Paleoceanographer Michèle LaVigne picks up a new skill: influencing policy

Associate Professor of Earth and Oceanographic Science Michèle LaVigne is participating in a yearlong training program for earth scientists to explore ways to apply her expertise to policy making.

Michèle LaVigne in Harpswell

Reconsidering the role of scientists

When LaVigne was in a graduate school for paleoceanography, she discerned a tacit understanding that serious scientists, in their quest to uncover empirical truths, should focus solely on their research and on publishing their findings in highly regarded but niche academic journals. To contribute to politics or to educating the public signaled that you may be distracted and even, perhaps, a bit of a dilettante.

But as global warming has progressed, and more people around the world suffer its effects, this stance has changed. “I’ve seen our field expand the ways we’re using our science beyond traditional research and publishing in academic journals,” LaVigne said. “Going to science conferences over the last ten years, I have seen more sessions and programming supporting outreach, education, and communication.” 

Hearing from the lab

In 2018, LaVigne’s professional association, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), launched an advocacy program for its members called Voices for Science. In two yearlong tracks—one focused on policy and the other on communications—the AGU gives scientists the skills to advocate for federal funding for basic research and for government initiatives grounded in sound research. LaVigne applied and was accepted into this year’s twenty-member policy cohort.

With support from the AGU, LaVgne scheduled her first meeting this summer with staff from the offices of Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. Angus King, and Rep. Chellie Pingree—three of Maine’s four congressional representatives. In a virtual visit, LaVigne stressed how important grants have been to her paleoceanographic scholarship, which examines past conditions of the ocean, including previous climate changes.

“I spoke about federal science funding,” she said. “I was able to share my story and my research and show how it is relevant to Maine, and to offer myself as a resource for other ocean science issues that might come up.” 

Specifically, she described how her involvement with an ocean acidification group in Maine made up of policy makers, fishermen, and scientists had inspired her to begin reconstructing a history of climate change in the Gulf of Maine.

With collaborators from Iowa State University, Claremont College, University of Bristol, and Hamilton College*, LaVigne is investigating the last two centuries of ocean history—the “relatively recent geologic past” since humans began altering Earth systems with activities like burning fossil fuels and industrializing agriculture.

“We don’t have a long record of ocean acidification, because it’s more challenging to measure than changing ocean temperatures and salinity. But how can we enact a policy to mitigate ocean acidification if we don’t have a historical baseline to see how much it has changed?” LaVigne noted.

While the ocean is acidifying as it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the change is not happening uniformly. Some areas have a higher pH level than others, a variability affected by ocean currents and other factors. 

“It’s important to understand how those processes are coming together to predict how this region will change,” LaVigne said, adding that her work in this area could have practical applications, such as “helping folks who are setting up aquaculture farms figure out what locations are more susceptible to acidification.”

Bowdoin, 17 September 2021. Full article.

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