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On the future of environmental and natural hazard science

The American Geophysical Union 2014 Fall Meeting begins on 15 December 2014 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center with nearly 24,000 scholars, scientists, and researchers predicted to attend. The AGU Fall Meeting brings together the entire Earth and space sciences community for discussions of emerging trends and the latest research.

Ellen Wohl, Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Environmental Science, and W. Tad Pfeffer, Editor in Chief of Oxford Handbooks Online in Natural Hazard Science, will serve as panelists alongside Susan Cutter and H.H. Shugart from the developing Oxford Research Encyclopedia program, at a talk about the future of earth and environmental science at AGU on 16 December 2014 from 4:00-5:00 p.m. in the Pacific J room of the San Francisco Marriott Marquis Hotel.

To get a short preview of this event, we touched base with Ellen and Tad to learn more about the new discoveries and investigations in these developing fields.

The disciplines that populate the Earth & Environmental Sciences have traditionally worked as defined entities with specific research trends. When faced with the multitude of issues stemming from natural disasters and environmental stressors, for example, is this model still relevant?

W. Tad Pfeffer: This is about the organization of knowledge, of course, as opposed to actual knowledge content. I think the disciplinary road map, with knowledge divided by traditional subject boundaries, is still important for the simple fact that so much of the recorded knowledge is organized and stored in that way. We need the traditional disciplinary structure to take full advantage of the existing body of scientific knowledge – but we also need linkages to the more recent (and growing) inter- and cross-disciplinary road maps, so that whatever map (i.e. knowledge structure) a user decides to follow, he or she not only gets to the right place (i.e. finds the right knowledge to apply to a problem), but can see the entire landscape along the way (i.e. is made aware of important related issues and alternative solutions).

Ellen Wohl: The model is relevant in that the depth of understanding that comes with disciplinary training and knowledge is critical to addressing complex, transdisciplinary issues. However, the issues transcend disciplinary boundaries and, to be effective, each individual must at least have some familiarity with the conceptual framework and knowledge of other relevant disciplines.

How can we best facilitate open trans-disciplinary dialogue in the Earth & Environmental Sciences, and ensure that these possibilities mature?

W. Tad Pfeffer: This probably comes about mostly through our education – what structure we experience as students when we are first learning our fields. But this can be supplemented by exposure to those linkages connecting disciplinary and cross-disciplinary ways of organizing knowledge. Fast, easy-to-use tools for finding knowledge, seeing how knowledge is organized, and comparing different organizational structures might be very powerful, and modern web-based search platforms combined with good documentation are perhaps ideal for this task.

Oxford's booth at a previous AGU conference
Oxford’s booth at a previous AGU conference

Ellen Wohl: Among the ways to do this are to (1) tie research dollars to such approaches, (2) demonstrate the relevance of such approaches by highlighting (in journal articles and other venues) successful, multidisciplinary approaches to problem solving (whether the problem is applied/management or basic science), and (3) facilitating ease of access to information across disciplines, as with Oxford’s online resources.

What strengths and weaknesses can you identify in current research in your field, and how that research relates to applications?

W. Tad Pfeffer: One great strength in my research area of cryospheric environmental change is the growing use and sophistication of remote sensing tools for detecting and quantifying environmental change. These data sources generate tremendous volumes of data and demand disciplined use of data bases and imaginative processing methods to avoid getting hopelessly lost – another job for the tools I mentioned above.

A crucial weakness in my particular area, sea level rise and environmental change, is the lack of awareness among my colleagues of the nature of the needs and concerns of the actual consumers, or “end users,” of the knowledge we produce: planners, policy makers, risk managers, etc. The scientific community, guided by traditional “pure science” principles and motivations, look for problems that are challenging, interesting, and hopefully solvable with the tools available. These criteria do not always lead my colleagues toward problems that “end users” and the public find most urgent.

This is most obvious in the disparity in time scales of future events. End users and decision makers need knowledge of environmental changes on near-term time scales of decades, while the most attractive and challenging problems for scientists studying environmental change will, in many cases, not become significant human issues for centuries or millennia.

Ellen Wohl: The literature of my field and closely related fields has expanded so rapidly that it is difficult to keep abreast of continuing research and it can be very intimidating to try to learn about a new, related field when my research expands in different directions. That is one of the great values of review and synthesis papers, as well as one of the primary services that the Oxford Bibliographies Online can supply to professional scholars, as well as to students.

Headline image credit: 2011 Flooding From Mississippi River Levee Breach. NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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