Crimson flames lick the walls voraciously, consuming furniture and paintings with alarming haste. I’m checking the temperature of the fire — 1,100 degrees Celsius. Thick, black plumes of smoke rise rapidly, and I carefully measure the particulate matter content in the air. As I watch the homeowners stubbornly argue over who forgot to blow the candle out, I estimate that the foundation of the house will collapse in minutes.
This is how it can feel to be an ecologist. We earnestly document new species, knowing many will be lost forever within our lifetime. We report devastating predictions of the climate crisis, while others bicker over who should take the blame. And as our warnings fall on unresponsive ears, we watch as our Earth burns.
It is a heavy burden to carry — one laden with frustration, guilt, and sadness. Like my colleagues, I have wrestled with eco-anxiety over the years. My research has left me with haunting memories: the first time I held filthy, black crude oil taken from an oil spill in the Amazon rainforest, or when I found microplastics in the lake I had drunk from my whole life.
But through the support of brilliant, progressive scientists in my field, I have learned to use that pain to guide my future actions, and to understand how my role as a scientist goes way beyond publishing a paper.
We scientists must align personal goals with social progress
So, to my fellow ecologists: studying an ecosystem is not enough to save it. Documenting an oil spill is not enough if that data isn’t used to demand a clean up or prevent future spills. Finding tiny pieces of rubber or bright pink polyester fibres in my lake water doesn’t matter if the data is never seen by wastewater managers or my local government.
The impact of our research is only as great as how it is used and whom it reaches. If we don’t explain why our research matters and demand that others care about our ecosystems, they will not.
To all my fellow scientists: our research has meaning and implications apart from our grades, our professional goals, and our obligation to rapidly publish academic papers. This is true for biochemists studying obscure proteins as well as physicists grappling with fundamental particles.
Science has shaped modern medicine, technology, and agriculture — significantly improving the quality of life across the world. It has also given us the tools to wage increasingly deadly wars and wreak havoc on our climate and ecosystems. To be a scientist is to contribute to the availability of knowledge in the world — for better or for worse.
As students or faculty in a competitive environment, we may feel pressured to engage in scientific research primarily as a means to gain individual success or university prestige. But we must learn to align our personal ambition as scientists with ‘doing good’ — that is, working toward a more just, evidence-based society.
This means a willingness to communicate our work outside of our field and to collaborate with non-scientists to develop interdisciplinary solutions that advance science and human welfare.
How to make a start? Venture outside your field
This is not to say that science exists only to benefit people, or to discredit knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Instead, it is a reminder that science does not operate in isolation, and that our research is closely linked to social challenges. We can remain objective, advance our careers, and contribute solutions to human problems, but to do so we must communicate.
Consider action on the climate crisis. While it is largely informed by scientists, it is not driven by us. It is driven by the thousands of protestors and voters who have shown interest and concern, and the politicians who have been pressured to act by public outcry.
As scientists, it is not our job to make policies or force a solution onto the public. It is our job to present evidence and provide possible solutions in an accessible way, to give those with a better understanding of social and economic challenges the tools to act appropriately.
The better we are able to communicate our research and encourage non-scientists to empathize with its implications, the better our chances of making positive change.
So how can we communicate better? Make an effort to debate with those outside your discipline. Learn to give a jargon-free elevator pitch about your research. Attend non-academic conferences to learn about the priorities of non-scientists and provide a new perspective. Reach out to policy makers in your community to dispel misinformation and offer solutions.
And never forget — we are scientists second and human beings first.