Dr. Ben Preston is a Senior Research Scientist of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Environmental Sciences Division and Deputy Director of the Climate Change Science Institute, where he conducts research on the societal impacts of climate change and the role of adaptation in reducing climate risk.
You received the 2015 Falkenberg Award from AGU; what drives you to not just do research, but effect societal change as a result/part of that research?
I was trained from the early stages of my education to frame research as a means of understanding environmental challenges relevant to society. Climate change is a case-in-point. Undoubtedly, one of the ultimate drivers of fundamental Earth science is concern for the consequences of climate change for human health and well-being, the economy, and the natural systems that we value. But science alone is not sufficient to drive change, inform decision-making, or achieve positive societal outcomes. Hence, we need people that can help connect science to societal values and needs.
What do you think is the most important factor in effectively communicating climate science findings to policy makers and the public?
Scientists are trained to communicate in ways that are foreign to the vast majority of the public. We prioritize credibility and the novelty of our research in communicating with our peers, but the entry point for engaging with the public is communicating the relevance of science and scientific findings. We all have different priorities, concerns, responsibilities, and things that keep us up at night. Engaging with a particular stakeholder requires identifying the ways in which climate science is relevant to his or her context.
What are the disadvantages and advantages to working on academic research in a non-university setting?
Working in a large research institution like Oak Ridge National Laboratory, I have a wealth of world-class research expertise and facilities at my fingertips. Furthermore, the research and development we pursue is aligned to the mission of federal agencies like the Department of Energy, as well as the private sector, and non-profit organizations, so there is often a clear line of sight from research to societal impact. As opposed to a university setting, however, one doesn’t necessarily have the same academic freedom, there are limited opportunities to engage in teaching, and the soft money nature of the research environment can leave one more exposed to the prevailing winds of federal budgets.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?
I became hooked on science in high school. My experience with an advanced biology course in 10th grade convinced me that I might actually be able to successfully navigate complex material regarding the fundamentals of life on Earth while also identifying various ways in which that science affects our daily lives. The discovery aspect of science is quite enticing – there are endless opportunities to contribute new knowledge and insights.
When you were a child, what did you think you'd be doing as an adult?
I honestly can’t recall what daydreams I had as a child regarding a future profession, and even in college I didn’t have a clear idea of what I’d be doing as a career. I pursued graduate studies largely because I had no idea what I could do with a bachelor’s degree in biology; I was hopeful that if I continued my education I’d eventually develop some marketable skills and/or figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Actually, I’m probably still trying to figure that out.
When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?
I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to have very supportive supervisors and mentors. Furthermore, over time I’ve learned that being a scientist involves frustration, dead-ends, and missteps. Ironically, that’s part of the fun. There’s always another question to ask, another method that can be pursued, or other tool that one can try. No one pursues a career in science because it’s easy.
What aspect of your research/science would you happily do away with?
I spend too much of my life sitting in airports or on airplanes. Environmental science is a global enterprise, which makes connecting with one’s colleagues an indispensable aspect of a productive career. But that comes with trade-offs – jet lag, time away from family, and, of course, the contribution to aircraft carbon emissions.
Where do you see your research taking you?
I hope my research eventually provides me with the opportunity to lead a research group or organization dedicated to working across the science/policy divide. There are great opportunities for society to capitalize on our ever expanding scientific knowledge, data, and information to inform decision-making regarding the management of global change. Ultimately, I’d like to be able to claim that I have made significant contributions to maximizing the societal return on our investments in science.
How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career/research?
I make a concerted effort not to nerd out too much with friends and family. My family is proud that I’m putting my years of education to use and my kids get a kick out of seeing me on television on the few occasions where I’ve been a talking head. Meanwhile, my friends who’ve known me for years look at my career with some amusement, because they remember me when I was less accomplished, less responsible, and more clueless.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?
The advice I give to any student is to develop skills in communication – written and verbal, analog and digital. These are not necessarily skills that are prioritized when we train scientists, but a scientist’s skills in writing grants, writing papers, or presenting her research to peers are key indicators of success. Those who rise to positions of science leadership are often not only great scientists, but also great communicators.
From your experience, how can scientists effect societal change, beyond doing basic research, on issues such as climate change?
Groundbreaking discovery science, applied scientific decision support, training the next generation of scientists, developing environmental policy, or communicating science to the public – these are all arenas where people with scientific training have the power to drive change. So I encourage young scientists to be open to alternative ways of using their scientific knowledge, because a career in the sciences can take many forms.
What’s the most exciting part of your research?
The research that gets me excited is that which links the knowledge being generated by different disciplines to generate more integrative, synthetic, and holistic insights regarding environmental change and its management. Disparate research disciplines and methods all have valuable contributions to make to understanding a complex phenomenon like climate change. Personally, when one starts to observe, analyze, and model the interactions and feedbacks between human and natural systems is when science gets really interesting.