Let’s move this science-policy-communication conversation forward

If you want to see me struggle to repress an eye-roll of great magnitude, just say, “Well, what is the role of scientists?”, or: “Scientists need to be better communicators.”  For added impact, raise your eyebrows and nod/shake your head to signal your consternation and, perhaps, your satisfaction with your awareness of significant, complicated issues of our field and time.

here we go again…

These are, of course, important topics for discussion. My exasperation is fueled by the way in which those topics have been discussed – OVER and OVER and OVER again – without much change, at least since I began graduate school almost 7 years ago.  Like many other issues (“we need to consider the human dimension!”, “we must work with communities!”, “we need more data!”), there is a lot of (trite) talk, and not an appropriately commensurate amount of action.

In the end, these discussions just look like exercises in conversation, more about the display of familiarity with the issues than about forging any real change.  (This is not to overlook or belittle those who actually are working to bring about meaningful change – this is to bemoan the fact that there aren’t more joining them).  In my (admittedly, sometimes overly curmudgeony) mind, these topics are something that young graduate students, overeager to impress, will bring up with great flourish to prompt what seem to be taken as deep, provocative discussions.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard much that is truly “deep” or “provocative”.

ok, i guess that’s enough for now. (from washingtonpost.com)

I don’t like sounding this grumpy, so I’ll stop criticizing, and start putting forth some of my own ideas.  I do not profess to be particularly knowledgeable about these things, and I am admittedly biased toward heavily applied conservation research.  I won’t claim that these ideas are particularly brilliant or air-tight, or even new – they’re just “new” to me, in that I haven’t come across too many people talking about them.  Then again, I’ve (irresponsibly) not done any background research for this post.

Some general thoughts that apply both topics (the “role” and “communication” issues):  “Science” is not a monolithic community, and not all scientists are the same.  Even within conservation biology, there is a great diversity of interests, backgrounds, goals, and skills.  Some scientists will gravitate more toward an active role in policy and communication, while others will remain more independent of those sectors.  We need good scientists at both ends of that spectrum, and every level in between.

the care bears had it down. (from kingdomofcaring.net)

A valuable exercise would be to map out those various positions along the spectrum, and to brainstorm standards of operation for each position.  Along with those standards, we need to candidly include the pros and cons of being in a given position, including potential impacts on one’s reputation as a “real” scientist, or potential impacts of appearing to not fulfill one’s moral duty by failing to actively contribute to a socially important cause.  These standards should include a mandate to maintain communication with scientists in other roles, so that the “pure” scientists making exciting breakthroughs in their specialization can provide the more “hybrid” scientists with the latest and most accurate information.

The entire conservation biology community is never going to unanimously agree on the “proper role” of science in policy or communication, let alone the entire scientific community.  But developing a set of standards and caveats for a set of potential roles could (one hopes) inform scientists on how to best fill the role that they gravitate toward.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of groups have already done this.  I just haven’t seen it done, or even really proposed, in discussions that I’ve witnessed.

So, given my lack of expertise, please take these statements and questions below as fodder for discussion, rather than statements that I believe to be absolutely right:

