UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

Six Selfish Reasons to Communicate Science

First, a confession: I never meant to be a science communicator.

I’m an aerospace engineer specializing in fluid dynamics, the physics of how liquids and gases (and granular materials and pretty much anything that’s not a solid) moves. As an undergraduate, I fell in love with the subject in part because of the incredible photos my professors used to help us see and understand how fluids behave. As a PhD student, I was frustrated by how little information there was online for the public to learn about this subject that impacts our daily lives.

From that frustration, my website FYFD was born as a place where I could share the beauty of my subject with the world at large.

An example of flow visualization, a technique physicists and engineers use to understand flows. Here fluorescent dye is painted on a model placed in a wind tunnel to reveal flow patterns. (Photo by NASA.)

Like many scientists, I began communicating science for selfless and altruistic reasons. But along the way, I learned there’s a lot to be gained for the communicator as well. So I’d like to share a few of the selfish reasons to communicate science.

The first one may seem a bit obvious, but engaging in science communication is a great way to hone your communication skills. Whatever path your career leads you down, those skills are key. Communicating science to the public, whether online or through local means, is generally a low-risk operation, but it’s an opportunity to practice and improve your skills so that when it really matters you can nail that job interview or research proposal.

Communicating science regularly can hone your skills for when the big moment arrives. (Comic by Jorge Cham/PhD Comics)

Participating in science communication regularly is also a great way to develop expertise in your subject area. When I started writing FYFD, it seemed like spending part of every day reading journal articles that had nothing to do with my research might be a waste of time. After all, learning the latest on how droplets splash was not going to help my work on high-speed aerodynamics. But toward the end of my PhD—after a few years of writing FYFD—I noticed that when professors and other students had questions that reached beyond our own area, the first resource they turned to was not Google Scholar—it was me.

The first time a professor asked me if I knew anything about the unexpected behavior they were seeing in an experiment, it was a revelation for me. I had unwittingly turned myself into an expert, not simply on the subject of my own research but on fluid dynamics in general. That broad familiarity with the field continues to be valuable today. It allows me to see connections between disparate studies and subjects, a skill that’s key to discovering new avenues for research.

If you choose to use science communication to raise awareness of your own work, it can help you gain exposure. A recent study showed that social media use can help increase a scholar’s scientific impact. It can also help you gain the notice of journalists, and there is evidence that media coverage of papers leads to more citations. Personally, my science communication efforts have almost exclusively highlighted the work of other researchers, but I have nevertheless benefited in terms of networking and new opportunities within my field.

A communicator’s excitement for a subject can galvanize their audience, as seen here when a post about unionid bivalves by the Brain Scoop’s Emily Graslie inspired Tumblr user artsyandnerdy to draw unionid fanart. (Image by artsyandnerdy, used with permission.)

Of course, setting up a Twitter account or a blog is no guarantee that you’ll start seeing your papers in The New York Times. Fortunately, that kind of audience isn’t necessary to see some personal benefits. One of my favorite aspects of science communication—especially in-person—is witnessing a positive-feedback loop of enthusiasm. When you’re genuinely excited about a subject, whether it’s fluid dynamics or unionid bivalves, that enthusiasm impacts your audience and can get them excited. Seeing that excitement in others simply reinforces your own enthusiasm.

Maintaining that reserve of enthusiasm for your subject is vital for motivating yourself when things are going poorly. As an experimentalist in graduate school, I faced a series of setbacks in my research, including spending half of the last year of my PhD rebuilding lab infrastructure instead of gathering data. We all periodically face moments when we ask ourselves: why the heck am I doing this? For me, spending a part of every day searching for a piece of my subject to share with the world was a chance to remind myself of what I love about fluid dynamics. Communicating science is an opportunity to see your field anew and renew your motivation to carry on in spite of the daily frustrations.

As you can see, there’s a lot to be gained, both personally and professionally, from engaging in science communication. If you’d like some resources or guidance on how to begin, UCS is a great place to start. AAAS also offers resources for scientists and your professional society may as well. For guidance to better online science communication, I recommend Science Blogging.

Good luck and remember to have fun!

Nicole Sharp is the creator and editor of FYFD, a fluid dynamics blog with a quarter of a million followers that has been featured by Wired magazine, The New York Times, The Guardian, Science, and others. Nicole earned her M.S. in aerospace engineering from Cornell University and her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University with experiments on the effects of surface roughness on airflow near a surface moving at Mach 6. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado, where she enjoys hiking, cycling, and skiing. You can find her online at @fyfluiddynamics or nicolesharp.com.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Environmental Injustice in the Early Days of the Trump Administration

When the EPA was established in 1970 by Richard Nixon, there was no mandate to examine why toxic landfills were more often placed near low-income, Black, Latino, immigrant, and Native American communities than in more affluent, white neighborhoods. Nor was there much recognition that communities closer to toxic landfills, refineries, and industrial plants often experienced higher rates of toxics-related illnesses, like cancer and asthma.

Yet these phenomena were palpable to those living in affected communities. In the 1970s and 80s, local anti-toxics campaigns joined forces with seasoned activists from the civil rights movement, labor unions, and with public health professionals and scientists, drawing attention to the unevenly distributed impacts of toxic pollution, and forming what we now recognize as the environmental justice movement.

The new administration has mounted a swift and concerted attack on the federal capacity and duty to research, monitor, and regulate harmful pollutants that disproportionately affect women, children, low-income communities, and communities of color.  Two examples demonstrate the potential consequences: overturning the ban on chlorpyrifos, and a variety of actions that reduce collection of and public access to the data on which environmental justice claims depend.

Overturning the ban on chlorpyrifos

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt overturned the chlorpyrifos ban, despite the fact that EPA scientists recommended that the pesticide be banned because of the risks it posed to children’s developing brains. Photo: Zeynel Cebeci/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

Chlorpyrifos is a commonly used pesticide. EPA scientists found a link between neurological disorders, memory decline and learning disabilities in children exposed to chlorpyrifos through diet, and recommended in 2015 that the pesticide be banned from agricultural use because of the risks it posed to children’s developing brains.

Over 62% of farmworkers in the U.S. work with vegetables, fruits and nuts, and other specialty crops on which chlorpyrifos is often used.  These agricultural workers are predominantly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, living under the poverty line and in close proximity to the fields they tend. A series of studies in the 1990s and 2000s found that concentrations of chlorpyrifos were elevated in agricultural workers’ homes more than ¼ mile from farmland, and chlorpyrifos residues were detected on work boots and hands of many agricultural worker families but not on nearby non-agricultural families.

In March 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt publicly rejected the scientific findings from his agency’s own scientists and overturned the chlorpyrifos ban, demonstrating the Trump administration’s disregard for the wellbeing of immigrant and minority populations. Farmworker families could be impacted for generations through exposure to these and other harmful pesticides.

Limiting collection of and access to environmental data

Because inequitable risk to systematically disadvantaged communities must be empirically proven, publicly available data on toxic emissions and health issues are crucial to environmental justice work. The Trump administration has already taken a number of actions that limit the collection and accessibility of data necessary to make arguments about environmental injustices that persist through time in particular communities.

Houston has a number of chemical plants in close proximity to low-income neighborhoods. Photo: Roy Luck/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Workers, especially those laboring in facilities that refine, store or manufacture with toxic chemicals, bear inequitable risk. The Trump administration has sought to curb requirements and publicity about workplace risks, injuries and deaths. For example, President Trump signed off on a congressional repeal of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which required applicants for governmental contracts to disclose violations of labor laws, including those protecting safety and health. Without the data provided by this rule, federal funds can now support companies with the worst worker rights and protection records. President Trump also approved the congressional repeal of a rule formalizing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) long-standing practice of requiring businesses to keep a minimum of five years of records on occupational injuries and accidents.  While five years of record-keeping had illuminated persistent patterns of danger and pointed to more effective solutions, now only six months of records are required. This change makes it nearly impossible for OSHA to effectively identify ongoing workplace conditions that are unsafe or even life-threatening.

Another example is the administration’ proposed elimination of the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, a program that provides toxicological assessments of environmental contaminants. The IRIS database provides important information for communities located near plants and industrial sites that produce toxic waste, both to promote awareness of the issues and safety procedures and as a basis for advocacy. These communities, such as Hinkley, CA, where Erin Brockovich investigated Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s dumping of hexavalent chromium into the local water supply, are disproportionately low income.

Responding to Trump: Developing environmental data justice

Data is not inherently good.  It can be used to produce ignorance and doubt, as in the tactics employed by the tobacco industry and climate change deniers.  It can also be used to oppressive ends, as in the administration’s collection of information on voter fraud, a phenomenon that is widely dismissed as non-existent by experts across the political spectrum.  Further, even the data collection infrastructure in place under the Obama administration failed to address many environmental injustices, such as the lead pollution in Flint, MI.  Thus we would argue that promoting environmental data justice is not simply about better protecting existing data, but also about rethinking the questions we ask, the data we collect, and who gathers it in order to be sure environmental regulation protects all of us.

 

Britt Paris is an EDGI researcher focused on environmental data justice. She is also a doctoral student in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, and has published work on internet infrastructure projects, search applications, digital labor and police officer involved homicide data evaluated through the theoretical lenses of critical informatics, critical data studies, philosophy of technology and information ethics.

Rebecca Lave is a co-founder of EDGI (the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative), an international network of academics and environmental professionals that advocates for evidence-based environmental policy and robust, democratic scientific data governance. She was the initial coordinator of EDGI’s website tracking work, and now leads their publication initiatives. Rebecca is also a professor in the Geography Department at Indiana University.

 Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Pesticide Action Network

Timing, Pollinators, and the Impact of Climate Change

Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus). These flowers have a scent similar to overripe rotting fruit, and are visited by sap beetles

Periodically in the spring, I have the pleasure of teaching Plant Taxonomy to students at a small college in Asheville, North Carolina. Among other things, I love the way that teaching this class forces me to pay close attention to what is coming out of the ground, leafing out, or flowering at any particular point of the season in the Blue Ridge Mountains where our campus is nestled. Each week, I fill the classroom with clippings from plants for my students to examine, up close and personal, as they learn to recognize different families of plants and how they compare with one another: how trilliums differ from jack-in-the-pulpits, or spring beauty differ from rue anemone.

But a couple weeks into the semester this spring, it became abundantly clear that I was going to need to scrap my syllabus and completely rearrange my labs. A very warm and short winter followed by an early spring meant that many of the plants I depend on appeared to be blooming weeks earlier than usual. While I initially doubted my intuition, based solely on passing observations, I then pulled out my collection notes for lab on March 6 and found it was dated April 6, 2013. My intuition was right on target. The flowering period was three to four weeks earlier than when I last taught the class, just four years ago.

In my research, too, the early spring was evident and influential. I study pollination and floral biology in sweetshrub, Calycanthus floridus, which has wine-red-colored flowers with the scent of overripe, rotting fruit that attracts their pollinators, little sap beetles that crawl into the flowers and feed there. I’ve been following the timing of flowering and fruiting in this plant since 2007, and the data so far show that in years with an early, warm spring, the plant flowers earlier…and the beetles are nowhere to be found. The flowers are there in their glory, flooding the area with their intoxicating sweet aroma, but they are holding a party with no guests—and this does not bode well for their future. The plants depend on the beetles for pollination and subsequent seed production, and in years when the beetles don’t visit, their reproductive success drops to almost nothing.

