Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.


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Scientists as informers of public policy

I have just come out of the EGU session on geoethics and jotted down a couple of thoughts in my notepad. One of the speakers told us about placements their organisation (Geology for Global Development) coordinates help scientists learn about social and ethical issues and how they relate to their research.

He specifically mentioned teaching of participatory decision-making.

I feel that the concept of participatory decision-making is tricky for scientists. Science, as a method of inquiry, is based on the idea that there is a single result, a clear truth to be uncovered.

So then, scientists might have a natural tendency to think that experts would always make the best decisions, and that these decisions can be improved by increasing knowledge.

In the reality of public policy, on scales from family units to nations to the global community, there is no objective best policy. The consequences of each policy are dependent on the set of values and.opinions through which it is viewed. Essentially, people make things complicated. The natural world can be shown to behave according to certain laws. Approaches using game theory attempt to do the same with humans, but it is clear that social and cultural differences among humans affect their decision-making preferences. Essentially, as a wealthy white male living in the UK I am not in a position to define how the life of a woman in a drought-afflicted African country would be best improved.

In reality there is no ‘best’ policy, only consequences affecting different people in different ways. We need to map out these consequences (making use of scientific information, of course) to make an informed decision in a democratic fashion. This is why we need participatory decision-making.

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Getting the balance right: talks, posters and more at #EGU2013

This post is a collection of thoughts about learning how to ‘operate’ huge conferences like EGU. It’s my first time doing this and I’m now starting to learn how to get the most out of it.

First I’d like to talk about the bread-and-butter of the conference, oral presentations (talks). I like going to talks. A well-designed 12-minute talk can give a great overview of the research, communicating novel methods and approaches as well as key results. However, a full day of 12-minute talks is quite draining. My EGU personal programme for the first two days was completely filled with talks and by the end of the first day I was craving a poster session. I enjoy chatting to people over their poster more than I do sitting down and listening to a talk. Going to a talk is a more passive experience. For me, posters are a little more ‘human’. There is time for detailed conversation on topics of your choosing, or you can take a less tiring approach and just wander down the aisles of the poster halls and skim the posters of interest.

Days at the EGU meeting are structured such that most talks happen in the morning and posters in the afternoon. I like this. It recognises that talks are more taxing and puts them early on, allowing people to relax later in the day. However, on Monday and Tuesday I spent the 1730-2000 slot in two excellent short courses on tipping points and predictability. I will write a separate post about them later because they really were superb, but the long and short of it is that I found them a very valuable use of my time. I didn’t miss the posters at all during these sessions because the lecturers were so engaging.

Talks and short courses: that’s been my EGU so far. This evening I will get the chance to go to some poster sessions, which I am really looking forward to.

And yet I’m still missing out on huge chunks of the EGU experience! My calendar is full of sessions running in parallel, all of which I would love to go to. I’ve missed out on some excellent Medal Lectures, which I have heard from friends are really nice (a break from the short, functional oral presentations). When I put together my programme (using the excellent smartphone app) I quickly realised I was going to have to get used to this feeling that I was missing out. Yesterday I tried to flit between sessions, aiming to attend specific presentations. This can be done, but it gets complicated quite quickly, and sometimes it can take a while to get to the new room.

Today I have taken a more laid-back approach. If a talk comes up that isn’t particularly relevant to me I will use that opportunity to ‘zone out’ and rest my brain. As the conference goes on I am finding downtime to be quite important! There is a park close to the conference centre which offers a chance to get some fresh air and relax. I find a relaxing lunch really helps me come back refreshed and ready to engage in the afternoon sessions.

My plan for this afternoon includes the remainder of the session on clouds, aerosols and radiation, the debate on fracking, and a whole host of posters on a remainder of topics. That’s the kind of mix I love: some talks relevant to my own work, something rather different with potential for great discussion, all rounded off by a walk around the poster hall. This evening I’ll be heading to the EGU Tweetup, a meeting for scientists interested in using Twitter and similar tools for science communication. See the #egutweetup hashtag for more details.


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First impressions of #EGU2013

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Arriving at the Vienna International Centre is a very exciting experience. I went to the conference centre yesterday to pick up a programme and to get my bearings, together with some other PhD students from Reading.

We wandered amongst the half-prepared stalls and peeked into the rooms in which our presentations would be held. It was exciting to imagine the place jam-packed with scientists and bursting with new research ideas.

After a late lunch in the Innerstadt we headed back to the hotel to relax before going back to the conference centre for the opening reception. People flooded into the conference centre to meet old friends and make new ones. I was in bed quite early though, given I was presenting at 9:30 the following morning!

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I presented my work at the Open Climate session. The audience was bigger than I had expected, but I think it went OK. It’s very easy to think of all the things one should have said once the talk is done. It wasn’t a disaster though, which means it counts as a success. This was my first time presenting at such a big conference and I am sure future presentations will be much improved by the experience.

I got some good feedback and comments after the talk, which was much appreciated. Now I can fully.enjoy the delectable menu of scientific delights EGU 2013 has to offer.

It’s going to be a great week. The Sun has even come out!