UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

ExxonMobil Refuses to Give Scientists the Floor: Reflections from a Corporate Shareholders’ Meeting

Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

It was with great anticipation that I attended the ExxonMobil Shareholders Meeting last month at the invitation of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). My attendance was facilitated via proxy from Mercy Investment Services. In doing so, I joined a multitude of interested parties—some of whom had traveled great distances—to engage ExxonMobil’s CEO Darren Woods in discussions concerning a wide array of topics including, but certainly not limited to, climate change. Alas, none of us (representatives of the Union of Concerned Scientists or others who had come prepared with questions about climate change or environmental issues) were called upon. We were, in fact, studiously avoided.

Thus, sadly, I must admit that when it was all said and done: I walked away from the experience with my skepticism of the petro-chemical industry giant’s sincerity in addressing climate change in any meaningful way intact. Simply stated, what I heard from Mr. Woods—though masterfully cloaked in symbolic-laden rhetoric—came down to one very clear point: ExxonMobil is committed to business as usual.

Yes, Mr. Woods did indeed address the company’s efforts in advancing lubricants for expanding wind facilities; yes, he addressed efforts to advance cutting-edge technologies in carbon sequestration; yes, he addressed lowering emissions from natural gas production; and finally yes, he also addressed furthering the company’s commitment to developing algae-based biofuels of the future. Historically, total projected investment capital for these projects amounts to roughly $8 billion.

Nevertheless, all of this spending was offset (and not in the good way) with a promise of low-cost/high-return investment in oil and gas mega-projects: (1) Offshore oil reserves of Guyana and Brazil, (2) Liquefied natural gas reserves in Mozambique and Papua New Guinea, and (3) Unconventional shale reserves in the Permian Basin of Texas. Total projected investment capital for these projects is roughly $30 billion.

This “dilemma of rhetorical disconnect” was further exemplified throughout the course of Mr. Woods’ remarks to company shareholders and other interested parties.

In specific terms, Mr. Woods began his remarks by stating, “We’re… committed to be a part of the solution in addressing the risk of climate change and other pressing societal challenges.” He continued, “Society has aspirations for economic growth, reliable and affordable energy and environmental protection. We see our role as helping close the gap between what people want and what can be responsibly done. This is what I believe sustainability is all about and frankly, is what we’re all about.”

Mr. Woods then expressed confidence in projections of steady markets for oil and gas through 2040, and the belief that “… meeting the world’s energy need will require trillions of dollars in new investments, even in a two-degree scenario.” At the close of his remarks, Mr. Woods restated ExxonMobil’s commitment, “…to help close the gap between what society wants and what is economically available, using advantaged investments and promising technology. As society’s need [sic] continue to evolve, we’ll continue to respond.”

All of which leads me to the question I would’ve asked Mr. Woods had I been given the opportunity:

In a recently published article with my colleague, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, we note that should the known fossil fuel-based energy reserves within and around the Arctic Circle be developed, the probability of achieving the Paris Climate Agreement’s stated goal of limiting global temperature at or below 2C will be highly unlikely, if not impossible.

As a scientist, and a citizen, I worry that ExxonMobil’s conclusion, as stated in the company’s recent “Energy & Carbon Summary Report,” that its upstream recoverable reserves poses “little risk” is a false conclusion given the scientific-basis for the heightened risks posed to human society, including our health, our natural resources, and even our national security should those reserves in the Arctic be developed and then utilized as a primary source for generating energy.

In order to resolve this problematic finding, Exxon/Mobil should seriously consider shifting the lion’s share of its capital investment resources away from exceedingly difficult and expensive endeavors like that of developing Arctic-based fossil fuel resources and instead toward— what by all free-market indicators suggest is taking hold across the globe—meeting/addressing the public’s increasing demand for alternative and renewable energy resources.

So, given that scenario as well as Exxon/Mobil’s existing investment portfolio my question then, is this:

(1) Why is Exxon/Mobil so risk averse to shifting away from an upstream fossil fuel-based investment paradigm and toward an upstream alternative/renewable-based investment paradigm?

(1a) Why not redirect those monies into the clean energy of the future to better sustain Exxon/Mobil’s business model as a global energy leader for future generations of stockholders?

(1b) Wouldn’t that resolve the problematic finding in your “Energy & Carbon Summary Report” that the emissions trajectory of Exxon/Mobil’s “Outlook for Energy” will far exceed the Paris Climate Agreement goal of keeping global temperature increase well below 2C?

The questions I raised are based on two fundamentally important components that drive any shift in energy policy. First, policy research finds that three conditions are required for energy policy to shift: (1) energy markets, (2) energy technology, and (3) political willpower. Second, that same research also finds that there is an inverse relationship between the advancement of energy production technology used to develop exceedingly difficult upstream fossil fuel resources and the rapid deterioration in the environmental quality of our collective natural resources.

Any closing of Mr. Woods’ so-called “gap(s),” then, requires that energy markets, technology, and political willpower align themselves in such a manner that the well- below two degrees Celsius (2°C) objective of the Paris Climate Agreement is attainable.

If ExxonMobil is serious about addressing climate change, then I would suggest that Mr. Woods abandon the rhetoric of seeking change and provide greater detail to his vision of a sustainable future. (Note to Mr. Woods: your definition of “… what sustainability is all about” is not even close to being correct). I would also suggest to Mr. Woods, or any other member of ExxonMobil’s Board of Directors, that the only condition left unmet for fully realizing a historic shift in how America powers its economy is that of political willpower.

Or perhaps, what’s missing is dynamic leadership from the private sector, from an industry leader in innovation, that’s willing to take the risk to sustain its business model and the environment for future generations. Clearly, while Mr. Woods suggests that ExxonMobil is articulating some notion of what it views as being responsive to the public’s demand for action on climate change, its actions remain cloaked in rhetorical subterfuge.

Taking risk to address the pressing societal problems of climate change requires bold and dynamic leadership. What are you waiting for, Mr. Woods?

 

Dr. Robert E. Forbis Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Research Associate with the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University (CSC-TTU). He is a former Research Affiliate with the Center for Advanced Energy Studies at the Idaho National Laboratory (CAES-INL). His research interests primarily concern the policy nexus of environmental protection and energy development. He teaches courses on Public Lands and Resource Management, Climate and Sustainability, Energy and Environmental Policy, Environmental Theory, and Environmental Justice. Dr. Forbis is a recipient of the “Professing Excellence” Award (2014) and “Phi Beta Kappa Honored Professor” (2018) from Texas Tech University.

Will Chevron Show Leadership in Climate Solutions? Notes From the 2018 Shareholders’ Meeting

Photo: ArtBrom/Flickr

Last week, I joined the Union of Concerned Scientists at the Chevron shareholders’ meeting in San Ramon, CA. We were there to ask why Chevron leadership, and shareholders, have not pushed for more meaningful action to meet global emissions targets that would keep climate warming well below 2 degrees celsius.

The security to get into Chevron Headquarters in San Ramon was tight – more significant than your typical airport security. In addition to multiple steps of checking of our passes to enter and walking through metal detectors, we were only able to bring in paper and pen, and each of our papers were shuffled through and inspected on the way in. Once seated, we listened to the presentations by the company’s Chair and CEO and by shareholders advocating proposals on environmental, social, and governance issues. During this time, shareholders followed the Board’s recommendation to reject proposals to “transition to a low carbon business model” and improve lobbying disclosures, among other things.

During much of the meeting, I was scribbling down notes and adapting my prepared statement based upon what I was hearing. I also spent some time staring into this infographic that was provided in the Chevron Climate Resiliency Report (data from IEA 2015 World Balance and Final Consumption Report 2015):

This diagram highlights the flow of energy — the width of the bars reflects the relative size of the production/consumption budget — in our current fossil-fuel focused energy system. This diagram allows you to watch the flow of energy towards different areas of our economy that utilize that source. One remarkable aspect of this data, which is pointed out in the Climate Change Resilience Report, is that “about 25% of global oil consumption is used in personal vehicles” (to see this, follow the bar from “oil”, to “transport”, and then to “passenger”). This means every day that we drive in our personal vehicles we are making choices about fossil fuel emissions that add up to something very significant. I was struck by this statistic because it underscores something that I frequently address in my public talks about climate change: personal, individual action is one piece of the puzzle in solving the climate problem. But there are other pieces of the puzzle – government leadership and corporate accountability which I address again below.

At the end of the scheduled shareholder proposals, it was time for the lottery of Q&A. Each of us who had a question or statement had to get a numbered ticket; tickets were pulled randomly and there was no guarantee that all questions would be heard. In total, about a dozen people asked questions or made statements to the Chairman. Of these, almost all of them were on three topics: climate change, human rights, and an ongoing lawsuit with the people of Ecuador due to a decades old environmental disaster.

Here was my statement and question when my number was called:

Good morning Mr. Chairman, members of the Board, and Stakeholders. Your recent Climate Change Resilience report was a step toward responding to investor demands that you disclose your plans for operating in a world where global temperature increase is kept well below two degrees Celsius. However, your company emphasizes potential conflicts rather than synergies between climate solutions and other societal goals and dismisses a rapid transformation of our energy system as “unlikely.”

I am a scientist here in Northern California. One of the areas of my research focuses on the impact of rising carbon dioxide concentrations on the changing chemistry of the ocean. I collaborate with businesses along the coast that are deeply concerned about the impacts of rising carbon dioxide on their financial future. Specifically, rising carbon dioxide concentrations threaten a key part of our history, culture and economy of California – sustainable harvests of food from the sea. As a scientist, I understand the grave risks we are facing without deep reductions in emissions and know that swift action is precisely what is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

You stated this morning, and you describe in the Climate Resilience Report, that a first principle that guides your views on climate change is that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement and action”. Yet, in this report you bet against our ability to tackle meaningful energy transformation. When will Chevron show greater ambition to keep global warming below 2 degrees C?

In his answer, Chair and CEO Michael Wirth was respectful, and thanked me for my work in the scientific community. He explained that the company simply “meets the demands of energy used by people around the world,” and that it does “look at low carbon scenarios” as part of its business plan. However, Mr. Wirth argued that global policies are needed – ones that would require government intervention – and that it isn’t the role of individual companies to make decisions on this matter. This was an interesting answer because it spelled out something that Chevron doesn’t say directly in its public report – the company isn’t planning on taking leadership on climate change until governments lead the way. Which is hard to imagine, since fossil fuel companies spend millions every year lobbying our government to support policies that promote the use of oil and gas.

