Why it’s OK for taxpayers to ‘snoop’ on scientists

Read the full Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times.

Generally speaking, in the last decade or so, the research community has been moving toward increased transparency, particularly when it comes to any financial entanglements that might cast doubt upon a scientist’s objectivity. The backlash, however, has begun, and calls to reverse the trend are coming from some surprising places.

The dangers of separating science and environment

Originally published at Ensia. Written by Manu Saunders, Ecologist, Charles Sturt University  @ManuSaunders

We need to figure out a better way to communicate science that balances technology and nature.

Does the natural world have any relevance to modern science? Of course it does; but sometimes it seems like that’s not the case. This is a myth perpetuated directly and indirectly through media, policy decisions, academic disciplines, even some science engagement initiatives: that the natural world is somehow separate from science.

Some people assume that any discussion of science automatically includes ecology, botany, entomology and other natural sciences. In some contexts, it might. But, as our immediate surroundings become increasingly engineered and artificial, science based on outdoor study of the natural world is easily (and often) overshadowed in the frenzied excitement over gadgets and numbers. The tangible outcomes and “wow” factor inherent in the physical sciences and technologies (mathematics, chemistry, engineering) have effortlessly commandeered the scientific spotlight.

Just have a look at your favorite online news website. Under what category do environmental stories appear? Are they included under science? Or are they singled out as an unrelated topic?

Out of 14 of the most popular English language news websites in the world (from comScore’s global and U.S. top 10 lists), only three sites (BBC, NBC and New York Times) combine “Environment” and “Science” news stories together under one category. Five sites separate the two as unrelated topics; five have a science category only, with minimal coverage of natural environments; and one site has neither science nor environment news categories.

The power of communication to build and sustain myths, intended or not, is often underrated.

The act of separating science stories on medical breakthroughs and astronomical wonders from stories that cover ecosystems and biodiversity unwittingly enhances the myth in readers’ minds that science and nature are mutually exclusive. Combining science with technology is even more damaging, because it distances science further from natural systems and processes.

Myths as Dominant Ideologies

The power of communication to build and sustain myths, intended or not, is often underrated. In cultural theory, myths are dominant ideologies that are maintained through media and popular culture. So, separating all those sixth extinction and climate change stories from the science category in media simply perpetuates the myth that they are not scientific issues.

Yet, despite the popular portrayal of science as lab coats, space travel, gadgets and mind-blowing math, in reality, science is more closely aligned with the natural world around us. Science is about generating and sharing knowledge about the structure and behavior of the natural world. Technology is about the functional application of that knowledge to produce tangible outcomes.

This distinction goes beyond semantic pedantry. Science is independent of technology; they are not identical and they are not replacements for one another. If we reduce science to a technological sector removed from the natural world, its relevance to society becomes limited. It becomes another “industry” with a finite customer base, shifting its focus from the pursuit of knowledge, which has far-reaching benefits for all, to the tangible, immediate outcomes it can provide a certain sector of society.

What will be the consequences if the perceived connection between scientific endeavor and the natural world continues to weaken?

When this myth is perpetuated beyond popular media, it can have damaging impacts. The current Australian government, for example, spent more than a year without a minister of science at all, before tacking science onto the industry portfolio after public outcry. The industry minister, Ian Macfarlane, even suggested a new approach to scientific research funding, where funds could be awarded to universities based on the number of patent registrations, not the number of published scientific papers. His comments highlight a common misconception — that the vast majority of scientists work on creating and developing products that can be commercialized.

Critical to Understanding Our Place in the World

What will be the consequences if the perceived connection between scientific endeavor and the natural world continues to weaken? Presenting nature study as a pleasant but scientifically irrelevant hobby may have beneficial effects on our health and well-being, but it will damage our understanding of environmental issues and therefore our understanding of science.

Far from being self-indulgent, knowledge of natural sciences is critical to understand our place in the world and manage the environmental, social and economic challenges we face. How can we understand how environmental change will impact an ecosystem — and the human communities within it — if we don’t know what species and ecological interactions make up that ecosystem? How can we achieve sustainable agriculture if we don’t understand the ecological nuances of the pest, pollinator and predator communities that use the agricultural landscape? Technologists don’t create food, fiber and shelter; ecosystems do. But that can be hard to believe in a world where biotech ag and test-tube meat command so much of the spotlight.