  • For those of us professing to have an interest in applying science to saving the world: perhaps it would be a good idea to critically ask: “If I conduct this research, what can one actually do with the resulting information?” (based on advice given to me by the great environmental economics minds of Dale Squires and Ted Groves).
  • Some scientists are blessed with great communication skills, but many are not, or simply don’t have the time to devote to outreach.  This probably isn’t going to change significantly, though we can certainly make more scientists conversant in basic communication skills.  My question: is all of this hand-wringing over our seeming incompetence really necessary or productive?  I mean, doctors didn’t design the various brilliant anti-smoking or breast cancer awareness campaigns, the police didn’t spearhead impactful anti-drunk driving campaigns, etc. etc.  At the 20th Biennial Conference on Marine Mammal Biology, Mark Orams gave an excellent presentation about employing marketing in communicating science, but I don’t know how feasible it is to ask most scientists to become marketers – though I’m confident some would be able to do so quite capably.  Would a more productive directive be: “Science needs to better engage with sectors that actually know how to communicate”?
  • Referring to the above point, I’ll revisit my point that “science” comprises diverse types of scientists on the gradient from “pure”/”ivory tower” to those more engaged in policy and communication.  We absolutely need this diversity – and those closer to the “engaged” part of the spectrum can be vital links between science and communication and policy.  We need intermediaries – I think if all scientists divided their attention between research and outreach, science as a whole would suffer, and it is perhaps unrealistic to expect that the media (especially non-science-writing specialists) will become widely versed in the ways of science.
  • The same goes for relating to policy.  E.g., my own research is very much a “jack of all trades” situation – I will never profess to being a brilliant ecologist or social scientist, and will continue to rely on excellent, specialized research conducted by colleagues to inform my own work.  At the same time, though, most of those brilliant ecologists would probably not be able to inform management decisions with the holistic perspectives that I gain from my interdisciplinary, management-focused research approaches.  The brilliant, solutions-oriented work coming out from interdisciplinary conservation/management scientists, merging vibrant ideas from different fields and sectors, is based on a strong foundation of focused research within disciplines.  But that research might not reach “the real world” without the work of cross-disciplinary, cross-sector researchers.
  • Candor about who we claim to be and what we claim to know:  Regardless of the role one chooses as a scientist-communicator-policy advocate, engendering and maintaining trust is vital.  We should never overstate our case, selectively hide information that doesn’t agree with our positions on issues, nor rely on marketing and emotion to obscure a shaky scientific foundation.  There needs to be common respect for the sanctity of science as a source of (ideally) unbiased, reliable information.  This, of course, is (I suspect) the core issue of these soul-searching, earnest, generally-not-interesting (but could be very much more interesting) discussions – it’s not a standard that is easily enforced.  So, perhaps, instead of asking, “What is the role, etc. etc.”, we can move forward with: “How should scientists in a given role behave?  On what should they base their decisions, recommendations, actions, and general communications with the public, decision-makers, and important liaisons such as media specialists?”
e.g., our friend george. (from: shirtoid.tumblr.com)

Advocacy, publicity, and solid science don’t need to be incompatible.  There is room (and need) for people to fill all sorts of hybrid positions among those three sectors, and there is a strong tendency for people to do so – so I’d love to see these discussions be more forward-thinking and productive as to how we can best employ our diversity of situations and foci.  Again, I don’t claim any expertise on these issues – I have colleagues and colleague-friends who have spent a lot of time working on these topics, and no disrespect is meant by me not taking the time to, you know, look it up.  Would be great to have whatever advances are being made shared to inform grad student training and to make sure our discussions are relevant to what is actually happening on the science-policy-communications fronts.

I just wanted to share some of the workings of my inner, uninformed mind, and would love to be better informed!

Banning the Ivory Trade in Thailand [ACT – SIGN THE PETITION!]

The point of this post is to highlight WWF’s ongoing petition to the Prime Minister to ban all ivory trade in the country; if your attention span is short, but you like elephants, just skip all below and go to the petition here.

WWF Ivory Trade Ban Petition

One of my favorite things about being in this line of work is the global network of conservation nerds who I can call colleagues and friends – fascinating, dedicated, brilliant individuals, scattered around the world in capital cities and remote field sites.  It’s always such a pleasure to meet up with them while I’m on my various journeys.

Last month in Bangkok, I had a chance to catch up with my friend and fellow conservation researcher, Petch – now the Conservation Program manager for WWF Thailand.  Our conversation wound around several intriguing topics, including: careers in conservation; shark fisheries in the Andaman Sea; the “gold rush” among several sectors (including conservation groups) to get into Burma; the state of conservation in Thailand.

That last topic brought us to the issue of elephants and the ivory trade.  There is a loophole of sorts in Thai regulations on ivory – the sale of ivory from domesticated elephants is legal.  This provides an opportunity for traders of ivory from African elephants to “launder” their illegal products.

The slaughter of elephants for the ivory trade is something that’s been in the news for decades, and some might be surprised that it remains such a serious problem.  Recent news stories (e.g., here and here) demonstrate that this (sickening) threat remains very significant.

