Science and science communication: why we can’t win and what we can do

Times are changing and it seems like a scientist just can’t win. In the era of fake news and “alternative facts”, where people dismiss what an engineer says because he’s not a “real scientist” (regardless of the science not changing just because it was an engineer who shared it), where diseases long-thought dead are resurging thanks to parents thinking autism is a fate worse than death (and the “study” they keep bringing up that “links” autism to vaccines was disproved many, many years ago), it seems like searching for evidence and the truth is out of fashion.

The irony is that we need science (and scientists!) more than ever. We’ve got climate change, biodiversity loss, coral bleaching, and melting ice caps. We’re emptying the oceans of fish and replacing them with plastic. We’re clearing rainforests but wonder where the fresh air has gone. Stronger typhoons are battering our coastlines but we don’t have the mangroves to keep them at bay. There are areas of the deep sea where our trash got there before we did. If we want to keep living on this planet (and I’m assuming that we do, considering that we haven’t developed interstellar travel yet), we needed to start protecting it yesterday.

fish visual census
Counting fish underwater

Scientists can’t save the world on their own. Because they’re very much in the minority – in 2013, the Philippines only had 189 researchers in R&D per million people – scientists are banking on the results of their research making its way to the general public, thus educating them about pressing environmental and health issues and provoking planet-saving action along the way. If only it were that simple.

First, great scientists are not always great communicators. We are sometimes so used to talking to our peers that the idea of talking to “regular” people and using minimal jargon stumps us. I used to work as an environmental officer for an eco resort located in a protected area and it took me years to figure out how to talk to people. The first time I trained tour guides in basic biology and ecology was a harsh lesson: people are under no obligation to be interested in what you find interesting. My first attempts at writing, shooting, and editing nature videos earned me an A for effort and content but a C in actual production value and “interestingness” from my video producer husband. Over the years and after much trial and error, our team of three Biology grads learned to use used bingo games, underwater scavenger hunts, and selfie contests to make science fun. I’ve also given talks at our beach bar during Happy Hour, ruining quite a few childhoods in the process of explaining protandry in clownfish.

This is us at our 12th episode. Check the link and compare it against our first episode.

There’s also the potential bias within the scientific community as well, wherein scientists who dedicated chunks of their time to public outreach were historically seen as being “less dedicated” and “less capable” of doing good science (see: Sagan, Carl). The annoying thing is that it’s not even true! On the flipside, in a “publish or perish” world, there’s no incentive for scientists to do outreach. How are we supposed to inspire the next generation of scientists if we’re not out there promoting how awesome science is? We can’t let Neil deGrasse Tyson do all the heavy lifting.

Scientists need to go where they’re needed. In this case, talking to fishermen underneath a tree by the roadside.

When scientists do communicate, those who do it well have to struggle against the public’s perception of what a credible scientist should look like. While a quartet of adorkable, socially awkward researchers makes for popular TV, it further cements the stereotype of the bumbling professor. A recent study showed that researchers who are physically attractive and appear friendly generated greater interest in their work, but were also seen as producing lower quality science. In comparison, researchers who are relatively plain-looking and look unapproachable were seen as producing higher quality science but generated less interest in their work. Can you please make up your minds? Their test subjects were also more interested in reading news articles featuring the work of “interesting-looking” scientists compared to those who looked “uninteresting”. I didn’t realize I needed a good headshot to accompany my research.

While communicating science in today’s environment feels like a combination of pushing a boulder up a mountain and preaching to the choir, we have to do it anyway. We owe it not just to ourselves, but to the ones who will come after us. But we have to work together!

General Public, good science is inescapable and undeniable. Don’t attack just because the science doesn’t fit your world view. As a great man once said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Attack the science if the methodology and the data used to arrive at that conclusion is wrong.

Good science is also good science, regardless of who is doing it (as long as they adhere to ethical standards, of course). While there are scientists who are admittedly weird and dorky (myself included), others climb mountains, star is musicals, play with fire, and race dragonboats. We’re a pretty diverse bunch. Judge us on how good our research is, not on whether we look good in a lab coat.

Once upon a time, I joined fun runs.

Governments, use good science to shape good policy. It’s hard, I know, but that’s the only way to do it. Fund not just the actual research, but the outreach efforts as well. You want an educated population, right?

Fellow scientists, we need to learn how to communicate better. While reaching out to the public may not be your life’s work, your life’s work depends on the support of the public. People can’t support what they don’t know about. The public are our partners in discovery, not our enemies.

Let’s also remember that we don’t have to do this on our own. There are media professionals out there who can help us craft our messages and present them in a manner that will get us the most buy-in from the public. Guide the professionals but let them do their thing.

Science shouldn’t stay cooped up in the lab and we have got to get better at setting it free.

