Thursday, May 26, 2011

On being a forecaster, on being a scientist

I was a scientist (if you include being a student) for about fourteen years, then a forecaster for seven years, and now a scientist for the last three. I sometimes wonder during which period I learned the most?

A forecaster learns about nature as it happens. The forecaster is sent in to study the situation, make an assessment and sometimes find out how it turned out. That person is confronted by real problems when things aren't working. He or she is able to see every pine needle on a few trees. Sometimes they are so close that sap sticks to their noses.

A scientist gets the broad perspective, studying things after the fact. I've done research involving thousands of catchments, looking at 30, 60, 90 years of data at a time. I can run experiments as if I was forecasting a long time ago, automating computer programs to do what I think my new techniques would have done back in 1995. Some scientists see the forest, the next valley over, off to the horizon. Birds fly below them.

There are other scientists that do field surveys, such as going out one summer and taking a lot of measurements in one place. That place isn't random, it might be in an instrumented pasture as a satellite flies overhead or it might be in the deepest snow around at the crest of spring.

Maybe it comes down to book smarts versus street smarts, education versus experience. Obviously both are important... it seems incomplete to have much more of one than the other. And you would hope that everyone would at least keep gaining either.

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