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Tucson think tank holding citizen-led science debate on water issues

A January poll by the Pew Research Center found that while science still holds an important position, public opinion on major scientific topics including vaccinations, nutrition, and climate change diverges significantly from the opinions of those who work in those fields.

In the case of climate change, 87 percent of scientists polled believe that humans are the major factor driving warming compared to just 50 percent among the general public.

This wide gap between public and scientific perceptions is the focus of a series of conferences organized by the Institute on Science for Global Policy, a Tucson-based nonprofit organization focused on science issues.

The first conference will be in Tucson, running Friday and Saturday.

The two-day conference will focus on water issues in the Southwest and will include presentations by Sharon B. Megdal, the director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, Elaine Wheaton from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, and Keith W. Dixon, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On the first day, the presenters will help organize a debate surrounding the major issues, while the public can submit written questions. On the second day, the public will be invited to ask questions and consider the issue in small caucus groups, focused around the question "Where do we agree?"

For George Atkinson, the founder of the group, this process is an attempt to find common ground where people can "come together and decide what they think about these issues."

The group is not a think-tank, but rather works at arm's length to find people with the right expertise and different perspectives to talk about issues in front of citizens, said Atkinson, a UA professor emeritus of chemistry and optical science and a former science advisor to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

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"We have a society in general that's bombarded with parochial points of view, but they don't get questioned very often," Atkinson said. "So, scientists have lost credibility with the public, probably beyond their control. We want to reverse this process."

The group will hold 15 conferences across the nation focused on various science topics, but Tucson felt like the right place to talk about water.

Last week, a study published online in the journal Science Advances predicted that there is a 80 percent chance of a massive, 35-year long drought throughout the southwestern United States.

"When people talk about global effects, it's difficult to get a handle on ice caps melting or flooding in Bangladesh, but here, we can let people have access to information and see if it's relevant to them," Atkinson said.

"It's a service," he said.

Those interested are asked to attend two days of the conference, which starts Friday morning at 9:30 a.m. in southeast Tucson, and runs until 4 p.m. On Saturday, the conference starts at 9 a.m. and runs until 4 p.m.

To learn more about the conference or the group, go to www.scienceforglobalpolicy.org or call 343-8181.

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