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My scientific community: a generational responsibility

posted Dec 11, 2012, 7:00 PM by Kirk Sato   [ updated Dec 11, 2012, 9:02 PM ]


    What if I told you that the funny, chaotic, selfless, twenty and thirty-somethings on this ship are the next generation of ocean and environmental scientists?  By all respects, they seem like any group of twenty and thirty somethings...stretch pants, ironic tee shirts, laptops, sneakers, long hair, fresh faces, idealism. They look like the earnest, fun loving, at times rebellious, kids that you might see at your local coffee shop, frisbee golf course, surf-rock bar, or food co-op.


    Most of these scientists have sacrificed everything for their education, having scraped by from grant to grant, job to job; working in Moorea, Honolulu, Fairbanks, Santa Barbara, Bermuda, Costa Rica, Honduras. Most of them have two pairs of jeans to their name, know the tidal cycle for the next two months by heart, and prize their rubber boots, iPod playlist, and coveted music festival above most things. These are humble people, salt of the earth people: blue-grassy, centered, overwhelmed by narcissism, overexcited to tell stories of the recent fish, wave or clam they’ve seen.


    These are my people – and I am proud to belong to them.


    But sometimes I fear that history will not judge my generation of scientists kindly. As we strive for publications, discoveries, research funding, collaborations – we also steward a planet that is rapidly changing. And permanently. The science behind climate change is clear. Now what do we do about it?


    Historically, scientists were conveniently sequestered into a small alcove of society, where our primary tasks were: research-write-publish, research-write-publish. Wash-rinse-repeat. Inside that washing machine cycle, or vacuum, you might never move any of your discoveries into the public sphere. But now, we scientists don’t have the luxury of staying within that small enclave – more and more environmental and oceanographic research is validating and documenting the encroachment of climate perturbation. And this information is relevant to how we set carbon policy, how we inform the electorate, and how we plan for the future. You might think that an oceanographic mission to the continental margin off of San Diego isn’t relevant to climate change science - but that isn’t the case. Climate change alters the chemistry of the surface and deep ocean, it rearranges the distribution and concentration of oxygen along continental margins, and it forces biological communities to reorganize themselves. These changes aren’t temporary – they are the expression of long term trends towards an ocean with very little oxygen, very high acidity, collapsed biodiversity and drastically reduced fisheries and economic productivity. Is this an ocean, a world, which you want to pass of to your children? Or your great, great, great grandchildren?


    Never before has a generation of scientists been bestowed with such a monumental task: understand our changing earth and ocean systems AND simultaneously communicate this science to the people that need it most. My generation of scientists is up for the task. All we expect in return is to be considered open, unbiased brokers of information. We have the best intentions – and if you were aboard this ship with me, you would clearly see that in the eyes and hearts of these scientists that I am lucky to call my peers and my friends.


    And so - what we do matters. And how we talk about it matters - which is why a central component of our cruise mission is to communicate about our research, discoveries and excitement. The academic ivory tower is no longer an option for those of us that study environmental, oceanographic and climatic change. So the next time you consider scientists, especially in the polarized and distorted narrative that exists within the media and political machinations, consider our ship offshore of San Diego. Think of us around your dinner table, cracking jokes and spilling food, trying to act our age and failing at that task. Or think of us as your neighbors, gardening in the afternoon, playing fetch with our dog, chatting over fence posts and vegetable starts. We are no more, no less than that – and that is a lot.

-Sarah Moffitt, PhD Candidate at UC Davis, Bodega Marine Laboratory