So how do we make sure natural sciences share the spotlight dominated by technology and physical sciences? It’s a challenge, to be sure; and human psychology plays an important role. Gadgets and machines do things; their functionality builds on the momentum of the initial “wow” to sustain the audience’s interest. In contrast, much of the contemporary communication about ecology and natural history focuses on the beauty and vulnerability of nature. In a technological society that is increasingly removed from that beauty and vulnerability, this approach can have a hard time competing for public interest.

Everything in nature holds a story we can connect to. And we haven’t even come close to hearing them all.

The key is to communicate science in a way that is engaging and relevant to everyone, a goal that requires multiple complementary strategies, not just one. Ideally, science should be presented as a balance of natural and technological, so that scientists and nonscientists alike believe that ecosystems, organisms and ecological interactions are as essential to science — and ultimately society — as mathematics, engineering and technology.

Studying nature teaches us about interactions, consequences and survival. What could be more essential to all of us? Through natural sciences, we learn how environmental change affected us, as well as other living things, in the past (paleoecology). We learn how some of the tiniest organisms on Earth can make us sick or keep us alive (entomology). We learn that controversial species (such as wolves or dingoes) are a critical part of our local ecosystems (ecology). And we learn that we can’t fully understand the implications of these interactions, unless we identify and classify all the organisms involved (taxonomy).

Nature is useful and functional to you and me, not just as a resource opportunity or a “happy place,” but as a raison d’être. After all, ecosystems and organisms do things too — they are our natural life support system. Bees, flies and wasps pollinate crops and control insect pests so we can harvest food and fiber; wetlands purify the water we drink and mitigate flooding near our homes; birds and beetles scavenge wastes so we are less likely to suffer from disease.

The list goes on and on, because everything in nature holds a story we can connect to. And we haven’t even come close to hearing them all. The latest groundbreaking technology is indeed a great scientific story to share. But the story of how the natural world works — the world we all live in and depend on — is even more engaging.View Ensia homepage

GreenBiz seeks Sustainable Business Reporting Intern

Did you know that Google has invested $1.5 billion in renewable energy? What about the push by mayors in cities around the world to rein in spiraling urban food and water crises?

If these are the types of stories you would like to help tell, apply to be the fall 2015 editorial intern at GreenBiz in Oakland, California. We are the leading voice in sustainable business and focus on startups, corporate executives and civic leaders who are driving innovation and bolstering the bottom line while reducing waste and carbon emissions.

Ideally, the editorial intern would be available to start during the fall of 2015 with a 4-6 month commitment. The position will pay $15 per hour and require about 20 hours of work per week in person at our sunny, dog-friendly office located one block from BART in downtown Oakland. GreenBiz also offers flexible scheduling options as needed.

As an editorial intern, you will:

  • Edit articles written by experienced writers
  • Pitch and write stories on sustainable business
  • Bring stories to life with images, infographics and videos
  • Manage some newsletter production
  • Attend and report on a limited number of events
  • Help shape our content strategy by tracking story ideas and keeping up with trends in the field
  • Update social media channels as needed

We’re looking for an editorial intern who:

  • Expresses a talent for writing and editing, along with a knack for catchy headlines
  • Is confident with online Content Management Systems, image editing and social media tools
  • Has an interest in business, technology or environmental issues — ideally, all of the above
  • Works collaboratively and diplomatically with a team of remote freelancers and expert contributors
  • Demonstrates a solid grasp of journalism ethics
    Can help with brainstorming and story planning
  • Works well independently and within a team
  • Is familiar with AP style

To apply, please send your resume along with links to three-five great stories you’ve written or edited to editor@greenbiz.com. Please note that applications will be reviewed as they are received and that plain text emails with work sample URLs are preferable to attachments.

Passions and Detachment in Journalism

Read the full post by Andrew Revkin from 2010 at Dot Earth.

Last week, in writing about James Hansen’s essay on why he became a climate campaigner after decades working as a NASA climate scientist, I promised to post a lecture I gave in 2005 at Willamette University explaining how I reconciled personal passions with the professional detachment that comes with life as a journalist.

Some of you will find several familiar passages, touching on themes that have resonated in me for awhile. (And keep in mind this piece was written while I was still a full-time Times reporter.) The talk starts with my journey from training in biology to a career in journalism, including a fortuitous research fellowship that took me around the world between 1978 and 1980.

