A Non-Scientist Reports on North America’s Biggest Science Meeting

Vancouver Harbor, near the site of this year's AAAS meeting. (© CI/Photo by Kevin Conner)

When it comes to science, I am a highly interested amateur. So when I got the chance to attend the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Vancouver last weekend, I was excited to be immersed in the world of cutting-edge science from across North America.

For the unfamiliar, the AAAS meeting is where working scientists have the opportunity to share and discuss the projects and papers they have spent countless hours developing. This is a gathering where the top minds from all fields of science can showcase their work to their peers.

Topics range from climate, development, energy, environment, health, new discoveries and anything else on the edge of scientific discovery. The global media coverage this meeting attracts is likely the most of any scientific conference of its kind, and that is the unique opportunity AAAS offers scientists: the opportunity to connect with the media and share the significance of their work with people outside the scientific community.

I was there to attend the symposium “The Ocean Health Index: Diagnosis for a Crowded Blue Planet.” After an introduction by managing director of the index, Steve Katona (CI), talks were given by Karen McLeod (COMPASS), Ben Halpern and Catherine Longo (National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis), Jameal Samhouri (NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center), Heather Leslie (Brown University) and CI Chief Scientist Andrew Rosenberg. Daniel Pauly (University of British Columbia) and Larry Crowder (Stanford University) followed up with brief remarks to kick off the discussion.

In this three-hour session, the scientists presented the Ocean Health Index, an innovative and comprehensive tool that would measure the health of the oceans to assess their ability to meet current and future human needs. Presenters discussed the necessity and rationale for the index and demonstrated how it could be used by policymakers, scientists and stakeholders to examine the health of the oceans at global, national and local levels. I was impressed by these experts’ ability to make their work digestible to both an audience of scientists and to the few non-scientists in attendance — and even more impressed with the huge amount of information that they were able to compress into a three-hour symposium.

The scientists speaking about the Ocean Health Index were just one group or many experts who were in Vancouver to discuss the science behind pressing environmental issues. CI’s senior director of strategic initiatives, Emily Pidgeon, was also there, speaking with fellow scientists Boone Kaufmann from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Carolyn Ching from the VCS Association. Their symposium was entitled “Blue Carbon, Green opportunities: Innovative Solutions to Protect Coastal Ecosystems.”

In a briefing paper from this meeting, Kaufmann revealed that a one-pound bag of frozen shrimp has an ecosystem carbon footprint equivalent to almost a ton of CO2 (1,980 lbs) — one of many eye-opening figures that were shared at AAAS.

Attending this meeting put me in awe of the work and discoveries that scientists are sharing with the world. As I tried to take in all the scientific observations about the world around us, I was overwhelmed — there were too many important and interesting talks for one person to hear. And with them all, came spirited and focused discussions of their meaning and impact.

Science can become too complicated to engage the average audience, but at AAAS the organizers, presenters and scientists do a superb job of presenting the findings and, when it applies, showing the average science nerd like me how it can affect the world in which we live.

Kevin Connor is CI’s media manager.

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