Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Why I am not an activist but most probably should be

by: Adrian Semmelink, honours thesis and incoming Master's student in the Chan's Lab group. 

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
~ Onceler, from Dr. Seuss’ book The Lorax

I care about the dysfunctional relationship between people and our environment, and I believe we need to make large changes if we are to thrive as a species. But so what if I care? I've never gone to a protest, written a pro-environmental op-ed and I rarely sign petitions. At the same time, I'm excited to be part of a lab that does engage in debates and controversies. Previously, lab members have testified against the Northern Gateway pipeline, lead petitions, written op-eds (e.g. see Maayan and Kai’s recent post on Okanagan parks), and worked with NGOs.

The Onceler                                                     image: Dr. Seuss

That's all great inspiration, but my question still boils down to: why haven't I participated in advocacy? Maybe because I have never identified with the out-dated stereotype of the activist who chants at protests or goes from door to door collecting signatures and/or money. But, there are other ways to be an advocate, as my lab demonstrates. If I dig a little deeper, I’ve found three reasons why I haven’t engaged in activism:

1) Objectivity. As a junior researcher I am concerned about supporting a cause related to my field of research that could harm my perceived objectivity on the topic. One of my lab colleagues, Sarah Klain, experienced this first hand
1. She and my adviser Kai Chan co-authored an opinion piece that highlighted the environmental risks associated with farmed salmon. She also tweeted a link to an anti-salmon farming march and demonstration. This opinion piece and tweet posed an obstacle to conducting interviews with official representatives from the salmon farming industry, one of the various industries pertinent to her research. She was eventually able to continue her work with the desired breadth, and continues to advocate for issues that are important to her and related to her research, but it is a consideration for all students conducting field work.

2) Future Job Prospects. My second reason is perhaps more specific to my own financial background. I have a large student loan, which makes me more conservative about the choices I make because of the impact they may have on my future opportunities with organizations operating in the environmental or natural resources realm. This includes choices around activism where it often seems riskier to engage compared to staying out of the fray (eg. in BC LNG is a highly charged 
natural resource issue that one may not want their personal views to be public knowledge). Conversely, this circumspection could be damaging as it also limits the present opportunities I take. 

3) Expert Knowledge. Finally, I have feelings of inadequacy around engagement and how to carry it out. And I am not alone – CHANS lab colleagues Singh et al. (2014)
2 demonstrates that self-perceived competence in engagement was a significant predicator of researchers level of engagement. However, if one does not engage how can one actually get an understanding of how competent one is at engaging? The irony is that those of us being more careful may not be world leading experts, but have been formally educated in these topics and could be strong contributors to productive discussions on the issues.

Where does this leave me on activism? I think I may need to start taking more cues from the Lorax and in the words of the Onceler start to “change the way things are.” Fortunately, the CHANS Lab seems to be a good place to try.

1. For an edifying discussion on using social media in science, including Sarah discussing her experience, check out this youtube video by SciFund:
2. Gerald G Singh, Jordan Tam, Thomas D Sisk, Sarah C Klain, Megan E Mach, Rebecca G Martone, and Kai M A Chan, 2014. A more social science: barriers and incentives for scientists engaging in policy. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 161–166.

1 comment:

  1. Keep me posted on when you figure out the actions you'll take to heed Onceler's advice :)