Toward a More “Patient-Centered” Climate Science

Academia’s institutional culture fails to reward the critical work of tailoring climate science to the people who most need to understand its implications, according to a fascinating new paper by Kristen Averyt, in press at the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Averyt is deputy director of the Western Water Assessment, a University of Colorado-based group that walks the talk she’s talking about here, working with water managers around the West to provide policy-relevant information on climate and climate change. (Gregg Garfin and the folks at the University of Arizona’s CLIMAS project are another example of similar work here in the West.)

This is about the all-important question of adaptation to a changing climate. Given the climate change already in the pipeline, and the lack of progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, understanding the nature of a changing climate is a critical political and policy question.

Too often, Averyt argues in her BAMS paper, academic climate science rewards publication in technical journals at the expense of the sort of interdisciplinary work with the people and institutions that need the science being produced to support their decisions:

Unfortunately, there are two major hurdles preventing climate scientists from successfully building integrative research frameworks that include decision-makers in the scientific process. The culture of the academic climate science community fails to teach the younger generation of post-graduate students how to work with decision-makers in order to develop successful applied science strategies, and it fails to reward junior faculty members for focusing on multi-disciplinary, user-involved climate science.

One of the problems, Averyt argues, is an academic system that rewards publication in the peer-reviewed literature at the expense of other forms of policy-relevant scientific publication:

The science that informs climate adaptation planning decisions is not necessarily published in traditional, peer reviewed journals, but often in assessments and guidance documents categorized as “grey literature.” Despite the importance of grey literature in decision support, these scientific efforts are not held in the same esteem as peer-reviewed publications, and often do not carry the same weight in hiring, tenure, and job promotion decisions. Yet such “grey” literature can at times undergo even more rigorous reviews than the journal process (e.g. IPCC, CCSP Assessments).

Scientific education also generally fails to teach young scientists what Averyt describes, by way of metaphor, as a sort of “patient-centered” outreach to the consumers of the science they are producing:

As a first step, scientists must learn to hone their bedside manner. An imperative component of linking users with research is building stakeholder relationships, particularly with the regional and local entities that will likely make most of the decisions related to climate adaptation. Again, medicine can serve as a guide here for the climate sciences. During medical school and nursing classes, professors teach students about the importance of constructing professional trust when working with patients, as studies reveal better outcomes for patients who trust their medical caregivers. Similarly, scientists must learn to value and use the information coming from “patients.” This model needs to be applied to some aspects of climate science: the upcoming generation of climate researchers must have the opportunity to learn how to work with “patients” beginning in graduate school. Then, junior scientists should be encouraged to use integrated approaches to answer the novel research questions shaped by these relationships.


  1. Yes, there is a problem inherent to the system but academia is just like every other facet of “modern” professional life — we’ve bought into the system of division of labor, so chemists think it’s ALL about chemistry, climatologists think it’s ALL about climate, and… well, point made I hope.
    The other aspect that is not really addressed here is that this focuses only on the OUTCOME of climate science, without necessarily looking at the PROCESS of this work. I’ve struggled in my own classes on climate policy & science to get students to really dig into the underlying assumptions of model-building (for climate models). It’s important that the public not only understand in clear, concise terms, what climate models predict. They have to at least understand what goes IN to the model. This latter aspect might have helped avoid the s–tstorm the East Anglia folks ran into recently when e-mails were released; the climate doubters jumped all over the climate scientists because of what was viewed as a biased and secretive process. Bad show.

  2. Eli is afraid no one is going to like his answer, which is the policy makers don’t want to know this information because they would have to act on it. If they wanted to they would simply mandate grant funding in that direction, e.g. make it an important point of evaluation, push more funding to regional issues.

    The honest brokers want to sell sunshine

  3. To Eli,
    The splitting into tiny disciplines seems to be about tribal turf wars and about enjoying scientific fights because non-scientists can then write off scientific input since scientists ‘don’t agree.’

    As to not rewarding multidisciplinary science, I would say that academia not only does not reward it but often punishes it, unless of course by pretending to be multidisciplinary for a couple of years you can get funding for your single discipline research.

    Science, in my experience, can become more multidisciplinary by oversight — don’t fund single discipline research and don’t fund ‘multidisciplnary’ research in which the researchers never really talk to each other.

    I have a detailed plan for a ‘Bell Labs for the 21st century’ at which only cutting edge, multidisciplinary research is done. This research would be towards BHAGs. Quite a few excellent scientists want to work at such a place. A few of us are working on getting stable funding.

  4. The basic premise of the paper is correct, but also backward-looking. Academic institutions are changing to acknowledge the value of “service learning,” community engagement, and multi-disciplinary forms networked collaboration. I never would have gotten tenure without these changes beginning to actually take effect here at UBC among my immediate and not-so-immediate colleagues.

  5. Naw, it is simpler than that. Unpeer reviewed stuff is not “rigorous” enough for academics and rigorous stuff is unreadable by most human beings. And woe unto anyone who tries to get tenure with actually readable stuff.

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