WWF is working to establish a ban on all ivory trade in Thailand, to close this loophole, via a petition to the Thai Prime Minister prior to the March 3-14 CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting in Bangkok.  I signed the petition, and so should you (you’ll be in good company – Leo DiCaprio is supporting and publicizing this campaign).  In the words of their website: Sign the petition and tell the Thai Prime Minister to ban ivory trade and save Africa’s elephants.  

The goal: 1,000,000 signatures.  They’re just above halfway there – please spread the word and help in this effort!  Thanks, elephant-loving friends.  In closing (from the campaign website):

“Together we can put a stop to the senseless killing of elephants for their ivory. Your signature will be sent to the Thai prime minister prior to a meeting in Thailand where governments from around the world will gather to discuss the future of many endangered species. Please spread the word and enlist others to join you in signing this petition: tell the world to kill the trade!”

Mystery of the Dead Dolphins

I saw my first finless porpoise yesterday!

This is what it looked like:


Yes, sadly, it was very dead.  And, very sadly and perplexingly, it is one of six dead dolphins and porpoises that we’ve* heard of and seen in the four days since we started doing this season’s surveys along the Trat coastline.  Four Irrawaddy dolphins (one pregnant), and two finless porpoises.  Given the locations of our sightings and reports, it’s most likely that these are all separate.

Neither the dead finless porpoise nor the dead Irrawaddy that we also saw from the boat showed obvious wounds or signs of emaciation.  From the reports of the other four, it doesn’t seem like any were wounded, either.  This is a high number of dead animals for such a short amount of time – potentially cause for concern.

Dead Irrawaddy
Dead Irrawaddy

Perhaps the culprit is some disease?  Without a vet and full necropsies, it’s hard to tell. Not yet sure how many of these guys have been fully studied, but hopefully some organ samples were taken.  We took some tissue samples from the ones in the water; would’ve been nice to bring the whole animal back, but that presented some challenges.

collecting tissue samples
collecting tissue samples

Here’s hoping that we’ve seen the last of this rash of cetacean mortalities…

*“We” = the Trat Coastal Dolphin Project, with whom I’m collaborating for my work at this site.

Your Purchase is Complete.

Delta confirmation

Bangkok, I shall be seeing you in 3 weeks…!

Following a few years of extensive travel and nomadic-esque existence, I’ve hunkered down in my new, cozy apartment over the past few months in San Diego.  And a packed few months those have been, as I’ve realized the magnitude of what I need/hope to accomplish in the coming months and years.  I’ve just managed to establish some sort of routine, which includes cooking in my new, cozy kitchen, doing laundry with a semblance of regularity, and juggling various optimistic to-do lists.

So, when it dawned on me that my next (and final) dissertation field season was fast approaching, my desire to cling limpet-fast to my recent stability redoubled.  I have draft manuscripts to write! Data to enter! A research network to co-run!  Proposals to write!

Clingy limpet

But, underneath all of that whining, I recognized that this field season would be a great experience (with a fantastic research team), and that it would also be my last chance to visit one of my favorite countries for quite some time.  Also, it would be a short (~3 weeks) and relatively easy bit of fieldwork.  So, I begrudgingly went about buying my flight today while taking a break from brilliant paper writing. (“FINE, I’ll go to Thailand, ok?!”)

Somewhere during the ticket-booking process, however, that spark of wanderlust that forever resides somewhere within me (perhaps near the pancreas…?) arose from dormancy.  I actually started to smile.  And when the purchase was final, my eyes lingered over those  conclusive words:


Well, there it is.  I’m going to Thailand!  Soon!  And I’m actually pretty excited!  (I’ll let myself enjoy this rush of enthusiasm for today before getting bogged down in field prep details starting tomorrow).  Dolphins! Research friends! Thailand!

Waddies of Trat, we shall meet again soon. Weather spirits permitting.

On a related note, I’ve been squeezing in some Thai language study over the past months; it’s the most challenging language I’ve tried to learn (tonal, with a beautiful but baffling alphabet).  A friend posted this link apropos of his quest to refine his Italian pronunciation, and it is uncannily similar to my attempts at Thai pronunciation:

A life filled with travel has its challenges – at times, I’ve even felt like I’ve had to put parts of my life on hold because I’ve been gallivanting about (though that’s when I’m in the most pessimistic of moods).  But, it’s also a pretty amazing way to live.