Why does this matter – and why would a climate scientist attend a Chevron shareholders’ meeting? I pondered this quite a bit when I was asked to join the UCS team for the meeting that day. For me, the decision came down to three things. First, because I am asking Chevron to use the best available science to make decisions for our future. Was a being an ‘advocate’ – yes – I am advocating for the use of science in decision making. Second, because I have made a commitment to not just communicate with those who already agree with me. We need to be able to put ourselves in situations where we work to find common ground and similar values with people in many different communities. Finally, as I’ve discussed above, I think individual responsibility is an aspect of the problem – people need to feel emboldened to make their own decisions that place our planet on a better path. But individuals can’t solve this problem alone: corporate accountability is important here. We need to be asking more of corporations that contribute significantly to our greenhouse gas burden. If they contribute significantly to the problem, they should be contributing significantly to the solution.

 

Dr. Tessa Hill is a Professor and Chancellor’s Fellow at University of California, Davis, in the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences. She is resident at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, a research station on the Northern California Coast. She is part of the Bodega Ocean Acidification Research (BOAR) group at Bodega Marine Laboratory, which aims to understand the impact of ocean acidification on marine species. Tessa leads an industry-academic partnership to understand the consequences of ocean acidification on shellfish farmers. Tessa is a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, a AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow, and a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists & Engineers (PECASE).

Weathering the Storm: Building Community Resilience in Environmental Justice Communities

Art by Micah Bazant

In 2015, It Takes Roots convened a delegation of climate justice leaders to participate in mobilizations at the COP21 in Paris and proclaimed “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm.” When I first heard this statement, I was struck by the vivid imagery it evoked. I envisioned a tree with roots that, despite a powerful rainstorm, swirled, connected, and clenched with fortitude into the depths of its rich soil. I imagined branches growing and the emergence of leaves bearing fresh fruit.

I see these roots as representing the cooperative networks, social fabric, and human relationships that ground us firmly in the soil of our diverse communities. In the face of climate change, how do our community roots support neighborhoods — not only to withstand immediate disruption, but to thrive, sustain our cultures, and provide for future generations?

As a grassroots, environmental justice organization, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) is addressing climate change through base building, civic engagement, and policy advocacy. The communities we organize, low-income Asian American immigrant and refugee communities in California, are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Therefore, our approach to resilience bridges mitigation and adaptation, with the aim of simultaneously addressing the risks from climate change alongside the inequalities embedded in our current systems that marginalize low-income communities of color.

APEN members and organizers in the East Bay

Emergency response must reach communities in their language

Since the 1980s, Richmond has been a home to many Southeast Asian refugees who were uprooted from their homelands by the Vietnam War. Our members live on the fence line of the Chevron Refinery and suffer from contaminated air, soil, and water due to their close proximity to industrial sites and toxic hazards. A major chemical explosion in March 1991 at the Chevron Refinery revealed Contra Costa County’s inadequate emergency response system, as monolingual residents were poorly informed of emergency safety procedures. In response to this, the Laotian Organizing Project launched and won a historic campaign that pushed the health department to implement a multilingual emergency phone-alert system.

This campaign is a lesson about the importance of accessible and targeted early warning systems to alert residents of predicted extreme weather events. This is particularly important for immigrant and refugee communities with limited English proficiency as well as communities living in proximity to industrial facilities, where coastal flooding and other climate disasters could exacerbate toxic releases and air pollution.

Housing justice is climate justice

In addition to organizing in Richmond, APEN works with low-income Chinese immigrants in Oakland. Oakland’s Chinatown, like many immigrant communities, is a historic neighborhood offering essential services like health clinics, schools, and grocery stores in culturally and linguistically relevant ways. These institutions not only preserve Chinese traditions and practices, but keep immigrant families deeply rooted in a thriving, culturally rich community.

The growing crisis of housing unaffordability and homelessness is closely connected to climate vulnerability. Rising housing costs and displacement threaten to tear apart the social fabric of communities like Chinatown, making it more difficult to ensure that our communities have accessible emergency resources like health care, evacuation shelters, and transportation during a climate disaster. For this reason, our climate justice activism centers strategies like renter protections ordinances and anti-displacement in statewide policies.

Community microgrids promote energy democracy

Low-income communities have a higher energy burden, and thus are more vulnerable to fluctuating energy prices and increased energy needs due to climate change. Power outages can leave the lights out when electricity needs are crucial, particularly for those that rely on medical equipment and families with young children. In light of these impacts, we are pushing for prioritization of critical facilities that serve our communities with emerging clean energy technologies like energy efficiency, solar, and storage.

Recently, APEN proposed a community microgrid project in Chinatown to strengthen a local school and health clinic’s ability to serve as emergency support facilities and offer services to the linguistically isolated families in the community. The accompanying economic savings and community ownership from these investments can root community organizations and institutions that contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhood.

In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis notes that “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” In order to address this intersectional crisis, then, scientists must acknowledge the underlying social inequities faced by disadvantaged communities and approach climate solutions through a lens of community development, public health, and social justice. As part of the UCS Science Network Mentor Program, I am working on a project that analyzes climate vulnerability tools that integrate climate impacts and socioeconomic factors. Leading with values like trust, empowerment, and cooperation, researchers can equitably partner with grassroots advocates to advance our knowledge about community resilience. Centering these principles in our collective work will support meaningful policy and pave the way towards deeper systemic change.

 

Amee Raval is a Policy and Research Associate at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), an environmental justice organization that empowers Asian American immigrant and refugee communities across California through grassroots organizing, civic engagement, and policy advocacy. Through her role at APEN, she offers an environmental justice and health equity lens to climate and energy policy in California. She previously worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council on research and advocacy focused on the environmental and occupational health impacts of extreme heat and rising temperatures due to climate change on vulnerable communities. Amee has an MS in Environmental Health Sciences from UC Berkeley School of Public Health. @APEN4EJ

 

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.

 

Building the Right Project: An Engineer’s Perspective on Infrastructure Adaptation to Extreme Weather Events

The view from aerial tour of Hurricane Sandy damage of New Jersey's barrier beaches, Nov. 18, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert)

Infrastructure Week 2018 is upon us, and it’s important that we highlight the state of our nation’s infrastructure and why it’s critical to our economy, society, security, and future. So what is the status of our infrastructure?

The National Infrastructure Report Card is issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) every four years. The Report Card offers a comprehensive assessment of our nation’s 16 major infrastructure categories providing information on their conditions and needs, assigning grades and making recommendations to raise those grades. While first issued in 1998, not much has improved. ASCE has yet to give a grade out of the “D” range; in 2017, America’s infrastructure earned a “D+”.

The work to change the depressing state of our infrastructure is daunting, but I try to be calm and take in my unique privilege as a professional engineer to be involved in the many facets of infrastructure and how we need to better plan, design, build, operate, and maintain these critical projects and systems. As an environmental engineer that also has science and policy backgrounds, I am involved in all facets of the infrastructure lifecycle: planning, design, construction, operations, and financing. I also work in the third largest transit agency in the United States and am responsible for the environmental, sustainability, and resiliency efforts associated with the agency’s infrastructure.

Climate change presents engineering challenges

Let’s face it, our infrastructure is crumbling and significant investments are needed to improve our grade. Regardless of your politics, we see evidence of exacerbation of these impacts through the effects of increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events: increasing ambient temperature, higher frequency of high heat days, more extreme flooding and inundation, more intense storms, and greater length of droughts and heat waves. These conditions are now more common; and forget about the impacts across the world, you need not look beyond your neighborhood. While infrastructure is traditionally designed to hold up to rare but expected extreme weather events, these events are no longer rare, and their durations and intensities are now well beyond normal expectations.

As an engineer, I am faced with a new set of design challenges that force me to rethink how infrastructure should be planned, designed, constructed, operated and maintained for conditions that are substantially changing in unpredictable ways. As a scientist, I am struggling to define what information I should use to ensure the infrastructure we build remains useful throughout its expected life, and keeps people safe while enhancing their quality of life. And as a person and global citizen – of Filipino ancestry and having visited many parts of the world – I am humbled and amazed seeing how those who have the least are able to survive the harshest of environments and economic conditions. We need not go far, as many of us who live in the poorest of our American neighborhoods have come to adapt to similar conditions, and chose to survive after hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and droughts. Many of us involved in this conversation about infrastructure have differing life experiences and perceptions.

A multi-disciplinary approach to infrastructure planning

The facts about our deteriorating infrastructure and a future with more weather extremes should make us think very hard about how we as a society will continue to maintain our livelihoods and well-being. A unifying philosophy that brings us all to the table should be the realization that maintenance of the built infrastructure has primarily been a neglected element of society; consequently the cost of less (or even no) action has never been so great and the urgent need to address the compounded issue is now! We should look more closely into how resilient communities do it and learn from them. To design for a resilient future that can handle more extremes, we must upend some engineering paradigms and approach solutions in inclusive, collaborative, multi-disciplinary, and multi-sectoral ways.

As the executive who oversees the implementation of environmental compliance and sustainability at a major public transportation agency, I am immersed in a transportation revolution here in Los Angeles. This revolution goes beyond pure transportation projects, but involves all the things that the transportation system touches or connects. And infrastructure, transportation in particular, touches everything – energy, water, mobility, housing – and is affected by all types of extreme events – heat, droughts, floods, wildfires, and sea level rise.  Because engineers can also be systems thinkers, I get pulled into a variety of situations where not only environmental issues need to be resolved, but other topics are common fare: policy deliberations, energy resiliency, climate change impacts, alternative financing, social equity, fresh food access, electrification, and of course engineering and science, among others. This multi-faceted approach, which also requires people skills, understanding of human behavior and finding common ground, is fundamental to advancing infrastructure solutions that will function under a future with more extremes.

Promising Developments to Integrate Climate Science into Infrastructure Standards

The Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group, under the California Department of Natural Resources, is a pioneering effort to foster this needed cross-discipline dialogue by bringing together climate scientists, engineers, architects, and other professionals to discuss how to incorporate climate change impacts into infrastructure. I was appointed as a member of this Working Group, and with my fellow members have been deliberating how to integrate scientific data concerning projected climate change impacts into state infrastructure engineering and develop and make specific recommendations to the California Legislature and the Strategic Growth Council later in 2018.

