ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Thomas Peterson

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today I chat with Thomas Peterson, research meteorologist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

After obtaining a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, my wife and I moved to a small town not far from there where I worked in a hospital as a respiratory therapy technician. Ten years later after being laid off from the hospital and working a variety of odd jobs such as picking apples and writing a book published by Prentice Hall, we moved to Fort Collins, CO where I enrolled in Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University obtaining M.S. in cloud microphysics and Ph.D. in satellite climatology. While I thought satellite data were the wave of the future, my career turned out focusing on historical weather station data. Currently I am the Chief Scientist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I started out my professional career leading the effort to create NOAA’s century-scale land surface climate data set which is now used by NOAA and NASA to help monitor global temperatures. My early years were spent focusing on science on the data, such as how to detect artificial biases in the data and remove them. Later I moved on to science with the data, such as assessing how the global climate has changed. The expertise I gained during this process got me invited to participate in a variety of fascinating international activities, such as Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

While I still have some time to conduct original research, I now spend most of my time consulting and coordinating on a wide variety of projects. In February 2010, I was elected President of the World Meteorological Organization’s Commission for Climatology which means I also lead the activities of over 200 volunteers from 54 countries. An example of this work that really excites me is holding regional climate change workshops where we bring in a few world-recognized experts along with scientists from about a dozen neighboring countries, guide the local scientists in applying quality control to the daily data they brought and then teach them how to assess how extremes are changing in their countries. These workshops help us both understand global climate change better and educate scientists around the world.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

My professional grandfather (my Ph.D. advisor’s Ph.D. advisor) famously said that to make sense out of satellite data was like trying “to get a drink from a fire hydrant.” That same analogy can be applied to making sense out of information that is available on the web. Rather than adding my few few drops to this deluge, I mainly communicate the old fashioned way by giving talks to lay and professional audiences.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you intergrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I admire those who have time and energy to blog sound scientific information and respond to the comments they get. It seems a lot like teaching. I once considered a career in teaching but determined I had enough patience to be a good teacher or to be a good father, but not both. Now I don’t think I have enough patience for either. But as the head of an organization that depends on the dedication of its hundreds of volunteers, I realize the importance of keeping the volunteers engaged. Towards that end, the Vice President of the Commission for Climatology, Serhat Sensoy from Turkey, has created a Facebook page for us. Under Serhat’s tutelage, I am slowly moving into the use of social media to keep a community informed.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favorites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

My earliest memories of blogs were those that attacked me and my work. It is a strange experience to, for example, dedicate years of your life improving the availability of global climate data and then be accused of deleting data. As a counterpoint, though, I do appreciate several humorous science blog posts that both accurately address the science and at times provide insights that resonate with my experiences all too well, such as “1) Any errors, however inconsequential, will be taken Very Seriously and accusations of fraud will be made. 2) If you adjust the raw data we will accuse you of fraudulently fiddling the figures whilst cooking the books. 3) If you don’t adjust the raw data we will accuse you of fraudulently failing to account for station biases and UHI [Urban Heat Island]. 4) . . .”

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

The interactions. While the talks were fascinating, the questions and answers were more so.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, or to your science reading and writing?

During my talk at ScienceOnline2011, I mentioned that after speaking before a subcommittee of Congress, a Congressman took us aside and told us that climate scientists are in a knife fight and we need to fight back. Our response to him was yes but the way scientists fight back is to do more sound peer-reviewed science. One person at the meeting tweeted a brief reference to me saying ”knife fight” and soon a blogger who was not at ScienceOnline2011 was taking me to task for my attitude and for using such harsh rhetoric. As a result of experiences like that, I’ve noticed in myself as well as colleagues an increasing concern for structuring sentence fragments in papers so they would be less susceptible to being taken out of context and misinterpreted. Unfortunately, this hampers effective communication complex concepts.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope you can come again next year.


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