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Winter 2001

A postdoc reaches across the information divide

by Bob Henson

Andrew Gettelman. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Is the digital age really providing universal access to information? Andrew Gettelman suspects not, at least in the realm of climate science. Gettelman is a postdoctoral researcher in NCAR's Advanced Study Program. He's now on leave, taking a nine-month tour of 20 destinations across the rim of the Indian Ocean and learning firsthand how information access—or the lack of it—is affecting climate research. Gettelman will combine his findings with the results of an on-line survey of scientists now under way (see sidebar) and a series of interviews with journal editors and publishers.

The Indian Rim tour was an easy choice for Gettelman, who says he's "always been interested in other countries and other perspectives." With in-kind support from NCAR, he plans to present his work and gather feedback between December and next August at institutes, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations across Kenya, Tanzania, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Indonesia. Gettelman will also collect some basic data on communications infrastructure and encourage people to fill out the survey.

The main goal of Gettelman's study is to take the notion of an information divide beyond anecdotal evidence. When hard copy ruled the world, the gaps between have and have-not cultures were obvious. Even today, Gettelman notes, "Only a few places in developing countries have access to commonly read print journals," although the American Meteorological Society sends about 100 free hard copies of each of its journals to countries in the developing world. The current issues of many journals are also available on line, and the AMS hopes to provide free on-line access to its full journal archives within the next few years, charging only for recent issues. Still to be addressed are hurdles on the receiving end, including limited bandwidth, expensive software, and incompatible formats.

The information flow appears to be blocked in the other direction as well. Statistics indicate that a low percentage of journal articles in climate science are written by scientists from the developing world. Language barriers may inhibit these scientists from submitting papers or make it harder for the papers to pass review. Although science is a global culture, practices and techniques common in one country may be unfamiliar to reviewers in another. Also, "publish-or-perish may not be as big a deal in [developing] countries," says Gettelman.

The Indian Rim should be a fertile testbed for exploring these and other issues. Almost a third of the world's population lives near the Indian Ocean. Many Indian Rim nations have long-standing scientific cultures. Although the countries on Gettelman's itinerary vary dramatically in their economic well-being and political stability, they are all affected to some extent by the Asian monsoon and the El Niño/Southern Oscillation. "There's a lot of new research on how to forecast and respond to ENSO events that may not be reaching people in less developed countries," Gettelman says.

Once the project is completed, Gettelman hopes to have answered a number of questions rarely tackled in a systematic way. "Would scientists value electronic access to information resources? Would they want enhanced access to the community of the Internet, or communities of other scientists built on the Internet? Do they want to publish in journals read in the developed world but have difficulty [doing so]? Do they want electronic teaching tools? Or are capabilities so limited that communication enhancements are more basic—a phone line or a photocopy machine? The answers might be vastly different for different countries or areas of the field."

On the Web:
Survey of the Information Divide in the Climate Sciences

An invitation to participate

Scientists across the world are invited to take part in the Survey of the Information Divide in the Climate Sciences. The confidential questionnaire is now available (see On the Web) in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The target audience is researchers in climate sciences (meteorology, climatology, hydrology, and areas of public policy). This may include physical and social scientists working in education, government, or nongovernment positions. The survey will be on line through at least July 2002. Gettelman hopes that the extended duration will allow for "organic spread of the survey through word of mouth." If you have any questions or problems with the on-line form, contact Gettelman at infoex@ucar.edu.


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Thu Dec 20 16:42:17 MST 2001