Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Op-Ed: Where Do We Go From Here? Science May Have Rough Go Next 4 Years

By: Gale C. Blackmer, State Geologist, PA Geological Survey

Wow. I’m writing this in the second week of November 2016, so you all know what I mean. We have completed one long national odyssey, and are about to begin another.
The resultant hopes and fears that each one of us feels are real, whether or not they seem to be rational or grounded in fact. The only way through is to address the fears without dashing the hopes.
So be kind, be understanding, and listen, really listen. You might be surprised at what you hear.
We don’t know what will happen over the next four years. However, based on things that have been said and names that have been floated for key positions, it looks like science may have a rough go.
As scientists, then, how can we react?
First, I would say, we continue to do our work and to report the results accurately and honestly. If we lose our credibility, we lose everything.
Second, take every opportunity to talk and to educate.
Most people get their “science” from less-than-knowledgeable sources. Make yourself the knowledgeable and accessible source. Talk to your friends, community groups, kids, and adults. Explain things in a way a non-scientist can understand.
The scientific issues we face are complex, but no one has the time to sit through long, nuanced explanations. Perhaps it would behoove us all to mentally prepare a few “elevator speech” responses.
Maybe we can’t explain the whole process of hydrofracturing a shale well, but we can say quickly that the cracks are the width of a sand grain, or that the gas companies work very hard to keep the cracks within the shale layer because otherwise they risk losing the gas and the profits.
This approach won’t provide a full education, but it might put a few tears in the veil of ignorance.
As an aside, I wish we could educate people about risk, because we all worry about things that don’t do us much harm, while the things that can really hurt us are right under our noses without raising alarm. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Third, stick to observable facts.
It’s easy to argue about whether human-produced carbon dioxide is changing the climate. It is harder to argue about the fact that the Pentagon considers climate change a threat to national security.
Or that coastal cities in Virginia and Florida are experiencing regular and worsening flooding, not from storm events but from normal high tides.
Or that in September, a cruise ship took 1,000 tourists through the Northwest Passage; yes, the same Northwest Passage that had been blocked by ice since European exploration of the New World began.
Finally, we must look ahead.
Politics is concerned with the short term. Certainly science works in the present, but it also looks to the future.
The powers that be might not recognize the utility of good science, but that does not negate the fact that humanity needs science.
As it has since the days of cracking stones to make tools and the discovery of fire, our survival depends on science.
As scientists, we must continue to look ahead and ensure that we establish a base of knowledge to serve future needs.

Dr. Gale Blackmer is Director of DCNR’s Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey and the State Geologist since November 2015.  She can be contacted by sending email to: or calling 717-702-2065.
(Reprinted from the Fall 2016 Pennsylvania Geology Magazine.)

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