Speaking of Science, How About Solving Our Biggest Problems With Data?

Planet Earth (NASA)

Many scientists -- and members of the science-interested public -- will be taking to the streets Saturday. The March for Science is a vote for policies based on scientific evidence. While organizers are careful to keep the event nonpartisan, they've acknowledged there's an urgency to the message in face of the Trump administration's stand on climate change and other environmental issues.

Some of the scientists who will be out in force this weekend quietly participated this week in a different kind of pro-data gathering at UC Berkeley, organized by the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute.  

The data scientists who attended ranged from people who monitor air pollution, to those who model where it's best to put wind turbines, to those who want to make electricity grids more stable.

The meeting could hardly have been more timelyAnd it’s an example of the kind of exchange of ideas and information that could be hampered if, say, NASA’s climate satellites are turned off. This could happen under President Trump's current budget blueprint, which proposes killing four of NASA’s climate science missions.

"It's never been more important for us to make our case for science," said Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, during her keynote on Thursday. McNutt said she will not be marching, but will be at a National Academy open house.

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She pointed to several bills currently before Congress, such as the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act. That's a re-branded form of the failed Secret Science Reform Act. It would effectively prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from using the weight of scientific evidence to pass policy protecting public health and the environment.

"I'm worried that if we as a community can't assure lawmakers and policymakers that we have our act together," said McNutt, "there will be other mechanisms imposed on us that may not be in the best interest of good science."

A Thousand Possibilities

Featured speakers in the data conference showed some of the newest, most innovative ways large data sets and computing power can be used in service of environmental sustainability.

Among the highlights:

    • Several academic researchers--from as far afield as Hong Kong, China and the University of Wisconsin--spoke about tracking and monitoring air pollution through satellites (such as those funded by NASA) or ground-based monitors.
    • Google's Joel Conkling gave a particularly impressive presentation about Project Sunroof. Sunroof is a map of much of the U.S. that calculates the potential for solar power generation and homeowner savings if solar panels are installed. Check it out by entering your home address.
An screenshot from Project Sunroof, which estimates the solar potential on individual roofs.
A screenshot from Project Sunroof, which estimates the solar potential on individual roofs. (Project Sunroof/Google)
  • Paul Waddell, professor of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley spoke about using data-enhanced maps to improve the habitability and health of neighborhoods.
  • Startup companies, including Comfy, Valor and UtilityAPI, shared their vision for saving water or energy through innovative software platforms that automatically optimize the workings of buildings, public utilities or electrical storage batteries.
  • Tesla's Brinda Thomas spoke about how Tesla hopes to make electric grids more reliable by providing on-demand electricity storage.

Science Saves the Day? Sometimes

In her closing remarks, McNutt argued that science has entered a new phase, fueled by cheap and abundant computing power and the enormous new capacity for data storage. The potential applications are theoretically endless, she said.

She also stressed that scientific data is only useful if it's accurate and applied properly. When it is, said McNutt, science is an indispensable aid to good decision making. By way of illustration,  she offered an event at her daughter's wedding, which was "saved" by satellite-generated weather data.

When a disagreement arose between mother and daughter over whether guests should sit under a tent to protect them from rain, McNutt recalls her daughter breaking into tears.

"Here we were at a beautiful winery, not a cloud in the sky, and my daughter said, 'It's been my dream to have my guests looking out over the winery.' I said, 'You have to have them set up the tent. I know it's going to rain.'"

Her daughter protested until she pulled up doppler radar weather data on her mobile phone. It showed a nasty mass of wet clouds just about to come over the horizon.

So the chairs were set up under the tent. McNutt recalls that just as the bride walked down the aisle and the officiant said, 'Dearly beloved,' "Kaboom! Rain starts falling down! Fortunately we were all under the tent. Her wedding was saved thanks to NEXRAD [or Next-Generation Radar] data all available online and NOAA made that possible."

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McNutt's point was clear: If weather and climate research is unfunded owing to the current administration's skepticism about scientific data, the nation stands to lose a lot more than the perfect wedding picture.

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