Kavli Prize Science Forum

Oslo, Norway: The second round of Kavli Prizes in Science are being awarded this week, and I’m in Oslo attending the ceremonies. Due to a missed connection on my way to Oslo, I was unable to attend Monday’s Kavli Prize symposia in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience, the three disciplines in which the Kavli Prizes are awarded. Happily, I did arrive just in time to attend a new event associated with this year’s Kavli Prizes, the Kavli Prize Science Forum 2010 on “The Role of International Cooperation in Science.” The event brought together two distinguished keynote speakers—U.S. Presidential Science Advisor John P. Holdren and Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, Secretary General of the Human Frontier Science Program and the first Secretary General of the European Research Council—and a panel of distinguished speakers from around the world. As much as some people in the U.S. would just love to see the topic disappear, global climate change was much on the minds of the scientists gathered at the Kavli forum. Setting the tone for the forum was a nonscientist, Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre, who opened the session. “One of the most complex issues demanding international cooperation in science is climate change,” Støre said. Climate change induced by human activities “is beyond doubt,” he observed. While decisions about addressing climate change are being made at the nation state level, “it is obvious that international collaboration in science and science policy must play a role. We need much better links between the science and the policy worlds,” Støre said. One important issue in climate change policy that Støre pointed to was the need to distinguish between probability and certainty. “There is always uncertainty in science,” he noted. “I believe that scientists should speak out more loudly, shortly, and forcefully” on topics such as climate change without as much equivocating as is often true of scientific discourse. “The merchants of doubt use uncertainty to play down the severity of the problems facing us,” Støre said. Støre went on to note that Norway has significant strategic interests in the “high North and Arctic,” where most of the changes associated with climate change are now taking place. Norway has established important cooperative scientific relationships with Russia in studying climate change and managing common Arctic resources, he observed. The forum was moderated by Charles Vest, president emeritus of MIT and president of the National Academy of Engineering, who pointed out that “science is conducted within the context of science policy and engineering policy.” The central problem faced by science policy makers, Vest noted, is that, “at the end of the day, government has to deliver something of value to its constituencies.” The real motivation of scientists, however, is not to deliver something of value, per se, but comes from within, the desire to learn about the workings of nature. “The policy community needs to tie these two motivations together,” Vest said. Vest introduced Holdren, whose presentation focused on “Climate Change Science & Policy: What Do We Know What Should We Do?” Holdren began by noting that President Barack Obama had made clear from the outset of his administration that he “places a high priority on science and technology, international cooperation in science and technology, and STEM education.” Holdren pointed to three areas in particular—delivering high-quality health care, energy and the environment, and climate change—as areas in which President Obama believes science and technology must be harnessed to improve the lives of U.S. citizens. Holdren then discussed the Obama Administration’s views on climate change. “Global warming is a dangerous misnomer,” Holdren observed. “It suggests that the changes are uniform, primarily about temperature, gradual, and likely benign. None of these are true.” In fact, Holdren pointed out, the changes that are occurring are highly nonuniform, not only about temperature, occurring rapidly, and quite harmful to the environment. The correct term, he said, should be “global climate disruption.” Holdren addressed five myths about climate change. For instance, he said, some climate change skeptics maintain that 1998 was the warmest year on record and that the Earth has been cooling since then. That’s simply not true, he said. The 15 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1990. The decade of the 1980s was then the hottest on record; the decade of the 1990s was hotter; and the decade of the 2000s was hotter still. And, he pointed out, “Heating is not uniform geographically, the ocean heat content is growing, coastal glaciers are retreating, Arctic ice is shrinking and thinning, and the Greenland and Antarctic ice masses are losing mass much more rapidly than had ever been predicted from models.” Humanity has three options in the face of climate change, Holdren observed: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. “We’re already doing some of each,” he said. “What’s up for grabs is the ultimate mix of the three.” Mitigation, he said, can’t work alone because climate change is already happening and will continue regardless of what changes humans make in their use of energy. In fact, he said, the mix will have to consist of enough mitigation to avoid the manageable and enough adaptation to manage the unavoidable because, unless humans are able to limit global warming to no more than 2 ºC on average, the suffering is going to be severe. Winnacker focused on a variety of productive collaborations among European scientists and scientific organizations and their counterparts around the world. “Science does not respect national boundaries,” he said. “When boundaries are established, science pays dearly.” He pointed to the Berlin Wall, which, he said, did not just keep East Germans from emigrating to the West, “it made it impossible to think of the world as a whole when it existed.” The panel discuss that followed the two plenary lectures involved Nils Christian Stenseth, president of the Norwegian Academy of Science & Letters; Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the U.S. National Academies of Science; Ichiro Kanazawa, president of the Science Council of Japan; Stephen E. Koonin, Department of Energy undersecretary for science; Yongziang Lu, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society (U.K.); Holdren; and Winnacker. Cicerone, for example, observed that nations are characterized by differences in geography, culture, and the like. Science, by contrast, is characterized by the search for universal truths, how phenomena occur, and how to manipulate them. “Any way that science can engage nations is beneficial,” Cicerone observed. Cicerone pointed to the collaboration between the National Academies and the Kavli Foundation in the support of the Kavli Frontiers of Science program, now 20 years old, that engages 70 to 100 outstanding young scientists every other year “to learn to speak across disciplines to solve problems.” Rees, returning to the topic of climate change, observed that “Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but the 21st century is unique.” It is the first time that one species has in its power the ability to change the planet in fundamental ways that will affect all other species living on it. He also noted that the 21st century likely marks the end of about 400 years during which science in Europe and the U.S. represented the “center of the scientific universe.” That center, Rees said, is likely to shift to Asia in this century.

Author: Rudy Baum

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