Author (Amy Boyd) teaching pollination biology to students in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Phenology and climate change

Timing of biological events—such as flowering and leaf-out in plants or egg-laying in insects—is called phenology, and increasing attention has been given to the study of phenology as we face a changing climate. Many organisms depend on climatic signals such as temperature as cues for their timing during the season, and so as the planet warms, their response to these cues will cause them to leaf out, bloom, mate or lay eggs earlier.

But here’s the rub: many organisms, like the sweetshrub, depend on relationships with other species…and not all species use the same cues. One may use mean daily temperature as its phenological cue while another uses day length. If two species that depend on their interaction with one another use different cues in a changing environment, or respond differently to similar cues, they may end up missing each other entirely—what is likely happening with the beetles and the sweetshrub.

Plant-pollinator mismatch

Scientists keeping watch over phenology are accumulating more and more evidence that our changing climate is affecting many diverse species and potentially disrupting the interactions among them. For example, a study of bumblebees and the plants they visit in the Rocky Mountains has found that the timing of both has shifted earlier, but not by the same amount. The shift in flowering has been greater than the shift in bumblebee timing, resulting in decreased synchrony—and both plants and pollinators may suffer as a result. In Japan, biologists have followed a spring wildflower (Corydalis ambigua) and its bumblebee pollinators and similarly found that the plants were more sensitive than the bumblebees to early onset of spring. Reduced synchrony of bees and flowers resulted in lower availability of pollinators for the plants, and potentially also lower availability of food for the pollinators.

As the planet warms, plants and pollinators alike may adjust to the changes in different ways, leading to mismatches between these symbiotic partners. This impact of climate change on phenology compounds all the other challenges facing pollinators today, like the loss and fragmentation of habitat, disease, pesticide use, and the spread of invasive species.

Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) flower being visited by carpenter bee pollinator (Xylocopa virginica)

Consequences for agriculture

So why should we care about such disruptions in phenology? Being forced to scrap my syllabus is a very minor consequence compared to the potential impacts on agricultural production. By some estimates, 35% of all crop species worldwide depend on or benefit from pollination by animals (including bees and other insects). Some 16% of all vertebrate pollinator species (such as hummingbirds and bats) are threatened with extinction, while at least 9% of all insect pollinators are threatened as well. Pollinators are essential partners with farmers who grow fruit, vegetables and nuts; without them, our own species faces loss of an important component of its food source. Similar mismatches may also change and disrupt relationships between crop plants and pest species, creating new challenges to agriculture or enhancing existing threats.

Farmers see the changes in phenology in their own fields, and they are already concerned about the future of agriculture in a changing climate. But we all need to be aware of the impact of climate change on the web of interactions that make up the world around us, so that we can support lawmakers and others who are ready to stop the human activities impacting our planet’s climate. Many biologists are out there watching, accumulating evidence with the systematic eye of science.  We must support their efforts—and listen to their messages about our impacts on the planet and our future.

 

Amy E. Boyd is Professor of Biology and Chair of the Division of Natural Sciences at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. She is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist whose research currently focuses on plant-pollinator interactions and phenological patterns.

 Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

American Prosperity Depends on International Science: Our Border Policy Should Reflect That

At first, the new ‘laptop ban’ sounded like a minor nuisance. This is a part of a recent executive order prohibiting large electronics as carry-on items on flights to the U.S. from eight countries in northern Africa and the Middle East. Only when I saw a Facebook outburst from my American colleague in Africa did it become clear how even a small encumbrance like this can cast a devastating blow to science.

This travel restriction is one of several that could fast cripple scientific and technological progress in the US. That is bad for the US economy and the livelihood of its citizens. Here’s why.

Christine is a climate change scientist working in Kenya. She posted to Facebook:

“This latest [Executive Order] just eliminated four out of seven of my major routes home from Nairobi. As a professional scientist, I cannot travel without my laptop. I see devastating impacts on collaborations with professionals from the targeted countries, and those who live in Africa and Asia and use these airports to connect to the U.K. and the U.S.”

Sure, technically she could check her laptop, but would you abandon yours to the potential of being rained on, crushed, stolen, or “examined” by security agents, risking the leakage of personal data and the loss of your primary tool? Obstacles like this, combined with sweeping immigration bans, will steadily reduce our scientific connectivity to the world.

The position of the US as a frontrunner in science is sustained by engagement with the international scientific community. We need foreign partnerships because societies across the globe face a suite of common challenges. Many are interconnected by economies of trade, others by planetary physics. And many of these challenges require science-based solutions that are not resolvable in national isolation. Three examples are climate change, emerging technologies, and sustainable food production.

Climate change

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but the responses of some regions will have greater impacts on future climate than others. For example, tropical forest biology is a driver of atmospheric circulation. The US Department of Energy funds US scientists to travel abroad for tropical research, because biological responses to climate change there have the potential to alter weather, and thereby energy security, in the US.

We need to work with scientists around the world to learn about climate migration and displacement from sea level rise and other climate impacts. Photo: Jason Evans/Georgia Sea Grant

The human response to climate change is another shared problem. The US is far from immune to population displacement by future sea level rise. We would be smart to work with social scientists abroad to learn how climate migrations are being managed elsewhere.

But we cannot simply travel abroad and study at will. Doing my dissertation work in Brazil, I learned that international partnerships are carefully cultivated through fair, reciprocal exchange. If we hassle our foreign partners to hand over their social media passwords upon entry to the US, how welcoming will they be to us?

Emerging technologies

China and India are now two of the world’s leaders in investment in renewable energy. Saudi Arabia and Morocco are funding ambitions for large-scale solar. Each country will be innovating to overcome the significant challenges of production, storage, and distribution that an energy market dominated by renewables faces. The latter two countries have air hubs on the laptop ban list.

As Africa’s tech workforce grows in numbers and ability, other useful technologies are emerging such as mobile-phone banking, and nimble cloud-computing services. These technologies are likely to become imports to the US, just as the crisis-mapping software Ushahidi, originating in Kenya, has been adopted for disaster relief coordination and elections monitoring around the world. It will be difficult to import Africa’s experts to develop similar technologies here if we eliminate skilled worker visas.

Sustainable food

As we deal with drought here in the US, we have a lot we can learn from scientists abroad. Photo: NASA JPL.

Much of our imported food production depends on fossil water—water in aquifers that will not be replenished in our lifetimes. That includes sources in Mexico, our dominant international supplier. Determining the longevity of deep reservoirs is a hard scientific problem. Through international research collaborations, we can aid in predicting the sustainability of water sources on which our food supplies depend, and help develop appropriate farming practices. We can again look to Africa for expertise, where indigenous superfoods are gaining popularity as vegetables that are more nutritious and require less water than our staple European brassicas.

Here again, US scientists may be reluctant to cross the border for collaborative research with Latin American suppliers if we are subject to unlimited laptop and cellphone searches upon re-entry. And Mexican industries may not welcome our scientists if our leaders continue to paint the country in an unfavorable light.

International collaboration promotes science and peace

Just as face-to-face communication with international colleagues fosters trust and begets lasting collaborations, fair and open international exchange cultivates mutual understanding and respect between countries. Our border policies must carefully balance the tradeoffs between restriction and openness. Where possible, we should seek synergies. By facilitating collaboration with other countries on shared problems, we can encourage both peace and expedient solutions.

What can you do to help? Share this post, and present the central concept to your senators and representatives. Share the insight that our country’s economic prosperity and peace depend on international scientific exchange.

I am grateful to my international scientific colleagues for valuable comments on this essay: Dr. Christine Lamanna (American in Kenya) in Kenya; Dr. Bernardo Flores (Brazilian); Dr. Alberto Burquez (Mexican); and Dr. Karen Taylor (American).

 

Dr. Tyeen Taylor studies the shifting ecology of tropical forests amid the onset of rapid climate warming. He avidly shares the joy and practicality of scientific knowledge with non-scientists through films, photography, writing, and public events. Public Facebook page: /TyeenCTscience. Twitter: @TyeenTaylor. YouTube: Tyeen Taylor. Website: www.ttphilos.org

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Climate Risk in the Spotlight of Chevron’s Annual Shareholder Meeting

Midland sits on the West Texas plains, an art deco mid-rise skyline rising over the broad landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see, dotted with pumpjacks, drill sites, and bright green-blue containment ponds.

I journeyed to Midland to attend Chevron’s annual shareholder meeting, held on May 31st, because I wanted to let the company know the importance of planning for a low carbon future. A resolution on the Chevron shareholder ballot requested that the company issue a report to assess how it can respond to climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy by altering the company’s energy mix or by acquiring/merging with companies that feature low carbon or renewable energy assets or technologies.

I set out to Midland along with Barbara Briggs from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Dr. Wendy Davis, a scientist from Austin, to voice our support for proposals that increase corporate transparency with regards to climate change.

Midland

In Midland, petroleum is a way of life. Around the city and even at the airport, the influence of the oil and gas industry is ubiquitous, with many billboards advertising equipment and technology to improve and enhance oil recovery.

On our way into town, we stopped at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, which outlines the geology of the Permian Basin, its history from the wildcatters to today, and the role of petroleum in our daily lives.

The 1923 discovery of oil in the Permian Basin shifted what was a small ranching and railroad community into a major hub for the US oil and gas industry. The Permian Basin Petroleum Museum even hosts a Chevron-sponsored exhibit called “Chevron Energy City” that teaches children about various forms of energy.

Dr. Wendy Davis, Stephanie Thomas and Barbara Briggs at the Permian Basin pump jacks display in the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Midland, TX.

The Shareholder Meeting

The shareholder meeting itself was a brief affair. After passing through intense security (no purses, no electronics of any kind, no notebooks!), I made it into the building and took my place in a seat in the hall.

Some have asked me why I decided to go to the meeting. I happen to be a Chevron shareholder and a former Chevron employee. I have a background in Earth Science and have both studied ancient climate change and worked as a petroleum geologist.

I currently work with Public Citizen, a nonprofit organization that focuses on protecting health, safety, and democracy. When I heard that UCS was planning to attend the meeting, I jumped at the opportunity to join them. UCS brings a strong, clear voice for science, and I deeply respect their work on climate and beyond.

The week before the shareholder meeting, UCS organized a panel discussion on climate change and risk that highlighted some of the major risks corporations and communities face with regards to climate change.  That discussion confirmed for me that collectively, we need to act quickly.

Initially, there had been two items on the shareholder ballot dealing with climate change.

The first, a proposal for Chevron to report on company plans to deal with climate change-related risks, was withdrawn after Chevron published a report in March entitled “Managing Climate Risk: A Perspective for Investors.”

The second proposal calling on management to report on the transition to a low carbon economy got 27% of of the shareholder vote—a healthy showing that will have the board’s attention.

Another shareholder resolution called upon Chevron to disclose company spending on lobbying.   CEO John Watson’s commentary as he discussed management’s opposition: “We [Chevron] have the right and responsibility to represent our interests.”

When Barbara Briggs asked about Chevron’s relationship with ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Commission), an organization that creates shadow legislation and has actively denied climate change, Watson upheld ALEC as a “leader” that played a “constructive role” in climate change policy discussions.

From what I heard at this once a year meeting with its shareholders, it seems as though Chevron’s major plan for handling climate change is to focus more deeply on natural gas and efficiency.  CEO Watson even commented that there will be “plenty of time” to respond to “risks” like production decline and environmental regulations. Physical risks, like the risk of storm surge, would be covered under the corporation’s comprehensive risk management plan.

