Usable science

Mickey Glantz describes a series of workshops intended to advance the application of science for the benefit of society.

'Usable science' refers to efforts to identify and apply scientific research findings for societal benefit and to make science more relevant to the process of decision making in human affairs.

The scientific community in many parts of the world is undertaking research to add to the existing body of knowledge. However, there is a strong need to use the knowledge that already exists. Scientific information needs to be put into the service of societies more quickly and to a greater extent than has been the case in the past. Scientists are usually rewarded for their new discoveries and less so for their new applications of 'old' ones.

The Environmental and Societal Impacts Group at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, USA, with support from the UN Environment Programme and the US AID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, held a Usable Science workshop in 1992. This was the first of a series of such workshops, and it focused on food security, early warning and El Niño.

El Niño, the occasional warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific, has been blamed, rightly or wrongly, for droughts and floods around the globe. This workshop brought together people from a variety of research application interests concerned with food security, famine early warning systems, climate impact assessment (especially drought) and El Niño forecasting.

One of the overriding goals was to identify possible uses of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)-related information in early warning systems designed specifically to identify impending severe food shortages.

In addition to participants whose concerns focused on Africa, participants also came from Uzbekistan, Nigeria, Haiti, Southeast Asia and Australia.

Australian participants provided many examples of the use of ENSO information by farmers and the results of that use. Haiti is in the midst of food crises and is seeking to identify the best approaches to food security. Nigeria has food shortages and is not yet at the famine stage but is seeking information on the value of an early warning system for food security purposes. Uzbekistan is not a food-short country but may need to establish early warning systems related to environmental and health changes.

Comments made throughout the meeting centred on the following recurrent issues: problems related to definition of early warning, food security and famine; the value of early warning systems; creeping environmental phenomena and climate change; baseline vulnerability assessments; politics and conflict zones; the need to combine early warning with response and development issues; national capacity building; grassroots involvement; and the role of the media.

Prospects for an International Research Institute for Climate Prediction and the 1991-92 drought encompassed by the Southern African Development Community were also discussed.

In early November 1994, Usable Science II focused on the use of ENSO information in North America bringing together climate impacts researchers, weather-sensitive industry and agriculture representatives, physical scientists concerned with ENSO research, media specialists and policy makers. The goal was to foster interaction between the producers of ENSO-related scientific information and the potential users of that information.

Both workshops have pointed out the urgent need to bridge the community that is involved in scientific research with the potential users of that information. The emphasis has been on the use of information concerning climate-related environmental change. Because information exists does not mean it will be put to use for the benefit of society. The workshops underscored the need for both scientists and users to share what it is in the way of information and assistance that they need and expect from each other. Such sharing will enhance the value to society of climate-related scientific research.

A third workshop is scheduled to be held in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in late October 1995. It will bring together regional experts on climate impacts, early warning systems, public safety, environmental training courses and ENSO forecasting. Supported by the UN Environment Programme, the meeting will focus on extreme meteorological events in the region (droughts, floods, cyclones and typhoons), their impacts on natural resources and society, and the use of ENSO teleconnections to forecast these events.

The fourth workshop in the series will be held in early 1996 in Cape Town, South Africa.

Further information

Michael H Glantz, ESIG, National Center for Atmospheric Research, PO Box 3000, Boulder, Colorado 80307-3000, USA. Fax: 1-303-4978125. Email:

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