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Taming microbial ice nucleators: On the rough road from academic research toward policy and action


Working for a research institute that has recently taken on the moto « Science & Impact » has heightened my interest in how academic research is transformed into tools and behaviors that are adopted by society. I see this as bona fide impact, a natural extension beyond the numerical “impact factors” whose relevance is restricted to the sphere of academia.

Think about three seemingly unlikely Nobel Peace Prizes: one in 1970 for the plant pathologist and breeder Norman Borlaug who is considered to be the founder of agriculture’s Green Revolution, one in 2004 for the biologist Wangari Maathai who founded the Green Belt Movement, and one in 2007 for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These prizes recognized individuals and organizations who put science and its results on a course of action that has helped society be sustainably peaceful. Yet, for many scientists those courses of action seem mysterious or elusive in spite of their importance for resolving world class problems such as feeding the growing human population, halting and reversing deforestation, or slowing emissions of greenhouse gases.

In the year leading up to the recent COP21  and for a few days during the weeks of this convention in Paris, I participated in activities that are helping to advance the concept that microorganisms play a role in land-atmosphere interactions and to push it into a trajectory where it could, one day, contribute to policy and action for adapting to and/or mitigating climate change.  I felt very lucky to see this first hand, so I would like to share what I witnessed and learned – and in the hopes of igniting the same passion in some of you.

From the perspective of climate change policy, plants are basically just a sink for CO2. Although the many other services of plants for the environment are known, the policies and actions that have issued from the climate change convention have focused on CO2. In the past few years numerous organizations (NGOs, companies, foundations, etc.) have intensified their lobbying for the recognition of these additional ecosystem services of plants – and of forests in particular – in policies for adaptation to and mitigation of climate change.  In 2010, I was invited to be on the scientific advisory board of several such organizations. One of them, WeForest, is particularly intent on influencing policy at national and international levels concerning reforestation and forest management. Recently they wanted to bring scientists and policy makers together to promote a range of issues.  However, I was unsure about the consensus in the scientific community concerning the importance of other ecosystem services of plants relative to climate change.  So in early 2015 following my advice, we launched the organization of a meeting to identify the consensus.

Our 3-day conference on Why Do Forests Matter for Water and Climate? Strategies for Sustainability took place in Leuven, Belgium in June 2015. In an effort to initiate the visibility of the meeting, it was announced as a partner event of the Common Future Under Climate Change conference held in Paris in July, one of the many events leading up to the COP21.  I don’t know how our meeting obtained this recognition, but it is likely due to the other organizers whom Victoria Gutierrez, WeForest’s chief science officer, had invited to work with me (Bruno Locatelli and David Ellison).  The conference format we chose was the fruit of hours of discussions among the four of us to overcome our disciplinary obstacles (social sciences vs. environmental sciences vs. political sciences vs. life sciences), to clearly establish the objectives of the meeting and to identify the people to invite.  The main objectives we agreed upon were:

  • To elucidate the current state of knowledge on the importance of forests for water and other Earth system processes and
  • To outline a policy brief on how this role of forests is or could be addressed in existing and potential policy frameworks

The 30 people we invited to attend the meeting represented institutes for research and/or development (CIRAD, CIFOR, INRA, ICRAF); universities in North America, Europe and Australia; the private sector and policy makers (FAO). They also represented a multitude of disciplines in the Life Sciences, Earth Sciences, Math and Physics, Social Sciences and Law. By the end of the 3 day meeting we had put together the skeleton of a white paper that has since blossomed into an in-depth manuscript soon be submitted for publication in a scientific journal.  By establishing the content of this manuscript we defined our consensus on the current state of knowledge.  Writing such papers is what we scientists know how to do. But the format and writing style are a far cry from a brief policy outline that can be grasped by policy makers. Importantly, in scientific papers we are long-winded, we hedge, we are vague and we rarely commit to definitive statements about “truths” because our task is to reject hypotheses – and there are always a slew of them still awaiting a test.

So in the months following the meeting in Leuven, Victoria Gutierrez of WeForest worked with incredible persistence to bring life to a policy brief and to obtain a venue to present it. The activities that were to take place around the upcoming COP21 meeting in Dec. 2015 would provide many options for a venue – in theory.  But most of them were inaccessible due to the cost for participating (over $20000 for a stand in a Pavilion at the Global Landscape Forum, for example) and the lack of space because most of the organizations in-the-know had been positioning themselves for many months in advance.  In the summer and fall of 2015 when we were considering all these options, I was a rather silent participant in the discussion because this sphere of events was really foreign to me and I felt lost.

I was really impressed and inspired by Victoria’s dedication and persistence. But it was becoming clear that there was little initiative among the participants of the meeting to write the policy brief; none of us really had experience. We considered the option of farming it out to professionals in communication, such as those associated with certain research and development organizations, but this was costly and we risked losing control of the message. Eventually, the participant from the FAO (Elaine Springgay) mentioned that the many policy briefs she had seen through her work gave her some ideas for the organization and format of ours.  That was the trigger for me to jump on the boat. In fact I felt compelled to do this because of my responsibility as one of the organizers of the Leuven meeting, but also because the scientific consensus was really exciting – as you can see below. In one week she and I created a document and figures that were validated by the other participants of the meeting and then sent off to the CIFOR communication service for the final beautification.  Here is the final version of the policy brief (that you can also find on the WeForest website).