Interestingly, at least half of the meeting was devoted to discussing climate change. And after the results of the ExxonMobil shareholder meeting, it seems like the movement pressing energy companies to plan seriously for a low carbon future is gaining traction.

As the meeting came to a close and people took to the exits, I overheard another shareholder say to a company employee, “With all this talk about climate change, has Chevron looked into hydrogen?”

 

Stephanie Thomas, Ph.D. is an earth scientist, researcher, and organizer with Public Citizen and an advocate for clean energy. She holds a Ph.D., M.S. and B.S. in Earth Sciences from Southern Methodist University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Tulane University, respectively. Follow her on Twitter at @theHouston13.

 

Science Needs to Learn Lessons from the LGBTQ Rights Movement

The recent March for Science did not help public support for science. That is what the majority of Americans told a recent Pew Research Center survey and what certain news outlets are quick to put in their headlines. My response: Who cares? If my years of organizing for LGBTQ rights taught me anything, it’s that the success of the march should not be measured by the day, but by the movement it creates.

I am a scientist by academic background. However, I spent more time organizing protests and rallies in support of LGBTQ rights than I ever did on my physics homework (and I have the grades to prove it). At one point, I even joined the board of a newly formed local grassroots LGBTQ rights organization. The group had a few very energetic members who were always looking for the next reason to hold a protest in downtown Boston, one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in New England.

Events like these were incredibly important, but we were not able to single-handedly change the hearts and minds of the country on issues like marriage equality through the cunning use of protest signs. Despite the beautiful artwork and creative slogans, the only people who really saw them were people who agreed with us. Even worse, after spending some time looking at the communication of climate science, I’m fairly certain that our signs would only harden the opposition in their worldview.

Knowing that these protests would be a total waste of time unless it led to direct political action, I organized a volunteer team to go through the crowd at every rally armed with clipboards. Their instructions were to get the contact information for as many people who attended the rally as possible. We then recruited people from those lists to be volunteers on future actions that were focused on political impact.

In the months that followed, we put them to work making phone calls and knocking on doors all over New England. The goal of this effort was to identify registered voters from neighboring states who supported marriage equality and ask them to directly lobby their state representatives. It was part of a broad campaign to win marriage equality throughout all of New England and, five years later, we succeeded.

This amazing feat was not the direct result of any one of our marches or rallies. Those events were simply a catalyst used to build momentum for our cause. The real impact came from the hard work our rallied-up supporters took on in the years that followed.

Tens of thousands of science supporters braved the rain to support the March for Science in Washington, DC. Photo credit: D. Pomeroy

With this perspective, I think it’s fair to declare the March for Science a huge success. Tens of thousands of people braved the weather to show up to a sopping National Mall in Washington DC, stand in a downpour for four hours, and then march through the rain to Capitol Hill. There were also more than 600 satellite marches across the world. Thousands of people showed up in places like Boston, Los Angeles, New York and as far away as Sydney.

Whether or not the March will have impact on public support for science is now left up to what we do with the energy of the crowds we turned out. To be successful we will need to get people involved in every aspect of the movement. We will need scientists to speak out in their local communities to explain the importance of their research. We will need supporters to attend local school board meetings and ensure the next generation receives a science-based education. We will need everyone to go to their local, state, and national legislators and demand evidence-based policy. Some of us may even need to leave the lab and run for office.

Luckily, we are not starting from scratch in this endeavor. I am hopeful that long standing science advocacy organizations, like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, will be able to team up with newly forming organizations, like the March for Science and 314 Action. Together we can take this momentum forward and make real change. However, it will take time and it will take a sustained effort.

In the meantime, if you’re able to make it to a Pride event this month make sure to sign a petition or two. If an organizer follows up with you, don’t be afraid to take the next step and become a volunteer. Your involvement will not only be good for the cause; it will teach you a bit about political organizing. And, if we’re going to turn the massive crowds at the March for Science into a movement, we’re going to need as many organizers as possible.

 

Dr. Dan Pomeroy received his Ph.D. in physics from Brandeis University in 2012 studying high energy physics as part of the ATLAS experiment at CERN. He then served as a post-doctoral fellow, at the National Academy of Sciences and as a AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellow in the office of Senator Edward J. Markey.  He also has extensive experience in grassroots political organizing, running LGBT rights campaigns as well as field offices during the 2008 elections.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 

An Insider’s View on the Value of Federal Research

Not long after receiving my doctorate in biochemistry I took a research position with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the main research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Prior to retiring in 2014 I had spent my entire career, 33 years, with ARS. I had a chance to see federal research from within the system. Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s been my experience that federal research is solutions-oriented, transparent, and nonpolitical.  

Mike and his technician, Karen Wagner, developing a new method for biodiesel synthesis. Photo: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

Among the key aspects of that system were the following, which I believe pertain to federal research in general (exclusive, in some cases, of defense-related work):

  • It was problem-solving in nature, with research goals based in the country’s needs. These goals, for example, could be safer or more nutritious food, improved soil health, new uses for crops produced in excess of current needs, or any of a myriad of other topics.
  • There was daylight everywhere: Programs, goals, and outcomes were clearly published and publicized.
  • The work was not conducted to advance the sales of any commercial product, as some work in the private sector might be. It was problem, not profit, oriented.
  • The process had integrity and autonomy: Our results and conclusions were not dictated to us by management or the Administration.  During my career I published over 120 articles, including approximately 80 research papers in peer reviewed scientific journals, a dozen book chapters and half a dozen U.S. Patents. I gave over 100 oral presentations describing work.  Not one word that I authored was dictated to me by management. I am not aware of any colleague for whom that was not also true.
  • We were allowed and encouraged to patent any invention that we made. Patents were licensable under terms that were designed to aid the flow of technology to the private sector rather than to generate large sums of money for the inventor or the government.
  • We had full professional autonomy and were encouraged to interact with all parties (other than individuals and organizations from state sponsors of terrorism) as necessary to advance the work and disseminate its results. Among our partners were citizens as well as peers in academic, private sector or federal research, be they domestic or international, large or small firms. Large companies often have their own dedicated research and development teams, serving their interests. I came to see that in many ways we were the Research and Development team for the smaller firms and young industries – startups or small operations lacking the funds and staff to do dedicated research.  We collaborated with all comers, irrespective of size.
  • Research programs were up to 5 years in length, and continued beyond that if such could be justified. This led to the kind of long term, higher risk type of work that is in some cases needed and in many cases rare these days.
  • In cases of ‘crisis’ – some incident that needed a rapid research response (e.g. outbreak of a new plant disease, food poisoning incident….) – researchers were detailed into that area to assist in quickly developing appropriate responses to the threat.

Aerial shot of the Eastern Regional Research Center, USDA, near Philadelphia. Photo: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

I spent my career at the Eastern Regional Research Center near Philadelphia, one of the ARS ‘Utilization labs’ that were built in the late 1930s as part of a major effort to develop new uses for the crops produced by America’s farmers. Out of this work have come thousands of research publications and patents, which developed or assisted in developing a host of new products and processes including dehydrated mashed potatoes (and hence Pringles!); soy ink; permanent press cotton fabric; frozen foods with increased retention of flavor, color and texture; Lact-Aid; and more efficient processes for the production of biofuels.

Filling up a truck on biodiesel. Photo: Spencer Thomas/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

The increased market share for biodiesel alone is a success for federal research. Beginning in the early 1990s, the desire to promote energy independence in this country and to provide new markets for our crops led researchers to begin exploring the production of what became known as ‘biodiesel’. Made from vegetable oils and animal fats, biodiesel can replace petroleum-derived diesel fuel while burning cleaner and thus reducing the emission of pollutants.  It was an obvious new outlet for U.S. lipids, and so my group and others in ARS began investigating various aspects related to its production and use.  Today biodiesel is an accepted fuel used throughout the country (and world), powering vehicles and generators and heating homes.  It is a true success story, one in which my lab, other USDA labs, and many other researchers played a part.

Based on my experiences, I see federal research as extremely valuable. As I have outlined above, it is dedicated to improving the quality of life of all Americans, and is conducted within a framework designed to maximize its integrity, reliability, impact and availability. It is also very efficacious: I am aware of two studies conducted during my career that assessed the economic impact of ARS research. These analyses determined that every dollar invested yielded between 14 and 20 dollars in benefits for the country. That’s a strong statement of the value of the work, a measure of what will be lost to all of us if programs are dropped, and a return on investment that I’ll sign up for any day.

 

Following receipt of a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the U. of Wisconsin, Mike Haas went on to a career with the Agricultural Research Service of the U. S. Department of Agriculture.  During his over 30 years with ARS-USDA his research ranged from sophisticated studies of applied enzymology to the development of the simplest of methods for the production of biodiesel, a renewable fuel produced from U.S. farm products that both replaces and burns cleaner than petroleum diesel fuel.   During his research career Mike also served as an officer in relevant professional societies and as Associate Editor of a scientific journal.   Now retired, he serves as a student mentor with the National Biodiesel Board and, after 40 years in labs and offices, enjoys a multitude of outdoor activities.    

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

The Ill-logic of Alternative Facts (sic)

Philosophers of science are always on the lookout for the logic underlying the successful practices of the scientific community.  For us, that is a window into epistemology more generally, how humans manage to acquire knowledge of nature. The recent surge of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and claims that accepted science is a “hoax” propagated inside some conspiracy is not just disturbing, but threatens to undermine the hard-won authority of scientific facts. What’s going on, logically speaking, beneath the surface of these attacks?

Webinar Today: Scientific Facts vs. Alternative Facts

How can we understand and respond to “alternative facts” when they are presented as of equal value as scientific facts? The UCS Center for Science and Democracy joins with the Philosophy of Science Association to invite you to participate in a webinar to investigate the differences between scientific facts and so-called alternative facts.

Sign up to participate >

The phrase “alternative facts” was introduced by Kellyanne Conway to describe false claims by Sean Spicer about the number of people who attended Trump’s inauguration. While we might agree with Chuck Todd that “alternative facts are lies,” for a philosopher it is important to understand how they work in order to know how to respond to the challenge they present to legitimate facts. Appeals to “alternative facts” reveal a pattern of reasoning that is in stark contrast to the ways in which scientific facts are supported. What’s the difference?

Science comprises a set of practices that generate our most accurate views of what nature is like. That is why we appeal to scientific results to guide our choices of what materials to use to build a bridge or what drugs to take to treat a disease. Humans have their limitations: our first impressions are often wrong, and our in-house perceptual and cognitive abilities are not as acute or unbiased as what we can get by outsourcing to computers or to microscopes, telescopes, spectroscopes etc. The natural conditions we initially confront may obscure causes and confounding influences, and so science crafts experiments that strip away the clutter to expose the main effects, the most relevant variables, the predictive features.

The justification of the results of science is a community affair, founded on critical examination by replication, peer review, and multiple forms of checking structured by the assumption that any fact, data, explanation, hypothesis or theory might well be false or only an approximation of the truth. Science works because it is rigorous in these ways, and that’s what warrants its authority to speak truth to power (or to wishful thinking, or to non-empirically supported beliefs).

The rigorous practices of the scientific community are founded on the most objective procedures humans can implement. The life history of a scientific fact might begin with a hypothesis, or a hunch, or a new application of a well-accepted theory, but to mature into a fact it must pass through the gauntlet of experiment, replication, critical challenge and scientific community skepticism. The logic of accepting a scientific fact goes as follows: If there is good, reliable evidence for it, then it will be accepted (as long as there is not better evidence for a different claim). Its persistence as an accepted fact is not guaranteed, however, as new challenges must be survived when new data, new ideas, or new technologies suggest refinements or adjustments.

