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Frustration and success when trying to make a difference

Perhaps a stereotype is the young scientist who has graduated from university and is setting out in the world to make a difference. In our field they will be typically concerned with preventing some type of ecological degradation.

The stereotype continues that the enthusiastic young person soon becomes old and jaded as they learn to realise that many of the efforts of scientists to communicate impending disaster go unnoticed.

Finally the once enthusiastic environmental scientist quits and goes off the find ‘a real job’ in banking or perhaps as an accountant.

Many of us are studying environmental science because we have noticed the many injustices humanity has wrought on nature and we want to do something about it. But ‘doing something about it’ can be much harder than we often think.

I just attended the MASTS conference in Scotland and there was a lot of talk about the science policy interaction. Some people I met were enthusiastic and hopeful, others were pessimistic about the future of ocean ecosystems. Other expressed dismay at the apparent lack of consideration of evidence by policy makers.

I think that when I started my career I naively thought making a difference will follow quite a linear path:

  1. Do some science
  2. Tell policy makers about said science
  3. Policy makers update policy and laws based on your evidence
  4. Job done

On reflection, the road to making a difference is often longer and more indirect than I might have initially hoped. However, having walked that road and watched others do it for about 10 years now, I have seen many successes and many frustrations too.

Prof Peter Tyack, a marine mammal biologist related a story to me about naval sonar excercises causing strandings of beaked whales. The issue was first recognised in about 2000, and it took about 10 years before they were able to get a change in how naval excercises were conducted. But that 10 years of research and engagement with the navy did result in some very positive changes to their operations, which now avoid most the activities that risk causing strandings.

So the road to impact often takes longer than you might hope. But there may be unexpected benefits along the way. For instance, the whale researchers have a learned alot about whale echo-location and human acoustic impacts during the research they used to help modify navy operations. This is valuable information as they now confront issues caused by offshore energy development.

So if you are on this path to making a difference, or about to start on it, treat it as a learning experience. You might not have an impact in the way you initially hoped, but in trying to do so you will learn better ways for next time.

I think there are some things we can do in our careers that will help us in your quest to make a difference.

Experiment with different courses of influence. See what works for you. Here are some ways you can use a career in science make a difference, there are many more:

None of these courses is direct, but all can have impact. The more often and more immediately you can start experimenting with many different paths for making a difference, the sooner you will get good at it.

Build trust and integrity with policy/decision makers. A good point that one of the presenters at the conference made. They also noted we often focus now on learning good communication skills - which are also important. However, working with policy makers also requires them to trust you. Building trust and integrity takes time and long-term relationships. So the sooner you start working with decision makers the better.

Some ways to build trust and integrity are:

Finally, one of the most helpful things you can do is make your science policy relevant. A good example came up today of experimental studies that look at the impacts of multiple toxins on organisms.

Such work often uses unrealistically extreme levels of toxins, to make sure they find some effect if it is really there (and have something to publish). But such extreme experiments are not that helpful for setting water quality guidelines. If you could also test toxicity at environmentally relevant levels, say at existing legislated thresholds for what constitutes pollution, then you might have some results that can more directly inform policy (maybe they should reduce the threshold!).

This is in fact what Tyack did with this work on how sound impacts whales. They determined the db above which whales responded. Thus, the navy could set limits for how loud their equipment could be when there were whales around.

So if I am ever lucky enough to see a beaked whale, I will remember I may well have have marine mammal scientists to thank that they are still around. Knowing the work you do has helped the environment is the fuel you need for persisting in a career in science.

Contact: Chris Brown

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