Posted by Stephanie A. Smith, Ph.D., on Mon, Jan 6, 2014 @ 11:00 AM
In October 2013, I attended the 7th Symposium on Harmful Algae in the U.S., hosted by the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. I was very impressed by the technologies and expertise that were represented, and at the same time puzzled by the ongoing lamentations regarding the state of funding for harmful algal bloom (HAB) research. HABs impact the lives of millions of Americans every year, so why wouldn’t Congress know or care more about this issue, such that they would allocate funds for the work that these scientists do?
That conference was where I started to recognize “The HAB Gap,” which I will for the first time attempt to articulate in writing. Please understand that what you are about to read below makes no judgments; but I hope to get your attention regarding where I think the real problem lies. It might surprise you to know that I don’t believe it lies exclusively with politicians or their inability to recognize the problem.
The HAB Gap phrase borrows from the “Mind the Gap” voice on the London subway, which warns patrons to be careful about the gap between the train and the platform when boarding. So place yourself in an imaginary subway for this story. Standing on the platform are the everyday folks—the ones who have a house on Grand Lake-St. Mary’s, the people who have a boat slip on Lake Erie, the folks that want to waterski on Buckeye Lake. These folks know, when the blue-green scum shows up, then rots, and maybe then the dead fish show up, that they’ve got a real problem. Some are in fact desperate for solutions—they’ve lost a beloved pet and suspect algal toxin poisoning, or a marina business they’ve spent a lifetime building is threatened.
On the train moving at enormous speed are the scientists. They are experimenting, discovering, and developing really amazing technologies. They see the folks on the platform as flickers when the train flies by. Some have on occasion gotten off the train to learn from, and be motivated by those people on the platform and their struggles with HABs. The scientists are also motivated by an innate curiosity to understand HABs. So they do science. Science that is not always clearly tied to eventual solutions, from the perspective of the people on the platform, or even to some of us who have been on the train.
Where’s Congress, state legislators, or others who have the power to fund the research, or help in other ways to find solutions (money isn’t the only way to address these issues). Are they on the train, or the platform?
Well, they’re not even in the station. They’re on a hill somewhere. The train moves on, lets the scientists off, and they visit the hill. They are going to try to communicate to the policy makers the HAB problem, but they barely speak a comprehensible language, and the policy makers can’t make the connection between what they’re hearing from the scientists, and the people back on the platform. In fact to the policy folks, it just looks like a bunch of scientists that want funding for their research. Unless they value fundamental research and education intrinsically (good luck there!), they are not going to fund the research. Meanwhile, also arriving on the hill, are hundreds of trains from other stations, loaded with people educating the policy makers about other problems, THEIR problems, which they are just as passionate about.
If we allow the HAB Gap to widen, nobody, either on the train or the platform, will get what they need from the people on the hill. In my next blog I will discuss some steps that I think can help. Let’s narrow the HAB Gap, and then we’ll worry about all those other trains.