Glencora Borradaile






         Associate Professor & College of Engineering Dean's Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

August 13, 2015

Climate change and research choices

written on July 3, 2014 and saved for publication until tenure

A friend who is making a career change asked me “If you could do anything else, what would would it be?”  That was two weeks ago.  I still haven’t responded.  It led to quite long conversations with my partner though, particularly with the idea of being able to make a radical change in my research life with impending, unprecedented job security.  Or an even bigger change in a different way if the tenure decision doesn’t go my way.  Or does!

As with most conversations these days, our conversation turned to climate change.  My partner brought up their dislike (but applicability to our current question) of the “going to war” metaphor.  For those clueless out there, people who actually think about climate change and actually worry about it and actually want to make changes to prevent (sigh, mitigate) it, accept climate change as an existential threat.  As existential as the threat of Hitler’s reign on Europe.  And they point hopefully to the fact that under that threat our factories and research laboratories switched full force, seemingly overnight, to building bombs and planes and tanks and developing ciphers and deciphers and new bombs and new planes and new tanks.  Yay!  That’s the part of the metaphor that turns off a pacifist.

But my partner’s point was:  if the world really did start acting like climate change is the existential threat that it is and people like you and I were recruited to join the war effort, what would you be recruited to do?  The follow up question was:  since you care about it, why don’t you start doing that now?

It’ll be interesting to see what I’m thinking about a year from now when I post this.

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2 Comments

  1.   Glencora Borradaile — August 13, 2015 @ 5:10 pm    

    It’s a little silly I didn’t post this at the time. I think I figured it was bad to show any dissatisfaction with one’s research, though I’m not sure that comes across in this post, anyway. Maybe I more wanted to force myself to consider these thoughts in a year’s time. No problem there. I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I haven’t changed the research that I do (yet), but the teaching part of my job is set to change dramatically. I’m building a new course on communication security tools and how they can empower social movements. I’ll say more about this later in a longer post as I work more on the course development. The course will also be part of OSU’s “Difference, Power and Discrimination” (DPD) curriculum; such courses need to delve into the impact of DPD issues in the course materials. To learn how to do this, I took a two week seminar at OSU on just those issues. On top of that, OSU is looking to expand the DPD curriculum to our graduate programs and this fall I’ll be piloting a course for our graduate students. It is possible that within a few years, I’ll be teaching mostly DPD courses within our department … so that’s a big change.

    And maybe my research will change along with this … in time.

  2.   GASARCH — August 24, 2015 @ 2:39 pm    

    We tell ourselves (and its true) that the theoretical research we do will benefit people in the long term. Either the `you never know what kind of research will end up being practical, so go ahead and study 0”’ prioirty arguments in computability theory’ or (and I like this one better) `if thinking finding van der Waerdean numbers trains you in Comp Sci that allows you to solve other problems that have nothing to do with VDW numbers, or even your research in it’ and also the usual serendipidy arguments.

    But for SHORT term research (a war, climate change) maybe we should shift gears faster and do things that are actually helpful today.
    While its surely good to have people work on what they want to work on and build up a diverse set of approaches to problems, and have
    people work on diverse problems, that argument might not quite work for immediate threats.

    As for Climate change in particular— the biggest problem now is convincing people that its really a problem.

    bill g.

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