What Would I do With an Earth Scientist?

Category: Uncategorized

By Raj Pandya, Director, Thriving Earth Exchange

This blog was originally posted by Meeting of the Minds.


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a community in possession of a good population must be in want of an Earth Scientist.

OK, not true – but I wish it was. I think there should be more opportunities for community leaders to find and work with Earth scientists. It would be good for communities, good for science, and good for the planet.

In this blog, I’ll talk about some of what makes it so hard. Because I’m a scientist, I’ll mostly blame scientists, but I’ll also point out some of the ways scientists are fixing it. I’ll also ask for your help in identifying and tackling other hurdles to science-community collaboration.

Can Earth science really be useful for communities? I’m glad you asked. A lot of what communities are trying to accomplish relates to Earth science.  Some examples:

  • To save crops and conserve water, farming communities can use new data sensors to better monitor weather and soil conditions and time irrigation.
  • To protect the health of low-income residents, neighborhoods can collect and share data about air quality inside and outside of homes.
  • Small cities can reduce their carbon emissions and energy costs, and regions can develop coordinated approaches to climate-resilient infrastructure.

These aren’t hypothetical examples either. These are real examples from Barren River, KentuckyDenver, ColoradoEugene, Oregon; and Southern Florida.

For four years, the Thriving Earth Exchange – TEX for short – has been helping community leaders and scientists connect and work together on projects, like the ones above, that advance community priorities. To do this, we draw from a network of over 150,000 Earth and space scientists, from all over the world, who are associated with the American Geophysical Union (AGU). AGU is the largest professional society of Earth and space scientists, and the founder and principal sponsor of TEX.

In the process, we’ve run into plenty of barriers that made it hard for scientist to do community-focused work. Here are some of the barriers we’ve identified, and our ways around them.

No Reward

For most scientists, community work doesn’t ‘count’ for tenure or promotion the way that publications and grant money do. For now, TEX sidesteps all this by asking scientists to engage with their community counterparts pro bono –outside of their job. We also offer modest recognition: profiles in our magazinessessions at science meetings, even a new AGU award for being an ambassador of science.

No Connection

Scientists and community leaders, in general, don’t seem to run into each other much. TEX works with partners – like the National League of CitiesInternational City/County Management Association, and ICLEI, Local Communities for Sustainability – to foster connections. They help us find community leaders interested in using science and we find scientists with expertise that responds to community needs.

No Practice

Working on community issues with, or as, a scientist requires a suite of skills that aren’t typically taught in school. We offer guides and coaching for both scientists and the community leaders to navigate this new terrain. Most recently, TEX co-developed the Resilience Dialogues, where scientists and community leaders worked together, with a facilitator, to launch local climate adaption efforts – and got to get some practice working together.

No Tools

Almost every TEX project runs into the same technical hurdle – it is hard to combine Earth science data with data the community already has. It might be combining 911 calls with temperature to help residents deal with extreme heat or combining street maps with climate model output to anticipate future flooding. In each case, though, there are no good off-the-shelf tools that help integrate these data. Our newest TEX-initiative, Adaptation Analytics, aims to deliver these kinds of tools.

As cool as this is, it is just the tip of the iceberg. While that is an overused expression, is seems apt when talking about Earth science. What I mean is this – I have seen, among scientists, a growing interest in doing Earth science with communities and in ways that advance community priorities. We are in the midst, I think, of a shift in how we think about and do science.

For too long, science – even Earth science – has been dominated by theoretical work, measured progress in publications aimed at a small number of peers, and assumed a “loading dock” approach (just do the science, and someone will pick it up and use it).  Arguably, this has contributed to the disconnect between Earth scientists and communities and maybe even to skepticism about some Earth science findings. It is, unfortunately, not a truth universally acknowledged that communities seek science, let alone Earth science. This is bad for Earth science, bad for the communities, and bad for the planet.

Fortunately, I think this is starting to shift.  A recent analysis presented at AGU Fall Meeting documents the shift, observed here as an increase in the number of papers that mention “co-production.”  A growing number of visionary institutions, like Arizona State University, are also starting to acknowledge and even reward their scientists who work with communities.

TEX is pleased to help nudge that shift. You can help, too. If you are an Earth scientist, you can embrace community work (you probably already do if you are reading this blog). If you are a community leader, you can reach out to Earth scientists and invite them into your real-world problems. (They’ll love you for it). And, if you are a visionary thinker (again, you are reading this blog) we can work together to tackle the cultural, social, and institutional barriers that separate science from communities. I’ve talked about some of the things we are doing on the science side of that separation – what kind of stuff is happening on your side? Or could be?