March for Science (in late April)

This Saturday, marches will take place around the world on Earth Day, celebrating what science has achieved, and highlighting the importance of publicly-funded science in society.

Modern life being full of the fruits of publicly funded research: The internet, microchips and GPS being commonly cited as the offspring of government funding of science through universities or research institutes. But barcodes, instant baby milk and touch screens also started out as a series of PhDs and academic papers. And yet if anything, today science is seen as less and less important to society as self proclaimed “experts” lead semi-organised rebellion against both the scientific process and validity of research. In my field, climate change, public perception about the human influence and potential impacts are far more sceptical than the science surrounding the subject. In fact, despite 97% of climate scientists and 97% of work on climate science shows a link between anthropogenic emissions and a warming climate. Yet for some reason, climate change is seen as “scam”, and research into it a waste of money. It is fair to say that public tolerance of using government funding for scientific research, especially when the advantages aren’t immediately obvious.

And that is what this march is for. To ensure that the value of government funded scientific research is known. It is specifically important for those sciences where immediate results in advancing technology aren’t obvious, such as climate change. And in the case of climate change, there is no commercial value to the research if it isn’t a global effort to understand and combat it.

That is why I’m marching. To ensure that the pursuit of science is recognised as important, and that in these changing times, both in the UK and around the world, science research remains at the heart of the country.

For more info on the march, see here.



A public announcement

This week, I face the prospect of giving a talk. For some people, that lead to sleepless nights, a bunch of frayed nerves and a desire to drink heavily afterwards in relief. Normally, I’m not one of those people. I was making presentations for youth project funding to panels of strangers at 14, running and MC-ing an entertainment evening show for 150 people at 18, I even started off the first 5 minutes of an Edinburgh Fringe show I was teching to cover for a late comedian one summer (incidentally, it was the same 5 minutes I found out that I wasn’t as funny as I thought). Most of these were performances, and any serious talk about my research or my area of work has been to an academic audience, either at conferences, research group meetings or to other academics, groups in which I feel comfortable talking to.

Today however, I am one of those people who is fearing doing the dreaded talk. And that is because it’s a public lecture – open for anyone to attend and listen to. It’s not the biggest audience I’ll ever have talked to, the hall I’m in will only seat about 80 people. But it’s the fear that for 50 minutes on Thursday evening, anything I say could end up costing myself, but could also be detrimental to the scientific cause I’m talking about.

I’ve done some minor media training, and talking to the public world sounds vicious. Stories of scientists who give a sniff of opportunity for a controversial headline for the Sunday papers run rife, every public interaction assessed by someone looking for a scoop that “disproves the experts”. Personal social media accounts, blogs and encounters forced to carry the standard “not the views of my employer” for fear of bad media coverage. I’ve been to public scientific talks before and know first-hand that there always seems to be at least one person, sat somewhere near the back, who wants to fight the point with alternate theories or their own damming evidence of scientific lies.

I understand why scientists are scared to engage with the public. I also understand why my academic supervisors are equally as terrified, partially that I’ll be torn to shreds and come back a destroyed man, partially that any ripple from my mistakes also affects them and indeed, the whole department. My topic (“communicating climate change to the public” – ironically enough) is one that I find fascinating, and is something that I think really makes a difference in the fight to get governments to take action against climate change.

But after having my work reviewed by someone more pronounced in speaking in public forums, the idea that one slip of the tongue, one slightly ambiguous phrase, can lead to awkward and uncomfortable questions for the entire community became clear. I sent the script, and received back a sheet of suggested changes, many of which were rewording phrases which, at first glance, seemed fine. They weren’t even the science, that was fine. They were mostly the segways from slide to slide, or turns of phrase when describing graphs. It terrifies me that for a simple public talk, the exact wording has to be used for us to feel safe. It’s beginning to feel less like a public talk, and more like a court cross-examination.

It’s good in a way that the public are prepared to demand evidence to believe a theory – scientists are no different in that respect. And I don’t want that to stop. But the feeling that within a crowd there are people that are not there to hear your evidence, but to force a slip-up so that all evidence can be discounted, is one which brings fear to many. And if someone who has little fear of standing up and talking to people can feel the nerves like I am now, then I truly feel sorry for those who are dealing with it when they’re already out of their comfort zone. And I feel that it means we’re going to have to find other ways to try to get our message of the effects of climate change out to the public as we go into the future.

The Politics of Climate Change

With only a week until the 21st UN climate change conference in Paris, you would be forgiven for thinking that the agenda has merely been copy and pasted from the last one in Lima. And the one before that in Warsaw. So what makes this one any more special?

