There’s science and then there’s science

Not that long ago, I would have described myself as a ‘climate change agnostic’.    I say agnostic because, quite frankly, I honestly didn’t know what I believed.  I certainly do not have the academic background to objectively critique the scientific evidence and I remember too well the “Y2K Bug” scare of 15-years ago; about how airplanes would drop out to the sky on 01/01/2000, trains would grind to a halt and our civilisation as we know it would fall apart.  Everyone was convinced that the threat was truly real, scientists included.

Screenshot of Windows 2000 Server
Screenshot of Windows 2000 Server (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s face it, it’s the times that science, i.e., scientists, got it wrong that are always remembered.  We take for granted the millions of times they got it right.  So, when the conversation about climate change went from a whisper to a dull roar, and the science was not being clearly articulated, people became confused.  I mean, how can anyone predict climate change several years or decades down the line when the weather next week is a crap shoot?

Al Roker at the 81st Academy Awards
Al Roker at the 81st Academy Awards (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve done a lot of reading and now am certain of two truths:  1) our climate is changing more rapidly than anytime in our recorded history and probably at anytime in the 4.5 billion year history of this planet; and 2) I have no doubt whatsoever that humans are the cause; specifically our burning of fossil fuels.  But, if you had any smidgen of doubt of these two facts, you should watch the episode of “Cosmos a Spacetime Odyssey ” that aired on Sunday, June 1, 2014.  Neil Degrasse Tyson presented the main evidence, and debunked other alternate anti-climate change arguments, in a clear and easily-understood presentation.  And, he showed how ‘climate’ differs from ‘weather’, explaining how the former is completely predictable while the latter is virtually unpredictable.

Neil deGrasse Tyson 12
Neil deGrasse Tyson 12 (Photo credit: Greyhawk68)

So, if climate change is not only real and happening now as you read this, why is it that out of all the possible scientific facts that we currently know that could be the subject of trumped-up controversies, e.g., is gravity real or does the earth suck?, why have the climate change deniers chosen to focus on this scientific fact?  The simple answer is: nobody makes any money from denying gravity exists, or from creationism, or most other wacky, new age ideas.  But a relatively small, but powerful, group of people make a boatload of money from extracting fossil fuels from the earth and selling these to a public who is convinced there is no other way to fuel our energy extravagant lives.  This in spite of the fact that we are bathed in the obvious alternative up to 15-hours a day: sunlight.  We’ve known we can replace fossil fuels with solar energy for over 100 years, yet the efforts to move forward have been small and piecemeal.   The sun also drives the wind and that is another benefit of solar energy.  Both solar and wind energy are *free* and there is literally an endless supply, at least as far as humans are concerned.  There is no doubt they will outlast our species but if we do not make significant changes in how we source the energy we need, we won’t be around nearly as long as we think.

Global mean surface temperature difference fro...
Global mean surface temperature difference from the average for 1880–2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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How relevant is my research?

Suzzallo Library, one of the great libraries o...
Suzzallo Library,  Seattle, Washington, USA (Photo credit: Wonderlane)

In 2006, it was estimated by Bjork et al. that there were about 1.35 million papers published in a little over 23,000 peer-reviewed journals (Bo-Christer Björk, Annikki Roos, Mari Lauri.  2008.  Global annual volume of peer-reviewed scholarly articles and the share available via different Open Access options.  http://ocs.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/Elpub/2008/paper/view/689/0).    Given historical growth rates of about 2.5% per annum, we can surmise that this year, 2014, there will be just over 1.6 million papers published via peer review.

This raises several very interesting (and potentially disturbing) questions:

  • What is the quality of such a large number of papers being published (that’s one paper submitted every 20 s, assuming all manuscripts are published)?
  • How well are peer reviewers able to adequately review these submissions?
  • And perhaps most importantly, how can I be heard above the ‘din’ of other researchers trying to be heard?
IMG_6407
Photo credit: Paul Appleton)

Of course, there will not be 1.6 million articles published in your discipline in 2014, so the chances of you being heard are considerably better.  But perhaps the larger question this raises is this: just how relevant are my research questions?

The answer to this may include several different considerations.  First, to what extent are your efforts in research self-motivated, i.e., are you primarily driven by your own thirst for knowledge? Or, will your contract, or bid for tenure, be ultimately affected by the quantity, and quality of course, of this year’s research output?

Second, assuming that your motivations are intrinsically noble and not self-serving, you have to determine how ‘important’ are your research questions, i.e., has someone else already answered some (all) of them?  Are they, in reality, self-evident?  Back in the 1960s, when sport biomechanics research was well and truly in its infancy, it was possible to publish research on running that concluded that one’s running speed was a function of both increasing stride length and increasing stride frequency – hardly earth-shaking by today’s standards (the equivalent of the academic ‘duh’).

Concert Crowd (Osheaga 2009) - 30000 waiting f...
(Photo credit: Anirudh Koul)

Finally, while there will be probably several hundred thousand researchers publishing their findings in 2014, I believe that many of these publications will be, at best, one paper in perhaps a series of two or three papers within the same theme, with many being the only paper from the lead author in that particular topic area.   One of the best ways to truly have an impact and stand a little above the crowd in whatever discipline you may be, is to develop a program of research, rather than just a series of research projects loosely falling under a theme.  For me personally, although my current position, like most of my previous ones, places expectations on me that I will participate, encourage, support, etc. research across a wide range of topics and disciplines, I have been developing a theme to my own research.  This program began, to a certain back in my doctorate at the University of Waterloo, under the late Professor David Winter, where I started learning about gait and gait analysis.  It was enhanced, in the mid-1990s, again under the influence of Prof. Winter, with explorations into balance and posture.  Today, I would describe my research program as a study of the mechanisms and effects on the sensory-motor coordination of the human dynamic stability system during movement where the human can be modelled as an inverted pendulum.  This system can be tested under a wide range of conditions, including sit-to-stand, quiet standing, walking, running, stair-climbing, and similar activities.  Admittedly, this is quite a broad theme, but it does have well-defined boundaries.  It clearly has wide implications for inter- and multi-disciplinary collaborations, and findings would be of interest to multiple journals.

Balancing Rocks
Balancing Rocks (Photo credit: Viewminder)

Ultimately, I suppose, the answer to my question, how relevant is my research?, is not something I myself can answer.  Obviously, any answer I give will be at best biased and at worst self-depreciating.  Time will tell whether I will be remembered for anything I may have published or presented.  But, I know that when I leave academia, I will be able to look back and take pride in what I have done in research.  And, maybe that is all any of us can hope for!

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