It can be easy to forget as more COVID-19 vaccines are used every day that the incredible speed with which these vaccines were developed is an exception to the rule.
Science rarely moves in leaps.
Rather, science is the sum of countless daily labors by brilliant people around the world, over months and years, all hoping to discover the elusive. Unfortunately, governments — or rather, the politicians who hold purse strings — are inclined to care most about scientific leaps, not small steps. Funding follows the new, the nearby and the near-term at a great cost: We lose our understanding of the past — and our ability to prepare for the future. As his presidency enters its second month, Joe Biden should keep the long run in sight as he works to restore our country’s collective support of science.
Many presidential administrations have failed to fund long-term scientific data collection. A particularly glaring example of this oversight sits here in San Diego: the Keeling Curve, the most significant, longest running scientific indicator of climate change we have, housed at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Every day since the 1950s, scientists at Scripps have measured the portion of our air that is carbon dioxide at locations around the world, using air samples shipped from the top of a volcano and the South Pole. Only after decades of measures did the curve take its titular shape, showing us that our world was getting hotter. But even in its first years, this work struggled to find funding, and only survived thanks to the doggedness of its inventor, Charles Keeling, who would later write from his desk in La Jolla that, “Human society, embracing science for its tangible benefits … now seeks direct deliverable results, often on a timetable, as compensation for public sponsorship.”
In 2014, the Keeling Curve work lost all federal funding. There was no public outcry — only a handful of dedicated Scripps scientists pleading to keep their work running for a few hundred dollars a day. Our family philanthropy stepped in, and we recently extended our funding through 2025. But philanthropy can’t cover every shortfall.
The Keeling Curve findings require not only attention, but also action. Today, the curve is proving that the amount of carbon dioxide in our air is accelerating at a rate never seen in recent history — and that this increase is the result of human activity.
The last time our atmosphere had this much carbon, 15 million years ago, the Earth was several degrees warmer, there were no humans and a mass extinction was in progress.
When carbon increases in the atmosphere, it increases in our waters as well. Like the Keeling Curve, long-term monitoring of the ocean also provides insight into Earth’s changes. Through the Schmidt Ocean Institute, for example, scientists have collected deep sea coral skeletons to fill gaps in climate records. Coral is a living long-term data set, with a carbonate skeleton that has recorded changes in ocean temperature and chemistry since the last ice age. The last time the ocean was so acidic was, again, about 15 million years ago.
We simply do not know how human life and modern ecosystems will manage these changes, which we know, thanks to the long-term data we have already collected, will lead to more storms, floods, wildfires, migration and death.
We need critical policy changes to save our air and our waters, and we need the long-term data to guide that policy. Good data is what helped give the world the Montreal Protocol, informed by years of ozone measurements, and the Clean Air Act, undergirded by air pollution readings.
The lesson of slow, steady science is that you never know what you’ll find, when it will reveal truths that can’t be seen in a single snapshot, and when it will demand swift action. Just as we didn’t know in 1958 that the Scripps Institution would be helping us assess whether humans might survive past the 21st century, epidemiologists in 1918 could never have guessed that their work would inform our responses in 2020 to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In other words, long-term data is the difference between knowing if you have a cough or a chronic lung disease. When it comes to climate change, we’ve been sick for a while. This is no time to take our eyes off the thermometer.
Schmidt is co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Futures, and co-founder and president of The Schmidt Family Foundation, which works to expand access to renewable energy, clean air and water, and healthy food. She lives in Santa Barbara.