 

Author’s note: I wrote this last year for the Asian Scientist Writing Prize. Obviously I didn’t win but I wanted to post this anyway with some minor edits.

The Northern Lights of my dreams

I’m an ocean girl at heart. Saltwater and sand will be my top destinations almost every time. One of the few destinations included in that almost? Iceland. Why do I want to visit? Let’s count them off!

  1. The road trip experience

Iceland Driving Road Trip

Scenic landscapes everywhere you look and well-maintained roads? Perfect. Now I just need to learn how to drive…

2. The road trip minus the carbon emissions

DSC01647.JPG

If you want to get more exercise, there’s always biking. I’m going to skip the leg-killing uphill climbs as there are enough flat plains to go around.

3. It’s great for whale watching!

whale watching VI

Iceland’s waters are home to lots of krill and fish, which means lots of whales and dolphins! Twenty-three species of whales and dolphins call Iceland home, though the ones most commonly seen during whale watching tours are minke whales, humpback whales, harbor porpoises, and orcas. Minkes are the most common though, and can be seen year-round.

4. Hot springs!

Iceland's Blue Lagoon

The most famous one is (of course) the Blue Lagoon. It’s so popular that you need to pre-book tickets. Of course, there are other hot springs that you can visit, whether for free or with a paid ticket.

5. Of course, the Northern Lights.

The Northern Lights - Iceland - Travel photography

If you don’t want to wait in the cold (no one enjoys being cold) and you can afford it, find a rental unit that has an outdoor hot tub.

Now, if only I can find cheap flights to Reykjavik.

Three nights in Manhattan

“The City That Never Sleeps” certainly showcased why it got its nickname in the scant few days that I was in New York City for work. For three nights (I don’t count the first one because I arrived at my hostel at 9pm, dead-tired from a trans-Pacific flight), I returned to my hostel past 9pm because there was always something to see, even at the late hour.

First night: outside Grand Central Terminal, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral

We started walking from Instituto Cervantes on E 40th St towards Times Square (where a co-delegate was meeting his aunt) on W 46th St, but with a slight detour to pass by Grand Central Station on E 42nd St. It sounded near enough in my head, forgetting to take into account the width of NYC’s blocks.

We didn’t have the time to enter Grand Central Terminal (I did that the next day) but even seeing just the outside was enough. Continue reading “Three nights in Manhattan”

Touring Manhattan in 12 hours

Before I start, please note that allocating only one day to see Manhattan is absolutely ridiculous. There’s just so much to see and do that you can easily spend three days or more just in Manhattan, not to mention the rest of New York City. However, I was in NYC for work and had only one free day between meetings and had no way to extend my stay, so making the most of that one full day was imperative.

Part of what made this itinerary work was basing out of Manhattan already. I stayed in the Vanderbilt YMCA and had a mostly good experience, except for a major grievance that resulted from Front Desk not talking to Security. I started this itinerary at 9 am, but I would have had to start it much earlier if I weren’t in Manhattan already.

Stop 1: St. Patrick’s Cathedral

I passed St. Patrick’s at night on my 2nd day and took photos (of course), but it’s still something else to see it in the daytime. The architecture just amazed me. It felt weird to take photos inside the church but the staff said it was okay. Still only took a few though. Also managed to squeeze in some quiet time.

Continue reading “Touring Manhattan in 12 hours”

WWF-Philippines’ Green Wanderer travel fair: the good and the areas for improvement

Tourism is the biggest industry in the world, providing 10% of global GDP and 1 out of 10 jobs in 2016. It’s also big on GHG emissions, producing 5% of global GHG. Considering that tourism contributed 8.6% of the Philippines’ GDP in 2016 AND the Philippines is one of the countries most affected by climate change, WWF-Philippines’ Green Wanderer travel fair held last August 11-13, 2017 at Bonifacio High Street Central Square Mall couldn’t have come at a better time. And yes, this also means that this blog post is very, very late.

I attended the second day specifically for the Sustainability Forum (yes, I woke up at 7am on a Saturday) and the talk by Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort . The panelists for the Sustainability Forum were Joel Palma (WWF-Philippines President and CEO), Josephine Alcantara-Cruz (mayor of Donsol, Sorsogon), Anton Diaz (founder of the travel blog Our Awesome Planet), Deanne Bibat (Executive Producer of the travel show Biyahe ni Drew), and Alexa Cancio and Nikki Huang (WWF-Philippines National Youth Council members).