To negotiate a treaty that maintains the effect of global warming to less than 2 C is still the main aim, and the public pressure on world leaders has been present since the failure of the 2009 meeting in Copenhagen. But it is now 18 years since Kyoto, and even longer since the Montreal protocol, neither of which really made huge inroads into controlling CO2 emissions. Short lived climate pollutants, which also influence climate, but are

Will world leaders finally come to an agreement this time round?

One of the major issues is, as always, money. No country wants to go alone and take an economic hit that they would suffer by reducing cheap, dirty energy production, and replacing it with clean infrastructure that takes a lot of money to implement, especially if other countries aren’t going to do the same. Along the same lines, previous meetings have seen newly developing countries wanting those countries that are already developed, and have been responsible for large amounts of historic CO2 emissions, to help financially. This would ensure that those countries could continue to develop and compete globally in the financial markets. In 2009, $100 billion was promised to some of the developing nations by 2020, but more nations want this to be extended.

A compromise between development and climate has always been a stumbling block in previous conferences

A second major issue is the legality and binding commitment required. Some countries want tougher decreases on carbon emissions, others are relying on cheap and plentiful coal-powered energy to fuel their growth out of poverty, and so are unwilling to give definitive dates for the phasing out of coal and gas power. How to legally bind countries to any new deal is also an issue. The EU wants a UN-led binding contract, whilst the USA and China would prefer a treaty that was binding only in domestic laws, and in the Japanese submission for the process, there is no mention of it being legally binding at all.

So how come, despite all these sticking point, there is a quiet optimism about Paris that hasn’t been seen since Copenhagen?

A poster parodying Mobil reads:
The funding of fossil fuels based industries by governments is also likely to be under scrutiny in developed nations

Well firstly, Copenhagen caused a lot of governments a great deal of embarrassment, as did previous failures. The public backlash from another failed  meeting would not go down well in many countries, particularly the USA, China and UK. This is also the last chance that Barrack Obama has to attempt to make a difference, especially given the fear that the next occupant of his office may be much less amiable to the climate change community. Secondly, the number of small deals done between countries outside of the UN framework has increased pressure on this meeting to work. It also means that several nations now have a better idea at what each others needs and wants are. Most importantly though, it seems that the big players (China, USA, EU and Japan) are now at a stage where some compromises to national interests may be made in order to reach an agreement, whereas previous meetings have seen national interests come first at all times.

Whilst there is hope that a legally binding deal can be found in Paris, it remains prudent to say that whatever is done, it will only be the beginning of a long process to attempting to rebuild a cleaner atmosphere.


Forecasting light showers and a P45

This week, a French TV weatherman was fired from his job after releasing and then promoting a climate change-sceptical book (no, it’s not Michael Fish). The presenter in question, who has dismissed the label of  being a “climate-sceptic”, and opened his dismissal letter on a video on social media. Doing so, he said  “I decided to open it with you, in front of you, as it concerns everybody, in the name of freedom of speech”.

French TV weatherman Philippe Verdier has been taken off the air for writing a book chall
Phillipe Verdier, France 2 TV’s chief forecaster, failed to see the storm of controversy that his book would bring

The concept of being fired for having different views is not a new one. Even the idea of being dismissed, or publicly ridiculed, for having different scientific views is not new or unusual. Many of the greatest scientific discoveries, such as Gallileo’s heliocentric system or Hutton’s geological time theory, were initially thrown out of scientific discussions due to their extreme viewpoints compared with the knowledge at the time.

In America, prominent academic researchers and scientists can gain tenure, which not only affords job security in a volatile sector, but also determines that scientific dissent is not a reason for dismissal. This is known as the right to academic freedom. The idea of it is that it promotes original ideas to arise and questions to be asked of previously accepted work that may have flaws. Essentially, you can have your own views and say what you want, providing you can get the funding to work on it and attempt to prove it.

In most of the rest of the world, no similar system exists, either in Academia or outside agencies. In 2010, an Israeli government official was sacked after denying climate change and evolution. However, just a year ago, the UK Minister for the Environment was a staunch climate sceptic, and refused a meeting with leading scientists to discuss climate change after pushing a 40% cut through. And a health professor in Canada retained her job despite teaching her university classes warning that vaccines were dangerous and caused autism despite the paper being dismissed after the author admitted lying about results in order to get his conclusion.