To write the policy brief, we condensed in very short sentences the 5 points of consensus that dominated the meeting in Leuven and that were detailed in the manuscript.  The role that plants could play in rainfall via the ice nucleation-active microorganisms that they harbor was one of the points of consensus. This idea was identified by the participants as important and credible and needed to be promoted as a potential impact of vegetation on climate – beyond its role as a sink for CO2. The participants agreed that it should be integrated into the list of ecosystem services that vegetation could offer relative to the water cycle and climate – given the appropriate knowledge base.  Keep in mind that this point of consensus was proposed by several other participants of the Leuven meeting and was not due to any strong lobbying by David Sands or myself during the meeting.  When that consensus became clear – and importantly when it became clear that other scientists perceived this – I realized that the concept that we call “bioprecipitation” had moved from a wild idea hidden in the Journal of the Hungarian Meteorological Service, to ambitious but virtually unfundable projects for interdisciplinary research, to academic publications, to something that land managers in the future might reckon with if provided the appropriate tools and information. In my opinion, to witness this transformation first hand is a very scenic and thrilling ride on the rollercoaster of a career in science.

While the policy brief was being validated, beautified and printed, Victoria was tirelessly hunting for a venue.  When she finally announced the news that we had a place at the stand of ICRAF/FAO in the Pavilion on Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals at the Global Landscape Forum (GLF) and a 1-hour slot for a presentation on 6 December, we were stunned. I asked her to summarize the obstacle course of events that led to this unexpected opportunity. In a nutshell, it was the consequence of her professional network and of the activities in which she has been engaged over the past several years. Most notably, we were offered to share the ICRAF/FAO space free-of-charge and were provided a few entry tickets to facilitate the participation of the people presenting the policy brief. I think that this generosity reflects that Victoria’s colleagues perceive her strong sense of engagement for forest management, her persistence in achieving goals, her professional competence and her capacity for interdisciplinary work.  At least this is how I see the situation and it made me feel even more dedicated to helping Victoria achieve the initial objectives that we set.  So when she asked me to help present the policy brief at the GLF, I was ecstatically and enthusiastically on board.

My enthusiasm met head-on with the reality of the Pavilions at the GLF.  They were like a handicrafts fair that is set up right next to a museum of art with well-advertised expositions by major artists.  I don’t mean to be pejorative.  But the reality was that the time of our presentation was in competition with events that involved well-known policy makers and organizations.  Furthermore, the specific presentations at the Pavilions were not announced on the program. So with shiny policy brief in hand, we made publicity plugs every time we could get the microphone in the sessions we attended on 5 December.  This meant that we needed to come up with good questions at these sessions and insist on getting the floor. We distributed lots of copies of the brief, and attracted people to our presentation. And as a side benefit, I met many interesting people with whom I would otherwise never have had the opportunity to talk such as a director of a division of the World Health Organization, journalists from the European Plant Science Organization, economists, heads of start-ups and funding initiatives, etc. Something turned off my general reticence for social interactions leading me to even participate in the evening speed-networking session.  I was armed with calling cards specifically conceived for this event and copies of publications that were pertinent to the meeting – in addition to the policy brief.

About a dozen of the thousands of participants of the GLF attended the presentation of our policy brief and participated in the discussion afterwards. But I don’t think that is the real indication of the attention that we generated.  The notion that plants can influence rainfall not only because of evapotranspiration but also via the microorganisms they emit is now out of the closet of science and is tweaking the interest of organizations involved in development. Via the network that grew from the Leuven meeting and the launching of the policy brief I am hearing about future activities including fora for advocacy and initiatives to set up field research projects that would involve the 5 consensus points of the policy brief. Furthermore, a second complementary version of the policy brief was crafted in collaboration with ICRAF and presented at the Rio Pavilion activities at COP21 (see pg. 6 of the summary of activites at the Rio Pavilion) that will likely lead to interest that we have yet to measure.

While writing this post, I can hear some of you saying “Yes, but…..”  The contents of the policy brief make the subjects seem simple and resolved when there is so much that we don’t know and numerous details for which there is still discord within the scientific community.  Admittedly, in the policy brief the summary of the facts concerning the power of plant-associated microbes to influence rainfall is a short sentence that would be accompanied by much detail and several nuances if it were for an audience of scientists.  Wordsmithing for an audience other than scientists is a challenge.  But I am of the opinion that at some point we need to bring attention to novel scientific ideas when they reach a certain stage of maturity, a stage that is sort of like adolescence – with pimples but with clear potential.  When is the best time for this? If someone knows a general rule, then I would like to hear about it.

To prepare this post, I discussed with Gabor Vali who remarked that the dilemma of knowing when to talk to the public about potential applications of research in environmental sciences reminds him of the history of weather modification. Specifically he notes:

The lessons that I’d take from that, from my participation in weather modification research and policy making, are (1) that the prospect of weather modification has been the basis for getting attention and funding to much research and engineering over the past ~66 years; (2) that unrealistic promises have stained the credibility of science and scientists in serious ways, (3) that enormous amounts of money have been spent on trying to prove and/or improve the potential for weather modification, (4) that even today the degree of certainty is minimal about being able to beneficially apply cloud seeding, and (5) that the large potential benefit/cost ratio continues to give rise to both research and operational programs.

According to the notions of weather modification and of bioprecipitation, weather and climate effects are expected from influencing ice nucleation in clouds. This led Gabor to wonder if the application of knowledge about biological ice nucleating particles to land management will progress more rapidly than the application of knowledge of other INPs to cloud seeding. Cloud seeding was advocated as early as the 1950’s by Irving Langmuir (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1932 ), inspired by the work of Bernard Vonnegut, yet there is still important controversy. But we have the good fortune to have this historical perspective as a reference. Furthermore, the economic incentives driving the interest in weather modification via cloud seeding are very different from the interest in climate benefits expected from land management. And perhaps most importantly, we are in an epoch where we can deploy the powerful tools of the internet to facilitate a collective debate that might foster efficiency in application of knowledge, reduce controversy and inhibit overselling.


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