Not much sense of the Pacific

June 17, 2011

While preparing to cover this conference I came across a reference to a report in the PSA’s Pacific Science journal called ‘Developing a sense of the Pacific’ about an early Pacific Science Congress in 1923.

As I left the conference yesterday, my conclusion was that I hadn’t really got a handle on what it means to be a ‘Pacific scientist’. I wonder whether the attendees had either.

Perhaps my definition of Pacific science differs a little from that of the Pacific Science Association.  I would have liked to have seen more representation of the Pacific Island states (while there was money set aside for travel grants for developing country scientists, a Fijian researcher told me that the costs of her attendance at the conference had been significant).

But however you define it, I felt that I didn’t get my fill of Pacific science. It’s understandable that a conference on the topic of global change would involve a global rather than regional look at the issues, but I would have liked to have heard more about the impacts of biodiversity loss, climate change and food insecurity in the region, and what Pacific scientists can do.

The Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre and Petronas Towers

The convention centre and the Petronas towers - but where was business? (Credit: Flickr/mollyali)

And for a conference that took place in the shadows of the monuments to business that are the Petronas towers, there was little representation from the private sector. There was much talk of the need to reach out to the media and business but – as far as I could tell – I was the only journalist there and I met just one representative from business.

Researchers can talk to each other about the necessity of working with other stakeholders as much as they like, but if they don’t actually do so, such talk is meaningless. And as I mentioned in a previous post, there was little evidence of lively interdisciplinary debate.

I would have liked to have seen panel discussions where researchers, business representatives and policymakers had debated a topic – surely a good way of opening dialogue and taking up Zakri Abdul Hamid’s challenge for scientists to get more involved in policy.

I’ve said before that the conference is a great opportunity for Pacific scientists to get together, let’s hope that next time they invite some other stakeholders too.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

If boulders could talk

June 14, 2011

“Where do you come from?” is a common question between delegates at conferences, and the 22nd Pacific Science Congress is no different. But it’s a not a question that you would usually associate with boulders.

Boulder moved by tsunami in Samoa

Where are you from? (Credit: US Geological Survey)

Coastal boulders move only when there is a major event such as a tsunami or storm surge, so, if you know their size and density, you can work out how much energy is required, and therefore the power of the tsunami or storm surge, to unceremoniously move it.

That’s why, as Adam Switzer, from the tectonics group at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, explained in a session this afternoon, researchers need to know where boulders washing up on coastlines or being hurled further inland have come from.

But researchers studying an event after the fact rarely know boulders’ original positions. Enter GeoBoulder, an online portal that aims to collate information about coastal boulders all over the world – and make it available for everyone.

The idea is that users will use a simple form to upload information about boulders in their area or that they have studied. This will help researchers study events in the immediate aftermath, as well building up a picture of how boulders move during tsunamis and storms that can be used to reconstruct past events.

But how does this help those living in coastal areas vulnerable to tsunamis and storms? Non-research applications haven’t been a priority, said Switzer but he can envisage uses for local authorities aiming to mitigate disasters.

For example, boulder movement can indicate how far waves might move inland.

“If you’ve got a seawall constructed from the same kind of boulders that were moved by a tsunami up the coast, you could use it to work out how far those boulders could travel in a similar event,” he said.

The GeoBoulder website will become active later in 2011.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

Sustainability science: Pacific Science Congress 2011

June 13, 2011

Credit: PSC

Researchers from all over the Pacific region are gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this week (14–17th June) for the 22nd Pacific Science Congress.

Held every four years, Pacific Science Congresses, organised by the Pacific Science Association (PSA) are an opportunity for scientists in the region to get together — particularly important for those that live and work on in small Pacific island states.

The PSA aims to facilitate science that addresses the main problems in the region and the ambitious theme for this congress is “Asia Pacific Science in the 21st Century: Meeting the Challenges of Global Change”. In his welcome message on the congress website, PSA president Congbin Fu boils this down to ‘sustainability science’ — figuring out how the needs of the present can be met without compromising the future.

PSA defines the Pacific region as “all countries and islands within and bordering the Pacific Ocean”, but sharing an ocean doesn’t mean sharing sensibilities, so hopefully there will be a lot of lively debate about how the countries of the Pacific region can meet 21st century challenges, from the changing climate and deteriorating ecosystems to emerging infectious diseases. And with a membership diverse enough to include the United States and the small Pacific islands states, differences of opinion are bound to crop up.

Through this discussion should come new collaborations, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for new connections in the Pacific science network, both between different countries but also different disciplines — vital in a field “defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs”.

The organisers have set themselves no mean challenge — we’ll see over the next few days how successful they are.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

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