June 12, 2018 at 07:13PM
via the Guardian
When the volume of scientific information continues to grow exponentially, so does the difficulty of maintaining a clear overview. Tracking and reading all of the relevant publications on climate change has become impossible, as more emerge in a single year than was previously the case over an entire, or multiple, assessment periods. Even if there was no further growth over the next three years, the relevant literature to be reviewed for the IPCC’s sixth assessment will be somewhere between 270,000 and 330,000 publications. This is larger than the entire climate change literature before 2014. So conducting a scientific assessment is increasingly a “big literature” challenge.
Managing the literature is vital if we are to ensure the credibility of the IPCC in future. We need to let computers help us to read and digest information we can no longer comprehend on our own.
The IPCC needs to lead the way towards a new era of computer-assisted assessments. Machine learning and natural language processing must be used to understand and synthesise a huge volume of relevant material. New categories of experts – from scientometrics, computational linguistics and data analytics – will need to be involved.
Decision-makers also want knowledge from the research community that can contribute to meaningful solutions. But systematic progress in learning about climate solutions has been limited within the IPCC to date. The quest to understand what policies work well – and under what conditions – remains in its infancy.
This problem is particularly acute in the social sciences. Some argue that social science evidence doesn’t lend itself to generalization. But a bigger challenge is the lack of appreciation for research synthesis as a scientific endeavor in its own right. The dearth of synthetic evidence in policy and social science literatures makes it impossible for the IPCC to aggregate the knowledge that is diffused across thousands of individual studies.
Changing the culture of the social sciences to better support scientific assessment and accumulated learning about climate change solutions won’t be easy. While the IPCC can act as a catalyst, any shift will also require more capacity in synthesis methods, and support for collaborative networks. Research funders and governments also need to direct more funding towards research synthesis.
The good news is that there are models for such a transformation. Researchers in medicine, education and psychology have been forced to grapple with similar challenges over recent decades –and systematic research synthesis is now well established within these fields as a basis for policy advice.
The misleading impression that any single scientific study has the same standing as all others is toxic for a culture of evidence-informed policymaking. By elevating research synthesis to the gold standard of scientific policy advice – and using big data and machine learning techniques to deliver it – we can strengthen the IPCC and provide a stronger response to the Trumps and Erdogans of this world, who want to cherry-pick evidence to suit their own agendas.
Jan Minx is head of the working group on applied sustainability science at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) in Berlin, and professor of climate change and public policy at the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds.
Since you’re here …
… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.
I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information.
If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps fund it, our future would be much more secure. For as little as $1, you can support the Guardian – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.