 

Grist now accepting applications for Justice Fellow

Are you a budding journalist looking to develop your voice, tell stories about compelling people and communities, and work at a news shop that’s making a difference? Are you equally obsessed with justice for all and whatever Kendrick Lamar drops next? Do you admire the work of people like Brentin Mock and Ta-Nehisi Coates? If so, then we have an opportunity for you.
Grist, the web’s home for green news, is looking for a justice fellow. With the mentorship and support of Grist’s edit staff, you will report on the issues, communities, and people that don’t get enough play in the environmental movement. You will make connections between news, the environment, justice, policy, and pop culture. You will explore the ways in which the environmental movement can become more inclusive — and how communities of color are pioneering new ways to fight for cleaner air and water and safer neighborhoods. You will write multiple posts a week and work on one big project during the fellowship. You will be willing to experiment with social media, video, and other multimedia (with the help of Grist staffers). And you’ll get paid.
The justice fellow will fall in line with our larger fellowship program, a six-month career development program for early-career journalists. The justice fellow, however, will have the option to work remotely. By working remotely the justice fellow will be encouraged to report on stories in her or his home community. If you do work remotely, Grist will host you here in Seattle once or twice during the six-month fellowship (so we can hang with you IRL). Or, if you want to work out of our Seattle office, we’ll set up a desk for you. Ideally you can start in August, but we’re flexible. The fellowship pays $2,250 per month.
Journalists of color, from underrepresented communities, or with connections to the environmental justice community are strongly encouraged to apply.
Apply at www.grist.org/fellowships. No phone calls, please and thank you.

How will a media outlet benefit from partnering with a science organization?

Read the full post from the Columbia Journalism Review.

Partnerships are nothing new for WGBH, the Boston public broadcaster responsible for airing monster PBS content like Frontline and science hit NOVA. After forming a partnership with the fledgling New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the two worked together so closely that the Center is now based at the station’s offices.

So while its latest pairing with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences seems par for the course, it’s actually a bit more groundbreaking. The Academy has been in existence for 235 years, but WGBH is the only media organization it’s aligned itself with. 

It’s clear what the Academy gets from having a close relationship with a large radio station that can make a major city aware of the work its researchers are doing. It’s less clear what WGBH gets from the deal.

Is Wyoming Ban on Reporting Environmental Harm Unconstitutional?

Via the Society for Environmental Journalists’ WatchDog e-mail. For a free e-mail subscription send name and full contact information to sej@sej.org.

A newly enacted Wyoming law seems to be aimed at criminalizing the collection and reporting of stream pollution or other environmental harm. It creates a unique new category of crime called “data trespass.”

Just what the law, signed in March by Gov. Matt Mead (R), means or does is being debated hotly — which suggests it may be vaguely written. Proponents say it is meant to protect property rights and prevent trespass. Opponents say it is meant to suppress factual evidence of pollution violations and prohibit the Constitutional right to free speech.

The uproar started with publication May 11, 2015, in Slate of an article by Justin Pidot, titled “Forbidden Data: Wyoming Just Criminalized Citizen Science.” Pidot is a law professor at the University of Denver who represents the environmental activist group Western Watersheds Project pro bono — a fact acknowledged in his article.

Pidot drew an extreme hypothetical — a tourist taking a photo of clouds over Yellowstone and submitting the photo to a National Weather Service photo contest — and facing a year in jail for the crime.

But it is far from clear that the law does that. The law says a person is guilty of data trespass if he/she “Enters onto or crosses private open land for the purpose of collecting resource data.” The definitions of open land and private land have been criticized as expansive and murky — but state law can rarely govern actions on federal lands. The problem may be compounded by grazing permits on federal lands, which in some quarters of the West are construed as ownership. The bill language offers little help on what is private and what public.

Environmental groups are concerned about E. coli bacteria in streams — typically caused by cattle pooping in or near them. Many of the polluted streams are on federal land; the Wyoming law makes it a crime to cross private land to get to them.

That the law is trying to prohibit data — and not just trespass, which is already illegal — seems apparent from the fact that it decrees that data gathered via “trespass” can not be used in government proceedings and must be expunged. But state laws can not normally decree what the federal government can do about using data or most other things. Still, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency delegates enforcement under the Clean Water Act to states.

Activists are concerned Wyoming has invented another form of “ag-gag” law — which aims to prevent undercover citizen reporting of animal abuse. Wyoming lawmakers deny it.