Alternative facts follow a different course. They might also begin as a yet-unsupported hypothesis of how things are—how large a crowd might be, how humans might not be causing climate change.  But then the life history looks very different.  Rather than appealing to objective means of determining IF the world matches the hypothesis, purveyors of alternative facts instead consult their ideological, economic or political interests.  Non-objective procedures kick in to cherry-pick data, appealing only to what supports the hypothesis, ignoring or debunking data that contradicts it.  The critical scrutiny of the scientific community is replaced by the sycophantic agreement of those that share ideological, economic or political interests (e.g. “people are saying….”).

The ill-logic of accepting an alternative fact (sic) goes like this. If the hypothesis conforms to one’s interests, accept it as a fact and barricade it from any impugning evidence. If there is some isolated evidence that supports it, treat that evidence as definitively confirming. If there is evidence that contradicts it, ignore, debunk, or deny that evidence. If others who share the same interests voice support for the hypothesis, treat that community as a justifying consensus that the world is the way that group wants it to be.

In short, alternative-fact logic replaces evidence of how nature is with personal preferences for how I want the world to be. Data from experiment or observation, and survival of critical challenges by replication, meta-analysis and peer review, are replaced by what “fact” would be best to increase profits (smoking isn’t addictive), or reduce the need for regulation (CO2 is not a major cause of climate change), or bolster some ideology (most Syrian refugees are young men).

By misappropriating the language of “fact,” this practice undermines the authority of science to speak for nature. Policies that should answer to the facts are no longer constrained by the non-partisan procedures of testing and critical challenge. Instead they are guided purely by partisan interests.  The acceptance of scientific facts is not determined by how we want the world to be. The acceptance of alternative facts is determined exclusively by those preferences.

The consequences of treating “alternative facts” on a par with scientific facts can be dire. The claim that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine can cause autism was proposed in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield, a UK doctor, reportedly based on faulty analysis and a financial conflict of interest. Wakefield had developed his own measles vaccine and was funded by those suing the producers of MMR. His paper was later retracted and his medical license revoked, but his “alternative fact” continues to be promoted and believed.

Dozens of scientific studies have shown no relationship between MMR and autism, but do show that the vaccine is 93%-97% effective at preventing measles. In the decade prior to the introduction of the vaccine in the US in 1963, millions contracted the disease, and an estimated 400 to 500 people died from measles each year. By 2000 measles was no longer endemic in the US. One study estimates that between 1994-2013, 70 million cases of measles and 57,000 deaths were prevented by the vaccine. In recent years there has been a rise in measles in the US, with the majority of cases occurring in unvaccinated individuals. In 2014, 85% of those who got measles declined vaccination due to religious, philosophical or personal objections.

People may choose what they want to believe, but they do not get to choose the consequences of those beliefs. Because measles is so highly contagious, it takes 90-95% of a population to be immune to protect those who are vulnerable (too young or medically compromised to be vaccinated). Relying on “alternative facts” about measles vaccines by even a small percentage in a community can have harmful effects on those who cannot choose.

By exposing the underlying logic of defenses of “alternative facts” we can move beyond the standoff (that’s your fact, this is my fact) to a conversation about what counts as evidence, and how it contributes to what we should believe about nature. Do you really want the pill you take for hypertension to be the one that most increases profits, rather than the one that is most effective and has the least side effects?

 

Sandra D. Mitchell is professor and chair of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh and is the President of The Philosophy of Science Association.  She teaches courses on philosophy of biology, the epistemology of experimental practices, morality and medicine, and practices of modeling in science.  Her research has focused on the implications of scientific explanations of complex systems on our assumptions about nature, knowledge and the ways to use knowledge in policy.  She is the author of Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity and Policy (2009)

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Is Researching Oceans Worth the Cost? Oregon’s Example Says Yes!

As an active research scientist working on climate change impacts on organisms of economic importance, it is easy to feel discouraged and frustrated by the politicization of science. Given how hard most of us actually work, and how much more money we could make elsewhere for less effort, it is easy to be frustrated by the criticism and attacks on climate science, particularly for early career scientists.

While it is easy to notice the attacks, it is perhaps harder to see the increasingly positive and strong public support for sustainable stewardship of our oceans. Today’s scientists are more engaged than ever with stakeholders, the public, policy makers, and politicians. Sea Grant is an organization that helps provide that bridge and turn research into actionable support for those who will benefit directly or indirectly from that research.

Nationally, Sea Grant funded research across the country includes everything from sustainability of marine resources, to understanding inundation from sea level rise, to reducing land-based pollution on coastal resources, visualizing ocean changes, etc. There are 33 Sea Grant programs nationally; in the last presidential race, 12 of those programs sat in states carried by Donald Trump. And within many blue states, there are coastal counties that were also carried by Trump. The ocean and the people who make their living from and benefit from it span the political spectrum, and we can all agree that healthy coastal economies depend on understanding our oceans 

The economic argument for keeping Sea Grant funding

Oyster at Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery. Photo by Oregon State University.

From a fiscal conservative standpoint, what is the cost and return on these investments in our oceans and their future? It is important to point out research investments are not entitlements. Estimates by Oregon Sea Grant put their current annual economic benefit at roughly $8.4 million, and that lacks many of the economic multipliers that could be included. Oregon Sea Grant receives approximately $2.4 million per year in federal funding, suggesting a return on investment of nearly $3.50 for every federal dollar invested into the program, or a 350% return on investment (ROI).

These federal investments in Sea Grant are matched by state contributions, thus leveraging funds and allowing state Sea Grant programs is to manage these resources to the benefit of local stakeholders (an approach that all political ideologies can agree upon). If we put this another way, the very top hedge fund investors often get returns on their investments of 15-20%, Oregon Sea Grant gets an ROI of between 160% (including state matching funds) or 350% (only federal investments).

Aggregated nationally, Sea Grant as a whole costs approximately $73 million in federal funds annually; cutting that funding (and assuming a national ROI similar to Oregon’s Sea Grant program) would be the equivalent of removing $255.5 million dollars annually from the US economy. This is why I have never understood why investments in science are always in political crosshairs. We mostly all understand it costs money to make money, and clearly research and Sea Grant generate large economic impacts for the relatively small costs. Specific examples abound, including here in Oregon during the oyster seed crisis from several years ago, research investments bolstered the $110M U.S west coast oyster industry that employs thousands in rural coastal communities.

I am optimistic that there will continue to be bi-partisan support for one of the things that has actually made America great: Research and Development; it has always been one of our greatest exports. We must remind our elected officials of how valuable research and science is to our country, and of the economic benefits of science. Who wouldn’t want over 100% returns on their investments? Research and science have been extremely profitable endeavors for our country, and we must continue to invest in them, if we are to continue to be great.

 

 

George Waldbusser received his Doctoral degree in Biological Oceanography at the University of Maryland. He teaches Biochemical Earth, Ocean Acidification and Bivalves, and Biostatistics, and his research focuses on, among other things, bivalves’ responses to acidifying waters in estuaries. Specifically, Dr. Waldbusser is interested in the role of organisms in modifying physical and biogeochemical processes in sediments, species interactions in sediments, coastal and estuarine acidification effects on bivalves, the importance of benthic habitats in biogeochemical cycling, structure and function of sedimentary habitats, and tidal flat ecology. He is currently being funded the Oregon Sea Grant and the National Science Foundation to research ocean acidification’s effects on oysters and other bivalves.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

We All Benefit from Foreign Nations’ Food Crop Diversity—But Do Our Politics Reflect This Interdependence?

Earlier this spring, the United States became the newest member of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a global agreement on sharing and caring for seeds. It’s a remarkable moment for an agreement whose central tenet is that all countries need one another, especially since it’s really hard to measure just how much they do.

Here’s the argument: genetic diversity in food plants is an essential resource needed to keep crops productive, nutritious, resistant to pests and diseases, and tolerant to drought, heat, and other climatic challenges. Farmers need these traits to produce good yields, and plant breeders provide them by mixing and matching the genetic diversity found within the seeds of modern cultivars, ancient heirlooms, and even wild relatives to produce vigorous new crop varieties.

So where do plant breeders find these seeds? Here’s where we get to international collaboration. Crop genetic diversity increases with time: the places where food crops have been continuously cultivated for hundreds to thousands of years, and especially where they were initially domesticated many thousands of years ago, tend to be extraordinarily diverse.

Origins and primary regions of diversity of major agricultural crops. From Khoury et al. 2016. Proc. R. Soc. B 283(1832): 20160792.

Wheat, corn, rice, and every other one of the crops that feed us originated and diversified in distinct regions around the world. Now they are grown just about everywhere they can be. From Canada to Argentina, Mexico to Mongolia, varieties of these crops have been introduced and adapted to different climates and soils, pests and diseases. This work never ends—it’s a continuous process of breeding and adaptation to maintain agricultural productivity. To support this most important of endeavors, we all have a stake in the open exchange of seeds.

But just how interdependent are countries with regard to seeds?

In its 15 years of existence, the Seed Treaty has made some progress toward its goals. Its 143 member countries have negotiated a way by which crop seeds in the public domain can more easily be shared across borders. They have also started to keep track of these seeds, better ensuring that they remain public, and have built a benefit-sharing fund that has disbursed $20 million in support of crop diversity conservation and capacity building worldwide. Related initiatives focus on providing long-term financial support to the world’s most diverse and vulnerable public genebanks, where substantial crop genetic diversity is maintained, and offer a global safety backup for seeds in the Arctic.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault- the global safety backup for seeds. Photo: Crop Trust.

But much remains to be done to adequately share and care for the world’s seeds. A number of countries have yet to join the Treaty, and implementation of its procedures by many members has been slow. Essential components such as the affirmation of the rights of farmers to continue their traditional seed exchange practices, and the contributions to the conservation fund, need strengthening.

Surely it’s partly a matter of time; big political processes move at glacial speed. But I suspect that roadblocks persist because of a deeper problem: the central argument that we all benefit from one another’s seeds hasn’t had enough teeth to motivate comprehensive political action.

Unfortunately, complete data on the extent to which countries give and receive seeds aren’t available. Tracking these exchanges was mandated only recently, and we won’t know the results until some years in the future. By then we’ll be even further behind on the urgent work needed to adapt crops to climate change.

How about an estimate of interdependence among countries?

Returning to the roots of the argument for the creation of the Seed Treaty, our research team has estimated the degree to which countries depend on one another’s seeds. The calculation was based on the proportion of each country’s national agricultural production, and its food supply, that is composed of crops whose origins, or “primary regions of diversity” are found elsewhere around the world.

We found that countries indeed produce and consume crops from many different primary regions of diversity. The US, for example, grows crops like corn and cotton that originated in Central America, wheat and alfalfa from West Asia, soybeans and citrus from East Asia, and other crops originating in the Mediterranean, Europe, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Andean South America, East Africa, and other regions. A bit of what we grow originated in North America itself, but not a lot. It’s very much the same story for the food we eat.

Estimated potential contribution of different primary regions of diversity of crops grown in the U.S., measured in value ($USD per year). As crops may have more than one primary region of diversity, total percent contribution is more than 100%. From Khoury et al. 2016. Proc. R. Soc. B 283(1832): 20160792.

