The purpose of our first Extremes Workshop, May 6

by | May 4, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

This coming Wednesday, May 6, we will have our first science workshop for the Extremes Initiative. We’re calling it Extreme Weather and Climate: Hazards, Impacts, Actions, and it will be an intense day of science talks. We’ve left time in the program for discussion as well. So although the crowd looks like it will be substantial – we had over 150 registered last I checked – I hope this will be a milestone in the broader University-wide dialogue that the Initiative is aiming to foster.

If you look over the program, you’ll see that there is no tight coherence to it, beyond the very broad theme that the title implies. This is intentional. The idea here is to bring to bear the full broad distribution of interests and disciplines (and schools, departments, and other University units) that Columbia has which relate to extreme weather and climate. With such a broad scope, it didn’t make sense to try to impose some kind of order a priori. The connections will emerge.

One goal of the workshop, indeed, is just to demonstrate how wide the intellectual footprint our theme has within the University. Besides climate science, we have Engineering, Law, Public Health, Energy Policy, and Architecture – and we didn’t include everything we could have, by any means. We just had to limit it to what we could fit in one day!

Second, though, and more importantly, we want to foster broad interdisciplinary discussions. We hope these will persist beyond Wednesday.

It’s my experience in recent years that we – I speak here most directly for myself and a few colleagues, but I believe this applies to many more – have increasing motivation to do interdisciplinary research projects. Our ability to do them is limited, though, by the fact that we don’t know our colleagues in the relevant “other” disciplines well enough. Or maybe we know them personally, but don’t really understand what they do well enough to be able to design an effective collaboration quickly – which is often what we end up doing, for example, under the pressure of a call for proposals. We need to go beyond this kind of deadline-driven activity if we really want the whole to exceed the sum of the parts.

Assessing and responding to the risks posed to society by extreme weather and climate is a complex undertaking. Columbia has prodigious intellectual resources that are relevant to this challenge, but to make the most of them, we need to put the pieces together via sustained discussion over time. This is easier said than done, given how busy everyone is. My hope is that the Initiative can help, by facilitating conversations that would not happen otherwise. Our kickoff event two months ago was an announcement that we would be doing this soon. The workshop this week is our first large-scale attempt at actually doing it.


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