Why Science Matters To Our Coasts

Author:  Kate Gooderham
Years – even decades – of experience has proven that sound science is essential for sound coastal management and protection. So any efforts to undercut coastal science, either by cuts in funding or a general dismissive attitude – is cause for concern. Early calls for drastic budget cuts in federal spending for crucial coastal agencies warrant the attention of coastal communities, both to support essential coastal science services at the federal level and to better understand the vital role some of these otherwise obscure agencies and programs play in protecting our coast.

Take the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which was targeted for a 17% cut in the initial budget blueprint. NOAA not only conducts vital coastal research directly (through its Sea Grant programs as well as other initiatives), but it also funds the work of others in building coastal science efforts.

Oh, and the agency also is home for the National Hurricane Center and its attendant forecasters and satellites… which certainly should get the attention of any coastal residents who’s every spent some time in the storm track bulls eye.

In case anyone is unclear why science matters to our coast, let us hit the high points:

  • Sound science is the basis for sound policy. By working with factual and reproducible outcomes based on rigorous scientific research, officials can craft policies based on facts rather than opinions. Since science also explores the implications of a hypothesis, policies based on sound science stand a better chance of resulting in predicted benefits – and avoiding unintended impacts.
  • Science seeks solutions, a better outcome for our coasts. If you start with an observed problem to search for a remedy, and pursue methods that can consistently return a predictable outcome, you have a much better chance of arriving at a hypothesis that can stand up over time – just what our coasts need.
  • Good science takes time – and money. Not a lot of money, necessarily, but enough money paired with enough time… which means inconsistent funding can slow or even stop scientific advances. Scientific advances are often cumulative and institutional, best achieved when research can build upon that which has already been discerned and confirmed to achieve something amazingly new.
  • Public science equals public benefit (and private too). Federal funding for scientific work usually helps keep those results in the public arena, where others can benefit from findings – in both the public and private sector. Much private innovation is inspired by public science and research, making it a very wise investment.
  • Data is the building block of research, and federal agencies are often the biggest and best collectors of data around. This kind of collection drives academic and private research, as well as public science… and losing that capacity even slightly has a big impact.
  • We can’t forget the basics. For all the innovation and modelling that fuels coastal science, there is still basic science needed to help better manage our coasts. By funding basic data and on-the-ground research, federal funding can make already good coastal science even better by helping coastal professionals better understand the rudimentary physics that craft our coasts.
  • Opinions are great for arguments, but scientific facts are crucial for solutions. Unfortunately, right now much of the federal debate is fuelled by opinions – entertaining theater, perhaps, but of little use in solving our more pressing problems. If coastal communities are concerned about sea level change, meteorological trends, the changing composition of our oceans and estuaries – hey, even just the track and strength of an approaching storm – they will want data, not dictums, and facts over feelings.
    It is early in the federal budgeting process, and Congress does have the final say over what an administration proposes in spending. However, when it comes to support for sound science, coastal communities don’t have the luxury of complacency in hopes that Members of Congress will sort all this out to their satisfaction.

When the noise coming out of Washington is more yelling than debating, and when things that we used to take for granted are fast becoming the exception rather than the norm, the folks back home have an obligation to speak out in defense of good coastal science and policy. After all, when a coastal crisis strikes, it’s the residents and businesses in that coastal community who bear the brunt of how good (or how bad) that science and those policies really are.