NCAR and NSF: Please, Tear Down This Wall!

Michael H. Glantz
28 August 2008

NCAR and NSF: Please, Tear Down This Wall!


berlin wall
Ronald Reagan speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall, June 12, 1987. Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, ID 41244-9.

About 20 years ago, President Ronald Reagan, standing before the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” referring to the infamous Berlin Wall, the symbol of Cold War tensions between East and West. Reagan’s timely challenge ignited the sparks of rebellion that led to the revolution that ended the Soviet era. Photos of people amassing in city squares across Eastern Europe filled newspapers and magazines. And, rightfully, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

But not all walls are visible to the naked eye. Not all barriers are made of concrete and steel. In the corporate world people talk about a glass ceiling, a virtual barrier based on some sort of discrimination according to race, gender, age, culture, and the like. In science, an invisible but tremendously effective wall exists between the physical and social sciences. Physical science in general looks down at social science as a soft science, as non-mathematical, as qualitative, second class stuff, easy to master. After all, physical scientists read the newspapers and watch TV. They have feelings and views about societal dimensions of science, but feelings are not the same as research-based, quantitative and qualitative understandings of, say, the interactions among climate, society, and the environment. To adequately understand such interactions requires education and training, as is the case for the physical sciences and the humanities as well.

In response to reactions to the recent dissolution of the Center for Capacity Building (CCB) at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), NCAR management defended its decision by noting that the social aspects of climate are not within its core activities. Thus, the old attitude—we produce science and it is up to the public to figure out how to use it—has reappeared at NCAR and the NSF unit that supports it at a time when most other science organizations around the globe have sought to incorporate social science into their research and application agendas. This raises a much bigger issue.

The collective decision of NSF, NCAR and UCAR (the organization that manages NCAR) to terminate a societal impacts group designed to educate and train at home and abroad strongly suggests that the science bureaucracies of the 20th century (at least these particular ones) are not in a position to address the problems of the 21st century. In other words they are still made up of discipline-based, atomized units and have great difficulty in thinking—let alone working—across traditional disciplinary boundaries. One might argue that such organizations are backing into the future: they are pursuing a “business as usual” scenario when it comes to coping with multifaceted, multidimensional climate and climate change impact issues.

The recently published Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) 4th Assessment has convinced many government and corporate leaders that human activities are playing a role in the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. The focus of society’s decision makers now appears to be shifting away from the physical sciences (which will continue to further refine data and conclusions) and is moving toward the domain of the social sciences. It is in the social sciences and in the humanities where questions are addressed about how governments and corporations might best mitigate and adapt to the causes and consequences of global warming. In reality, the physical sciences need the social sciences more than ever, because people want to know what a changing climate means for themselves and their families.

Through its actions, NCAR seems to be stating that physical science alone holds the key to coping with climate change, or even working to improve our resilience during typical seasonal fluctuations and weather events. Or, perhaps, NCAR believes that institutions other than itself would be better suited to enter into discussions on how science should be applied in formulation of national policies or should influence individual household decisions when either climate or weather is a factor. In either case, it appears that NCAR, having removed almost all signs of social science research from its programs, is unwilling and unprepared to be societally relevant in the coming years. This is an unfortunate stance for an institution that is supposed to be leading the nation on issues of climate.

So, my plea is to NCAR, UCAR, and NSF: Please, tear down this wall that divides the physical and social sciences so that together they can work together as equal partners to better serve society.


--Michael H. Glantz

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