At the AGU meeting, inspiration and camaraderie

At about 8:30 am on the morning of December 4th, in the hallway by the elevator on the ninth floor of a hotel in downtown San Francisco, I met a nicely dressed and impatient woman.

“I’ve let two elevator cars go by,” she said, frustrated. “They were packed full of people wearing name tags around their necks.”

“Scientists,” I explained. “There are twenty thousand of them at a meeting down the street.”

“Oh,” she said. She didn’t say another word for the next ten minutes. I think she must have been imagining what twenty thousand scientists in nametags might look like.

If you’ve been to the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, known simply as AGU, you don’t have to imagine what it looks like. Compared to the Ecological Society of America meeting, you get a lot of the same jokes about attendees in outdoorsy footwear, and four times the attendance.

Ecological Society of America

I don’t think we ever announced it here but the final registration number for Portland was 4996. Onward to Minneapolis!

AGU hosts thousands of talks and sessions on a vast expanse of topics within Earth and space science. For a ravenous, omnivorous science consumer like myself, it’s a smorgasbord surpassed by only AAAS. Thanks to the collective efforts of many AGU attendees and staff, I was able to dine richly on AGU science even when I wasn’t attending sessions. I have a belated Thanksgiving grace to say for the people who helped make the science of AGU more accessible to people who aren’t in the thick of it all the time. I am thankful for ePosters. I am thankful for scientists who leave copies of their posters at their poster for people to take when they’re not around, and for presenters who share their slides and notes after the talk. I am thankful for live streams and on-demand video from public sessions and talks. For example, you can watch Ira Flatow’s Presidential Forum talk about making science user friendly here.

Most of all, I am thankful for scientists and science journalists who tweet. It’s still kind of magical to me that I’ve been in online conversations with some of the great greats of science journalism and science. But every scientist on Twitter, famous or not, can be an important source of well-informed conversation. Reading the live stream of thoughtful scientist and science journalist commentary on AGU sessions I couldn’t attend was like hearing a baseball game announcer on the radio. It was often just as meaningful and in some cases actually preferable to being there myself. Liz Neeley from COMPASS highlights examples of some of the most valuable uses of a conference tweet stream in a great blog post from AGU.

The movement of so much conversation and science into online and electronic form has completely changed the way I approach scientific meetings. I am less worried about missing crucial information and more able to focus on the one thing that meetings are best for: in-person camaraderie and connection. This year at AGU, I chose to spend what little in-person science time I had on sessions that had to do with data reuse, a pressing topic at NEON. The people at the sessions were wrestling with many of the same key challenges I wrestle with, and I wanted to compare notes, commiserate and connect names to faces.

I didn't get to talk to the authors of this poster about data reuse in the classroom, but I did get a copy of the poster from this festive stocking.

I didn’t get to talk to the authors of this poster about data reuse in the classroom, but I did get a copy of the poster from this festive stocking.

One of the poster sessions I attended was about assessing the socioeconomic benefits of geospatial information. As a science communicator I am constantly trying to think of better ways to describe some of the services that the ecosystem of science provides for the rest of humanity. One argument for quantifying ecosystem services is that in a world of policy based on cost-benefit analysis, things that aren’t quantified are ignored in the calculation. NEON’s role as a data provider necessitates that we evaluate the impact of our data on science and society, and the best way to do that is a continuing topic of discussion between us and our future users. As a scientist deciding whether or not to invest time and effort in data sharing, you might have a personal interest in knowing exactly how useful your data might be to the world. You might also welcome the additional ammunition in the increasingly tense battle for public funding for science.

The NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center is, like NEON, in the business of giving away data, and some SEDAC folks (Robert Downs and Robert Chen for sure) share with NEON folks a common interest in the subject of valuing data. Downs and Chen described on their AGU poster an attempt to characterize the scientific and societal value of SEDAC data by analyzing citations of the data in scientific literature.

Downs spoke at length with me about the challenges of what he described as a spare-time project. He and Chen had to get pretty creative just to track down and categorize citations in peer-reviewed scientific books and journals. Difference science disciplines often have their own conventions for crediting other authors and sources of information, and no conventions at all for citing data. Downs pointed out that non-scientific uses of SEDAC data, such as in policy and education, are a totally different animal that they haven’t quite tackled yet. There’s even less consistency in citing scientific data sets outside of scientific literature. But policy and education uses are arguably the most important currency in bridging the gap between science and the public – which was itself a major topic at this year’s AGU.

I missed catching this session in person, but via Twitter I caught live highlights from many people who were there.

I had many other stimulating conversations with other AGU attendees, but I won’t detail them all here. Suffice it to say that I came away with the feeling that now is an exceptionally wonderful time to be sitting at the interface between science and society, and to be working at the interface between NEON and its own scientific and nonscientific users. There is so much to be built and improved in a rapidly changing environment that the task of connecting a science project to an enormous science, education and policy community sometimes seems overwhelming, ill-defined and broad. But at a time when scientists, educators and communicators are increasingly leaping the gaps between disciplines and even geographic locations, there have never been more numerous and more accessible sources of inspiration and support.