Our Working Group’s task gets to the core of making a major overhaul in the way infrastructure projects are planned, designed, constructed, and operated. We are grappling with questions on risk and liability, governance, equity, means and methods of construction, and most importantly identification of the gaps from translating science into practice are debated and discussed. How does this information get incorporated into the standards and practices of civil engineering and architecture? How can the workforce, who have been trained to plan, design, build, operate and maintain infrastructure in a certain way, strategically transition to incorporate modifications that account for new and changing environmental conditions, as well as integrate natural infrastructure solutions? How can financial instruments be used to minimize infrastructure risk to public health, safety, and well-being? The experience has reminded me of the community meetings I often lead or attend: seeking input, debating on the solutions, and in the end, gaining consensus on what is best to make infrastructure serve all stakeholders while simultaneously promoting social cohesion and economic development. I anticipate this to be the flavor of our final report.

The disconnect between disciplines and a lack of an integrated approach across jurisdictions is recognized as a problem by many in the engineering and infrastructure fields. Agencies like mine, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), have navigated through this dilemma by incorporating into our design criteria and specification the requirements to build climate-safe infrastructure based on information we know now.

In addition, the American Society of Civil Engineers has been advancing new approaches to integrate climate science into infrastructure. Under Canon 1 of ASCE’s Code of Ethics, engineers have the obligation to hold “safety, health, and welfare paramount and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties”. ASCE Policy Statements 360 and 418, about climate impacts and the role of civil engineers in sustainability, are key drivers to the execution of this obligation. ASCE’s National Committee on Sustainability (COS) is working on the continued development of a Sustainable Infrastructure Standard as well as an ASCE Policy for infrastructure owners to recognize the value and importance of building sustainable infrastructure. The COS is working hand in hand with the ASCE Committee on Adaptation to a Changing Climate in ensuring infrastructure resiliency and sustainable infrastructure principles and frameworks align with one another.

Investors are listening as well. Here at LA Metro, we are using the revenues generated from the sale of our low carbon fuel standards carbon credits to exclusively invest in carbon emissions reducing strategies, energy conservation and resiliency, renewable energy, and similar projects. We tendered about $500 million in Climate Bond certified Green Bonds in October 2017 for others to invest in our transportation related projects. My invitation to participate in two important symposia on how to finance and make the business case for sustainable infrastructure here in California  in February 2018 and Massachusetts in March 2018 creates a significant degree of personal excitement and inspiration to do more with the financial community to advance climate resilience.

Advancing a new engineering paradigm

There is no other time to do more than now.

Whether we like it or not, infrastructure plays a major role in ensuring that we as a species survive the increasing negative impacts of extreme weather events. But the cost of ignoring infrastructure investments is mounting. More importantly, we need to reassess how we continually value the benefits of a well maintained infrastructure. We need to build the right project as much as we need to build the project right. While I see advances on many fronts, we need more engineers and our partners to step up and take a leadership role in advancing this new paradigm.

Finally, many of these discussions have concentrated on the consideration of the most vulnerable populations or those who are “not in the room” with the professionals. This is not about working to relieve these communities of their burdens but instead all about how we learn from them. With all the tools we have at our disposal, we need to re-think and reassess such tools in the context of how the most vulnerable of communities survive significant stressors. Let’s step-up our active engagement with them for that very reason.

 

Dr. Cris B. Liban, P.E., ENV SP is a professional engineer and a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, with a focus on environment and transportation. He has chaired or participated in multiple research panels through his involvement with the National Academies of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, translating research into policy through his work as an environmental executive and political appointee in federal, state, county, and city governments, currently as the Executive Officer, Environmental Compliance and Sustainability at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He is also the Chair of the National Committee on Sustainability of the American Society of Civil Engineers. More on Dr. Liban’s work 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.

So, What Does the Endangered Species Act Mean to Me?

I was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, a land of extremes. Temperatures could drop below -50ᵒ Fahrenheit in the winter and the darkness would seem to stretch out endlessly, while the summers provided radiant sunshine for months that infused a sense of magic into our town. Certainly, for me, the most charmed experiences from my childhood all happened in the Alaskan wilderness. I deep-sea fished on my grandparent’s boat in Prince William Sound, spending a week on the ocean each summer exploring coastline that would reach up and tower over me like a fern-covered arctic rainforest, trees hung with pale green moss. I saw sea otters floating on their backs in the surf, and watched sea birds dive for scraps cast off by anglers as they cleaned their catch on the docks. These experiences throughout Alaska shaped my desire to work in a field that allowed me to study and protect the natural world around me, including threatened and endangered species.

In southern Nevada doing some rare plants surveys.

I moved to Reno, Nevada to attend college, and ended up in the Great Basin Desert, a landscape that felt about a million miles away from the forests I’d grown up in. My first field research job entailed hiking around the desert one autumn mapping the water boundaries of the Amargosa toad, an amphibian up for listing consideration under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) at the time. Post-undergraduate work led me to an environmental non-profit, where I coordinated the monitoring of habitat restoration projects for the Greater sage-grouse, a large bird also being considered for protections under the ESA during that period. Now, in graduate school and subsequent professional experiences, I’ve worked on rare and endangered plant surveys, hiking across harsh desert terrain to search for shy little species like the Black wooly pod.

As I look back on my experiences, I’ve realized that in the decade since I began my journey as a research scientist, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in not one, but two ESA success stories. Through a collective effort by government organizations, private landowners, and other stakeholders, both the Amargosa toad and the Greater sage-grouse are no longer up for listing under the ESA. These accomplishments have been the product of incredibly large-scale collaborations across agencies, disciplines, and state boundaries, and were no easy feat. However, the Trump administration has recently proposed loosening the hard-won protections for sage-grouse, underlining the need for continued vigilance by scientists and science-supporters to ensure those interest groups benefiting from such a decision are held accountable.

I’m still early in my career, and I found it difficult at first to articulate what the Endangered Species Act means to me. But, after reflecting on my experiences, I’ve realized my personal and professional journey to where I am today has been wholly influenced by the ESA.

Nevada scientist Rob Mrowka and I went to Washington, DC, to meet with our legislators and advocate to protect the Endangered Species Act.

I was able to advance my support for the law when I traveled to Washington, D.C. this past February to take part in a collaborative effort between the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Endangered Species Coalition to bring awareness to threats against the Endangered Species Act. Along with Rob Mrowka, a career scientist from Nevada, I met with our state legislators and their staff to discuss the importance of protecting the ESA and the species it covers. In collaboration with other scientists from across the country, our collective efforts helped raise awareness of riders and amendments meant to weaken important ESA protections, and I am thrilled to say that many of these provisions were rejected by Congress in the end. To me, this victory reinforced how important our voices as scientists and science-supporters are, and how diving into the politics of science to contribute our expertise and opinions can truly have an impact. We should not feel helpless in these challenging times when we have so much power in collaboration.

So, what does the ESA mean to me? It means opportunities for research, and a chance to take lessons learned from one species’ survival story and apply them to other complex conservation problems. It means collaboration, among people that may not otherwise ever share a meeting. It means support, for those species awarded protections they might desperately need to stabilize and grow, ensuring we maintain our biodiversity on this planet. And it means hope, that a small toad only living along a single ten-mile stretch of road, or a bird that performs one of the most beautiful mating displays I’ve ever witnessed, can rise up from the threat of extinction, all because of the collective efforts of a community.

As scientists, please join me in signing this letter telling Congress to protect science and the Endangered Species Act, because our collective voices are louder and can do more than any one of us alone.

 

Cody Ernst-Brock is currently finishing her M.S. at the University of Nevada, Reno in the Natural Resources and Environmental Science program. Her research centers on analyses of restoration projects implemented across the state, often in sensitive sage-grouse, pygmy rabbit, and mule deer habitat. She hopes to continue her work in conservation and restoration post-graduation, preferably in a capacity that allows her to travel. In her free time she enjoys exploring her home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where you can find her mountain biking, kayaking, and swimming in Lake Tahoe.

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.

Do Local Food Markets Support Profitable Farms and Ranches?

Local produce, sold through direct-to-consumer channels like farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs, is often sold at a price premium. But does that premium impact farmers’ bottom line? Photo: Todd Johnson/ Oklahoma State University.

How many times have you heard that when you shop locally, farmers win? Families shop at farmers markets, school districts procure locally-grown and raised items, and restaurants curate seasonal menus at least in part because they believe they are supporting the economic viability of local producers. But do we have evidence that these local markets actually provide economic benefits to farmers and ranchers?

For the past decade, we have seen growing evidence that household and commercial buyers are willing to pay a premium for local products, and that farmers capture a larger share of the retail dollar through sales at local markets. But until recently, there was little evidence of the impact of these markets on farmers’ and ranchers’ bottom line.

To better understand the potential of local food markets, we evaluated the financial performance of farmers and ranchers selling through local markets compared to those selling through traditional wholesale markets, which may pool undifferentiated grains, animals or produce from hundreds of producers to sell to large food manufacturers or retailers. We use data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), a nationally representative survey providing annual, national-level data on farm and ranch businesses. ARMS targets about 30,000 farms annually, of which about 1,000 report some local food sales.

For this research, we define local markets in two distinct categories: direct to consumer sales (such as farmers’ markets; community supported agriculture, or CSAs; and farm stands) or intermediated sales to local food marketing enterprises that maintain the product’s local identity (such as restaurants, grocery stores, or food hubs).

Local food can spur rural development

The first notable difference between farms and ranches that sell through local food markets and those that do not is that, on average, farms selling through local food markets spend a higher percentage of their total expenditure on labor (8% compared to 5%). Even more interesting is that as local food producers get larger, their share of expenditure on labor increases! (See the green bars in figure 1). This stands in contrast to the ‘efficiency’ story we have long heard in agriculture. Conventional wisdom dictates that as farms scale up, they substitute capital for labor, becoming more efficient and producing more with less. But in the case of local markets, it appears that as the volume of direct and intermediary sales grows, the hours, skills, and expertise needed to manage buyer-responsive supply chains increases, as well. This finding supports the argument that local food can serve as a rural economic development driver; farms selling through local markets require more labor per dollar of sales, thus creating jobs.

Figure 1 Share of Variable Expenses, Local Food Producers, by Scale (Bauman, Thilmany, Jablonski 2018)

 

Do these additional labor expenditures impact the profitability of local producers? To answer this question, we categorized farms and ranches that sell through local markets by size, or sales class—the smallest reporting less than $75,000 in sales, and the biggest reporting $1,000,000 or more. We then broke down each sales class by performance, using return on assets as our indicator for performance, and organized farms and ranches into quartiles (see Figure 2). This categorization allowed us to zero in on the highest performing producers of every sales class.