My favorite part of the forum was Mayor Jo sharing Donsol’s keys to success. During his presentation, Joel Palma said that for sustainable tourism to succeed, it needs visitor satisfaction (no one’s going to come back or recommend it to their friends if they aren’t happy with it), environmental protection (no protection means you’ll lose what tourists come to see in the first place), and benefits to the community. This was seen in Donsol, as Mayor Jo credits their success to their whale shark ecotourism being Community-Based, Legislation, Environmental-friendliness, the Adaptability of the community, and iNnovation (CLEAN). In Donsol, the community receives 85% of the tourism revenue. The definition of “ecotourism stakeholders” was also expanded to include transportation companies and businesses, not just the boat operators, tour guides, and hotels. Legislation means that everything is controlled and institutionalized. In the worlds of Mayor Jo, the LGU is the “taga-puna” (the critic) and “taga-puno” (the one who fills [needs]). Any new tours or activities in Donsol are screened to ensure that they don’t harm the environment. The community was also able to adapt to tourism as an alternative livelihood, with assistance from WW-Philippines. And lastly, innovation means that they never stop learning.

As for the challenges that Donsol faces, Mayor Jo mentioned three: nature, politics, and culture. Whale sharks are migratory so they’re only in Donsol for six months of the year [me: that means they need to develop another product for the off-season]. Politics also factors in because projects implemented by the current administration aren’t always continued by the succeeding administration. As for culture, Donsol is fighting hard to maintain its culture despite the influx of foreign visitors. An example of this is the increasing demand for nightlife spots, but the LGU has consistently shot down those requests in order to keep the town quiet at night.

Anton Diaz shared some tips on how to be a sustainable traveler. Did you know that Oslob, Cebu (where whale sharks are fed) has 10x the tourism income as Donsol? THAT SUCKS. As for why that sucks, let me enumerate everything that’s wrong with Oslob’s model:

  1. Fed whale sharks stay in Oslob longer than non-fed sharks. One whale shark was seen for 572 days! This is bad because whale sharks are migratory. Staying in one place shrinks the gene pool and hello, inbreeding!
  2. The whale sharks stay at the surface for longer periods of time when they’re not supposed to. This means they get overheated so they dive very deep to cool off then go back to the surface.
  3. Because they stay at the surface for longer periods, the whale sharks are more exposed to boats and they get HURT.

In the same study, scientists observed propeller scars in 47% of the whale sharks they saw.

During the Q&A, Mayor Jo was asked what she would change about Oslob should she become mayor there. Her response? She’d change how tourists interact with the whale sharks. Bravo Ma’am!

Anton Diaz shared his tips on how to become a sustainable traveler. They were:

  1. Fight apathy.
  2. Support social enterprises.
  3. Book sustainable accommodations.
  4. Patronize products from the community.
  5. Experience sustainable adventures.
  6. Choose stand-up paddle tours.
  7. Use electric tricycles.
  8. Eat in local places.
  9. Explore cultural heritage sites.
  10. Fight against animal abuse.

While this list is a good starting point, I feel like it lacks context in some parts. Things are not black and white.

  1. Small businesses and social enterprises are not necessarily sustainable in the same way that big businesses are not inherently unsustainable. A large resort with its own sewage treatment plant is more environmentally responsible than a dozen mom-and-pop inns that discharge their sewage straight into the ocean. A restaurant chain with a firm and fully implemented “no sharks’ fin” policy is more sustainable than a social enterprise that makes sharks fin dumplings.
  2. While vehicles are the largest source of air pollution in the Philippines, using electric tricycles would only contribute towards decreasing pollution if they were charged using renewable energy sources, like solar, wind, and geothermal. If they’re powered using coal, you’re just moving the pollutants from the road to the power plant. Burning coal to produce electricity also produces more CO2 compared to just burning gasoline directly.

As with all things sustainability, one should look at the whole picture and not just one angle.

I was supposed to stay until the afternoon for the talk by Daluyon Resort but since I was lucky enough to get a mini one-on-one interview with Kim, the Marketing Head of Daluyon at their booth, I decided to skip it.

I haven’t been to Daluyon but what Kim showed me was impressive. They’ve invested in an MRF, solar power (not all of their rooms have them, though), an organic vegetable farm, and bicycles available for guests to use. They also offer a bike loan program to the staff, where staffers can avail of an interest-free loan for one year to buy a bike for commuting to work. They’ve also made an effort to promote eco-friendly tours, such as a mangrove tours and nature hikes. Though since I haven’t been there, I don’t know how good their guides are.

Out of all the things that Kim said and promoted about Daluyon, what stood out for me was what she didn’t say: education. Daluyon doesn’t seem to have an environmental education program in place for their guests or staff, which is both a shame and a tremendous opportunity for improvement.

Spent the next two hours looking around the exhibitor booths. I really liked the exhibitor mix, which were mostly homegrown companies offering organic vegetables and sustainable seafood. Of special interest to me was Balangay’s Best.

Balangay’s Best sources their seafood from fishers that participate in Fish Forever – a project by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) , Rare, and the Sustainable Fisheries Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) that addresses “overfishing in countries across the globe by empowering thousands of the world’s poorest, most marginalized coastal communities to steward their own sustainable and productive fisheries.”

