It turns out that there were almost 14,000 attendees at AGU last week, which apparently makes it the largest Earth Science meeting ever held. To be sure, not all of that is climate related – there was lots of seismology, planetary and more theoretical/small-scale stuff, but a lot of it was. At most times there were at least half a dozen sessions that I would have been interested to attend – and they were often discussing overlapping themes.
It used to be that one could go to a meeting like this and get a wide overview of the work being done much more efficiently (and speedily) than reading the journals. However, that is clearly no longer true. And of course, we can’t keep up with all the relevant journal articies in the wider field either, and so how do scientists manage?
Basically, it’s tough! Everyone in the field generally decides that there are some technical areas that aren’t worth (for them) getting too deep into, and so they tend to ignore the technical literature on that topic. For myself, I draw the line at carbon isotope studies and anything older than the last glacial period in paleoclimate (with a couple of exceptions). Review papers and high profile articles are useful and read more often, but even they can be too technical if they’re not right in your field. But, given how multi-disciplinary climate science is, there are always going to be technical issues outside your field that you are going to need to know more about.
To deal with that, most sucessful scientists develop networks of ‘trusted’ sources – people you know and get along with, but who are specialists in different areas (dynamics, radiation, land surfaces, aerosols, deep time paleo etc.) and who you can just call up and ask for the bottom line. They can point you directly to the key paper related to your question or give you the unofficial ‘buzz’ about some new high profile paper. You don’t expect to agree with them all the time – we scientists are quite naturally contrarian (in a good way!) – but this is generally an efficient short cut to understanding what the most serious/interesting issues are.
It is, of course, at meetings like AGU that these networks become established and are nutured, and which is why, despite the difficulties, people come back year after year (though personally, I only go every few years). At this year’s meeting we got a lot of feedback about RealClimate, and a surprisingly common theme was the extent to which we are becoming part of these networks. That is both gratifying and slightly worrying – such responsibility!
However, there are dangers in having everyone tuned in to the same ‘network’ – it can lead to a certain rigidity in what is being thought important. As an illustration, when going between meetings in Europe and the US, you tend to see that ‘issues’ and ‘buzz’ are often completely distinct on either side of the Atlantic – a function of mostly non-intersecting networks. Fortunately, there are frequent contacts across the divide which leads to substantial cross-fertilization of ideas. This is something we’d like to do more to reflect and guest contributions are a big help there. So if there are any issues you scientist types want to get off your chests, feel free to send your pieces and ideas along. Thanks for all the support.