To put simpler numbers on the trend, we estimated the degree to which each country cultivates or eats “foreign” crops, defined as plants whose primary regions of diversity do not overlap at all with the region where the country is located. For the US, we found that more than 95% of American agricultural production is of foreign crops, as is at least 90% of its food supply.

Averaging across all countries, about 70% of crops grown, and 69% of plants consumed, are immigrants. No country produces or consumes only native foods. Countries are increasingly cultivating and eating foreign crops as economic development proceeds and as food systems become more globalized.

Interdependence and the state of the Seed Treaty

Even with a lack of comprehensive data on consumption and production and crop diversity regions, it is clear that people in all countries grow and eat food crops whose genetic diversity is largely concentrated outside their borders, and would therefore benefit from the facilitated exchange of agricultural seeds. The very likely trend is for increasing needs for seeds, as markets adapt to changing consumer preferences and as producers adapt to increasingly challenging environmental conditions.

The evidence on countries’ predominant use of foreign crops bolsters the rationale for strengthening international collaboration on conservation of crop diversity and for making the exchange of all agricultural seeds as easy and affordable as possible. Our interdependence also boosts the argument for considering the genetic diversity of globally important food crops as public goods which should be openly available to all, and for respecting the rights of farmers to practice their traditional methods of conservation and exchange, not only in recognition of their historical contributions to the diversity in our food, but also in active support of its further evolution.

The Seed Treaty has already done a lot to formalize the understanding that it is prudent for countries to collaborate on sharing and caring for seeds. As one of the world’s agricultural powerhouses, and still the single largest public provider of crop diversity, the US ratification of the Treaty is exciting. Hopefully this is a key moment in the progress toward a truly global agreement where countries work together to conserve and share the diversity of the crops that nourish us all.

 

Colin Khoury studies diversity in the crops people grow and eat worldwide, and the implications of change in this diversity on human health and environmental sustainability. He is particularly interested in the wild relatives of food crops. Colin is a research scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia, and at the USDA National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Hearing from the Scientists Who Rely on Sea Grant

I can pinpoint my passion for marine conservation to a childhood full of opportunities to experience the wonders of nature and grounded in a deep appreciation for the ocean and fishing culture. This is why I have chosen to devote my life to ensuring these natural resources are around to inspire future generations.

However, the budget proposal released by the White House this week has made it clear that supporting scientists like me is not a priority. Governmental agencies that employ my respected colleagues, fellowships that helped me get through graduate school, and research programs that I rely on to do my job are lined up for the cutting block.

Among the worst of the proposed budget cuts is the complete elimination of Sea Grant. Sea Grant excels as a conduit between the scientists and the stakeholders in coastal areas who have real problems to solve. Integral to Sea Grant’s mission to promote integrated and applicable research is its commitment to the next generation of scientists. Sea Grant is a major source of fellowships for coastal science graduate students. While I personally was not funded through Sea Grant (I had EPA funding, which is also eliminated under the proposed budget), I have many colleagues and friends who benefitted from Sea Grant support as they began their careers. I interviewed a few for this post about the value of Sea Grant to their careers, to the environment, and to science in general.

Training the next generation of scientists

Tidal pools in Newport, OR.

For many young scientists, opportunities through Sea Grant are a path to a career in science that can really make a difference. Theresa Davenport, a marine scientist and a recent graduate of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, was part of Sea Grant’s incredibly successful Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship program.

“The Knauss Fellowship’s hallmark is to take subject matter experts and provide them with experience and training to become globally engaged knowledge experts and leaders working at the intersection of academia, private citizens, industry and government,” said Theresa.

Knauss fellows are placed in federal legislative and executive offices in Washington D.C. In many cases, these interns are the only sources of science expertise in their offices, and the value of these young scientists to the American public is incalculable. For example, Theresa helped develop a restoration monitoring and adaptive management plan for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill recovery. In fact, she mentioned that her team on this important and crucial project was made up of mostly Sea Grant fellows or folks that had previously been involved in the Knauss fellowship program. She said this is not out of the ordinary.

“It would be interesting to compile the number of Sea Grant fellows involved in the two largest US environmental disaster responses in the last 10 years.” She is referring to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Sandy, and she expects Sea Grant fellows played a large role in both cases.

Science informing policy

The benefits of funding early career scientists continue long after the fellowship ends. Introducing scientists directly to problems that can benefit from their unique gifts and knowledge ensures that they will be problem solvers. For Dr. Allison Colden, another graduate of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a Sea Grant fellowship was an important step to a career in conservation.

“As a former Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellow, I gained valuable experience in interpreting cutting-edge science into public policy, a skill that I now use daily at a leading environmental non-profit,” she said.

She sees Sea Grant playing an important role in solving many of the problems facing the world today.

“Sea Grant is vital to ensuring the continued prosperity and resilience of our nation’s coastal communities by connecting managers and stakeholders with innovative science to create viable solutions for the future,” said Allison. “Cuts to Sea Grant sever a critical link in the science-policy chain, undermining the social, economic, and ecological resilience of coastal communities in a time when it is needed most.”

Scientists are increasingly facing the burden to make the connection between research and impacts, and Sea Grant has been making that connection for nearly 50 years. We should be expanding, not gutting programs that bring together academia, private citizens, industry and government, and programs that inspire young scientists to build solutions to the challenges we face. This is the best way for society to achieve a healthier, safer, more sustainable future for all people.

 

Dr. Cassandra Glaspie is a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University in the Fisheries and Wildlife Department. Originally from Waterford, Michigan, Cassandra received her B.S. in Zoology from Michigan State University and her PhD in Marine Science from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Cassandra is passionate about the environment and the ocean, and her research involves marine food webs and predator-prey interactions, especially as they relate to changes in the environment. In Oregon, she studies climate-related changes in ocean habitat quality for ecologically and economically important fish such as Chinook salmon and albacore tuna. A resident of Corvallis, Cassandra is an advocate for local climate action and works with the Corvallis chapter of the Sierra Club to educate the community on issues related to climate change and sustainability initiatives.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

No Rest for the Sea-weary: Science in the Service of Continually Improving Ocean Management

Marine reserves, or no-fishing zones, are increasing throughout the world. Their goals are variable and numerous, often a mix of conserving our ocean’s biodiversity and supporting the ability to fish for seafood outside reserves for generations to come. California is one location that has seen the recent implementation of marine reserves, where the California Marine Life Protection Act led to the establishment of one of the world’s largest networks of marine reserves.

A number of scientific efforts have informed the design of marine reserves throughout the world and in California. Mathematical models were central to these research efforts as they let scientists and managers do simulated “experiments” of how different reserve locations, sizes, and distances from each other affect how well reserves might achieve their goals.

While a PhD student in the early 2000s, I began my scientific career as one of many contributing to these efforts. In the process, a key lesson I learned was the value of pursuing partnerships with government agencies such as NOAA Fisheries to ensure that the science I was doing was relevant to managers’ questions, an approach that has become central to my research ever since.

Map of the California Marine Protected Areas; courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife

A transition from design to testing

Now, with many marine reserves in place, both managers and scientists are turning to the question of whether they are working. On average (but not always), marine reserves harbor larger fish and larger population sizes for fished species, as well as greater total biomass and diversity, compared both to before reserves were in place and to areas outside reserves. However, answering a more nuanced question—for a given reserve system, is it working as expected?—can help managers engage in “adaptive management”: using the comparison of expectations to data to identify any shortfalls and adjust management or scientific understanding where needed to better achieve the original goals.

Mathematical models are crucial to calculating expectations and therefore to answering this question. The original models used to answer marine reserve design questions focused on responses that might occur after multiple decades. Now models must focus on predicting what types of changes might be detectable over the 5-15 year time frame of reserve evaluation. Helping to develop such modeling tools as part of a larger collaboration, with colleagues Alan Hastings and Louis Botsford at UC Davis and Will White at the University of North Carolina, is the focus of my latest research on marine reserves in an ongoing project that started shortly after I arrived as a professor at UC Davis.

To date we have developed new models to investigate how short-term expectations in marine reserves depend on fish characteristics and fishing history. Now we have a new partnership with California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, the responsible management agency for California’s marine reserves, to collaboratively apply these tools to our statewide reserve system. This application will help rigorously test how effective California’s marine reserves are, and therefore help with continually improving management to support both the nutrition and recreation that Californians derive from the sea. In addition, it will let California serve as a leading example of model-based adaptive management that could be applied to marine reserves throughout the world.

The role of federal funding

The cabezon is just one type of fish protected from fishing in California’s marine reserves. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Our project on models applied to adaptive managed started with funding in 2010–2014 from NOAA SeaGrant, a funding source uniquely suited to support research that can help improve ocean and fisheries management. With this support, we could be forward-looking about developing the modeling tools that the State of California now needs.  NOAA SeaGrant would be eliminated under the current administration’s budget proposal.

My other experience with NOAA SeaGrant is through a graduate student fellowship program that has funded PhD students in my (and my colleagues’) lab group to do a variety of marine reserve and fisheries research projects. This fellowship funds joint mentorship by NOAA Fisheries and academic scientists towards student research projects relevant to managing our nation’s fisheries. Along with allowing these students to bring cutting-edge mathematical approaches that they learn at UC Davis to collaborations with their NOAA Fisheries mentors, this funding gives students the invaluable experience I had as a PhD student in learning how to develop partnerships with government agencies that spur research relevant to management needs. Both developing such partnerships and training students in these approaches are crucial elements to making sure that new scientific advancements are put to use. This small amount of money goes a long way towards creating future leaders who will continue to help improve the management of our ocean resources.

 

Marissa Baskett is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis.  Her research and teaching focus on conservation biology and the use of mathematical models in ecology.  She received a B.S. in Biological Sciences at Stanford University and both an M.A. and Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, and she is an Ecological Society of America Early Career Fellow.  

The views expressed in this post solely represent the opinions of Marissa Baskett and do not necessarily represent the views of UC Davis or any of her funders or partners.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Five Ways to Move Beyond the March: A Guide for Scientists Seeking Strong, Inclusive Science

The March for Science took place April 22 in locations all over the world — an exciting time for scientist-advocates and a proud moment for the global scientific community.

As we reflect on the March, we must also reflect on the fact that organization of the March on Science 2017 has been a microcosm of the structural, systemic challenges that scientists continue to face in addressing equity, access, and inclusion in the sciences.

Others have written eloquently regarding the steep learning curve that the March on Science Washington DC organizers faced in ensuring an inclusive and equitable March. The organizers’ initial missteps unleashed a backlash on social media, lambasting their failure to design a movement for all scientists and exhorting them to consider more deeply the ways in which science interacts with the varying experiences of language, race, economic status, ableness, gender, religion, ethnic identity, and national origin.

The March has taken steps to correct these initial missteps, correctly choosing to engage directly with the issue and consult with historically excluded scientists to better understand and examine the ways in which science interacts with the ongoing political reality of bias in society.  It must be noted, however, that improvements like their new Diversity and Inclusion Principles, though an excellent initial step, still mask the unheralded efforts of multiple scientists of color to correct the narrative.

At the core of the controversy, and perhaps underlying its intellectual origins, is the popular fiction among scientists that Science can (or should) be apolitical.

Science is never apolitical.

It is, inherently, a system of gaining knowledge that has been devised by, refined by, practiced by, misused by, and even (at times) weaponized by human beings — and as human beings, we are inherently political.

