Finding your science ‘voice’

I’ve just finished reading Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. In it she talks about finding our voice – whether it’s out loud or on the page, alone or in a group of people. Williams’ book made me think about how scientists seem to think that voice is the terrain of the humanities, while science is immune to such vagaries. I know of only one scientist whose papers have a distinct voice: funny, wry, and amazingly intelligent all at the same time.

This blog is a science blog, but has also been a way for me to find my voice. My voice outside of science, but necessarily informed by science.

Paige Brown’s (@FromTheLabBench) latest blog post asks what a science blog is. How do we define science blogs and – by extension – what do we legitimize as a science blog? She gives as an example Kirk Englehardt’s blog, which covers science communication rather than science itself, but which she (and I as well) would consider a science blog.

I imagine there are many readers who don’t see Watershed Moments as a science blog. While I do talk science, I also talk life, academia, creativity, and health. But to me, science is involved in everything I do. Having been trained as a scientist, I see the world through a scientific lens – something that can be a good thing as much as it can be a hindrance.

But voice isn’t just about our writing, it’s also about when and how we choose to speak within the science community. Over at Retraction Watch, a recent article about a lab – and scientist – who’re under investigation contains the headline “Information Segregation + Machiavellian Principles = Successful Lab”. In other words – “for one within the group to dare question the central hypothesis, or the methods used to support it, was a quick ticket to dismissal from your position.” How do you find – and use – your voice in this kind of situation?

There are many instances where I’ve failed to speak up, whether it’s about a questionable research decision, or how a colleague was being treated. One example that stands out for me happened a couple of years ago. I was part of a research group that was planning to apply different forest harvest treatments to a watershed to see which treatments had the greatest impact on snow processes, surface water-groundwater interactions, and runoff. Trouble was, this watershed was a prized recreation spot for the local community, supported a population of at-risk salmonids, and was a prime habitat for grizzlies, which in that province had a designated recovery plan.

I imagine this is something that philosophers of science discuss regularly: when do the benefits of science outweigh the costs, and how do we define those costs and benefits in the first place? In my case, I couldn’t reconcile the costs with the benefits. But I stifled my voice, as I didn’t want to jeopardize future research collaborations and some admittedly interesting research projects. Instead of speaking up, I shut my mouth and hoped that it would go away.

Eventually it did go away – only because I had to give up the research for health reasons. But I’ve thought often about our responsibility as scientists not to leave these problems to the philosophers, but to personally estimate the costs and benefits of our research activities. To ask ourselves whether we are being true to our science ‘voice’, whether we have a social license to do this work, or whether our research will change the behavior of the very system we’re trying to study.

Examples from pharmaceutical and medical science include experimenting on primates and other animals. This is a public debate in which many people – some scientists included – find that the costs are far greater than the benefits, and would rather the work be done otherwise.

An environmental science example is wildlife tagging. While it’s an excellent way to determine population numbers, define feeding sources, track migrations, etc., the process of capturing and tagging animals can be stressful for the animals themselves. Is the benefit (enhanced management plans that can be developed with the information we obtain) worth the cost (the impact on the tagged animals)?

I don’t know the answer to these questions – and I suspect there are no absolute answers. Some may think that this view is extreme. That science is apolitical, amoral, completely objective and outside of the realm of these amorphous questions. But science doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it is subject to the vagaries of society – and sometimes it does go too far.

So we need to ask ourselves these things every time we do science: is it ethical? But most importantly, ask yourself: does it suit my voice, and am I saying what is important to me?

“We must learn to speak the language [we] speak when there is no one there to correct us.”

Hélène Cixous in Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds

NOTE – For more on voice in science, read DNLee’s guest post on Hope Jahren’s blog.

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4 thoughts on “Finding your science ‘voice’

  1. Great post Sarah – we often talk about finding one’s voice in theatre, and in non-academic writing, so your extension makes perfect sense!
    As a bird biologist I feel I should pipe up that flipper banding is a very specialized technique (i.e., for penguins only), and the usual bird banding that this mimics has time and time again found no detrimental effects of tagging. What concerns me more is the application of biologging devices (i.e., geolocators, satellite tags, etc), which seems to go on with wild abandon, while looking for and measuring the effects are secondary, or completely absent.
    I wrestled with my own moral dilemma in the field in 2012: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/the-science-never-says-it-all/

    • Thanks for the info on flipper banding, Alex – esp since tagging is an area I don’t know much about. Thanks also for the link to your own post – maybe we all need our own existential scientific crisis to find our voice 🙂

  2. Nice post, Sarah — I’m glad to have your voice out there. I agree; while I understand the notion that one’s objectivity (so-called) would be compromised by affect, it seems an impossible (and psychologically damaging) surgery to slice away one’s conscience for the sake of science. Better, it seems, to be forthright about our partial perspective and biases, inasmuch as we are aware of them, and celebrate science as a knowlege-gathering methodology that involves ethical decision-making throughout all phases of that knowledge gathering.

    On the more specific topic of wildlife tagging, I am reminded of something that I read while I was doing research on wolf reintroduction. Radio-collaring wolves is mostly SOP, and I’m sure there are a lot of cases where it’s been really beneficial for research, for determining population numbers, etc. But I thought it was interesting that as a part of the protocol for the Yellowstone reintroduction, the USFWS attempted to have at least one collared animal in each pack in case of livestock depredation; this wolf was known as a “Judas wolf.”

    • Thanks for the comment, Gavin. I agree that we need to be up front about how our biases and perspectives affect our science, instead of burying our heads in the sand and pretending there’s no impact at all.

      Thanks also for the note about the Judas wolf – interesting approach that definitely indicates USFWS understands some of the impacts of tagging…

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