Though performance varies widely, we found that of all producers with more than $75,000 in sales, at least half were break-even or profitable. Of every sales class – even the smallest!—farms in the top quartile reported returns over 20 percent—very strong profitability for the agricultural sector, where profit margins are generally slim.

What makes a local farm succeed?

To explore patterns in profitability a little bit further, we can compare how various financial measures vary across those with low vs. high profits. Among the top performing quartile, farms and ranches that sell through intermediated channels only or a combination of direct and intermediated channels performed much better than those using direct markets only. This may signal the importance of intermediated markets, and justify support for intermediated market development through grant programs such as the Local Food Promotion Program. Further, using more in-depth statistical analysis of local and regional producers, we found that farms and ranches selling only through direct-to-consumer markets may be struggling to control their costs, and that strategic management changes to these operations could result in significant improvements in profitability.

Figure 2 Local Food Producers Return on Assets by Sales Class and Market Channel (Quartile 4 is the most profitable) (Bauman, Thilmany, Jablonski 2018)

In summary, we see that local food markets provide opportunities for profitable operations at any scale, but that sales through intermediary markets are correlated with higher profitability when compared to producers that use only direct channels.

To learn more about the economics of local food systems (including more about this research), we encourage you to visit localfoodeconomics.com, where we have compiled a number of fact sheets on this topic. We started this community of practice in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service and eXtension. The website and listserv serve as a virtual community in which academic, nonprofit and policy professionals can engage in conversations about the economic implications of the many activities that fall under the umbrella of local food. For the broader food system community and consumers, gaining insights on the underlying economic implications of how food markets work may inform their decisions on how they can use their food dollars in ways that impact their community in a positive way. We hope to see you there!

Becca B.R. Jablonski is Assistant Professor and Food Systems Extension Economist at Colorado State University.

Dawn Thilmany McFadden is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Outreach Coordinator at Colorado State University.

Allie Bauman is Research Assistant in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Colorado State University.

Dave Shideler is Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University.

This research is supported through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (award number 2014-68006-21871).

 

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.

Better Data Are Needed to Dismantle Racism in Policing

Photo: Tony Webster/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

The institutionalized killing of black and brown people in the United States is not a new phenomenon. The government’s role in the overt harming of black bodies goes as far back as slavery, when patrollers (paid and unpaid) stopped enslaved people in public places, entered their quarters without warrant, and assaulted and harmed them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government further sustained public devaluation of black lives through tolerance of lynching and by failing to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Today, this institutionalized killing is illustrated by countless racist police shootings—which should be enough to prioritize police brutality on the public policy agenda. However, as we have seen through the (almost complete) failure on the part of the justice system to indict police officers involved in these murders, institutional action is not being taken to address state violence directed at black and brown people.

Dismantling racism in policing, and in other institutionalized forms, in part rests on the better collection and maintenance of data. National representative data on exposure to various dimensions of police brutality can be linked with individual and population health indicators to paint a clearer picture of the impact of police brutality. It can also provide more insight to causes of racial health inequities and inform the formulation of specific policy interventions. We can and must do better at collecting data.

The effects of historical institutional racial oppression cut across several sectors of contemporary American life: health, criminal justice, civic engagement, education, and the economy. I teach Introduction to Public Health at Lehigh University. When I talk about racial inequities in health, I must frame them in the context of racism. I cannot also talk about forms of contemporary racism, such as police brutality, without implicating slavery and its horrors. Without doubt, students ask questions such as “Why did it take the government so long to abolish slavery?” or “Why was it not until 2005, more than a century after lynching began, that the United States Senate apologized for not passing anti-lynching laws?” or “Why were these laws not passed to begin with?” I typically respond by asking if we are a better society now than we were three centuries. Responses range from listing the benefits of the civil rights movement to framing mass incarceration and police brutality as the “new” forms of state-sanctioned structural racism.

But our collective response to police brutality should help us answer questions about why lynching laws lasted as long as they did. Police brutality, which disproportionately targets and kills black and brown people in America, is modern-day lynching. As with lynching, there are perpetrators, unconcerned onlookers, and active resisters. There is also a government that fails to take comprehensive action. In this piece, I aim to focus on what government can do.

The importance of collecting data

Collect data. Data provide necessary evidence for understanding the scope of the problem and to take informed action. Fortunately, the Bureau of Justice Statistics is leading federal efforts to collect more comprehensive data about arrest-related deaths. While this is a step in the right direction, there are still gaps. For example, there are no government-led efforts that mandate active surveillance and reporting of police-related incidents at local and state levels, whether these incidents lead to death, physical injury, or disability. Real-time data from non-governmental sources such as The Counted and The Washington Post help fill this gap but indicate a lack of federal commitment to active surveillance of police brutality—a social determinant of health that disproportionately harms communities of color.

Data are the bread and butter of public policy. In addition to understanding the scope of police brutality, data are relevant for assessing its impact on health, the economy, and other sectors. My current research seeks to identify the mechanisms through which police brutality affects health. The lack of nationally representative data is a problem. In the absence of these data though, I am conducting a qualitative case study to better understand the extent to which stress and poor mental health among Black people residing in the “inner-city” might be grounded in experiences or anticipation of police intimidation and violence.

Moving from collecting data to implementing solutions

Collecting data is important. But our government institutions must also take responsibility for their past and current role in state-sanctioned public harming of black and brown bodies. Real action at the local, state and federal levels are required. One action step is mandating active surveillance of police actions that dehumanize individuals, such as stop-and-frisk practices. Another is to fund research that seeks to understand consequences of police brutality. A third is to prioritize and finance programs and interventions that specifically reduce police brutality and that dismantle racist systems that oppress communities of color more generally.

 

Sirry Alang is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Health, Medicine and Society at Lehigh University. Her current research explores the connection between structural racism and racial inequities in health.

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.

Science on Wheels: Meeting a Scientist Right in Your Hometown

I moved to Columbia, Missouri, home of the University of Missouri (Mizzou), five years ago, and I was impressed with the amount of science engagement activities available to the public. Any time of any day of the week there appeared to be something going on: Saturday Morning Science, Science Café on Monday nights, and Science on Tap on Tuesday evenings. An incredible variety of settings to pick and choose from, from auditoriums to cafés to breweries. Topics to satisfy all interests, from chemistry to astronomy to biology. Professors, grad students, undergrads—they were all involved in outreach. I couldn’t believe what a big role science played in the state.

Except, it isn’t in the state, it’s confined to the city. And you don’t have to go very far out of it to realize that it is a thin bubble. Drive 30 minutes south of Columbia to Hartsburg, population 101, home of the renowned Pumpkin Festival, and things look quite different. Science is a distant high school memory. There are no outreach programs readily available in town, and no one is going into Columbia to seek them out. Access is indeed a big challenge in science outreach.

As a land-grant university, the mission of the University of Missouri is to serve all the citizens of the state. Those living in college towns already have access to science, whereas those living in rural areas do not. Hence rural communities are the ones where science outreach could be more impactful. Hartsburg is not that far away from Columbia, but there are thousands of communities just like it that are over two hours away from the closest city. And after a long work day chances are you don’t feel like driving two hours to get to a science talk. So for a change I decided to be the one to drive those two hours, to bring the science to people—right where they are.

As humans we distrust things we don’t know, and often people don’t know science. In rural areas there are typically no opportunities to meet scientists. People living there don’t necessarily know what we actually look like or what we do. I set out to change that to show that science isn’t just something that happens in the Ivory Tower’s labs—it’s used in everyday life. I decided to focus my outreach program on the relevance of research rather than on the research itself. Every scientific pursuit has the potential to transform our lives, and we need to communicate that clearly.

Part of the problem is that after K-12 science disappears altogether from the picture. Ask most adults about the last time they thought about science—“What do you mean? Like in high school?” is the probable reaction. Adults are often left behind in the science outreach effort. Programs often focus on K-12 (the science pipeline!), but we forget about lifelong learning. That is a glaring omission given that over 3 in 4 US citizens are over the age of 18, and it motivated me to focus on this age group.

Science on Wheels members

Over the past summer I developed a program that would meet the needs I had identified. Science on Wheels travels to rural areas in any county of the state that requests it. Four to six graduate students give a five-minute overview of the relevance of their research to everyday life, and then mingle with the adult audience to chat more about science. So far we have reached seven counties, mainly in the central and southeastern parts of the State.

Our crowds are small: we have had audiences as little as one person, and only as big as 30 people. But we don’t consider that to be a failure. It takes more time and capacity than hosting an event in Columbia, but the people we are reaching in rural areas are exactly the ones we need to be reaching. They are the ones who are not typically engaged with science.

Here’s an example of our experience: it was 5:50 pm on a Thursday evening last spring. We had driven over an hour to hold an event, but no one had come in yet. 10 minutes from the official start, things weren’t looking up. There was a passerby, and we were quite forward in trying to convince him to join in. He wasn’t having it: science was not his thing, and besides his wife was expecting him for dinner. Finally, we somehow convinced him, and we ran the program with only him in the audience. It was transformative. Over the space of an evening, he relaxed, started asking questions, and eagerly discussed science. That night we changed someone’s perception of science, and that is most definitely worth our time and effort.

The relationship that adults have with science is often reflected in their voting choices. Therefore, nurturing that relationship is key to ensuring that research may thrive in our country. Someone who understands the value of science may be more likely to vote for legislators who do as well. The tangible outcome? Increased science funding, attention to issues such as climate change and conservation of endangered species, data-driven policy decisions—for the benefit of society at large.

Where to next? This summer I will work on expanding Science on Wheels at the state level. I plan to involve the other three University of Missouri campuses, in order to be able to cover a larger territory and hold more events. A few years down the road, I would like to see other institutions nationwide, especially land-grant universities, take the Science on Wheels model and tailor it to their needs. 90% of Americans can’t name a living scientist. My vision for Science on Wheels is for every resident of the state of Missouri—and one day of the U.S.—to have met with one.

 

Arianna is a Ph.D. Candidate in Volcanology at Mizzou. When she is not sampling molten lava in the field, she is making her own lava in the lab by melting rock samples. She is also passionate about science communication and outreach, and never misses an opportunity to chat about her life as a scientist. Find her on Twitter at @AriannaSoldati 

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.

A Graduate Researcher’s (Brief) Guide to: Creating a Student Science Policy Group

Panel of speakers at the Opioid Epidemic Forum.

