Desperately seeking humility and nuance in climate science

In October 2011, Dr. Judith Curry had a lengthy and interesting post regarding the Draft Strategic Plan (2012 -2021) of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). In her commentary, Dr. Curry shared with her readers some conclusions that she had conveyed during the course of a related panel discussion:

If we as scientists are not humble about the uncertainties and areas of ignorance, we have an enormous capacity to mislead decision makers and point them in the direction of poor policies. Uncertainty is essential information for decision makers.

Climate scientists have this very naive understanding of the policy process, which is aptly described by the A+B=C model in the context of the precautionary principle. This naive understanding is reflected in the palpable frustration of many climate scientists at the failure of the “truth” as they “know” it to influence global and national energy and climate policy. This frustration has degenerated into using to word “denier” to refer to anyone who disagrees with them on either the science or the policy solution.

Today’s issue of Nature includes a “World View” column authored by Ryan Meyer, science integration fellow at the California Ocean Science Trust in Oakland, on this very same plan:

Finding the true value of US climate science

A new strategy for addressing climate change takes a realistic approach to the challenge of making science useful, says Ryan Meyer

08 February 2012


Is it possible to be realistic and nuanced about the limited role that science often has, but still to offer a compelling case for public support? The US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) will shortly release a strategic plan that does just that.

Over the past two decades, the USGCRP, which coordinates 13 federal agencies and departments, has spent more than $30 billion on climate-change research. In doing so, it has improved our understanding of climate systems. But, as the National Research Council pointed out in 2009, when it comes to fulfilling its legal mandate of supporting decision makers with useful information, the USGCRP has been a disappointment.


There was no coherent plan (let alone resources) to implement the concepts, and the central goals of the programme remained entirely focused on advancing knowledge. The USGCRP did not provide any coherent account of how doing science in this way would be different from what had gone before, or how science institutions would need to change in order to deliver better value to society.

What, then, is different this time? In its 2012 report, the USGCRP has expressed a more nuanced and humble account of the role of science in society’s responses to climate change.


The latest plan also acknowledges difficult but crucial science-policy trade-offs. For example, it discusses the “dynamic tension” between increasing model complexity and policy-makers’ needs for simplicity and tractability. For a government science programme to explicitly recognize these choices as a proper concern of science management is a new and welcome step.

Will this bold vision be realized? The USGCRP does not yet have a strong mechanism for allocating funds among its new priorities. Some in the research community will surely lobby against trade-offs that seem to threaten the status quo. And, as it has in the past, the National Research Council reviewed this plan with a critical eye, pointing out that the USGCRP will need more resources and greater leverage over agency budgets and priorities to make it happen. Without these ingredients, the idea will probably run into the sand. [emphasis added -hro]

Speaking of those who perceive threats to the status quo … I wonder what Trenberth and his gang of 37 (who seem to think that “panic” is the preferred option) might have to say about all this?!

As someone once said, we live in interesting times!


One thought on “Desperately seeking humility and nuance in climate science

  1. Does any of this address the real cancer: scientists telling policy-makers what they want to hear to maximize intervention justification?

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