Therefore science is not a completely neutral machine, functioning of its own volition and design; but rather a system with which we tinker and adjust; which we tune to one frequency or the other; and by dint of which we may or may not determine (or belatedly rationalize) the course of human action.

And so when we understand that science is not apolitical, we are freed to examine the biases, exclusions, and blind spots it may create — and then correct for them. In doing so, we can improve ourselves, broaden the inclusivity of our work (and potentially improve its usefulness and/or applicability), and advance the quest of scientific inquiry: to find the unwavering truths of the universe.

The March on Science organizers have come a long way in recognizing the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in science, but what comes next? How can scientists living in this current political moment engage in individual and collective action (hint: it’s not just about calling your representatives). What can we do?

  1. Study the history and culture of science. As scientists, we are natural explorers and inherently curious. We ought to direct some of that curiosity toward ourselves; toward better understanding where we come from, who we are, and why we think the way we do. Historians of science and those engaged in social study of science have demonstrated how science is a human enterprise, influenced by culture and politics of specific times and places. These studies have shown how blind spots — in language, in culture, in worldview, in political orientation—can change our results, skew our data, or put a foot on the scales of measurement. At times, these biases have caused great harm, and at others have been fairly benign—but these analyses together all point out how science is more robust for recognizing sociocultural impacts on its practice.
  2. Understand our own political reality, and seek to understand the realities of others. Take some time — even ten minutes a week — to ask yourself if your actions reflect your beliefs. What beliefs do you hold dear, both as a scientist and as a person? How do they influence the way you think about, study, and conduct science? What do you assume to be true about the world? How does that impact the way in which you frame your scientific questions? How does it influence the methods, study sites, or populations you choose? How does the political reality which you inhabit—and its associated privileges and problems—direct your attention, shape your questions, or draw you to one discipline or the other? What presumptions do you make about people, about systems, or about the planet itself? What do you do, think, or feel when your assumptions are challenged? How willing are you to be wrong?
  3. Open the discourse. Inclusive science won’t happen by accident—it will happen because we work to eliminate the sources of bias in our systems and structures that list the ship toward one side or the other. And the only way we can learn about these sources of bias is to (1) acknowledge their existence, then (2) begin to look for them. Talk to other scientists—at conferences, on Twitter, on Facebook, on reddit, on Snapchat, through email chains, through list-servs—any way you can. Listen for the differences in your perspectives and approaches. Ponder on the political reality from which they might originate. Ask questions, and genuinely want to hear (and accept) the answers. Then go back and reconsider the questions regarding your political reality and how you could now approach your science based on what you have learned of others. As a clear example, western science has consistently overlooked the already-learned lessons of indigenous science and disregarded the voiced experiences of indigenous researchers. Greater recognition of—and collaboration with—indigenous scientists has the potential to greatly speed and improve advances in our work. Opening the discourse is a first step toward ameliorating this deficit in our learning.
  4. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Reach out to scientists who do not look like you, do not speak your dialect, do not come from your country, do not share your values or religion, do not frame questions in the same way, and do not hold the same theories precious. Share equally in the experience of scientific discovery. Choose a journal that will assign multiple-first-authorships. Publish open-access if you can, and share directly if you can’t.
  5. Choose to include. Take responsibility at all stages—in the planning for science, the choosing of methods, the hiring of staff, the implementation—for creating strong, inclusive scientific teams and systems. Be aware of how your own political reality affect your scientific design, planning, or implementation. Check your unrecognized presumptions or biases. Challenge yourself to ask your question through a different lens or through different eyes. Choose to participate in the improvement and refinement of our shared scientific machine.

Ignoring politics doesn’t insulate us from it—if scientists want to be champions for knowledge, then we have to defend our practice from the human tendencies that threaten to unravel it—exclusion, tribalism, competition, and bias. Science can’t be apolitical, but it can be a better path to knowledge—so let’s make it happen.

 

Alexandra E. Sutton Lawrence is an Associate in Research at the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, where she focuses on analyzing innovation & policy in the energy sector. She’s also a doctoral candidate in the Nicholas School of the Environment, and a member of the Society for Conservation Biology’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Committee. She’s also a former member of the global governing board for the International Network of Next Generation Ecologists (INNGE).

 

 

Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant is a conservation biologist with a focus on large carnivore ecology in human-modified landscapes, with a concurrent interest in communicating science to diverse audiences. Dr. Wynn-Grant is the deputy chair of the Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity committee for the Society for Conservation Biology.

 

 

 

Cynthia Malone is a conservation scientist and social justice organizer, whose intersectional, trans-disciplinary research ranges from primate ecology to human wildlife conflict across the tropics, including Indonesia and Cameroon. She is a cofounder and current co-chair of the Society of Conservation Biology’s Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Committee.

 

 

Dr. Eleanor Sterling has interdisciplinary training in biology and anthropology and has over 30 years of field research and community outreach experience with direct application to biodiversity conservation in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. Dr. Sterling is active in the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), having served for 12 years on the SCB Board of Governors and she currently co-chairs the SCB’s Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Committee, which she co-founded. She also co-founded the Women in the Natural Sciences Association for Women in Sciences chapter in New York City.

 

Martha Groom is a Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and the College of the Environment at the University of Washington.  Her work focuses on the intersections of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, and on effective teaching practice. A member of the SCB Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Committee, she is also a leader of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Washington, a summer intensive program for undergraduates aimed at building truly inclusive conservation practice.

 

Dr. Mary Blair is a conservation biologist and primatologist leading integrative research to inform conservation efforts, including spatial priority-setting and wildlife trade management. She is the President of the New York Women in Natural Sciences, a chapter of the Association for Women in Science, and a member of the Society for Conservation Biology’s Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Committee.

 

 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Shake, Rattle, and Rainout: Federal Support for Disaster Research

Hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes are simply natural events—until humans get in their way. The resulting disasters are particularly devastating in urban areas, due to high concentrations of people and property. Losses from disasters have risen steadily over the past five decades, thanks to increased populations and urban development in high-hazard areas, particularly the coasts. There is also significant evidence that climate change is making weather-related events more frequent and more severe as well. As a result, it is more critical than ever that natural hazards research is being incorporated into emergency planning decisions.

NOAA map denotes a range of billion dollar weather and climate disasters for 2016.

Improving emergency planning for the public’s benefit

A handful of far-sighted urban planning and management researchers, with particular support from the National Science Foundation, began studying these events during the 1970s. I participated in two of these research studies. Both opportunities afforded me clear opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives, a major reason I chose my field.

In 2000, a group of researchers from the University of New Orleans and Tulane University looked into the effects of natural hazards on two communities: Torrance, CA (earthquakes) and Chalmette, LA (hurricanes). This research focused on the oil refineries in both communities. We looked at emergency-management protocols, potential toxic effects due to refinery damage, and population impacts.

Hurricane Katrina photo of oil spill in Chalmette, showing oil tanks & streets covered with oil slick. US EPA photo from “http://www.epa.gov/katrina/images/oilspill_650.jpg” by the United States Environmental Protection Agency

Although California has a far better-developed emergency management system at all levels of government, Chalmette was less vulnerable than Torrance, due to the advanced warning available for hurricanes. We also found that, though even well-informed homeowners tend to be less prepared than expected, renters are more vulnerable to disaster effects due to inadequate knowledge, dependence on landlords to secure their buildings, and generally lower socioeconomic status. Our findings had major implications for community-awareness campaigns, suggesting that more than disaster “fairs”, public flyers, and media attention are needed. We concluded with a series of recommendations for emergency managers and planners to improve their communities’ prospects.

This conjoint-hazard research also stimulated in-depth studies of the various aspects of what is now called “natech”. For example, a pair of researchers subsequently found that natural hazards were the principal cause of more than 16,000 releases of hazardous materials between 1990 and 2008—releases that could have been prevented with better hazard-mitigation planning and preparation. The implications for regulation of businesses that use hazardous substances are obvious. So are the ramifications for public outreach and disaster response.

The second NSF-funded study, conducted at Florida Atlantic University, began in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Before starting, we scoured the literature for earlier research on housing recovery, only to discover that most of it dealt with either developing countries or one or two earthquake events in California.

We focused on housing recovery along the eight-state “hurricane coast” from North Carolina south and west to Texas. A case study of New Orleans quickly revealed the extent to which local circumstances, population characteristics, and state and federal policies and capacity impaired people’s ability to restore their homes and rebuild their lives. We assembled data on the socioeconomic, housing, and property-insurance characteristics of the first- and second-tier coastal counties, as well as information about state and local disaster-recovery policies and planning.

The research team then developed a vulnerability index that provides a numerical snapshot for each county, as well as a series of indicators that contributed to the overall rating. These indicators can be used to evaluate specific areas in need of improvement, such as building regulations, flood-protection measures, and reconstruction policies—for example, restrictions on temporary housing—as well as the extent to which each area contributes to overall vulnerability.

Science informs public policies

Although imperfect, indexes do provide policy-makers and stakeholders with valuable insights. Moreover, our analysis of post-disaster housing policies revealed the inadequacies in federal provision of temporary housing, the most critical need once community safety has been restored. The controversies surrounding FEMA’s travel-trailers—high cost, toxic materials, and haphazard placement—made national news. Now there is increasing recognition that small, pre-fabricated houses are a better approach, presuming that local jurisdictions allow them to be built regardless of pre-disaster construction regulations. More planners are engaged in looking at these regulations with disaster recovery in mind.

I’m proud of the research I’ve contributed to, but I’m even more gratified with the impacts of that research. Many of our recommendations have been directed at government actors, and it is through those actors that real differences are made in people’s day-to-day lives—and in their resiliency in the face of disaster. In an era of accelerating environmental change, helping communities endure will be ever more dependent on cutting-edge research of this kind. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the endeavor.

 

Joyce Levine, PhD, AICP, received her PhD from the University of New Orleans. As an urban planner with thirty years of experience, she became interested in pre- and post-disaster planning by preparing her dissertation under hazard-mitigation guru Raymond J Burby. She participated in two NSF-funded projects that focused on hazard-prone states — California and Louisiana in the first, and the southern “hurricane coast” in the second. She is the author of an extensive study of the housing problems i New Orleans reported by government and the media during the first six months after Katrina. Although she has retired from academia, she continues to follow disaster research in the U.S.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Graphic: NOAA

A Peer Review of the March For Science

This past weekend, the March For Science drew hundreds of thousands of scientists and science supporters onto the streets in 600 locations on six continents. It was, by most accounts (including those of science historians), an unprecedented event. But big-picture speaking, how did it do?

“Pluses and deltas” is a popular retrospective exercise amongst grassroots organizers, and offers a constructive way to answer this question. It asks: where did we go right (pluses), and how can we improve (deltas)? Here are my top two pluses and deltas for the March For Science.

Plus #1: The March For Science mobilized the immobilizable. As a scientist-activist who has been organizing scientist-led campaigns and rallies under hashtags like #StandWithScience for several years, I know first hand how hard it can be to get introverted, politically-ambivalent scientists worked up—let alone out of their labs and into the streets. In that sense, last Saturday was incredible. “The march represented a sort of coming-out party for many scientists flexing a fledgling political muscle,” Vox’s Brian Resnick observed. In D.C. he met Charlotte Froese Fischer, an 87-year-old atomic physicist who “until today…had never attended a political rally of any kind, let alone one for science.” At March For Science rallies at Harvard and MIT, I was delighted to see not just the usual suspects, but hundreds of mildly uncomfortable academics who had clearly never waved a sign or chanted in public before (I’ve been there). For many, this was a gateway into political engagement and activism.

