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Seeing Green: Speak softly, for you carry a scientific stick

LINCOLN, N.Z. There’s nothing like finding yourself 7,000 miles from home, biking to work on the “wrong” side of the road and scrambling to mobilize a 10-week field project, to make you reevaluate where your research is going.

 

I find myself doing such hard thinking at odd intervals, usually when science is treating me either very poorly or very well, or when some environmental catastrophe rouses the media. Mostly, I ask myself, “Does this research matter? Am I doing enough?”

 

Such questions abound among young ecologists, who balance between two supposed extremes: “pure science” and “applied research.” The former generally refers to so-called “basic science,” or knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Meanwhile, “applied” work leverages this knowledge to, for example, arm policymakers with data.

 

I find applied research easier to explain (and justify, since my funding comes out of national tax coffers) to others. It’s often more personally fulfilling too, since I know how badly the world needs ecologists to help find a new equilibrium between humans and finite planetary resources. Still, I don’t study ecology because I want to calculate rates of species-loss as a function of urbanization: I mostly want to do basic science. Somehow, personal interest has to balance with social responsibility.

 

Every senior scientist has an opinion on how applied a Ph.D. thesis should be. When I first filed graduate applications four years ago, my advisors cautioned me against the numerous interdisciplinary programs that merged science and policy. (The traditional view holds that one should demonstrate pure-science research potential before dabbling in the murky waters of policy.)

 

Since then, times have changed. Academic job prospects for interdisciplinary alumni have improved, alongside growing respect for the programs and growing demand for professionals who can move between the ivory tower and Capitol Hill. (That didn’t stop one Harvard professor from telling me that “Ph.D.s should only be given for hard science. At least then you can claim to be an expert in something.” My rejection letter arrived two months later.)

 

The beauty of science, of course, is that you never know what you’re going to get. That’s why we do basic research: it’s produced some of our greatest applied discoveries. But if you stumble upon such a discovery in environmental science, you face more ethical questions.

 

Publicly funded scientists generally believe that scientific work is not complete unless it’s communicated to others. The most widely accepted – indeed, demanded – form of such communication is the scientific paper, an artifact of scientific inbreeding generally about as comprehensible (and as likely to be read) as a legal brief. Sure, précis of some papers make the popular rounds, but for the most part, the science that reaches the public eye came from scientists who felt their ethical responsibility didn’t end with talking to their peers. These are the scientists who brought us testimonials on the ozone hole, ocean acidification and overfishing.

 

Many of these scientists have rallied public support and motivated policy changes. Yet no good deed goes unpunished. For example, as the climate change “debate” continues in the public sphere, climate scientists have borne the brunt of jokes, had reputations smeared and even received death threats from people too set in their beliefs to acknowledge scientific consensus.

 

If public censure weren’t bad enough, speaking up can have unfortunate professional consequences. You see, the thing that scientists value most is objectivity: the scientific method only works if we can set up and interpret experiments with an open mind. The most serious accusation you can level at a researcher is that of bias, because bias means he or she may be deliberately or subconsciously manipulating results.

 

Ignoring the fact that we all have at least some degree of bias towards one thing or another, some argue that by raising their voices in the public sphere, scientists expose themselves as biased observers, undermining society’s trust in their expertise. “Advocacy” has become a dirty word, implying a loss of impartiality and, heaven forbid, an opinion.

 

Since scientists are people too, it seems frightfully unfair to censor their opinions. In the last few years, most ecologists have agreed that opinions are acceptable, so long as you clearly distinguish between your personal values and the meaning of your scientific results – results that should be impartially presented quickly and unambiguously without overstepping the bounds of your expertise.

 

Here’s where I fret briefly about the non-expert content of my columns, and remind you that these are just the opinionsof a graduate student who really hopes she’s not ruining her career with weekly rants about the state of our planet.

 

As for my scientific soul-searching, I recite my elevator pitch every morning: all over the world, plant and animal species are introduced by humans to places that they don’t belong – sometimes with really nasty consequences, like here in New Zealand, where foreign trees carpet the hills. We think their success might depend on mycorrhizae, soil fungi that help the tree gather critical nutrients. Figure out the below-ground story, figure out the aboveground landscape.

 

Plus, what’s cooler than photosynthesis and mushrooms on the other side of the world?

 

Holly welcomes comments, criticism and opinions on the role of scientists in the public sphere at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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Holly Moeller

Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).