Wednesday, November 18, 2009

SOS: Support Our Scientists

In a recent Newsweek article, An SOS for Science, Daniel Lyons argues that clean energy science should trump politics in creating climate change legislation and positioning the United States to take advantage of the alternative energy revolution. SOS, the international signal for distress from 1908 to 1999, sends a message that we are sinking. According to wikipedia, the first ship to send an SOS was the Cunard Line, Slavonia, in June 1909 just over one hundred years ago. Much later, in popular use, the three letters were often associated with "save our ship" or "save our souls." However, Daniel Lyons is sending a different message, "support our scientists. "

His article covers the conflicting attempts to draft meaningful legislation, to get our policy makers to believe our scientists, and to get our country and policy makers to see what the rest of the world is doing to meet the alternative energy/climate change challenge. Lyons says that, as a country, we have too much prosperity, making us fearful of change and unwilling to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains. He believes we, and in particular policy makers, are too easily frightened by politically charged arguments, framed to create what people in the computer industry call FUD - fear, uncertainty and doubt - against what otherwise might be common sense solutions. He draws a bleak and threatening picture of what we are up against, though in fact, that may be counterproductive.

"Alternative energy is the next tidal wave in tech innovation. If we miss it, we will not only weaken our economy and harm our national security - we will turn ourselves into a second-rate nation.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is racing past us. In solar energy, the leaders are Japan, Germany and China. In wind it's Germany, Spain and Denmark. In nuclear it's France."

To underscore the concern he quotes Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Science who says "you can go up and down the list - in some cases we're players but we're no longer leading." To really catch up Cicerone says we'll need "a sustained commitment the likes of which are hard to see in American history." This approach in effect says we've collected the data on climate change, done the analysis and expect this information to change our thinking and, in particular, to change our policy formulation thinking.

Despite sending the SOS signal, Lyons doubts we have the collective will to respond to Ralph Cicerone's challenge of a "sustained commitment." He did note, however, a time over fifty years ago when we, as a nation, responded to the fear of falling behind the Soviets in the race for space. I was a junior in high school when Sputnik I and Sputnik II were launched, capturing the world's attention and catching the American public completely off-guard. During that year, the emphasis of college preparatory courses immediately switched to advanced math and science, leading me to the undergraduate study of engineering, and changing a generation of students and our country. Our nation's response to that "Sputnik moment," resulted in major investments in science, technology and education, leading to the creation of NASA and ultimately to man walking on the moon.

Unfortunately, the current climate change/global warming debate and context is not so singularly clear as being first in the race to launch a satellite into space. The impact of the Soviet launch was immediate and all Americans saw the event broadcast repeatedly on television and headlined in newspapers, resulting in the urgent, emotionally charged desire and commitment to change our behavior and speed up our own space program. But the space race was a long time ago. Not only has much changed regarding our own will to act, but much has been learned about how to enable people to act. Recent neuroscience has shown that, rather than threats, other methods are more effective in getting people to change their behavior, even for something as simple as recycling.

John Kotter's recent book, The Heart of Change, and an article, Managing with the Brain in Mind by David Rock, deal with neuroscience research and ways to approach change in behaviors based on the social nature of change and the brain. While their approach is related to change in organizations and high performance workplaces, the message is relevant to the save our scientists SOS signal. Current social brain research debunks common theories about the "threat and reward" response, finding instead that responding to a threat is generally not the productive path. As Rock states, "Humans cannot think creatively, work well together or make informed decisions when their threat responses are on high alert."

Nor is simply analyzing and defining the problem as shown in Kotter's message that "people change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings." Analyzing all the science, facts and figures won't do as much to create behavioral change as feeling strongly about the truth of a given situation. Al Gore's documentary effectively used this concept to show "an inconvenient truth", thereby spawning an emotional reaction that would lead viewers to take action for countering climate change. There is no doubt that the heart of change is in the emotion. Kotter summarizes it as: See, Feel, Change; three words that make for a more successful result than Analyze, Think, Change.

So if we are to support our scientists, which I do, and save our planet, which we all must do, then let our scientists find broad, powerful ways to demonstrate the truths of their research, in turn leading to emotionally committed citizens and policy makers who will settle for nothing less than fully meeting the climate change challenge.

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