Plus #2: The March For Science forced many scientists—not to mention the public, press, and politicians—to grapple with the role of science in society and the relationship between science and politics. As scientists with little or no past experience in political engagement wrestled for the first time with the fear of politicizing science, the march went from officially apolitical to political-but-non-partisan. As my advisor, Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, points out, research indicates that this fear is just that—a fear, unsubstantiated by historical evidence and peer-reviewed experiments, which show that scientists’ credibility is robust to science-advocacy. Indeed, scientists appear to have largely brought this fear upon themselves by conflating the idea of science in the abstract (the scientific method) with the application of science in the real world. In so doing, we handed journalists an irresistible ‘controversy’ over (mostly) semantics. And yet, with time, the march’s communications improved, and on the day, its global message was unambiguous: science serves society.

The march’s successes have helped normalize science-activism, injecting momentum and political potential into this new “science voter” bloc. Capitalizing on this momentum, however, will take work. For me, the deltas of the March For Science involve better embracing the sociopolitical realities in which science operates.

Delta #1: Having fumbled with the largely mythical fear of politicizing science, scientists must now truly move on if we are to become more effective campaigners and messengers. This means not just rallying in the abstract about the importance of science (“I love science!”), but speaking out on specific issues where science is being trampled on by politicians and policymakers. Climate change epitomizes this. At its best, the March For Science offered a profound statement of our values as scientists, which is a crucial start. But a truly effective narrative for social change also requires a story of “now”: a moment of crisis that challenges those values. By not explicitly articulating President Trump’s war on science (and, accordingly, on all of us) as one of the targets of our protest, the March left room for improvement.

Delta #2: Scientist-activists must embrace the intersectionality of science with politics, race, class, gender, corporatism, and so on. Here, I am referring not to diversity within academia, as exceptionally important and related as it is, but to how the science movement (comprising both scientists and science lovers) sees its place in the world. Unlike the scientific method, the science movement does not—and should never—exist in a bubble. We should embrace opportunities to connect science to real-world issues, both in what we say and who we collaborate with.

In my own field of energy and climate change, for example, we should talk about how last year alone, the solar industry hired more people than the coal industry employs in its entirety. We should talk about how fossil fuel pollution and climate change disproportionately harm and kill minorities and indigenous groups. In short, we should stand in solidarity with those whom our science strives to protect. Not only is this the right thing to do, it is politically effective; by building narratives of shared values, we can broaden our coalition and win the political story wars. The movement for a just and stable low-carbon future doesn’t stop at the laboratory’s edge, but for too many scientists, it still does.

At Saturday’s march, amidst the geeky signs and nerdy chants, Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr.—a leading figure in the climate movement and a VIP guest of the March For Science—was, he reports, a victim in broad daylight of a racist assault by D.C. police officers. “The deeply disappointing truth of this Earth Day case of racial profiling,” Yearwood observes, “was that none of my fellow science marchers stopped or took issue with what was happening. They didn’t question or pause to witness in a way that one would for a member of one’s community.” Of course, the inactions of those present do not represent all marchers or scientists. But in that random sampling—at that moment on that crosswalk—solidarity was absent.

This coming Saturday, April 29, the People’s Climate March offers an immediate opportunity for scientists and science supporters alike to build on the pluses of the March For Science, and to work on our collective deltas. In DC and 250 sister marches nationwide, hundreds of thousands of us will stand up for climate, jobs, and justice. It is an important first test. Can we find the moral courage to not only celebrate values like evidence-based policy, but put them into action on real-world issues like climate change? Are we willing to step out of our comfort zones to call out the Trump administration’s anti-science pandering to fossil fuel interests? Is this a moment, or a movement?

 

Dr. Geoffrey Supran is a post-doctoral researcher in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at MIT and in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University. He has a PhD in Materials Science & Engineering from MIT. He has co-led several campaigns to mobilize scientists to engage in climate advocacy, including the fossil fuel divestment campaign at MIT, an open letter from academics urging Donald Trump to take climate action, and the #StandUpForScience rallies in San Francisco and Boston, which were the first major scientist protests against the Trump administration. He spoke at the Harvard March For Science.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

I’m Elise, and I’m a Scientist Marching in the Peoples Climate March. This Is Why.

There have been times throughout history when great people have acted to better unfortunate situations.  However, if we examine social and political history you will find times where man had great opportunity to act but did not. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged this behavior by questioning, “How can a man sleep through a revolution?” With a consensus among scientists that climate change is attributed to human activities, we have a unique opportunity unlike any other to exhibit consciousness in the face of a changing climate.

To me, the Peoples Climate March represents a gathering of the masses to make known that we are not asleep; that we recognize the revolution, embrace its challenges, and welcome equitable solutions that will reshape a more sustainable world for all. The Peoples Climate March is more than just a day of people walking in the streets of DC. It is a collection of love and of care and represents the power of people and sound science.

As a scientist I am well aware of the impacts of climate change. We know with great confidence that the sea level will rise, flooding homes and cities. In the Northeast, for example, the region depends on aging infrastructure that is highly vulnerable to climate hazards. The Northeast has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the U.S. This increase combined with coastal flooding creates major risk for damage to homes, buildings, infrastructure and life.

We also know that in my home, the Southeast, there will be an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, leaving many vulnerable. We understand that temperatures are rising, increasing heat-related illness and deaths. The U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3 degrees F to 1.9 degrees F since 1895. According to data from NASA and NOAA, 2016 was the warmest year on record. We know that there will be changes in precipitation causing floods in some areas and droughts in others; and that there will be expansion of the geographic range of hosts of vectors that cause diseases like Zika. These are just a few of the changes we expect to occur.

These changes will mean that people will have to migrate to new areas of the country, more people will deal with the associated mental and emotional health issues, and culture will be lost when people migrate from communities where their family has lived for years to new lands. All of these are consequences of a changing climate, but will those who are rich, those who have made millions of dollars off of carbon intensive industries, have to experience this burden? Not to the extent that the general population will. The impacts of climate change will not be felt evenly.

People of color, Indigenous Peoples, and low-income communities bear disproportionate burdens from climate change itself, from ill-designed policies to prevent it, and from side effects of the energy systems that cause it. Climate change affects our health, housing, economic well-being, culture, and social stability. As a graduate of Tuskegee University, a Historically Black College (HBCU), utilizing knowledge to benefit people, specifically the most vulnerable, was a foundational part of my training. I believe that using my knowledge to work towards a more just climate change agenda is very important and that we must ensure that equity, including addressing racism and classism, be at the cornerstone of all policies and plans.

Climate change presents an opportunity for producing a more just society with a more robust economy. We can provide jobs that help traditionally impoverished people get out of poverty; we can create policies that improve the lives of all, and promote a more sustainable framework for living on this Earth.

I am marching because as a scientist, I understand the science that leads to the impacts; as a person, I empathize with those who are vulnerable to those impacts; and as a global citizen, I have a duty to take action.

 

Elise Marie Tolbert is an ASPPH/EPA Environmental Health Fellow in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, Indoor Environments Division. She is currently working on a project to better understand and address heat stress among vulnerable populations. Through her work, she hopes to ensure equity in environmental planning and decision-making. Elise received her B.S. in Environmental Science from Tuskegee University and Masters of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan. Elise’s research has explored how pollutants and unhealthy features of the environment can affect human health. Furthermore, she seeks to examine how improving environmental health can produce social justice. Ms. Tolbert’s interests include climate change, environmental health policy, environmental justice and sustainable community development. Her future interest includes continuing her professional education and developing a career in which she can strategically work to alleviate the burden of environmental hazards, specifically for historically disadvantaged populations. Elise also serves as the Founder and Director of Next Step Up, a mentoring and tutoring program in Tuskegee, AL. Through this program, college students assist local high school students by providing the skills and motivation needed to reach their academic and personal goals.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

 

March for Science: A Search for Truth, Trust, and Public Support

“Sure, this is nice and all, but be honest, can’t you prove just about anything with ‘a study?’” I’m all too familiar with this question, and I think it stems largely from one simple fact. As scientists, my colleagues and I spend too much time in our labs worried about truth and too little time connecting with the public and building trust. That’s why you’ll find me at the March for Science this weekend along with thousands of my friends and neighbors.

As a professor at Wayne State, the focus of my research is combustion. Almost everyone uses combustion every day. When controlled correctly, combustion in a car’s engine maximizes fuel economy, with a minimum of pollutant emission. These regulations directly impact the economy and public health. But from 2009 to 2015 vehicles sold from VW cheated on these regulations.

How was this cheating uncovered? It was research done a small university lab in the mountains of West Virginia that provided the data which alerted the public to this problem. The shocking part? The WVU study was published May 30, 2014, but the notice of violation from the air resources board did not go to VW until September 2015 and appeared only after VW had made its own public admission. The lack of communication among scientists, the media, and the public prevents environmental crises like this, and others, from reaching us quickly enough.

This is part of what the March for Science is all about. Getting attention paid to science and making sure science gets the support it needs. President Trump’s budget proposal cuts funding to basic science, slashing programs within the NIH, EPA, NASA between 10 and 30 percent, for a net savings of just less than 10 billion, while simultaneously ballooning spending in the military by 52 billion. This kind of policy shift away from science and towards the military is a dangerous shift in US priorities towards ‘might makes right.’  We must stand together against this dangerous idea.

Science brings us together because the essence of science is consensus. That’s a word I wish I heard more coming out of Washington. We must hold all elected leadership accountable to facts. Without support for and trust in science, we don’t have a common basis of facts to decide  what to do next.  I hope you’ll agree that the time is ripe to March for Science and that you’ll walk alongside me as I hold up my sign: “Science is pro-testing,” but if you can’t, then I hope to see you back in Detroit!

 

Dr. W. Ethan Eagle is a faculty member in Mechanical Engineering at Wayne State, and he supports the student-led effort to charter a bus from WSU to DC to attend the Science March on Washington. You can help support those students here https://www.gofundme.com/march-for-sciencewsu.  In Michigan, there are planned marches in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Lansing. Find out more about the events at marchforscience.com.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Marching for Science and Climate Protects Our Communities

Until three years ago, you could have called me a scientist, educator, or mentor—but not an activist or marcher. Over time, however, I have recognized that I have the knowledge, privilege, and responsibility to act and march to protect the communities I love.

Early in my studies at MIT, I believed I could only contribute to solving the climate change dilemma by creating energy efficient and renewable energy technologies. This all changed after I participated in the first People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014. Now I am convinced that activism as a citizen-scientist is an equally valid way to highlight problems and advocate for solutions.

Attending the People’s Climate March was a life-changing experience. I marched alongside more than 310,000 individuals in the heart of NYC to call our world leaders to start taking serious action against climate change. That day I understood the difference I could make by becoming part of something greater than myself.

Furthermore, I recognized that staying on the sidelines to claim “objectivity” as a scientist was not an option. Sitting this fight out would mean staying silent while I watched disenfranchised and vulnerable communities suffer. By staying silent, I would be denying my own relationship to these communities, my own humanity, and I would be ignoring my responsibility as a citizen to fully participate in the democratic process.