My biggest disappointment and chief complaint is about the severe lack of actual sustainable travel companies advertising at the fair. The only companies there were El Nido Resorts, Daluyon, and Circle Hostel – places that are already known to practice sustainable tourism.

The travel fair was supposed to introduce me to sustainable tourism companies that I didn’t know of yet. If there were no others to be had in the Philippines, I expected the travel agencies there (who banded together under the Philippine Tour Operators Association, Inc. (PHILTOA)) to suggest options abroad.

No sustainable tourism options here 🙁

Unfortunately, the agents there were unable to recommend anything. They couldn’t assure me that any of the hotels or tours they were offering were handled by responsible companies. If they couldn’t do that, then what was the point of them being there? A travel agency is supposed to cater to what the event is about. If it’s a country-specific event, then you offer tours to that country. If it’s a sustainable tourism event, then you should be offering sustainable accommodations and activities! This fiasco just underscored how much work there is left to do.

Another thing I noticed: all of those who attended Green Wanderer looked well-off. I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of the venue (a high-end mall like Central Square) or a reflection of the demographic interested in sustainable travel. If it’s the latter, then we have even MORE work left to do. Sustainable travel should be accessible to everybody, not just those with big bank accounts.

All in all, Green Wanderer was a decent event. My favorite really was the talk by the mayor of Donsol. Still sad I missed the talk by former boss Mariglo Laririt about El Nido Resorts (why was it on Friday?! huhu). Selection of exhibitors could have been better. Since it was supposed to promote sustainable travel, I expected exhibitors to sell items that make sustainable travel possible, like Patagonia and their jackets made from recycled PET bottles and Nalgene and their tough refillable water bottles (no to disposable plastic bottles!). I’m hoping that Green Wanderer will become a regular event with more success stories from the front lines.

The Five-0 Dream comes true, Part 6: getting to Mauna Kea

(YES this is a super late post. WHOOO. My Hawaii trip actually happened in June 2016! If you missed my previous posts, I talked about presenting my research at the International Coral Reef Symposium, exploring Diamond Head, the Waikiki Aquarium, and the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, exploring the Bishop Museum and eating my way around Honolulu, and exploring Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.)

We woke up slightly early so we could hike down to the the Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake before we left for Mauna Kea but it turned out to be a drizzly, windy, AND foggy morning so that plan was canceled real quick.

Nope, no hiking to be done in the Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake.

We did manage to take a few photos of the endangered nene (pronounced “nay-nay”, YES like the song and YES my friends made a ton of corny jokes )  that was hanging out in front of Volcano House.

After that, we went back to Holoholo In to pack our bags and head to Mauna Kea via the long way AKA a scenic drive along the coast. We wanted to get to Mauna Kea just before sunset so the long way, with the postcard-perfect views and casual driving, was perfect.

Continue reading “The Five-0 Dream comes true, Part 6: getting to Mauna Kea”

The Five-0 Dream comes true, part 4: hopping around Honolulu

(YES this is a super late post. WHOOO. My Hawaii trip actually happened in June 2016! If you missed my previous posts, I talked about presenting my research at the International Coral Reef Symposium, exploring Diamond Head, the Waikiki Aquarium, and the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, eating my way around Hawai’i, and my souvenirs from the trip.)

One last full day, a huge city, and a ton of places to go to.

I organized my Honolulu city tour around three things: the Bishop Museum, food, and Hawaii Five-0. Although I really wanted to dedicate a day to each of these things – the most popular unofficial Five-0 tour takes you to McGarrett’s house AND gives you the opportunity to possibly meet some of the actors if they’re available (past attendees have met Chi McBride (Lou Grover) and Dennis Chun (Sgt. Duke Lukela)) – I didn’t have that luxury 🙁 Next time!

First stop of the day: Wailana Coffee Shop and their macadamia nut pancakes. Wailana was just down the street from the Ilikai Hotel so it was the perfect spot to have breakfast and start the day. McGarrett was right: they do serve the best pancakes. They’re so soft and fluffy!

Second stop of the day: Liliha Bakery. As I mentioned in great detail in a previous post, I mistakenly thought that the Kuakini St. branch would be closed on a Sunday so I ended up at the much-farther-away Nimitz Branch instead. I (somewhat) didn’t mind because hot damn, Liliha Bakery makes amazing coco puffs. Really. These pastry puffs, with their chocolate cream filling and chantilly cream frosting, are my favorite food from Hawaii, which is saying something since I’m picky with pastries and I loved poke too. I bought a box of six pieces (four coco puffs and two cream puffs, about $4 each), ostensibly to share with my friends, but the puffs were so good that I could have eaten them all by myself.

Continue reading “The Five-0 Dream comes true, part 4: hopping around Honolulu”