Research, telescopes, and computer models may consume the thoughts of many STEM graduate students, but do you ever find yourself distracted by current events? Are you ever caught up in conversations about how to fix problems in society? Have you ever “geeked out” about research that influences laws or policy? If you’re a graduate student and this sounds familiar, you have options: 1) ignore your burning desire to do something or 2) start a science policy group.

Assuming you’re considering option 2, the first and most common question you will have to tackle personally and externally is “What is science policy?”

Defining science policy

In short, it refers to the rules and regulations that govern the scientific workforce or the use of science to inform rules and regulations. After starting a science policy group in graduate school, myself and other graduate student members began to realize the nebulousness of this definition. Meeting with many policy professionals, we realized saying “I want to be involved in science policy” is as specific as saying “I want to be involved in science”.

You should determine what ways and which topics you would like to focus on for your science policy engagement. There is advocacy (addressing legislators), diplomacy (international policy efforts), education (science communication & awareness initiatives), and of course policy (informing or crafting rules and regulations). Using these approaches, there are many challenges you could address (e.g. scientific workforce issues, specific issues such as climate change or infectious diseases, STEM education, etc). As federal agencies, scientific societies and not-for profit organizations commonly focus significant portions of their resources on science policy efforts, it signals the scale of the issues, and shows it may take more than one motivated person to make a significant impact (even within your community).

Gathering a team

SPADE team

Creating a science policy group with driven members will allow you to help more people, as well as share the credit (and workload) for grand initiatives. Seek out like-minded graduate students with an interest in creating change but also appreciate that promising students can and should be found across a variety of academic fields. This provides your group with expertise and awareness to explore a wide range of issues. For my group, we found holding introductory meetings and sending recruitment emails through our graduate student government and graduate program coordinators was an effective strategy. However, you can also rely on forming collaborations with other groups on or off campus to expand your reach for members.

When you have a core group of students, create an executive board with titles (e.g. President, Treasurer, Commander Pikachu, etc.). Not only do they sound “fancy”, but they also help in establishing an expectation of duties, which saves time when planning initiatives. Another important task is to find a faculty advisor that has experience or an academic focus within science policy. This serves to address club rules on certain campuses (which could allow your group access to funds). It also helps you tap into your advisor’s experience and network (which is particularly helpful when searching for a guest speaker for an event).

Now what do you do?

So you’ve got your group and an advisor, what do you all do now?

As many topics related to science policy are national matters, it can be difficult to figure out how your rag-tag group of students will fit into the science policy landscape. Fortunately, there are many ways to address science policy topics and your group may find some original ways to address them. Based on my experiences, these are some common approaches student groups use to address issues:

Guest speaker events—Inviting a policy expert or professional to an event your group is hosting or to a panel being held on campus is a good way to get your group’s feet wet and establish yourselves as “active”. If there is not a big presence on your campus for science policy, your initial speaking events may be more effective (and better attended) if they are geared towards a general or profiled Careers in Science Policy discussion.

Forums—Similar to guest speaker events, forums will allow your group to invite policy experts for one event to explain to the public or other experts about research, concerns, and proactive actions to address an issue. For example, the opioid epidemic is a pervasive problem within in our local community. To address this, our group planned an Opioid Epidemic Forum. We hosted a physician, a policy expert, a police officer and two New York state senators to inform and empower the Long Island community.

Consider offering additional initiatives at your event to enhance your public service. For example, at the forum we also offered a Narcan training session for participants and an excess opioid drop off box (overseen by the Suffolk County Health Department and Suffolk County Police Department, respectively).

Advocacy—Your group could also go to Washington, DC, or local in-district meetings to discuss with legislators how an issue is affecting your community and/or how it may impact the scientific workforce. Contact your university’s government relations office and ask about opportunities to talk with local or federal legislators. They are a useful resource as they often have a line of contact to legislators. Additionally, your group could fundraise to subsidize fees for members in your community to participate or travel to local initiatives or marches related to science policy.

Science outreach events—Astound and inform your local community by hosting science events for the public, or joining events to discuss (in accessible ways) about the latest research you or fellow students and professors have been working on and how it may impact the public (or why it’s important to know). You could also work with local groups to create campaigns for important unspoken issues within your community that the public could help to address.

Moving forward

If you are still driven to do more after hosting a few events and being active within your community, there are several steps you can take. You can use these initiatives as a template during your journey into academia to help start initiatives to improve the lives of others alongside your research.

If you are driven to make this a career, there are fellowships that can help (and in some ways are integral) with your transition into the federal government or elsewhere as a science policy expert. Some fellowships such as the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship and the President Management Fellowship are for recent (or soon-to-be) graduates. However, others including the Christine Mirzayan Fellowship are also open to students (domestic and international) who are currently in graduate school and provide them with unique experiences in the world of policy. However, there are many others—here is a full list of those offered.

Although this was only a brief summary, I hope this was helpful in informing your journey into the world of science policy.

 

Lyl Tomlinson is a Brooklyn, New York native who recently obtained his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. As a post-doctoral researcher, his major investigative focus relates to the effects of aerobic exercise on important support-like brain cells (oligodendrocytes). He is also a science communication professional who often asks: “Would my grandma understand this?” Using this question as a guiding principle, he competed against roughly 100 scientists and won the 2014 National NASA FameLab science communication competition, which asks researchers to explain science topics accessibly in 3 minutes. He is also a longtime associate of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and has been recognized as an “Alda All-Star”. While in graduate school, he was a co-creator and acting president of a graduate student lead science policy group, Scientists for Policy, Advocacy, Diplomacy and Education (SPADE). His work through this group gave rise to an action oriented local Opioid Epidemic Forum, an official graduate level Introduction to Science Policy course and several other initiatives. Lyl also meets with government representatives to advocate for science issues and regularly develops programs at Stony Brook to tackle problems related to scientific workforce matters. Find Lyl on Twitter at @LylT88

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.

Stories, Improv, and What Science Can Learn From Comedy

Can you name a scientist? If your response was no, you are not alone. Eighty one percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist, according to a 2017 poll that was conducted by Research America. As scientists, it is our responsibility to reach out to the public and talk to people about what we do, why it is important, and how it connects to their lives. We are not trained to make those connections and do public outreach, but luckily there are increasingly more opportunities to learn.

We are graduate students and members of Science in Action, a science communication and policy advocacy group at Colorado State University. Our goal is to encourage other scientists on campus to learn about and practice sharing their science. With financial support from the Union of Concerned Scientists, we were able to take advantage of unique opportunities to do just that.

Acting for science: using improv techniques to communicate

Scientists are trained to methodically approach problems and rigorously analyze solutions, but not taught how to communicate the findings. We may be doing vitally important work that benefits humanity, but what if we cannot communicate its importance to the public?

Actors, on the other hand, are expert storytellers. They use specific techniques to connect with their audience—techniques that scientists can and should learn to use.

Members practicing “acting tools” with Sarah Zwick-Tapley.

To help aspiring scientists learn these tricks of the trade, we partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists to host a science communication workshop. Sarah Zwick-Tapley, a local theater director and science communication consultant, introduced us to the “actor’s toolkit,” a set of physical and vocal techniques for audience engagement.

These tips were simple enough (land eye contact, change the tone, volume, and speed of your voice) but incorporating them all together while also describing the importance of your science? That is a challenge.

Another critical piece of the storytelling approach is using the “And, But, Therefore” sequence. We practiced this technique with an outlandish example. First, you start with what we know (“we know cancer is a deadly disease AND that it has many causes”). Next, you build suspense with what we have yet to discover (“BUT, we don’t know whether eating old books causes cancer”). Then, you finish with your contribution (“THEREFORE, I am eating Shakespeare’s entire body of work to see if I develop cancer”). Using this technique turns a simple list of facts into a powerful story.

The next step: put our new acting skills into action.

Why science matters for Colorado

Colorado is home to multiple national laboratories and major research universities.

Standing in front of the Colorado State Capitol after sharing our science with legislators and staffers.

Researchers at these organizations do important science and bring the best and brightest minds to the state. To help share these discoveries with our state legislators, we joined Project Bridge, from the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, for a poster day at the capitol. Speaking with non-scientists can be a challenge, but we used our new acting tools to tell a story, both in our poster design and our presentation.

We also took this opportunity to meet one-on-one with our state representatives. Because they represent a college town, they recognize the value of research for our city, state, and country. We were encouraged to hear that they regularly rely on experts at CSU for advice on pending legislation. This is science policy in action.

Communicating for the future

As a scientist, you may recognize that communicating science is important, but are unsure how to learn these skills. Luckily, there are numerous organizations across the country that are dedicated to training scientists to communicate clearly and effectively. Many scientific organizations (the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Society for Cell Biology, among others) hold science communication and science policy trainings and provide small grants for local groups. COMPASS is an international organization that hosts trainings and provides one-on-one coaching for aspiring science communicators. Many universities have also started in-house communication trainings and programs (Stony Brook University is home to the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science).

These resources illustrate the fact that there are people and organizations dedicated to providing scientists with the tools they need to share their science with everyone.

 

Rod Lammers and Michael Somers are graduate students at Colorado State University. They are both officers in Science in Action, a science communication and policy group. Science in Action is a student-led organization at Colorado State University started in 2016 to engage campus scientists and provide opportunities for outreach to the public and policymakers. More information can be found on the organization’s website and Facebook page.

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.

Empowering Early Career Scientists to Engage in Science Advocacy, Policy and Communication

Photo credit: Alina Chan, Future of Research

As a member of and an advocate for the early career scientist community, I strongly believe that we are the future of science. We need to engage in activities that allow us to use our voice for the greater good, and we must do this through multiple avenues. Adapting to the changing landscape of the scientific enterprise requires integrating professional development activities into the training of early career scientists, in order to create “whole scientists.” This culture shift will enable us to utilize valuable skills acquired during our training to benefit society.

Two important aspects of this training are developing the ability to explain science to various audiences, and to effectively advocate for the importance of science within our own institutions, to policy makers, and to the general public. In a sense, I believe it is the responsibility of our generation to be the change we want to see, and to lead by example in engaging others to participate in this change with us.

It is encouraging to see that many early career scientists today seek to engage in science advocacy. But in order to achieve our advocacy goals, it is imperative to receive proper training in this area. In 2016, three organizations (Future of Research, Academics for the Future of Science, and the MIT Graduate Student Council) organized a joint “Advocating for Science” symposium and workshop in Boston, MA, with the goal of sharing tools and skills necessary to train early career scientists in advocacy. The event highlighted the eagerness of participants to advocate for a particular cause, with the overall goal of improving specific aspects of the scientific enterprise. Overall, this event catalyzed the power of early career scientists to participate in culture change around science advocacy by preparing them for future engagement opportunities.

