August 12, 2008

Revisiting the “Boundary Layer” Between Science and Society

By Thomas, Wendy Marie

In the 1970s, Paul J. Crutzen investigated the role of nitrogen oxides (NOx) on stratospheric ozone chemistry. A decade later, two other leading scientists in our field, Mario Molina and Rowland Sherwood, began investigating the potential depleting effect of chlorine, a parcel of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) chains, on stratospheric ozone. In another 10 years, all three pioneers would hold the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their groundbreaking scientific investigations that shed light on the changes resulting from a chemically modified stratosphere. Such advancements could meritoriously stand alone on the basis of advancing the state of knowledge about stratospheric chemistry, but something even greater and more universal resulted. The combination of a growing research synthesis and convincing evidence from earlier ozone concentration measurements-by British geoscientist Joe Farman-that indicated significant ozone depletion fueled an unprecedented sea change in international and domestic policy and catalyzed innovation and action in other science disciplines-namely, engineering and public health.

Basic research and constant monitoring constructed a platform of sound, largely irrefutable science, and also a set of workable solutions (e.g., eliminate CFC production and use), all of which stood shatterproof before policy makers, galvanizing international cooperation to correct a human-made problem. In 1989, the Montreal Protocol, signed by 191 countries, came into force, calling for an end to the production and use of halogenated hydrocarbons in order to protect the Earth's "UV blanket." Former United Nations secretary General Kofi Annan heralded this global response as "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date."

The momentum from this policy force helped to mobilize other sectors of society in order to find and implement solutions. A quest was launched to develop hydrocarbon-free refrigerants and propellants, spurring innovation and research in engineering. Concerns about protecting human life from potentially cancer- causing ultraviolet rays put a spotlight on public health agencies to address skin cancer prevention, especially for those in the Southern Hemisphere.

Because the application from decades of stratospheric ozone research had far-reaching implications on many levels, it remains today a shining example of why basic research remains so critical. Basic research is like an insurance policy against scientific challenges in the unknown future-you don't know when you will need it, but when you do, it is valuable to have the knowledge handy. The ozone case also reveals how contributions from the meteorological (and its closely related) sciences can catalyze a world of change for the better.

The meteorological sciences cover two of the three planetary fluid systems: air and water (the third being inner-core fluids). Many boundary layers exist between these fluid systems, but yet another kind of "boundary layer" also exists-this one is at the intersection of society: where "water" meets people.

The utility and value of our science deepens when its knowledge base reaches into other fields. The ozone case is one, but there are myriad others. For example, severe storm research has applications in economics, engineering, public health, and public safety-to name just a few. Similarly, environmental change in terms of the migration of climate zones or alteration of air/ water quality bears relevance to ecosystem, human, plant, animal, and even insect health.

Moving research that extra mile-that is, connecting it to;, other relevant fields-can be as.', easy as talking with fellow researchers on campus, participating in cross-disciplinary sessions at conferences, and publishing in their other journals in addition to ours.

Clearly, the stratospheric ozone issue captured national and global media attention, but not all environmental problems will be as large-scale or as nuanced to rely on the media or a strong, functioning policy framework to galvanize appropriate action. Policy development and the utility of our science begins much earlier in the game, and it starts when we stop to think about the "boundary layers" between our research and society at-large and then make the conscious decision to inform others at the interfaces about its applied benefits.

Wendy Marie Thomas is a policy associate with the AMS Policy Program. She researches extreme-weather impacts on health care infrastructure and the interconnections between a changing climate and human health.

Copyright American Meteorological Society Jun 2008

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