing. Whether the topic is climate change, vulnerability to natural disasters, or dwindling water resources, we aren’t being asked whether these problems exist or if they are caused by humans. Instead, we are being asked to help society meet these challenges.

It isn’t clear that people think we are ready for this new role. NCAR’s budget from NSF has been flat for the past four years, while NASA and NOAA also face downward pressure on their Earth science budgets. Our field’s persistent inability to attract students from historically under-represented groups is another troubling sign: I see students turning away from our field because the opportunity to make change seems distant. What we need to solve societal problems is policy, some students tell me, not more science.

I don’t agree with the implication that our science is becoming less relevant, but I do think we do need to build on the changes already under way in how we engage with society. The model of a pure scientific process that announces its findings and moves on doesn’t connect to the flat, dynamic world of the 21st century. We are moving to a new model: one that is participatory, responsive, engaging, and ­collaborative, in which scientists draw their inspiration as much from genuine partnership with the community as from their own curiosity. It is a science where research priorities aren’t only the product of the quest for basic understanding, but also reflect an intimate understanding of public needs. It is a science that invites the public to participate in scientific methods and wrestle with the inherent uncertainty, rather than delivering scientific findings after research is complete.

So how do we actually do this? Recently, I had a chance to see what this might look like first hand by working with folks who have been doing this much longer than I have: I was part of a team that wrote a successful proposal to Google.org to do research in Ghana on the use of weather prediction to help improve public health outcomes related to meningitis. While it is a cool project in its own right (see “On the Web” for more information), I’d like to use it to illustrate some of the principles I learned about the participatory model of science.

Humility: At first, I thought of the proposed work in Africa in terms of the inherent value of better meteorological understanding and capacity. It turned out that Google, as well as some of our partners, wanted a clear indication of how it would improve people’s lives. It took humility to look at my own field through outside eyes and see it as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I think that shift in mindset is a fundamental part of participatory science, because it creates the space to welcome other disciplines and expertise. It also gave me a new strategy for interacting with funders: in a world of ever-tightening budgets, we need to move beyond “fund us and trust us to do science that is good.”

Community participation: The Google proposal showed that we can invite local communities into every step of the scientific process, from designing experiments to disseminating results. In this model, education and outreach aren’t separate from the scientific process, and scientific knowledge isn’t isolated from local knowledge. This approach may improve our ability to attract new scientists—especially from the rapidly growing minority population—because it engages people in the excitement of discovery while honoring their current ways of knowing. For the Google project, we are spending the first year of the project building trust, listening to African partners, and, ultimately, working together to finalize the project design.

Thinking beyond knowledge: For the Google project, we are spending as much effort designing and evaluating systems to deliver usable information to public health decision makers as we are in doing the science necessary to create that information. While it isn’t always necessary to go this far, it is helpful to clearly articulate how our science can translate into application. In a more general way, I think we should make the real use of our science part of the criteria we use in setting research priorities.

Broad expertise: The Google team is an interdisciplinary team that includes epidemiologists, public health experts, and an economist as well as meteorologists. At first, I thought that UCAR/NCAR would contribute the meteorology and we would find partners to contribute other expertise—but we found it difficult to hold productive conversations with the external partners without complementary expertise at UCAR/NCAR. As meteorologists, we didn’t know what questions to ask, whom to ask, and how to interpret the answers. More generally, if UCAR/NCAR is going to engage in these participatory processes, we need the help of experts who can build bridges to other fields. One way to accomplish this might be the strategic use of visitor positions.

While these principles are drawn from a specific project, I think they provide some guidance as we imagine how UCAR/NCAR might approach our science more generally. We have the opportunity, in the form of a new strategic plan and a first-ever workforce management plan, to improve our organization. This may require changes—in how we educate the next generation, set a research agenda, do science, evaluate performance, and choose who we hire and partner with—but we should not shirk from this opportunity.

Society is faced with profound choices, and so is our organization. But these choices offer us the chance to become our better selves. One choice for UCAR/NCAR is to go further in combining the integrity and elegance of basic research with the enriching complexity of science in service of society, and to re-imagine our science as a full and equal, but only equal, participant in a global effort to design a sustainable future. We can step to the next level in the challenge of being both rigorous and relevant and, in the process, serve both our science and our planet.

On the Web

Health and Weather: UCAR Weather Forecasts Aim to Reduce African Meningitis Epidemics

UCAR Africa Initiative