Preparing for a career that connects science and society

Similar to most early career scientists today, I now seek a non-academic career that fulfills a greater purpose. At the same time, I am part of a generation of early career scientists that is well aware of how our academic training is not preparing us for desired (non-academic) careers. This is a particularly important consideration given that academic careers are now becoming the minority, and more early career scientists are transitioning into occupations where their scientific skills can be applied towards broader societal impacts. In particular, as science advocacy, policy and communication careers are now becoming more popular with early career scientists, the manner in which they are trained for various career paths must drastically change.

At the core of Future of Research is our mission to champion, engage and empower early career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor.” To this end, we propose changes in the scientific training environment in order to enable a more effective level of engagement in activities that complement our scientific training at the bench. The ability to communicate our science to various audiences will only enrich this training and enable us to advocate for our cause. However, this shift requires a culture change around science communication and other skills, both within academia and beyond. While many barriers still exist to enacting this change, early career scientists in many cases have developed their own programs in universities, being able to also engage others in these types of activities.

Developing initiatives at the university level to enhance advocacy, policy and science communication skills for early career scientists, in which they learn to describe their science to various audiences, is a necessary and valuable skill. Some general examples of these types of efforts are storytelling strategies, podcasts, and groups in universities. Additionally, while I was a postdoc, I developed a career seminar series to expose graduate students and postdocs to different career options. I also organized symposia to create a sense of community among scientists at all levels in the Midwest within my area of research, and to give early career scientists a voice in this event and connect with other junior and senior scientists in the area working on similar research topics.

These efforts demonstrate the willingness of early career scientists themselves to change the culture around particular issues within their local communities. Nationally, many scientific societies and organizations seek to engage early career scientists in advocating for a cause of interest, providing a natural platform in which to advocate for particular issues in various settings and to various audiences. Taking advantage of these opportunities is vital to both our professional development as scientists and to maintaining the relevance of science in society.

Personally, my goal is to advocate for junior scientists. To this end, I have been a member of both local and national committees to benefit graduate students and postdocs (UofL Postdoctoral Studies Committee, ASCB COMPASS, National Postdoctoral Association), and more broadly advocating for this population through my role on the Future of Research Board of Directors. These leadership roles have allowed me to learn about the needs of early career scientists and devise ways to best engage them in changing the academic culture. These experiences have also enabled me to create and be part of a network of professionals who share these same goals, and these individuals were also instrumental in guiding my own career path towards researching and advocating for improved policies affecting early career scientists.

Find science advocacy, policy, and communication opportunities through Science Rising

There are many ways for early career scientists to demonstrate interest in these activities and to engage others in our cause. Joining organizations such as Future of Research and the Union of Concerned Scientists are positive ways to demonstrate commitment to particular advocacy causes that we feel passionate about. Participating in local policy meet-ups with groups such as Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy can also be a way to show interest in particular policy issues affecting scientists or the general practice of doing science, as well as broader issues related to the relationship between science and society. You can find out about more opportunities and resources related to advocacy, policy and science communication through Science Rising, a new effort designed to celebrate the connections between science and society, and showcase opportunities for science supporters around the country to get more involved in advocating for science within their community as well as nationally.

Future of Research recognizes the importance of engaging early career scientists in shaping the scientific enterprise in an evidence-based manner. At the same time, this population seeks to engage with various stakeholders in advancing and advocating for the importance of science in society. We are proud to support the Science Rising movement and encourage the involvement of early career scientists in such national efforts.

Early career scientists still face many barriers to moving ahead towards effecting change. For this reason, we need everyone to get involved. Whether it’s designing career development programs on your campus or exploring ways to engage in science advocacy as a constituent, there are many ways to make a broader societal impact with your science.

 

Adriana Bankston is a bench scientist turned science policy researcher. She is a member of the Board of Directors at Future of Research, a nonprofit organization with a mission to champion, engage and empower early career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor. Her goals are to promote science policy and advocacy for junior scientists, and to gather and present data on various issues in the current scientific system. Previously, she was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Louisville. Adriana obtained a B.S. degree in Biological Sciences from Clemson University and a Ph.D. degree in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University. Find her on Twitter at @AdrianaBankston

Crop Diversity: A Nice Thing If You Can Get It (and You Can Get It If You Try)

Extended crop rotations, which often include small grains like oats, pictured here, can provide financial benefits to farmers while also providing broader environmental benefits, like reduced soil erosion and runoff. Nick Ohde/Practical Farmers of Iowa

Diversity is incredibly important for a productive and resilient agrifood system. Diverse cropping systems can lead to greater  productivity, profitability and environmental health. Diversity in the form of extended crop rotations can also reduce weed, insect, and disease pressure, which can help farmers cut the costs of their purchased inputs like herbicides and insecticides. Beyond these financial benefits, diversifying crop rotations also provides broader environmental benefits that can be experienced at both the field scale (e.g., reduced erosion) and landscape scale (e.g., reduced water quality impairment), as noted in the UCS report Rotating Crops, Turning Profits

Greater cropping systems diversity can also help mitigate risks associated with the impacts of global climate change, which will drive more extreme and variable weather events, not to mention sustained temperature and precipitation changes that will impact agricultural production. Sadly, much of the agricultural production in the US, particularly in the Midwest, is lacking in biological diversity (at the genetic, species, and community level).

If diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, good for the land and often for our bottom line, why then are so few farmers, particularly in the Midwest, implementing diverse crop rotations?

Corn is king

In collaboration with colleagues at Iowa State University, I attempted to answer this question in a recent paper published with Global Environmental Change, using information from Midwest Corn Belt farmers collected via surveys and in-depth interviews to examine the facilitators and barriers of more diversified crop rotations. Overall, we found that many farmers are interested in more diverse crop rotations. However, many of them feel constrained by the current corn-corn and corn-soybean rotation that is ubiquitous across much of the Midwest—as a Wisconsin farmer said in our study, “now, you live or die by two crops.” This farmer went on to note that he did not think this adherence to such a limited crop rotation was sustainable for the long-term health of the region’s agricultural system.

Our study also found that many farmers acknowledge the benefits of diversifying their crop rotation. Some also see diverse crop rotations as a way to take advantage of climate-related changes. Unfortunately, many farmers could not figure out what crops would be financially viable in their operation given that there are few regionally competitive markets for diverse crops. We did find that greater diversity at the watershed level (measured at the HUC6 level) facilitates farmers’ use of diverse crop rotations, likely due to the presence of alternative markets (e.g., small grains or feed) and associated technological and market infrastructure. It might also be that closer proximity with other farmers who have diverse rotations provides greater support to farmers considering adopting extended rotations. Our study also found that the loss of crop/livestock integration in the region had greatly reduced the need for more diverse rotations, with many farmers noting that they used to have more diverse rotations in the past, when they managed for an integrated crop and livestock system.

Overall, our study examined how path dependence, which limits the technological and economic options that farmers have within the corn-based cropping system in the US Corn Belt, restricts farmers’ options for changing their production systems to incorporate more diverse crop rotations.

An enabling environment for diversity

To enable greater diversity, it may be necessary to address both technology and informational barriers while also identifying incentives for more economically and environmentally resilient agricultural systems. Unfortunately, many farmers who are doing things differently from their neighbors can feel ostracized in their communities. Luckily organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa and Women Food and Agriculture Network can provide farmers with communities of practice that enable them to experiment with new cropping systems or different production/conservation practices that might not be commonplace. Organizations such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at Iowa State University, have been critically important in funding agricultural research that investigates diverse alternatives to the corn-based cropping system, such as the Prairie STRIPS project (check out efforts to re-imagine a new Leopold Center given recent funding cuts).

In our study, we suggest two primary strategies for facilitating greater cropping systems diversity in the US Corn Belt:

1) Increasing financial incentives to assist farmers with up-front costs associated with investing in new cropping systems or alternative crops, while also putting in place disincentives for monoculture production (e.g., conservation compliance); and

2) Investing in programs that will enable the development of alternative markets (e.g., perennial biofuel feedstock sources).

Diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, yet there is much work to be done to cultivate more diverse cropping systems in the Corn Belt and other agricultural regions in the U.S. In an era of global climate change, it is more important than ever to invest in agricultural production systems that reduce vulnerability by embracing the merits of agroecological diversity.

 

Gabrielle Roesch McNally received her PhD in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. She worked in the US Corn Belt for over four years conducting and analyzing survey data and in-depth interviews with large-scale corn producers as part of a multi-state effort to examine climate change impacts and resilience-building strategies for corn-based cropping systems. The results reported in this blog were published in a co-authored manuscript entitled, “Barriers to implementing climate resilient agricultural strategies: The case of crop diversification in the U.S. Corn Belt” in the journal Global Environmental Change. Gabrielle is a Fellow with the USDA Northwest Climate Hubs. Follow Gabrielle on Twitter @G_Roesch or on Research Gate.

Nick Ohde /Practical Farmers of Iowa

No Shortcuts for Dirty Diesel Engines

Over the past eight years, I have studied air pollution of the United States and other countries around the world. My career has been centered around using high-performance computer models to identify the biggest air pollution offenders. The air pollution research community is well aware that the U.S. diesel truck fleet has the potential to spew hundreds of thousands of tons of air pollutants each year, if left uncontrolled.

Thankfully, over the past few decades, the U.S. government has made excellent strides in regulating heavy-duty diesel pollution in the form of emissions standards. So, when I was informed by UCS advocates that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed last November to allow glider vehicles to be exempt from modern emission control standards, I was floored. To be completely honest, I was angry.

You’re probably wondering what a glider vehicle is and why this action made me so upset. Glider vehicles are heavy-duty trucks with new bodies and refurbished engines with old or non-existent emissions control technology. Engines in these trucks can date back to the 1990s. The proposal would exempt glider vehicles from the current emissions standards that are in place for new heavy-duty trucks. This loophole has been exploited by a few small manufacturers, and the industry has grown exponentially over the last 6-8 years.

Effective emissions testing

EPA’s proposal cited a glider manufacturer-funded study by Tennessee Technological University (TTU), which claimed that glider vehicle emissions were no worse or even better than those from modern engines. The study has since been renounced by TTU President Philip Oldham for its questionable methods and execution.

