Citizen scientists unite! Climate change needs your caring, attention
By Jason MacLean
Last week scientists and concerned citizens donned white lab coats and rallied in several Canadian cities — including Thunder Bay — protesting the muzzling of federal government scientists.
“There is a lot of concern in Canada right now about government scientists not being allowed to speak about their research to the public because of the new communications policies being put into place,” said Katie Gibbs of Evidence for Democracy, which co-ordinated the Stand Up for Science rallies.
For example, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently released rules prohibiting its scientists from discussing their findings with Canadians or publishing in academic journals without prior departmental approval.
And in 2012, Canadian National Research Council scientists were barred from speaking to the media about their collaborative research with NASA on snowflakes.
Now, before you laugh, bear in mind that snow is one of the primary sources of water in mountainous regions: the Sierra Nevada Mountains’ snowpack makes up one-third of California’s water supply, and runoff from the Rocky Mountains’ snowpack accounts for up to 80 per cent of the annual water supply in western Canada. But due to climate change and increasingly frequent and severe droughts, snowpack is a steadily shrinking source of water. Hence the urgent need to understand exactly how much water is contained in snowflakes.
Not that Canadians in Saskatchewan, Alberta, or British Columbia would be interested in hearing more about that from their government’s scientists.
But even worse than state censorship of publicly-funded science is scientists’ own self-censorship.
Many scientists maintain that they have a moral obligation to remain impartial. As University of Bristol climate scientist Tasmin Edwards powerfully argues, “science doesn’t tell us the answer to our problems. Neither should scientists.”
And she’s right, up to a point. Science doesn’t always tell us which particular policy to choose. But science does play an invaluable role in guiding and informing our policy debates. Think of pediatricians advocating for mandatory vaccination, biologists insisting on the teaching of evolution in science classes, nuclear engineers arguing for arms control treaties.
Besides, impartiality is impossible, an anachronistic view of the scientific process. Science is inherently value-laden. Indeed, values dictate which questions scientists ask in the first place. As Dr. Edwards herself admits, “I became a climate scientist because I’ve always cared about the environment.”
And while scientists are free to choose which questions they ask, they aren’t free to choose whichever answers they like. The power of science is that it’s transparent (at least it’s supposed to be). Scientists release their data to all who are interested and peer-review their work to determine consensus positions on complex issues such as climate change.
Scientists must be free — and must free themselves — to communicate their findings to policy makers, just as 12 prominent Canadian climate scientists wrote to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver in the spring warning that “each additional ton of greenhouse gases emitted commits us to further change and greater risks.”
But scientists can also do something even more important: help grow the ranks of citizen scientists, those ordinary citizens who volunteer their time to participate in scientific research with a social conscience.
There are at least three good reasons to become a citizen scientist.
• First, science needs you. In 2010, the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics concluded that “a large suite of applied and basic ecological processes occur at geographic scales beyond the reach of ordinary research methods. Citizen science is perhaps the only practical way to achieve the geographic reach required to document ecological patterns and address ecological questions at scales relevant to species range shifts, patterns of migration, spread of infectious disease, broad-scale population trends, and impacts of environmental processes like landscape and climate change.”
• Second, science will make you a better person. In a cutting-edge study published last spring, researchers found that the same scientific ethos that guides empirical inquiries — counting birds and fireflies, watching the weather, tagging monarchs — also facilitates the enforcement of moral norms.
• And third, science will reconnect you with the facts of life. As famed Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson eloquently put it, “we do not understand ourselves yet and descend farther from heaven’s air if we forget how much the natural world means to us.”
But forgotten we have. How else to explain our collective failure to understand, not so much the facts of climate change, but the true meaning of climate change? Not so much the grim statistics and bleak projections, but the true meaning of our frenzied exploitation of the natural world?
So hats off to those who stood up for science last week. But keep those white lab coats handy. Citizen scientists unite!
Jason MacLean teaches law at Lakehead University and writes here bi-weekly. For more information about this column, go to http://greenlawprof.typepad.com/greenlaw.