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Matt McCarthy: Influencing public policy using remote sensing data

Matt McCarthy uses images collected from the sky to interpret changes to the coastlines and oceans for national security research. Credit: Carlos Jones and Rachel Green/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

When Matt McCarthy saw an opportunity for a young career scientist to influence public policy, he eagerly raised his hand. The remote sensing scientist was accepted into the American Geophysical Union’s Voices for Science, a platform for scientists across the country to advocate for more science-based policy initiatives and to help elected officials see problems from a different perspective.

“Where many congressional representatives come from a legal background, very few are scientists or from other STEM fields,” McCarthy said. “They think about problems very differently than scientists do.”

McCarthy recognized that many in STEM fields fail to communicate their knowledge or appropriately use data to positively influence decision makers. Part of the problem is a difference in communication style. Voices for Science teaches participants to speak policy language and convert what they know from a science background into actionable legislative initiatives.

The scientific knowledge McCarthy hopes to share comes in the form of understanding the ways climate change, natural disasters and human decisions impact how and where people live — the circular relationship between the earth and people. If a natural disaster causes a population to move to a new location or if a pandemic offers an opportunity for people to relocate and work remotely away from big cities, governments can use data to adapt resources and policy to provide for these shifts. To make informed decisions, elected officials need a variety of perspectives to understand the many sides of the problem. Scientists can not only offer data to show trends in population or shifts in a changed landscape, but also interpret the data for a layperson to understand.

While studying at the University of South Florida, McCarthy had learned remote sensing for bathymetry, the study of measuring the depth of water, on his way to a degree in marine science. When he joined the Geospatial Science and Human Security Division at ORNL, McCarthy saw how his colleagues used satellite images to understand changes to the earth. He soon turned his attention to human behavior and now applies his research to where nature and people interact — such as understanding changes to a coastline after an oil spill or how cities change with population growth.

“I’m trying to bridge the gap between only researching animals and only researching people,” McCarthy said.

Natural processes, such as coastal sea-level rise and hurricane landfall, impact human behavior. The landscape of the earth impacts where and how people live; while much can be learned about how people conduct themselves in a civil manner, researchers can also shed light on how people try to conduct illegal activities. A recent project McCarthy joined looks at how varying topography of coastlines across the world could be used by smugglers using boats to move radioactive material. While most research has investigated how high-consequence cargo is transported across land, not much attention has been given to maritime environments, he said.

McCarthy’s interest in Voices for Science is a natural fit. A native of Florida, he follows migration patterns and current research on sharks. Though sharks are feared across the world, they pose little threat to people, he said. The misperception of the danger of shark attacks, as represented by media reports often highlighting attacks despite the overall low numbers of reported attacks around the world each year, represent how data can be used to influence a story. The reality is, according to McCarthy, sharks are a fascinating species with a variety of natural adaptations to make them faster or smarter.

As he advocates for sharks, his favorite marine animal, McCarthy hopes for a future with better conservation efforts for marine wildlife writ large. His advocacy won’t stop there; using data from the world we live in today, he will engage in the conversation toward data-driven decisions.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit