Scientific service — for culture and community

Priya Shukla M.S. and Sarah E. Myhre Ph.D.

SE Myhre is a postdoctoral scholar with the Future of Ice Initiative and the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington. P Shukla is a technician with the Bodega Ocean Acidification Research group at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory.

Below is an edited conversation between PS and SEM

SEM: Priya, it’s a strange time to work in the field of climate and ocean science. Just in the last week, we heard senior advisors to the president-elect discuss the defunding of NASA’s Earth Science program. The president-elect is a climate denialist. We are in the proverbial post-fact soup. I know we are both processing these events and evaluating how to move forward. In light of today’s #teachinforscience, we’re going to publish our thoughts.

PS: Sarah, I am thrilled to have this conversation with you.

SEM: I think I was your TA in Biological Oceanography in 2008? Oh my, it’s a crazy blur.

Watch out for the octopus Priya!

PS: This election has been the cultural equivalent of an earthquake for our community, creating a large rift between who we were before November 8 and who we are now. Our new reality is such that, despite our best efforts to breach our ivory towers and internet silos, scientific communication is still partially unsuccessful.

SEM: I would agree. This time in front of us is likely to be a crucible of change and showing up for big problems. Those of us working within science, I think we have a real mandate to represent science to the broader culture. Maybe we should start with where we are both landing after the election? How are you?

I think we are both witnessing our institutions and colleagues “battening down the hatches” — by that I mean we’re seeing institutions, leaders, and individuals in our community coming forward to make pledges of solidarity for an inclusive, hate-free, safe culture in science. -SEM

PS: The results of the election initially shook me to my core — I felt betrayed by my country because it didn’t reflect the community I live in. In California, I am accustomed to an uninhibited willingness to embrace change. While academia is similarly progressive, it is clear that scientists have not been doing enough. I agree with you that scientists must reach outside of their comfort zones and into communities where they are not normally seen or heard. The prospect of doing this though, terrifies me: I am a petite woman who is frequently undermined for both of those attributes, a person of color who has encountered all varieties of racism, but, above all, a scientist with the best of intentions. As a young scientist, I struggle with where I can be most useful communicating and doing science.

SEM: For me, the election has really forced me to see the world in a new way. I mean, as a white person, the election has shown me the obscene privilege that I carry. I knew it before, but not really, not enough. As well, I am a single mother, ocean climate science lady, with a loud mouth, ambition, and an agenda. I am that difficult, nasty woman. I feel, after watching this parade of misogyny, hate, and anti-intellectualism, that my right to exist in the world is negotiable. So, yeah. The election has taught me a lot. I think we are both witnessing our institutions and colleagues “battening down the hatches” — by that I mean we’re seeing institutions, leaders, and individuals in our community coming forward to make pledges of solidarity for an inclusive, hate-free, safe culture in science. Can scientists lead both with our science and the internal culture within science?

PS: I want to say ‘yes’ — less than 100 years ago, science was practically exclusive to privileged men, and the rare women who broke through often ended up as vilified footnotes. Today, the scientific community is moving beyond even gender diversity and is trying incorporate a multitude of cultural perspectives into scientific discourse. I think the best example of this is the immense utility of international collaborations like the IPCC: diverse scientists can work together to help scientists and non-scientists alike. I wonder if successful collaborations in science could serve as a model to the broader community. While there is no way to beta-test for a global collaboration to resolve something like climate change, and community outreach during this new, unpredictable era is daunting, scientists need to take the first step.

Just as the goal of a public service position is to represent the people within your community, as a scientist I have a responsibility to the ecosystems I study. -PS

SEM: Really the piece that I keep coming back to is the fundamental usefulness of science for EVERYONE. Scientists are not setting an agenda other than: there are ways to figure stuff out, data are really useful, we can use evidence to help shape outcomes that we would prefer. I would personally add to that: science helps us to make decisions that reduce risk and reduce cost.

PS: Just as the goal of a public service position is to represent the people within your community, as a scientist I have a responsibility to the ecosystems I study. I want to do everything within my power to pull them away from the precipice upon which they currently sit. But I feel equally responsible to talk to my community. How do I discuss the impacts to our ocean without inciting guilt? How do I discuss the challenges ahead without invoking fear? How do we work together as a community to even begin to overcome these issues when we are so strongly divided?

SEM: Yeah. I sit with that, too. I mean, we are in the middle of the next great global extinction event. I think you really have to show your human side. You have to say: Yeah, this hurts. This sucks — we wish it wasn’t so. But, we don’t need to make the perfect the enemy of the good. There are real, meaningful ways to move forward.

PS: I agree, there are practical ways to move forward because stagnating in our despondence isn’t going to resolve anything. Part of our next step will likely be rolling up our sleeves and making sure our voices gets heard. But, the other part of this, I think, will be to continue to do the work worth doing: produce high quality, useful data. That is the base service that science provides.

SEM: The other piece I have been sitting with is the quiet dignity of service. That showing up to do the hard tasks is worth it — that contributing to a great whole comes with a whole hell-of-a-lot of integrity. This is, in a nutshell, what the scientific enterprise is all about. We are all working on very small, iterative problems — and hard problems with no clear answer. Through this work, scientists answer really big, fundamental questions about life on this planet. But, on a day-to-day basis it can really just feel like you’re slamming your head into a wall. Over and over again. Lots of ethos and integrity. Not glamorous.

[S]howing up to do the hard tasks is worth it — that contributing to a great whole comes with a whole hell-of-a-lot of integrity. -SEM

PS: The realization that the niche you have carved out for yourself is practically negligible within the spectrum of science can oftentimes make the tedium unbearable. Not to mention, the scientific process also occurs along a continuum, with few concrete accomplishments along the way. Yet, when something sparks, like an unsubstantiated hypothesis resulting from a surprising finding, it provides fuel for the long, winding road ahead and validates the trail of failed experiments you’ve left behind.

SEM: Every scientist that I know has seen the inner working of failure: grants are rejected, experiments logistically collapse, equipment fails, people make mistakes. This is the service part that is so key — we are engaged with difficult, tedious and dodgy tasks that have absolutely no guarantee of working. And yet, the process works — due in part to the determined and gritty service of the scientific community.

PS: The role of scientists is going to shift at the onset of the new administration and we need to be prepared for it, armed with more than p-values and graphs. We need to give context to our science — so that it can meet the real needs of people. Our service as data-driven scientists will need to be coupled with supporting communities that are directly impacted by our research. And, we must be brave, so that we can openly voice our discontent in the hopes that something changes.

SEM: In the hope of showing up and providing service, here are some ideas and recommendations for our community.

In service for the whole:

  • Put the gas on your science — it’s never been more important to show up for your particular scientific problem.
  • Extend the “safety net” of inclusivity outside the walls of academia — we can act as a model for the broader culture.
  • Kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness — in all of your interactions.

For our colleagues:

  • Ask how people are doing. Make some tea, close your door, take time to tend to your relationships. We are our community of support.
  • Extend compassion and self awareness to your colleagues who may be even more scared and disenfranchised than you feel.
  • Acknowledge and support colleagues who are taking risks in public places. See their bravery. Recognize leadership.

Within ourselves:

  • Let go of the idea that you could not possibly have implicit biases — we all do. We are all responsible for changing our institutions.
  • Do not martyr yourself — practice the self-care and wound-tending that is necessary to ensure you can continue to show up.
  • Remember that your integrity as a scientist is non-negotiable. You can be the light the world needs now.

With warmth and respect,

PS & SEM