Published online 4 February 2005 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news050131-17


Environmental scientists told to 'get the word out'

Asian tsunami highlights problems with spreading information.

Too little? Costa Rica has tsunami signs, but the Caribbean lacks a warning system.Too little? Costa Rica has tsunami signs, but the Caribbean lacks a warning system.© AP Photo/Andres Leighton

Scientists are not doing enough to make sure that that information is getting out of the lab to those who can use it, a meeting of environmental scientists in Washington DC heard this week.

For example, scientists knew about December's Indian Ocean earthquake within minutes of it happening. Yet no formal alert was sounded and the resultant tsunami killed hundreds of thousands.

All three links of the warning chain were weak: the monitoring system in the Indian Ocean wasn't good enough; there were no communication channels to local authorities; and the public was not educated.

And compared with establishing lines of communication and teaching the populace to run for high ground, setting up a few buoys is the easy part, speakers told the conference of the National Council for Science and the Environment on Thursday 3 February.

"All the technology in the world doesn't do a lot of good if you can't get the word out," said Charles Groat, director of the United States Geological Survey.

Scientists are best known for keeping to themselves, said Charles Kennel, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. "Too many times in the past the researcher kept all his work in a filing cabinet somewhere and you didn't get your hands on it until he was dead."

Serving society

“How come the Earth doesn't get any respect?”

Charles Kennel
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California

But large projects such as the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) and Washington-based National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) are now trying to tailor their data to the needs of the non-scientists who might use it. These might include land managers, policy-makers and disaster workers.

"GEOSS is science serving society," says Kennel. The environmental-forecasting community should make their data as compelling and well publicized as the Mars Rover photographs, he said, asking the crowd: "How come the Earth doesn't get any respect?"

Likewise, Bruce Hayden of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, who is the lead investigator for NEON, said that the monitoring system was designed to answer "socially important questions".

The tsunami disaster highlighted the need for more communication outside the lab, said Anthony Michaels, who directs the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California. But, he added, "the transformation has been going on for a long time."


Younger scientists are being trained in communicating science to the public and see it as a rewarding part of their job, says Michaels. "We are new to this kind of dynamic, and in some ways we are not well suited to it," he says. "The leadership at the universities and the young people are on board ... and then you have all these old farts in between." 

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California