Recently, I came across this compilation of stories on paths to ecology. It got me thinking about my own boomerang away from science and back again.
The daughter of two scientists, I was raised in an academic and inquisitive household. We spent Saturday mornings growing crystals or building a mag-lev train track. Vacations always included trips to the local aquarium, science museum, or university. So when given the chance to chart my own path, I like to say I “rebelled,” launching into my undergraduate college career headed straight for a dual degree in government and history. I took no science courses my freshman year. (And no math, to boot.) All of my course work was reading, reading, and more reading. I never had an assignment that I could “finish.” And at times I felt like I wasn’t doing anything. Needless to say, I tacked back toward my roots, found my way home, and finished my degree: still in government, having concentrated in environmental policy. A worthwhile compromise.
I embarked on my first environmental policy work experience with NOAA, joining the team that ran the Northeast Cooperative Research Program. (Now I mentioned that my parents were scientists. My dad was a marine biologist, more specifically a marine mammalogist, a cetologist, a studier of whales. Growing up surrounded by the public enthusiasm to “save the whales!” I had no idea what I was getting into with fisheries in the Northeast.) Let’s just say that after returning from an industry expo my second week on the job, I had experienced the discord first hand.
But, the unique part about my particular program was it’s cooperative mission. Our research was executed in partnership with the fishing industry. In fact, the program was based on the idea that fishermen had valuable expertise and that their participation in research would lead to even better management solutions.
This is where I came to understand that open communication leads to cooperation and collaboration, and that cooperation and collaboration are key to successful resolution of natural resource issues. We need to understand each other before we can work together, and in order to understand each other we must get to know one another. Government managers can’t stay walled off by bureaucracy; academic scientists can’t stay in the ivory tower; and the fishing industry must come ashore.
We need to find a table where we can all come together–perhaps a wind-worn, salt-washed picnic table on a fishing pier–where the scientist, the fisherman, and the government official can talk amongst each other, can speak the language, and can learn from each other.
This has become my mission: to bridge the gap between science and policy with communication, to facilitate constructive dialogue around natural resources, and to find solutions that strengthen local economies, natural ecosystems, and stakeholder relationships.