So, how should heavy-duty engine emissions be tested? This is no small task as testing requires expert operation of advanced equipment. The air pollution community has published several peer-reviewed studies about proper emissions testing practices. Effective emissions rate testing involves simulating cycles for many scenarios: cold start, congestion-related stop and go traffic (creeping), arterial road traffic (transient), and highway cruising. Emissions testing on glider vehicles should be held to these standards, and lawmakers should be wary of testing that shortcuts trusted practices. The now renounced TTU study did not use standard test cycles during their glider vehicle testing, they did not repeat their trials, and PM2.5 emissions were subjectively quantified by visual inspection. Subsequently, a proper study was conducted by an EPA staff member in Ann Arbor, and particulate emissions from the glider engines were so high that the testing equipment shut down. Clearly, the petition did not have a solid study to stand on.

University of California Riverside College of Engineering Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) heavy-duty engine emissions tester.

Diesel pollution has real effects on human health

Detailed studies have been published in well-respected journals by researchers in the air quality community to understand the links between diesel exhaust exposure and human health. I was fortunate to take part in a major collaboration between Georgia Tech and Emory University to investigate the links between air pollution and health in the southeastern United States. My colleagues at Emory University showed that the odds of preterm birth for expecting mothers increases with increased exposure to traffic-related air pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and elemental carbon (component of soot). NO2 and soot are the glider vehicle pollutants of greatest concern.

Health effects from exposure to pollutants can be estimated with reactivity tests that measure oxidant production potential. Oxidant production within the body creates an imbalance with anti-oxidants, leading to the breakdown of cellular material and the disruption cell homeostasis. Inhaled pollution has been linked to oxidant-generation potential in the lungs, causing inflammation and decreased lung capacity. My colleagues at Georgia Tech found that in Atlanta, GA, heavy-duty diesel pollution was estimated to cause approximately 14% of oxidative potential. Allowing more glider vehicles into the heavy-duty truck fleet increases the risk of respiratory and gestational ailments for susceptible individuals living or working near highways.

Low-income neighborhoods hurt most

Further, allowing more dirty diesel vehicles on the road will reverse pollution reductions, especially near highways. Frankly, this is what makes the proposal so dangerous. The likelihood of living near a highway increases with decreasing median household income. Therefore, an increase in roadway pollution from poorly-regulated engines would disproportionately affect poorer neighborhoods with fewer healthcare resources. People of color who already have higher risks for ailments, such as asthma and heart disease, also tend to live closer to highways. So, while the proposal will save truck owners from paying for modern emission control technology, poor people and people of color will most likely bear the heaviest public health burden if the proposal goes into effect.

Stop dirty diesel

Simply put, the glider vehicle proposal should not go forward. The emissions study cited by the proposal was poorly conducted (and ultimately withdrawn), poor people and people of color will suffer from increased roadway pollution, and susceptible groups will have increased health risks. Please let science lead this cause. Slightly cheaper trucks are a terrible substitute for human health.

Dr. Cesunica E. Ivey is an incoming Assistant Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of California Riverside. She is currently a visiting scientist in Princeton University’s Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Department. Dr. Ivey studied environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and her research expertise is in modeling regional air pollution from natural and anthropogenic sources.

Organizations: American Geophysical Union; American Association of Aerosol Research, 500 Women Scientists

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.

CE-CERT

Taking Action for Public Science: Re-Imagining Iowa’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

On a snowy February morning at the Iowa state capitol in Des Moines, students, farmers, community members, scientists, food system employees, and advocates gathered for a press conference and advocacy day. Their efforts came almost one year to the day after the state legislature voted to defund and shut down the Leopold Center, for 30 years the state’s pre-eminent institution for research, learning and practice on sustainable agriculture. Constituents from across the state and beyond had responded with grassroots organizing to reframe discussions about public agricultural science in Iowa. And now they were calling for a re-imagined Leopold Center to lead a bold new vision for Iowa’s agricultural future:

“Supporting a socially just, environmentally sound agricultural system goes beyond simply providing food, fiber, and fuels—it means revitalizing rural communities, and turning Iowa into a shining example of how a resilient, locally focused agricultural system can make a large difference in individual communities and throughout the world.”

—Kristine Neu, Iowa State University graduate student

Lawmakers founded the Leopold Center at Iowa State University through Iowa’s 1987 Groundwater Protection Act and in so doing created an institution that benefited farmers, students and community members through research and educational programs. Yet, in the spring of 2017, the state legislature voted to defund and shut down the Leopold Center.

Sustainable agriculture scientists and advocates sprang to action immediately, writing a petition decrying the cuts, garnering national attention and more than 600 signatures over the first weekend it was available. Alumni and allies drafted memos and collected data for reports to share with legislators, wrote press releases and editorials, and organized turn-out to the state budget hearing.

This grassroots advocacy succeeded in securing a veto that saved the Leopold Center in name only—its funding was redirected to a research center created in 2014 dedicated to “nutrient management.” State legislators claimed the Leopold Center’s work was “accomplished.” The public mourned its loss, and stories in the press read as eulogies rather than rallies for its rebuilding. But we saw an opportunity to push forward a new vision for Iowa’s agricultural future—one of regeneration and healing (Carter, Chennault, and Kruzic 2018).

Iowa’s agricultural history is one of extraction. Iowa State University sits on land occupied by white settlers following the Black Hawk “Purchase” of 1833, a forceful removal of the Sauk and Meskwaki people following the Black Hawk War. The extractive economy continues today, with Iowa second only to California in the value of agricultural goods and boasting more hogs (22.4 million) and chickens (60 million) than people (3 million). This production system comes at a cost to the health of Iowa’s soil, water, and human communities as the state is literally washing away at the rate of 20 tons of soil per acre and more each year, and nitrate loading from agricultural landscapes pollutes the drinking water (Naidenko, Cox and Bruzelius 2012; Rundquist and Cox 2018). Clearly, the Leopold Center’s work is far from over.

Science for Public Good grant from the Union of Concerned Scientists helped us create an advocacy video communicating our collective’s new vision for the Leopold Center and agriculture in Iowa. In partnership with farmers, students, emeritus faculty, community leaders, and members of the Iowa Farmers Union, Women, Food and Agriculture Network, Center for Rural Affairs, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Lutheran Services of Iowa, and Iowa State University Sustainable Agriculture Student Association, we brainstormed, debated, revised, and shared new visions. The collective vision shared from these efforts celebrates diversity and prioritizes care, which are necessary components of agrifood systems change in Iowa and beyond. We launched this vision through a series of op-eds at the Des Moines press conference in February 2018, and used it to rally supporters to attend the Leopold Center’s advisory board meeting in March 2018.

These are hard times for public science and scientists studying ecological and social changes. Our refusal to mourn and eulogize the Leopold Center’s loss—and our work to envision and work toward a boldly re-imagined agriculture in Iowa instead—reframed a debate while envisioning new paths forward. The Leopold Center’s future remains uncertain, yet we know the challenges our agrifood system faces will require the kind of collaboration, creativity, innovation, and transparency reflected in our collective vision. A re-imagined Leopold Center must transform what has become a monoculture of ideas with a polyculture of thought, experience, scientific approach, and innovative agricultural practices. A monoculture is weak and vulnerable; it fails to provide for the coming decades. We have adopted the prairie as our guide for the work ahead—deep roots, diverse, hardy through times of drought, and resilient through times of change.

Angie Carter is an environmental sociologist and assistant professor of environmental and energy justice at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. She earned her PhD in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology at Iowa State University. Twitter: @angielcarter

Ahna Kruzic is a community organizer turned communicator from rural southern Iowa. Ahna is Pesticide Action Network North America’s Communications Director and is based out of Berkeley, CA. Ahna is also a Food First / Institute for Food and Development Policy Fellow, and holds a Master of Science in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology from Iowa State University. Twitter: @ahnakruzic

Carrie Chennault is a doctoral candidate in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and a graduate research assistant with the Local Foods and SNAP-Education programs at ISU Extension & Outreach.

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.

A Shout-Out to Government Scientists: Have You Completed the UCS Federal Scientists Survey?

“I can’t afford to make any wrong moves,” a PhD scientist and career federal worker recently confided to us, adding grimly, “they are watching us closely.” Normally cheerful and extroverted, she now often appears tired and frazzled. She is not alone—not by a long shot. As federal science and technology (S&T) budgets are being squeezed, and key programs and offices are being zeroed out altogether, federal government employees are becoming fearful of losing their jobs, which are becoming increasingly stressful.

The degree to which the White House has depended on S&T advice to form policy has varied widely from administration to administration, but not until now has a US President broadly cast aside science itself as irrelevant, even inconvenient, to public policymaking. The anti-science, pro-deregulation posture of the Trump Administration is creating an environment where federal scientists and engineers—especially those working in areas antithetical to White House ideologies—are having to endure a variety of insults to their professional integrity. Arbitrary transfers to undesired positions; overt censorship; gag orders; disappearing transparency; prohibitions on open communication with the public and the press; and politically-motivated micromanagement and hypercritical scrutiny: all of these send the clear message that the work they do as civil servants striving for the public good is no longer valued. Being a career scientist makes one persona non grata when science itself has a bad name in the White House, and science-based policymaking is being openly ignored across the entire Executive Branch.

Imagine devoting one’s career to better understanding Earth’s complex climate and weather systems, and to communicating climate change causes and risks to Congress and the public, only to be told that the use of the word ‘climate’ itself is taboo, and to reconfigure work products away from climate change, or else! The “else” could mean suffering reprisals or being canned altogether. Picture being a young, ambitious PhD scientist with a job at a research laboratory where a keen interest in understanding how climate change is affecting our bays and estuaries can be freely pursued. Then imagine accepting an invitation to present your research at a conference, only to suddenly be ordered to bow out. This actually happened last fall to three EPA research lab scientists studying the health of the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island: each was to give a talk on the deleterious effects of climate change on the Bay, and each was abruptly forced to cancel. Investigative reporting quickly revealed that John Konkus, a political appointee in EPA’s public affairs office, had placed a Friday afternoon phone call to the Narragansett EPA lab director ordering him to prohibit the three scientists from speaking at Monday’s conference.

Federal S&T workers in other areas of focus are experiencing similar instances of suppression. Much of our evidence at the moment is anecdotal. That is why the Union of Concerned Scientists is currently surveying 63,000 government scientists on the status of scientific integrity—this will help the gaps in data and information. The survey will open until March 26.

