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Why I am OK being an (informed) “advocate”


On April 30, COMPASS published a commentary in PLOS Biology (1) on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. This blog post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences we hope will expand the conversation. Read the summary post here, or track the conversation by searching Twitter for #reachingoutsci

In their PLOS paper, COMPASS offers encouragement and guidance on the transition scholars can consider from sharing (their papers with media and society) to engaging. This means, for example,

“Scientists can speak to potential risks, uncertainties, tradeoffs and the implications of science for a particular decision. In many cases, scientists are able to help clarify the choices before a policymaker by recasting the questions they ask and providing a different framework for approaching the challenge at hand” (1).

Not just answering direct questions about our research, but reframing discussions? This sounds bold. But just how bold should bold be?  Should scientists be…gulp…“advocates”?  It’s a question that inevitably comes up. How about junior scientists, including the most vulnerable who have not yet been “jobbed up” – should they take a risk and speak out on policy-relevant issues? In many cases, probably not.

Yet, I have.  And despite my fears – I recently landed the academic position of my dreams.  Perhaps in my somewhat unusual case, speaking out did more good than harm.

Nevertheless being labelled an advocate was not always easy. In the spring of 2010, while walking though a major research institution in Canada, I overheard a conversation that went something like this:  “Darimont – the “advocate” – is at it again. This time he is telling the media how Big Oil will surely destroy coastal British Columbia…where’s his science? He studies wildlife, not oil spills.”

Ouch! The sting was all the more painful as it came at a time when I – as a job seeker – thought that everyone was judging me.  Did others (on job search committees) feel the way these two scientists did?

I had expected backlash from industry (and their apologists) but not from other scientists. Surely not in 2010, right?  They were reacting to my appearance in the media regarding an unpublished report my colleagues and I from Raincoast Conservation had written on the risks of oil posed by the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker project, later submitted as evidence before the Joint Review Panel who will decide the pipeline’s fate. At the time, however, it was an obscure proposal in its infancy. Timed with the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, however, this media engagement was the first blip for an issue that has now dominated the environmental media in Canada over the last year.

Here is the nature of my critics’ argument that day in 2010: I had not published anything relevant in a peer-reviewed journal. So, as their logic went, I had no grounds for commenting about the potential risks of a major infrastructure proposal.  I was – in their eyes – nothing but an “advocate”, one of the strongest pejoratives levelled at a scientist (especially by another scientist).

I had “advocated” before this on issues as distinct as the cutting of the ancient rainforest in my study area, the slaughter of wildlife for trophy and sport, and the evolutionary impacts harvesting by humans has on prey. In some cases, my advocacy linked to one of my papers on the subject; in other cases, I’d engage if I was consulted by media.

And this is the heart of advocacy as I see it. It transcends the (admittedly self-serving) process of sharing publications with the media. Advocacy should also not be confused with engagement. Advocacy represents a special case of engagement when one goes beyond clarifying choices for policy-makers or reframing discussions. It’s about advocating a particular course of action. Advocacy is about offering an informed assessment about the risk of a policy decision, often in the face of uncertainty. How should society proceed if consequences are significant?

Advocacy should also not be conflated with bad science or pressing an uninformed agenda.  I follow some fundamental and obvious rules.  Top among them is sticking to issues you know best.  Clearly, offering overly inflated claims and ignoring counter evidence is wrong too.  Collectively, these guidelines support what I call “informed advocacy”.

This is bold stuff. Advocates speak out without the refuge of a publication to defend themselves. No narrow topic and set of experimental or observational conditions. No official stamp of approval from peers.

And here is where it gets complex and scary to some: advocacy – like the policy it aspires to inform – is also sometimes about values.  Advocates often communicate what is good versus what is bad.  As a Conservation Scientist by training, this comes naturally to me.  In a seminar paper that asked, What is Conservation Biology?, Soulé suggested that values in fact serve a central role in our work (2).  I simply map what Soulé refers to as the Conservation Biology’s normative postulates (like, “biotic diversity has intrinsic value”) onto contemporary and often controversial issues.  Although evidence is important in deliberations about policy, we also need to know our values, how we arrive at them, how to express them and the courage and conviction to do so.

Given the risks of backlash, why would anyone want to advocate? What I’d like to offer here, for what it’s worth, are my philosophical and personal reasons that motivate me. For me, aligning my behaviour with these provides its own rewards.

Philosophically, I feel compelled ethically to engage with media on issues about which I am informed and by which I and other human and non-humans are affected. In one of my favourite articles ever, Michael Nelson and John Vucetich have applied scholarly voice to this view (3). They argue not only that it is acceptable for scientists to be advocates but also that we ought to advocate.

Oh ya? Why? Nelson and Vucetich offer a ‘citizen argument’: like every citizen, scientists have a responsibility to engage in debate and politics. It is unethical, they argue, to leave it to those with less knowledge and, perhaps, less impartiality.  Additionally, their ‘social harm argument’ goes further in proposing that a failure to advocate could be harmful to society; therefore, as well-informed members of society, we scientists have an obligation to advocate. I propose a natural extension; an “ecological harm argument” would recognize that a failure to engage also (and obviously) jeopardizes the environment.

Aligning with these philosophical arguments I have some personal reasons why I proudly advocate:

1. I come alive as a scientist when I do more than solely ‘research’.  Though providing the foundation of science, research is only one part of being a scientist.  We need to go beyond thinking our job is done at publication.  I see my role as also scrutinizing the  evidence before us, predicting outcomes based on evidence and uncertainty, and communicating it. These scientific tasks are essential to informed advocacy.

2. Informed advocacy can spark exciting research.  There is nothing like controversy and debate about an environmental issue to add urgency and relevance to research.  Indeed, as the Enbridge file heated up, several researchers have embarked on acutely applied research, my own students and I included.

3. I want to be an agent of change.  Most conservation scientists know that society’s relationship with the planet is broken. And most also know that they are kidding themselves if they believe the research and publishing process alone will help create change.  Let’s face it: policy-makers don’t read journals. So, if I can help actively shape policy, I want to.

 4. I take pleasure in it. To me, it feels right to use my science to improve the situation for the animals and ecosystems I care about. And I am seeing results.

So, did my advocacy scare off potential employers?  Not that I know of.  Perhaps a university in the oil patch would have shredded an application of mine. But if they did, it’s not the administrative culture in which I would thrive in anyways. I think the bottom line is this: if you are a productive scholar, other ways in which your profile is elevated can be a good thing.

I am not saying this is right for everyone, but it has done me right in personal and professional ways. I am a scientist first, then a careful, informed and unapologetic advocate.

I am now the HakaiRaincoast Scholar and Assistant Professor in the Geography Department at the University of Victoria. This position is everything I have always wanted.

I’ll proudly continue to advocate for the maintenance of ecological and evolutionary process to the benefit of the natural and human world.  I’ll try to manage the perils and delight in the pleasure.

(1)    Smith B, Baron N, English C, Galindo H, Goldman E, et al. (2013) COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement. PLoS Biol 11(4): e1001552. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001552

(2)    Soulé M (1985) What is conservation biology? BioScience 35: 727-734. doi:10.2307/1310054

(3)    Nelson M. & J Vucetich (2008) On advocacy by environmental scientists: what, whether, why, and how. Conservation Biology 23: 1090-1101. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01250.x