A Message from the CMOS President, Spring 2021
– By Marek Stastna –
As I sit down to write my comments, it seems that the Southern Ontario spring has finally sprung. Outside of my bedroom/office windows, the grass is green, the odd tree has buds and bird song can be heard from very early in the morning. It is true that yesterday I could have looked out at wet snow, but this was short-lived, and every walk I take with my loyal spaniel seems to be a stop and go challenge of the 1000 smells of an awakening world. The dog is, after 12 solid months of having all his humans at home, thoroughly spoiled; a happy exception in a list of pandemic problems for which the adjective “happy” is rarely accurate.
This April also marks my third term of teaching online. What started out as an interesting challenge in late March of 2020 has become a slog of multi-tasking: I create content, I schedule meet times for students strewn across a half dozen time zones, I listen when students need to talk, and increasingly I struggle for evaluation options. I am lucky to teach a sizeable class divided between upper-year physics and mathematics students. Many of these students are struggling with the “what do I do after undergraduate studies” question, and for many, the corner of the research universe I inhabit is terra incognita. This year, I was able to leverage the online nature of the CMOS Speaker Tour for a small reaction piece assignment. I asked these students to react to any aspect of Prof. Fennel’s talk and develop their reaction into a half-page mini-essay. Quite a few of the students hit upon the same science themes, and if you missed the Speaker Tour yourself, the YouTube recording is the best source for developing your own opinions. But it was the commonality of theme in the students’ reactions that I want to expand on here. Put quite simply, the challenges of under-sampling of the ocean were completely new to the students. In fact, not only was the topic new, the students as a group were shocked that under-sampling isn’t being actively fixed. At first, I was quite shocked myself since there isn’t a week during which the vagaries of cobbling together a research program on limited funding don’t occupy at least some of my time. However, on subsequent reflection, it makes good sense that a younger generation who have essentially grown up with the upward spiralling urgency of climate change would expect better.
What stops us from doing better? Much of this younger generation has the energy to fix these challenges and are passionate about finding solutions to climate change but in hierarchies such as those that distribute research funding young people are frozen out of the decision making structures entirely. Moreover, there is a strange perversion in that the urgency of climate change often works against the funding of basic science related to climate. Put simply, Canada’s funding agencies have a far clearer track record in demanding social science involvement in very large grants (in itself, quite a good thing) than they do in ensuring that our basic data gathering ability grows at a rate commensurate to our GDP. There is the secondary issue of making sure that when data is gathered, it is openly available to the community. On this front, there is recent progress, but here again, we trail well behind our major international collaborators and competitors.
I believe quite strongly that we can have both climate impacts research and an increase in the gathering of vital data from atmosphere, ocean, land and cryosphere. I also believe relatively simple technologies exist for sharing this data in an open, and equitable way. To round this corner, however, we need clear, two-way communication with our funding agencies, something that is shockingly absent at the moment. The COVID-pandemic will create a significant disruption in many data sets, and this is the right time for a national conversation on how we ensure that the core strength of the sciences within the CMOS mandate is enhanced going forward. I hope in a few years when I again ask for a thought paper from students on the topic of data sampling, I will be surprised at how much better our data volume and data access got after 2021.
Marek Stastna is presently serving as the President of CMOS. Marek studies internal waves in the coastal ocean using a combination simulations and mathematical modelling. He has a broad set of interests in software development and the applications of modern computational mathematics in oceanography and climate science. He is a professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of Waterloo.