Reactions in the federal workforce have been mixed. Many are leaving their posts in droves—most often quietly, even after years of service. Others are quitting in protest and choosing a “noisy exit”—by naming names, and publicly calling out wrongdoing they’ve witnessed. EPA Region 10 veteran Michael Cox was so put off by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that he took early retirement last year from his position as climate change advisor. In a scathing departure letter, Cox let Administrator Pruitt know that EPA staff were “becoming increasingly alarmed about the direction of EPA” and cited Pruitt’s blatant denial of established climate science, his frequent demonizing of the agency, his decision to bring in political appointees hostile to the EPA, and his failure to grasp the role of EPA’s ten regional offices.

A courageous few blow the whistle: they retain legal counsel specializing in whistleblower protection, and boldly speak truth to power by criticizing actions that are unethical, immoral, or illegal. A legal complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, accompanied by a hard-hitting Washington Post op-ed by federal whistleblower Joel Clement, offers a case in point. A top climate advisor at the Department of Interior publicly alarmed at the effect of climate change on Alaskan native populations, Clement was transferred by Secretary Zinke to an office that counts oil and gas royalties.

The vast majority of federal scientists choose to remain in their current positions, out of admirable dedication and economic necessity, and become “quiet copers” who play it safe, keep a low profile, and engage in self-censorship as a survival strategy. In the current environment, where the chilling effect has reached sub-zero temperatures, blowing the whistle can feel scary and futile. The sad fact is that most employees who witness workplace wrongdoing stay silent, out of fear of reprisal, fear that speaking out will fail to solve the problem, or both.

We believe becoming fully informed of one’s legal rights to report wrongdoing can be an effective antidote against these fears and encourage all federal employees to familiarize themselves with these rights. To this end, GAP has developed a new resource, Speaking Up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees, for federal employees reluctant to stay silent in the face of serious abuses of public trust.

Science-based policymaking is a hallmark of American tradition and a linchpin of good governance. We hope all 63,000 federal scientists who received UCS’s 2018 Federal Scientist Survey will respond by answering the questions carefully and candidly, so that we can better identify and address threats to scientific integrity.

 

Dana Gold is an attorney and currently serves as the Government Accountability Project’s (GAP) Director of Education, implementing public education initiatives and partnering with diverse stakeholders in collaborative efforts to foster awareness of the essential role whistleblowers play in promoting government and corporate accountability. In addition to her work with GAP, where she focused for many years representing dozens of whistleblowers in the nuclear weapons complex, Dana co-founded and directed the Center on Corporations, Law & Society at Seattle University School of Law, and served as a Network Fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics focusing on whistleblowing and institutional corruption.

Anne Polansky, Senior Climate Policy Analyst for GAP’s Climate Science & Policy Watch program, has over 30 years of experience in science-based public policymaking in the areas of climate change, renewable energy, and sustainability. She has held management positions with the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology; and the Solar Energy Industries Association; and has provided specialized consulting services for a variety of non-profit organizations. Anne holds a MS degree in environmental chemistry and engineering from Clemson University and a BS degree from Vanderbilt 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.

Collaboration Between Ranchers and Scientists Leads to Rangeland Management Opportunities

Andrea Johnson, part of the research field crew, monitors water quality in a rangeland stream. Photo: Kris Hulvey

When I arrived in Utah four years ago to start my new research position, government agencies and ranchers were having a standoff about grazing rights and the use of public lands. Cattle grazing is common on many public lands, which also serve as key habitat for species of ecological and political interest like Greater Sage-Grouse. Increasingly, people also want western rangelands to supply a suite of other goods and services including clean water, fish habitat, and carbon sequestration.

My plan was to develop a research program focused on balancing some of these seemingly conflicting uses of Western landscapes. I was worried that the political climate would make any form of collaboration among ranchers, government managers, and scientists difficult. I was wrong.

How should we manage rangeland?

Flags set near a rangeland stream for assessment of stubble height and bare ground – two indicators of grazing use.

The U.S. has a history of managing the environment through a combination of top-down regulation (for example, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act), mixed more recently with creative programs that provide incentives to private citizens for management and conservation actions on their properties. Here in Utah, over the past decade, a constellation of factors aligned, leading to a unique opportunity for landscape management.

A key element was the possibility of the greater sage grouse being added to the list of US Endangered Species. This motivated local people—including ranchers, public lands managers, and scientists — to combine forces to prevent further sage-grouse population declines. They formed local working groups where they shared information, concerns, and got to know each other. This groundwork of relationship-building opened the door to solve other management conflicts on rangelands, including those I address in my work.

My research focuses on how grazing near rangeland streams affects water quality. Because violations of clean water regulations in rangeland streams can lead to demands for cattle to be removed from public lands, I collaborate closely with public lands managers, including those working in federal and state agencies. We have found that in our local rangelands, rotating cattle across the landscape so that they do not graze in the same spot for an entire season can lead to water quality that meets state standards. This research impacts ranchers, because in some cases improving water quality will mean changing current grazing practices.

Building relationships with stakeholders

This next part of my story is where I get really excited about the collaborative relationships between ranchers, managers at government agencies, and scientists in Utah. My agency partners invited me to share my findings with the ranchers affected by the results. Because some of these results highlighted current conflicts between grazing and water quality, I expected a stony reception.

Instead, the ranchers informed me of key details of their operations that could have led to my results. They peppered me with questions about my measurement techniques and about how the year’s wet conditions could have influenced my results. They proposed ideas of how to improve stream and water conditions in future years—including those that would require more time and effort on their part—and asked me if I would come collect data again so that we would know if the proposed solutions worked.

What had just happened? This exchange of ideas and community knowledge—from me to the ranchers and the ranchers to me—was vital. It allowed me to fully understand the results of my research, and for the ranchers and agency scientists to find solutions that would balance grazing use with clean water production in the area. I chalk this experience up to the trust that my agency partners and these ranchers had built after years of working together.

Hope for the future of natural resource management

So, how do we move forward, balancing natural resources in a political environment that can be confrontational? I draw some inspiration from my students. One of the classes I teach is a project-based capstone class for range majors. Our first assignment is to diagram on the white board what ‘range management’ is. Students grab dry erase markers and jot down all of the words they associate with their future profession. Terms like ‘livestock management,’ ‘water distribution,’ and ‘soil conservation’ are there. But so are ‘stakeholders,’ ‘communication,’ and ‘collaboration.’ The students then spend the bulk of the semester putting all of these ideas into practice. Ranchers and other professionals from the diversity of organizations managing rangeland come speak with my students about collaboration. A main message is always that differences will exist, but that if we focus on what we agree upon, we can move forward. I’m on board.

 

Kristin Hulvey is an Assistant Professor of Wildland Resources at Utah State University. She is focused on improving working lands management by collaborating with stakeholders and conducting research that leads to management solutions that work for nature and people. Her work broadly focuses on rangeland management, ecosystem restoration, and the links between biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and human well-being.   

 

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.

Kris Hulvey

Building Relationships to Promote Science-Based Decision Making

In an era when “fake news” has become a common phrase, it is more important than ever to make sure our policymakers are making decisions based on the best available information.

As graduate students associated with the Program on Climate Change at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, we knew that there was a role for us to play. We all study issues related to climate change, but with no experience interacting with the policy side how could we connect our research with decision-makers? That’s where the Union of Concerned Scientists came in.

Training participants role-play meeting with their state legislators to discuss climate policy.

As graduate students, we study specific projects within narrow bands of climate science, but the general knowledge of climate that we have gained throughout the pursuit of our degrees puts us in a unique position. In the eyes of policymakers, we can serve as important resources.

With this perspective on our status as graduate students, we felt inspired and compelled to improve our understanding of the climate policy framework as well as to promote connections between graduate students and policymakers. We reached out to Emily Heffling, UCS western states campaign coordinator, to partner with us to create a UW workshop focused on training graduate students and postdocs studying climate in building these important relationships with the policy world. With resources from UCS, we facilitated an event that brought in multiple speakers to address these questions of how climate policy works in Washington State and how we as students can plug into this system.

Following the training, we arranged meetings with our local legislators: one State Senator and four members of the Washington House of Representatives, including the Speaker. It turns out it can be a little nerve-wracking to meet in person with a legislator! As part of the training, participants got to practice face-to-face interactions with policymakers through role-play scenarios. This training experience was easily translated into the actual meetings, helping students to feel more at ease. Students had clear expectations for the meeting and knew how to structure the encounter to use the legislators’ precious time most productively.

Representative Nicole Macri (left) meets with graduate students (left to right) Michael Diamond (Atmospheric Sciences), Megan Duffy (Oceanography), and Kaylie McTiernan (Mechanical Engineering and Marine and Environmental Affairs) and postdoctoral research associate Johanna Goldman.

Across the five meetings that came out of this event, we pushed past our comfort zones and connected with the people who are in positions to make impactful changes. We learned about the work our elected officials are already doing to pursue climate policy. We described how our climate research and affiliated resources are available to better inform their decisions. One graduate student, Kaylie McTiernan, who attended a meeting with Representative Nicole Macri (43rd Legislative District) reflected on her meeting saying, “the graduate student science advocacy training prepared us to meet with Representative Macri. We are grateful for her time and for learning about the newly formed Climate Caucus of the WA State Democrats, the work towards creating a carbon tax, and some of the most pressing current issues.” In another meeting, Senator Jamie Pedersen (43rd Legislative District) was curious to learn about how policy changes on the state level impact the global issue of climate change. We connected him to the resources at UW that specialize in such questions.

Students also brought up issues that were not on legislators’ radars, such as how global warming will change the timing and quantity of water availability as snow-dominated areas in the Cascades become rain-dominated. Water resources have been on the Washington State political agenda because of a court ruling affecting current water permitting practices, but the longer-term implications of climate change had been largely absent from the discussion.

Overall, the experience of working with UCS to facilitate this workshop, connect graduate students to the policy landscape, and build relationships with local legislators was incredibly rewarding. We learned a lot about how state climate policy is developed and implemented and gained a better understanding of how graduate students can leverage our unique position and resources to advocate for a more climate-progressive state shaped by well-informed policymakers.

 

Taryn Black is a PhD student in Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on documenting changes in the Greenland Ice Sheet and determining the processes driving these changes.

Michael Diamond is a PhD student in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington. He studies how smoke particles from agricultural fires in southern Africa influence cloud properties over the southeast Atlantic Ocean to better understand the interactions between clouds and pollution, which is one of the largest sources of scientific uncertainty in how much human activities are altering Earth’s climate.

Emma Kahle is a PhD student in Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. She studies ice core records from Antarctica to learn about past temperature changes and to better understand interactions between different climate processes.

 

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.