by Judith Curry
In pondering the challenges of climate change (both science and policy), it seems that academics have different perspectives from many other people, with a discriminator being professional decision making experience.
Latimer Alder raised this issue on a recent post:
Latimer Alder | September 2, 2012 at 10:22 am |
What has been a real eye opener for me has been my forays into the private sector, where real decisions and big $$ hinge on my predictions. Being spectacularly wrong on a regular basis is a sure recipe for having no contracts. Hence probabilities and scenarios and assessment of confidence level in individual forecasts is the name of the game. I wish more academics had this kind of experience. In universities such interactions are very cumbersome owing to ever changing conflict of interest guidelines.
The reward system for academics is to have a provocative idea get published in a high impact journal, and increasingly to garner some media attention for the research. Whether or not the idea turns out to be correct is not of particular importance in the reward system for academics.
For professionals in engineering, finance, the world of regulations, etc., there are typically serious penalties for getting it wrong, i.e. if the bridge collapses. As a result, due diligence, verification and validation, uncertainty analysis, auditing etc. are essential elements of the profession.
Now if the principal activity of a field of science is to push the knowledge frontier, then being right in a long term sense isn’t all that important. However, when a field of science is operating at the policy interface, e.g. climate science, then that field could learn some valuable lessons from the professions.
Over the past 5 years or so, I have been increasingly becoming engaged with the private sector, where being ‘right’ in terms of a forecast matters in a very concrete and immediate way. This has almost certainly influenced my thinking on uncertainty and confidence assessments regarding climate change. I am not a ‘contrarian’ in the sense of being uncertain for the sake of being uncertain. Rather, I have a different perspective from most of my fellow academics as a result of operating in an environment where significant decisions are made based on my forecasts. For example, for our main client in the energy sector, decisions are made every day regarding energy sales and trading, and when a hurricane is coming decisions are made on evacuation and business continuity. Being wrong will cost our client a lot of money; being wrong too often will result in losing the customer. If you are wrong in such an environment, you better make sure you learn from your mistake or readjust how you assess the forecast uncertainty.
Broadly in the field of environmental modeling and prediction, I think that academics and university students would benefit enormously from engaging in the private sector. Such engagement is made very difficult by conflict of interest issues, imposted by the federal government, state governments, and universities. Private universities have much more flexibility in this regard, and I suspect that it is not an accident that ‘silicon valley’ developed in the environment of Stanford University. Management of the conflict of interest issues at Georgia Tech surrounding my engagement with the private sector is quite cumbersome, and my graduate students cannot benefit from this experience.
With the growing relevance of climate science to decision making and regulations, it is incumbent upon the institutions that support science to bring professional perspectives to the climate science-policy interface. However, I don’t even see this issue being raised; these institutions seem focused on ‘communicating climate science’ as a way of making the proposed policies more palatable. There is a fundamental disconnect here, this is probably obvious to most of the Denizens, but that doesn’t register on the academic radar.
Your ideas on this?