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UMBS holds summit on use and misuse of science in the public arena

BY LEAH GRABOSKI

Published July 9, 2006

Between journaling observations of the natural world and measuring forest carbon storage last week, students at the University's Biological Station participated in workshops and heard presentations as part of a summit on scientific integrity.

Angela Cesere
On Thursday, former LSA Prof. Henry Pollack gives the second keynote presentation titled "Hockey Sticks and Politics." (ANGELA CESERE/Daily)

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The Douglas Lake Summit on Scientific Integrity was sponsored jointly by the UMBS and the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization working to resolve environmental and global security problems. The summit began Thursday afternoon with a panel discussion led by scientists and public policy makers and ended Friday with a tour of the UMBS.

National Public Radio Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving and former LSA Prof. Henry Pollack gave the keynote speeches Thursday, which were followed by four small group discussions.

Pollack addressed the realities of climate change and the difficulties scientists face in communicating the urgency of global warming to the public in his presentation titled, "Hockey Sticks and Politics."

With a hockey stick laid across the podium, he spoke to the lessons learned from a 1998 study that found a hockey stick-shaped trend of temperature variation over the last 1,000 years. The study found that while temperatures have been stable for most of the Earth's history, temperatures during the last 100 years have increased dramatically.

Pollack said whether the hockey stick formation exists or not, scientists have come to the same conclusion in repeated studies - 20th century temperatures exceed those in the last millennium.

"Science works," Pollack said, "It's like having a stone in your shoe. You never forget about it." Like a stone in your shoe, he said, scientists keep looking for solutions to nagging problems.

But Pollack warned the scientists at the summit from hiding in their labs or out in fields. He said they are responsible to explain their research to the public.

In an interview, Pollack said there is an absence of leadership in Michigan to combat climate change. He said U.S. Congress is too concerned with protecting industry.

"The Michigan auto industry doesn't need protection. It needs a wake-up call," Pollack said.

He also said the media "is not so good at science."

Representing the media industry, LSA Prof. and Detroit Free Press reporter Emilia Askari explained the skills necessary for scientists to communicate effectively with the media.

Askari said scientists wishing to write opinion columns should keep it short and passionate. She said scientists have a culture of being "one-hand, on the other hand" and in an opinion piece, the argument should be direct.

Fred Gray, reporter for the Petoskey News-Review, also represented the media industry during the workshop. Gray said although some journalists say, "making it simple" is the best way to use the media as a medium for public awareness, he does not prefer to go that route. He said although refraining from "dumbing it down" may cause readers to pick up a dictionary, readers might be thankful for the learning experience.

Discussion group leaders addressed this philosophy of communication as well, but concerning the film industry. An audience member asked about the accuracy of the recent Al Gore flick, "An Inconvenient Truth."

Eric Sundquist, a United States Geological Survey senior research scientist, said, "There are some oversimplifications. There were no flat out falsities."

The film was a "very slick PR piece for Al Gore, whether he is a candidate (for presidency) or not," Sundquist said, "It clearly was constructed to feature Al Gore as a leader in his field."

Sundquist said the list of ways to protect the environment - highlighted in the film - does not come close to what needs to be done.

Taking the "make it simple" approach, Steven Bohlen, president of Joint Oceanographic Institutions, said demanding more action from the public than what was in the film would be "too big a piece for people to bite off."

The summit ended with a tour of the UMBS facilities. UMBS director Knute Nadelhoffer led the tour through the forest, making stops to speak with an ecologist and researchers at work.

The ecologist explained the banker's approach he uses to create a carbon budget. By measuring carbon production and lost in the forest, researchers can determine the effects of climate change on carbon dioxide levels.

In all, the UMBS covers about 10,000 acres of land surrounding Douglas Lake in Pellston, Michigan - a small village at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula. The region has a diverse terrain, with forests of pine, northern hardwoods, and conifers in addition to fields and meadows, wetlands, rivers and streams.

Just over 100 Students and 15 to 20 faculty members live in two-person cabins overlooking the lake. Over the summer, students take two five-credit courses or one course in addition to independent research. The 12 courses being offered for the summer term range from "Environmental Writing and Great Lakes Literature" to "Biology of Birds" to "Limnology: Fresh Water Ecology".


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