The paradox of scientific research

Minda’s note: While I am hiking the Himalayan mountains this week, my friend and fellow scientist, Olivia Yu from UC Davis agreed to fill in for me.  She asks the paradoxical question: can ecologists also be environmentalists?  See below for her thoughts on the topic….

The paradox of scientific research by Olivia Yu

[The purpose of this article is not to denigrate research, scientists, or the field of climate change; simply to make a case to include environmental awareness to general science education.]

The paradox of doing science is the quantity of natural resources used in the process. Present- day scientific research generally requires copious and continual input of natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable. Many projects are energy and resource-intensive, i.e., transportation to remote locations and long-term monitoring. Yet, this paradox is most apparent in the field of climate change science, where the study of environmental changes requires substantial expenditure of natural resources, which contributes to further climatic changes. Field experiments often require considerable energy input to simulate the effect of a future world with varying degrees of temperature increases. Many experiments use nonrenewable resources such as oil or natural gas to observe these changes.

For example, in the famous Harvard Forest where climate change research has been occurring for the past 15 years, one current experiment applies a constant stream of a forced warm air through a section of the forest to simulate a warmer climate in the future. Likewise, ecological research related to climatological changes is located in remote locations by definition, such as the Arctic and Antarctic. Transportation to either poles and importation of fuel, food, and materials and supplies to conduct research require use of fossil fuels. Particularly because ecological studies span multiple seasons, the acquisition of this data translate to a high carbon footprint and thus, greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Regardless of the relationship to climate science research, laboratory work, particularly when microbiological/genetic techniques are employed, necessitates large quantity of disposable items and energy-dense chemicals. The production of these items and proper disposal adds to the carbon footprint of a research project. Beyond the data collection stage, data analysis may be even more energy-intensive. The processing of large data sets, which include modeling, can require significant computing power.

However, not all is doom and gloom. With a new generation of scientists, who are more environmentally conscientious, conventional methodologies are evolving to decrease energy inputs to address biological and climatological questions. Several of the modifications include reusing or decreasing use of disposable materials, processing of data off-site and during off- peak hours, increasing use of modeling over empirical research, and collecting data remotely. Despite the fact that some of these alterations are due to shrinking budgets; the silver lining is the promotion of data efficiency (collection of sufficient data for statistical power) and cohesiveness. Over-collection of data wastes resources, time, and money. Equipment sharing can lead to more collaboration among scientists within departments. Also, scientists are increasingly aware of the carbon footprint of transportation, not to mention the time, and thus, are organizing more teleconferences and webinars. Departmental managers are encouraging principal investigators to periodically purge samples in storage in the name of energy efficiency.

One of the strongest assets of climate scientists is their interdisciplinary background, which contributes to a more holistic approach to addressing research questions and self-assessing the impact of their research to the human population and the natural environment. So, a challenge for you, the reader: what will you modify to decrease the carbon footprint of your work environment? If you are a scientist, will/have you consider the environmental impact of your research? If so, will you alter your research methodology to decrease resource use, especially non-renewables, to address your research goals? Furthermore, if you are a principal investigator, are you willing to purge your data- once it is published of course- in the name of energy conservation?

PS. The original title of this piece was ‘Scientists are not treehuggers,’ but I thought that would be too easily misinterpreted and misrepresent scientists as a population who are genuinely interested in studying the environment. I am not looking to pick a fight nor am I interested in idolizing treehuggers, but I am a scientist who studies climate change and likes to have trees to hug in the future.

2 Responses to The paradox of scientific research

  1. Neal J. King May 15, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

    It’s ok to consider saving energy in the workplace, but let’s keep some perspective: The power consumption of a few thousand people doesn’t make any difference at all. We need to transform the power consumption of the entire civilization to change the course of the future.

    Therefore, taking a “watt-wise, MW-foolish” approach towards research in ecology is not going to help the situation. Better to make sure you get the science right.

    • Olivia May 24, 2012 at 4:40 am #

      My point is that scientists, especially ecologists educated in the natural world, could be more conscientious in the ways energy is used in research and generally as an citizen. I know quite a few scientists who leave lights on in an empty lab and print only on one side. So, who are scientists to point fingers at conservation, energy or otherwise?

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