Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.
This is a guest post by Ben Wisner, author of At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters.
Michael Glantz, the director of the Capacity Building Center at the U.S. National Center for Climate Research (NCAR), whose 30 year old program was suddenly cut, has written an open letter about the gulf between natural/physical and social science. See it here.
Despite all the protestations, attempts, and aspirations among readers of and writers to RADIX (Home for Radical Interpretations of Disasters and Radical Solutions at www.radixonline.org ) and many others who are currently working at the interface of natural/ physical science and social science (e.g., here), interdisciplinarity is still marginal in academia, and “normal science” on the archetypal model of physics is still hegemonic. That’s part of the problem. A second part of the problem is historic and rooted in the prestige of natural philosophy in late medieval/ early modern universities as they began to develop and gain some independence from rulers and priests in some of the wealthier and more liberal city states.
A third component is sheer power politics and their reflection in public administration. The “men in suits” at NCAR are engineers and physicists. Fourthly, one can seek part of the explanation from a brilliant man called Karl Marx wrote without the aid of a super computer. He described the pressure within capitalist production to increase the ratio of machines and technology to workers. Marx called that the organic composition of capital. So what is the work at NCAR but intellectual production? Is it surprising that work that requires super computers and contracts for dozens of large U.S. companies is given priority to work that is done sitting under a mango tree with farmers with a pen and paper?
All these biases are interwoven and culturally colored with kaleidoscopic complexity by the time one arrives at a particular budgetary decision in a particular U.S. government institution, NCAR. Baffled and dismissive, any senior manager there would ask, if they bother to read this far, “Karl who?” In the case of the capitalist production process in science and academia, where is the surplus and who profits?
Almost two years ago I wrote a “Cri du coeur” — anguished rant — about the disappearance of farmers, herders, fishers, and other real people in the algorithms of climate impact models. I was concerned then with umpteen power point presentations I had been seeing which started with a colorful tableau of African women hoeing or threshing grain, and then continued for 30 slides of graphs based on very tenuous and often swallowed assumptions about politics and society. The result was to show, in the N-th slide, a projection of some level of poverty in 50, 80, 100 years. The people had completely disappeared, their own ability to understand what is happening to their world, and their creative responses. It was precisely this that Mickey Glantz and his team studied and elucidated: what lies behind all the hidden and unconscious assumptions made by the modelers.
In the super computer modeling business, we see another instance of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism”. The profit goes to the companies providing the technology and to those whose entry to African markets is facilitated by the diplomatic leverage and credibility of having “scientific answers” for policy makers. Not surprisingly, the answers usually imply massive hydro-engineering projects, import of fertilizers and agro-chemicals, hiring of consultant advisors, etc. – in other words, more profit for the U.S. companies and consultants who supply these services. There is also “profit” in scientific prestige for the modeler and the access to mega buck research grants (with university overheads at 40%) that major journal publication affords.
The invisible farmers, urban side walk vendors and artisans, herders, fishers, merchants, truck drivers, are only an “input” to the models. They are not stakeholders, participants, and beneficiaries. The work at NCAR that has been killed off gave such people voice.
So, in short, I see what Dr. Glantz as calmly referred to as a “wall” as more like a “barricade”. NCAR seems like the Bastille, the defenders of the relevance of Big Science to the needs of two-thirds of humanity are still saying, “let them eat projections.”