Embracing advocacy in science

Freshwater systems are endangered. Habitat degradation, chemical pollution, altered hydrology, species invasions, overexploitation and climate change are threatening these habitats, here and now. The American Fisheries Society is trying to raise awareness about the importance of freshwater ecosystems. These systems can be considered biodiversity hotspots and they provide ecosystem services. However, it is really hard to lobby for them because the human use of freshwater for agriculture, energy and other economic developments (T)trumps conservation concerns in the society. We are responsible – I feel responsible, for making the public aware of their freshwater systems. We need to go out and communicate with the people.

Two weeks ago, I was invited by Suzanne Kelson, a PhD student in Stephanie’s lab to go talk to high school students from Moraga, a small town in the neighborhood of Berkeley. We went out to a little creek and discussed this freshwater habitat in the field with students. We measured stream flow, invertebrate biodiversity, hydrology and explained how a watershed is built up. I talked about fish migration, reproduction and the interaction with bacteria in salmonids, mostly steelheads. Each little station that was led by Suzanne, Hana Moidu, Jordan Wingenroth, and Brian Kastl gave the students insight into a different study area of freshwater biology. Together we provided each puzzle piece to give the students a greater picture. I felt like they walked away with more awareness for their surrounding environment. They were surprised to see so much in their little neighborhood creek. I am convinced they will experience their party/stroll/car- or bike ride at the river differently next time.

Back at home I read an essay in the Fisheries Magazine April 2018 by Marcy Cockrell, Kate Dubickas, Megan Hepner, and Matthew McCarthy (Fisheries, Vol 43, No. 4). They are reaching out to scientists and encourage them to advocate for policy issues. The believe that all citizens have a responsibility to engage in the political process, especially scientists. Advocating for science-related issues should not be a conflict of interest but a necessary step towards a more holistic scientific method and a more informed society.

They list the following nine guidelines how scientists could advocate:

  1. Gain experience working with a variety of activities and organizations.
  2. Join a professional society that already plays a role in advocacy, for example AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science).
  3. Become involved with local or national chapters of conservation-minded NGOs, trade organizations, or general membership groups.
  4. Be proactive in communicating science.
  5. Engage in dialogue with decision makers.
  6. Gauge interest among colleagues.
  7. Build and use your network.
  8. Apply to formal opportunities for communication training and professional development.
  9. Vote!

Thank you Suzanne for inviting me to your outreach activity. I think we took care of points 4, 6 and 7. I also would like to thank Stephanie for being a great role model how to actively pursue all numbers 1-9, advocating for freshwater sciences and building a great community of freshwater scientists (for example Mary Power, Ted Grantham and Albert Ruhi), a new hotspot at UC Berkeley!

Brian Kastl explains to the students how to calculate water flows in the creek.

3 thoughts on “Embracing advocacy in science

  1. Hi, I found this post very interesting, thanks.

    I have a question: what do you think of the situation when the scientific position is at odds with the expectations of the conservation activists? For example if some GMOs allow better pesticide management, or use of no-till + glyphosate is better for CO2 (true examples). Would you avoid mentioning them, mention them when asked but not put them forward, or extend the proactive stance to these cases which might lead you to conflict, or at the least poor relations, with the NGOs whom you feel as your natural allies?

    Based on a true story…

  2. Thanks for your comment Marc!

    Let me make sure I understood your example scenario right: We assume that a scientist advises not to use glyphosate-based herbicides because they are bad for the environment. If you use glyphosate you will kill all native plants, the bugs maybe too, and reduce biodiversity. But then somebody comments that it has also been shown that using glyphosate is better for the CO2 balance than other alternative herbicides. So globally it is better for the environment.

    I think that we as scientists should be out-thinking the others. We should try to be prepared for exactly these kinds of questions. It is a bit like playing chess. You have to be prepared for the next four steps that might come. Experience and knowledge make that possible.

    Monsanto has an economic interest. They will cherry-pick actions that bring them more profits. Often you have environmental conflicts of interest. The scientists role is to know about them and address them. I would not mention the conflicts at the first place but expect people to bring them up and be ready for them.

    The beauty of being a scientist is that you can and should be an idealist. You get a low salary but you don’t owe it to anybody than the public. Your job is to find out how things work. This also means that we cannot make any decisions (except voting and communicating to people). In the end it is the democratic society who decides what they want even if it does not make sense what they want.

    Here in California you can tell people that strawberries need more water, herbicides and pesticides than growing cannabis. 1kg of strawberries is also much less worth than the equivalent yield of THC or CBD oils. However, many counties in California voted that they won’t allow commercial cannabis plantations. I picked this example because it is not so emotionally loaded. I could give many other examples where scientific results are not being valued or controversial. What I want to point out is that it is our responsibility to communicate scientific results well so that people are better informed to make decisions. As point 10) in my list it should be added: Publish open access!

  3. Laetitia, just for the record, and sincerely, your comment demonstrates a good understanding and a great potential for chess and we should play sometime ;D

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