Thursday, June 14, 2012

Insight and advocacy: transitioning from scientist to advocate (Guest Post)

In Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” he describes how information is disseminated. It takes three types of people: a collector, a connector and a persuader. As a research scientist, I am familiar with being a collector. I have spent years reading papers, testing hypotheses and validating assumptions to develop a personal understanding of fisheries and ecology. Until recently, I was content to let my perspectives circulate among a small group of colleagues. Until recently, I did not see a need to address the connector or persuader in my academic life. But I do now. I am not an advocate. I have on occasion written a letter to my MP, signed a petition or joined a protest but always as a follower of those who, I felt, were much better suited for it. And this is because on most political issues I am as informed as the news/internet media will allow me to be. So when somebody with some good insight steps forward, I’m more likely to egg them on then run with their thunder.

But recently I have found myself to be one with insight. It was a startling moment. Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver was on the news plugging the dismantling of Canada’s environmental legislation. He’d said that our environmental safeguards held up badly needed economic development and as an example he used Enbridge’s Gateway Pipeline. I had worked on the environmental permitting for that pipeline, and I didn’t agree with him. Working as an environmental consultant in Alberta was a wonderful life spent on deserted oil roads assessing fish habitat and negotiating permits for industrial development. Over that time I observed first hand that Canada’s environmental laws did not hold up pipelines, mines or bridge crossings any longer than the lengthy processes of engineering, surveying, contracting or First Nation consultation. Environmental permits typically cost a small fraction of the total development, were often acquired concurrently with the general planning process, and were unquestionably necessary to protect the health of the natural resources that belong to all Albertans and Canadians. Beyond my first hand experiences, I found no independent studies that could back up Minister Oliver’s statement. In fact, in a series of papers examining Canadian and American environmental legislation, their overall effect on the economy was determined to be either “overstated” or even “a net benefit”.

Politicians embellish, and perhaps I would have left it there, but over the next few weeks news emerged that the federal government were scrapping the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, the Experimental Lakes Area, the Marine Pollution Program, the Kluane Arctic Research Station, Ozone Monitoring Stations, the Species at Risk scientists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, fish habitat protection under the Fisheries Act. This after years of muzzling government scientists, laying off climate change researchers, and cutting funding to non-business partnered science in Canada. And last, and cruellest, most of these recent changes were being done wrapped up in a budget, Bill C-38, thus circumventing a proper discussion in Parliament. I was shaken by this policy direction.

It is difficult not to be emotionally invested when ideals and institutes you believe in get torn down. I found that many Canadians including environmentalists, economists, politicians and advocates were appearing on the news, writing op-eds and tweeting their concerns. Their seat in this public debate was one earned from decades of being public figures, which connected them to a wide network and taught them how to engage those around them. I realized my opportunity was to share my insights with them, and provide more substance to their thunder. I researched further the economic role of environmental legislation in Canada and canvased old colleagues from consulting firms on permit wait times. Next, I began to share. I put out these insights to my own social and professional network. I was amazed by how quickly people responded. With one LinkedIn post and an email to 75 contacts I received responses from most of my immediate contacts, but also from people across the country that I had never met. I heard from collectors who shared their insights with me, connectors who forwarded mine on, and persuaders who were still appearing in the news. I was amazed and heartened by how quickly an insight could spread.

Insight is a powerful and rare commodity, because it can comment on current issues yet is not necessarily advocacy. For example, eminent researcher David Schindler’s paper on oil sands contamination was not advocacy; it was insight into contaminant levels in the Athabasca River. Yet the paper sent shockwaves through a political system that had been repeating for over a decade that the oil sands had a clean record and was picked up by advocates who further publicized it. It can gain such traction because there is a vacuum of objective facts and concrete statements in today’s political theater. Over the last few decades our political leaders have increasingly changed their dialogue to reflect emotional, persuasive and ideology driven statements. For example, in Canada Ministers Kent, Ashfield and Oliver discuss “protecting” our “valuable” species, and “modernizing” our legislation. Other ministers present economic or foreign affairs in similar vague terms. This type of dialogue puts a new onus on economists and scientists to share their perspectives beyond the academic walls. It seems like an insurmountable hurdle as many of us are not connectors or persuaders, but the traction for a pure nugget of insight may surprise you. So I encourage you all to keep collecting but to also start sharing beyond our academic circles, where your contribution may be more meaningful that you realize.


Androw said...

Thanks for the information and for sharing your knowledge.
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Michael Fugate said...

What is it that political conservatives actually want to conserve? Wealth for the already wealthy?

NPDES said...

Great. Valuable information i get from here. Thanks for publish.

Juliano "Pqno" van Melis said...

I'm really concerned to the fact that it's not only Brazilian environmental policy is fragile. Here (Brazil), our scientific societies have been threatened by policy members of senate by disparaging our "information collections".
For further information:
I think that Canadian politics are not so mean than Brazilian politics, and I think that Canadian people are not so alienated than Brazilian people.

Jim Bouldin said...

Excellent piece, thanks.

ecological investments said...

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