Sir Henry Raeburn - James Hutton, 1726 - 1797. Geologist - Google Art Project.jpg
James Hutton, the father of modern geology, faced stark criticism and struggled to get his theories published when he first suggested the Earth was much older than the bible

So which of these situations is sacking the offender justified, and when is it not? Should government ministers in charge a department be required to have a viewpoint that follows scientific consensus? Should those in positions of celebrity, or have the responsibility of teaching have to be vetted to prevent extreme views being taught? And what of those who in academia, whose very job it is to question things?

Should politician’s be forced to followed the advise of neutral scientific advisers, rather than create their own in order to follow their own policies?

An issue arising from the sacking of the French weatherman is that he has a platform to put forward his case. The book has sold well, mostly thanks to the publicity he has got from the media, and from his celebrity status. Without it, it would undoubtedly not sold as well. And that in itself is dangerous. In a world where what celebrities say has a large influence over the young minds of the world, then it is understandably worrying when someone with that influence goes against what is scientifically believed.

It’s a dilemma that France 2, the TV station in question, should never have had to face however. Because weather and climate are different things. And although Verdier wrote a Masters dissertation on Climate Change and the Media, it was back in 1992, and he has not had a role in climate science since. Why should someone not at the forefront of the field be given an equal platform to discuss his theories? Surely those with the most knowledge about a subject should be the ones who’s views should be given most publicity and be allowed to discuss the pro’s and con’s of it all?

Verdier himself, in his dissertation, remarked “The dubious amalgam between weather and climate is the most common mistake in the media”.  Who is better placed to take advantage of it for his own gain than him then?


Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one

So, for the first views post, I thought I’d go with something that most people will have seen. Over the weekend, you may well have seen an article in the Daily Express about the British winter. It’s the third such article in the last month, starting with one claiming that Britain will have the coldest and snowiest winter in 50 years, due to a strong El Nino in the Pacific Ocean. We’ll ignore the science at the moment, but if you want more information on the link between UK weather and El Nino, the Met Office Blog has a helpful article.


Now, it is important I put this here first: I am not going to say this is/is not going to happen. Partially this is because I am not a forecaster, despite what my family may think, but also, because there is a chance it may happen. And the word chance is the key one.

The Daily Express’s first of many weather stories of 2015. In the last month, 3 other stories with similar headlines have been in the paper.

Numerical Weather Prediction models have the ability to accurately forecast, at most, about a few days in advance. These are run at higher resolution and in doing so, can compute the smaller effects that affect where rain will fall, where winds will be strongest and where clouds will form more accurately. Climate models, which run with lower resolution, typically are used to run months/years into the future. Often this work is used for academic research and not released as a public announcement, but in academic papers.

When NWP’s are run, they are run several times with very small perturbations in the initial conditions. Due to the Butterfly Effect, these cause a divergence in the forecasts which grows over time. After a few days, the simulations will differ from each other significantly. What it leaves for the couple of days ahead is a probabilistic forecast, where they have a range of possibilities for what the weather will do, but also a sense of the probability of how likely each option is.

ensemble_membersA set of ECMWF ensemble simulations showing the differences in attempting to track a the formation of a storm in the Mid Atlantic. (Source – Dr Ryan Maue, ECMWF)

The same is done with lower resolution models for further into the future. This can give a general probability of less specific statements. Normally these are used with the words “most probable scenario is a drier than average/warmer than average/windier than average” guise. And that’s it. That’s all they can say.

More and more often, forecasts are now given with a probability, and the BBC have started to include more about these uncertainties in their forecasts. The forecast of a storm which didn’t hit a couple of weeks ago was predicted almost a week in advance, but up until 2 days before there was still uncertainty with where it would make landfall. And the BBC actually showed this in the forecasts. Some other weather companies around the world have included some elements of uncertainty for a while now.


NOAA have been representing uncertainty on storms for a number of years now.

The issue I have with the Daily Express headline is that it shows no uncertainty. The general public read it, take it as truth, and then when it doesn’t happen, blame the weatherman. It’s something that is becoming more and more infuriating for meteorologists and climate scientists all over the world. Maybe it’s the scientists fault for not focusing on the uncertainty and attempting to make a result seem more certain, more important. Or maybe it’s the media’s manipulation of the message to sell more papers and gain more clicks online.
The media’s relationship with weather and climate is another story for another day. But it is certainly worth remembering that the Daily Express led with the headline “Winter 2014 set to be coldest for a century” last year, and went with “Britain facing worst winter in 60 years” in 2013. And predicted a coldest winter in 100 years in 2012 too. And 2011. And 2010