As a son of poor immigrants from Central America who grew up in the inner city, I am painfully aware that poor communities are disproportionately affected by environmental threats like climate change. For example, the tragic outcomes of Hurricane Katrina overwhelmingly affected low-income and minority communities. Of the 250,000 evacuees that arrived in Houston, and were housed in shelters, 90 percent were African American, of which 6 in 10 had incomes below $20,000. Today we see similar structural inequalities and issues arising from water contamination in Flint, Michigan, and in the potential impacts of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Understanding that climate change, like other environmental problems, is an issue of equity and justice has further motivated me to take action. As Einstein once said, “those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” I believe scientists, engineers, and experts should be working not just to address climate change, but to do so in a way that empowers communities that do not have an equal seat at the negotiation table.

Therefore, as I prepare for the March for Science on April 22 and People’s Climate March on April 29, I want to remind my colleagues that science or technology alone will not solve the major challenges facing our society. Peaceful marches and protests are valid and necessary means of creating the societal momentum needed to make change. More importantly, if we are going to address these challenges in a fair and equitable way, we must use our privilege to empower and uplift the most marginalized communities in society.

If you can identify with me as a scientist, educator, person of color, or son or daughter of immigrants, then I ask you use your voice to speak up. For me that means marching to protect the communities I care about. I ask that you do the same. If we are truly going to protect and empower our urban and rural communities from an environmental and health hazard as big as climate change, we need everyone to fight.

 

Josué J. López is an educator, mentor, and active citizen-scientist. He is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research and MIT Lemelson Presidential Fellow. Josué was born in Los Angeles, studied in Houston, and now feels like a true Bostonian. He has worked on educational initiatives focused in promoting ‘green’ careers to inner-city youth. Most recently, he has analyzed investment and marketing trends in clean tech and contributed to a blog for the New England Clean Energy Council.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Behind the Carbon Curtain: How the Energy Corporatocracy Censors Science

In my forthcoming book, Behind the Carbon Curtain, The Energy Industry, Political Censorship and Free Speech (University of New Mexico Press), I tell the stories of scientists, artists and teachers who have been silenced by the collusion of energy corporations and public officials. My purpose is to provide witness, to record events, to give voice—and in so doing to shift the balance of power ever so slightly to bring us closer to a tipping point of outrage and change.

These stories and my analysis will not change society—at least not these alone. But maybe they will as part of a national narrative that includes the families in Pennsylvania driven from their homes by leaking methane, and whom energy companies compensate only in exchange for their silence. The nation’s story includes the citizens in West Virginia who were sued for libel by a coal company for criticizing the industry in a newsletter. And our country’s narrative involves the professor in the University of Oklahoma’s ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics who was intimidated into silence when an oil tycoon and major donor demanded the dismissal of scientists studying the link between fracking and earthquakes. Free speech is under attack by the energy industry across the nation.

I’d like to share a few vignettes from the varied and disturbing tales of censorship to provide a sense of what is happening in Wyoming and elsewhere.

A typical fracking operation requires 2 to 8 million gallons of water (along with 40,000 gallons of various, often toxic, chemicals, including acids, alcohols, salts and heavy metals). The outpouring of tainted waste water is dumped into lined evaporation pits. Behind the pit can be seen the drill rig and tanks that provide fracturing fluid for the drilling (photo by Ted Wood).

In 2001, Dr. Geoff Thyne was a research scientist in the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources when he was contacted by a reporter from the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle who was investigating the development of an enormous gas field in southeastern Wyoming. When she asked Thyne how much water would be needed for fracking, he offered a range of figures based on the available scientific literature.

After the story came out, a University vice president notified School of Energy administrators that Noble Energy and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming were on the warpath. Thyne explained to the frenzied administrators that he’d, “made the comments based on my experience as a member of the scientific advisory board for the current EPA hydraulic fracturing study.”

At a meeting with university and corporate bigwigs, Thyne was ordered to write a full retraction. Mark Northam, the director of the School of Energy Resources, told Thyne: “I will edit your letter and you will sign it. You shouldn’t have said anything and don’t say anything ever again.”  Thyne relented to the director’s revisions, but the scientist refused to retract his estimates of water usage. Soon after, Thyne was fired and told that: “Mark Northam gets a lot of money from these oil companies and you are screwing with that.”

The Sinclair Oil Refinery in the eponymously named town of 450 stalwart souls. The Wyoming plant processes crude oil at a rate equivalent to the output of about ten fire hoses running 24 hours/day. In 2013, the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied a $707,000 fine for workplace safety violations—the largest such penalty in the state’s history (photo by Scott Kane).

In 2008, the University of Wyoming’s Office of Water Programs was headed by a committed climate change denier who dismissed the findings of the world’s leading experts by saying, “All these climate change models look like a bunch of spaghetti.” Director Gregg Kerr defended the fossil fuel industry by asking, as if this were a serious question, “Are we going to stop energy production and starve to death?”

He convinced the university that any mention of climate change was politically untenable. So Dr. Steve Gray, the state climatologist, met with fierce administrative resistance when he fulfilled his obligations to the people of Wyoming and spoke about climate change.

Eventually, Gray realized that “there was no chance to expand the program to better meet the State’s needs.” He left Wyoming for the US Geological Survey’s Climate Science Center in Alaska, where, Gray says, “It’s not hard for people to see the relevance of climate change when your village is falling into a river as the permafrost melts.” So it is that Steve Gray was the last state climatologist of Wyoming.

In 2014, nobody would’ve foreseen a problem with updating the Next Generation Science Standards, unless they were privy to emails from the chairman of the State Board of Education. Ron Micheli objected to the inclusion of climate change as “fact” rather than “theory” in the Next Generation Science Standards and he insisted that, “The ice pack is expanding [and] the climate is cooling.”

In the waning minutes of the spring legislative session, Wyoming’s politicians passed a budget footnote prohibiting the use of state funds to implement the science standards. The bill’s author explained that the standards treat “man-made climate change as settled fact… We are the largest energy producing state in the country, so are we going to concede that?” At issue was not the veracity of the science but the vitality of the energy companies. The governor defended the use of ideological indoctrination with a rhetorical question, saying: “Are the Next Generation Science Standards…going to fit what we want in Wyoming?”

We live in a time in which people take it to be normal that most everything is treated as a commodity—including speech. And in this frenzied marketplace, the energy industry has purchased academic positions, scientific questions, and classroom curricula.

But perhaps there’s hope. Prompted by years of legislative and corporate meddling, the editorial board of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle [subscription required] put the situation into stark terms:

What is the value of academic freedom? That’s the question all Wyomingites should be asking themselves. To state lawmakers, it is a commodity that can be bought and sold, like coal or oil… What was once non-negotiable at UW now has a price tag on it. Lawmakers have sold the school to the highest bidder—the energy industry…

The journalists also incisively portrayed the nature of self-censorship, which may be the most insidious manifestation of oppression in the scientific community. There is no doubt that researchers simply decide not to pursue certain lines of inquiry, fearing retribution by legislators, CEOs and administrators. But my colleagues at the University of Wyoming have been adamant that they will take what comes, rather than asking me to be quiet. Living behind a carbon curtain of silence is too high a price to pay.

 

Bio:  Jeffrey Lockwood earned a Ph.D. in entomology from Louisiana State University and worked for 15 years as an insect ecologist at the University of Wyoming.  In 2003, he metamorphosed into a Professor of Natural Sciences & Humanities in the department of philosophy where he teaches environmental ethics and philosophy of ecology, and in the program in creative writing where he is the director and teaches workshops in non-fiction.  His writing has been honored with a Pushcart Prize, the John Burroughs award and inclusion in the Best American Science and Nature Writing.  You can follow his work through his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

 

Restoring California’s Coastal Ecosystems

Over two-thirds of Californians live in coastal counties. Californians love their coastline for good reasons—the mild weather, recreational opportunities, and of course their iconic beauty and natural diversity.

The California coastline hosts a variety of ecosystems ranging from sand dunes to rolling grasslands to mixed evergreen forests. These ecosystems not only are beautiful and provide habitat to many species of plants and animals, they also provide important services to people. Coastal wetlands, for example, help to improve water quality, reduce shoreline erosion, and buffer against sea level rise.

Mission Bay Wetlands in San Diego. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS.

But the millions of Californians who live near the coast have had significant impacts on these ecosystems. Less than 10 percent of original wetland habitat remains. Likewise, the forces of urbanization and agriculture have made California’s coastal grassland and scrub ecosystems among the most endangered in the nation. The challenge is finding the balance between meeting the needs of people and conserving these ecosystems and the many species that depend on them, including humans.

Valuing, conserving, and restoring our coastlines

Example of sand dune ecosystem. Photo: K. Holl.

Fortunately, California has visionary leaders and a general population that has recognized the need to protect the coast for future generations. In 1972, voters passed an initiative to establish the California Coastal Commission, which was tasked with balancing development and protecting coastal resources. Californians continue to recognize the importance of coastal ecosystems, as we saw in the June 2016 election: 70 percent of voters in nine San Francisco Bay Area counties approved a $12 parcel tax that will provide an estimated $500 million to support wetland restoration efforts over the next 20 years.

Conserving remaining intact ecosystems must be the first priority. But ecological restoration is also an important component of conservation efforts, especially where there has been extensive habitat conversion and degradation, as in many areas of coastal California. The question is how to restore coastal ecosystems in an ecologically appropriate and cost-effective manner. This is where the work of my students, my collaborators, and me plays an important role.

Improving restoration success

Developing methods to restore ecosystems starts by documenting what is out there. How degraded are the hydrologic and soil conditions? Which species are missing entirely? If left alone for a few years, will the site recover on its own? If not, will changing the management regime favor native species?

For example, our coastal grasslands host approximately 250 native wildflower species, many of which are now threatened or endangered due to habitat loss and competition with tall-stature invasive grasses, primarily from Europe. My lab has studied how different management regimes, such as grazing and fire, can be used to help restore native wildflowers. Our results show that properly-managed cattle grazing can help to increase the density of a number of wildflower species.

Much of my research aims to develop restoration methods that are practical and safe for humans. To do this, I work with land managers at government agencies like California State Parks, private land trusts, and other groups to understand their challenges and identify research questions they need answered. For example, herbicides are widely used in many coastal restoration projects to control invasive plant species prior to planting native species. But, there is growing concern about the effects of herbicides on the health of those who apply them and on nearby communities. Hence, we have been testing various non-chemical methods of invasive control, measuring not only their ecological effectiveness but also costs, to evaluate whether alternative methods would be practical at a larger scale.

Training the next generation of environmental leaders

Students learning at the UC Natural Reserve System. Photo: K. Holl

As a professor at the University of California, one of my most important roles is training the next generation of environmental leaders. Therefore, both undergraduate and graduate students are an integral part of my research. Each year, the University of California Natural Reserves staff and I work with 50-60 students doing hands-on restoration research and implementation. This gives students an opportunity to develop both critical thinking and practical job skills. We aim to ensure that the students involved in these projects reflect the diversity of the state. We know that low-income and minority communities are disproportionately affected by negative environmental impacts, but they are generally under-represented in ecology. We offer introductory field courses for students who have not had ample opportunities to study outdoors, and we are raising funds for paid internships so they can gain these important job skills and contribute to the growing restoration economy.

My goals are to do research that improves how we restore coastal ecosystems and to provide educational opportunities for learners of all ages. My hope is that together we can conserve California’s amazing coastal ecosystems for future generations.

 

Karen Holl (holl-lab.com) is a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a leader in the field of restoration ecology and the faculty director of the Norris Center for Natural History. You can watch a short video on her grassland restoration research here.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

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