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.

Macy goes to ICRS 2016

I attended my first-ever International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) last June 20-24, 2016 in Honolulu, Hawaii (!!!). Basically, ICRS is the biggest gathering of coral reef and reef fish nerds on the planet. I felt right at home 😀 <3

Here’s me presenting my study Abundance patterns of coral-dependent reef fish in select sites in the Philippines, co-authored with my boss and Denmark [another research assistant]). Fortunately or unfortunately, our session was scheduled in the theater so I presented on a sizable stage with a huge screen and the attendees had stadium seating. Other attendees said it was a plus because people could go in and out of the theater without the presenter noticing. Me, I was mostly concerned about presenting to a noticeably sparsely populated room.

02 ICRS1

My presentation was scheduled at 9:30 am – not exactly primetime for scientists 😛 Iris (a fellow Filipino who’s based in the National University of Singapore) joked that she thought of attending my talk but opted not to because of the early schedule. Don’t worry Iris, it’s all good 😛 I had two people ask me about the study, though I don’t think the second one counts because she was more interested in the aquarium fish trade rather than the coral reef-reef fish patterns. Referred her to my labmate Jem though 🙂

This is me thanking those who made my study and the trip to ICRS possible: our source of research funding (but not of travel grants) DOST-PCAARRD, my awesomesauce labmates, Dr. Ting Nanola of UP Mindanao of his insights, and Pinky’s Goodies bakery for the travel grant <3 Actually, that travel grant thank you should have been Pinky’s Goodies, Bar Pintxos, Alma Javelosa, Virgie Sorita, and friends and customers of Geekerie. THANK YOU!
03 pinkys slide

Before ICRS though, I attended a two-day workshop on coral identification at the Waikiki Aquarium taught by Russell Kelley of BYO Guides. Attending the workshop was more to confirm and shore up my existing coral ID skills rather than learning from scratch. It also showed me how to run a coral ID workshop, which is something I’m likely to use in the future 🙂 Plus it was fun!

01 coral ID training group pic

ICRS was a great experience. I learned a lot from the different sessions and the sessions reminded me of how much I miss working on corals 😛 The ones that stuck with me the most were the status reports on the 2016 mass bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef and the update on the West Philippine Sea scenario (the wholesale destruction of the reefs by the Chinese, the illegal extraction of giant clams, sea turtles, and other endangered species, the arbitration case in the Hague, etc.). It was interesting to hear about the case from Dr. Kent Carpenter (he served as an expert witness for the Philippine delegation), whose testimony included citing a paper that showed that the Spratlys may be a significant source of coral larvae (and by reasonable extension, fish larvae) for Palawan and some isolated reefs in the West Philippine Sea. I also thought of looking out for Dr. Morgan Pratchett but decided against it because I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to ask him about butterflyfishes and coral reefs, even though they’re my two favorite things. I did get to interview Dr. Terry Hughes (THE Dr. Terry Hughes!) though for an article about the mass bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, which will hopefully be done by this week.

No word yet on where ICRS 2020 will be as no one bid to host it. ICRS 2012 was in Cairns, Australia, then 2016 in Hawaii, USA. Maybe somewhere in South America for 2020? Let’s see 🙂

EDIT: The United Nations Arbitral Tribunal rules in favor of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea dispute.

Around the Philippines in 7 months

Our fieldwork for Year 1 of our research project started in earnest last January then proceeded nonstop until July. In those seven months, I’ve been to 11 municipalities in nine provinces all over the country. My Philippine map is looking pretty good!

It’s been an exhausting seven months, filled with interviews, focus group discussions, market surveys, fish landing surveys, fishery intercepts, fish visual census, and benthic cover surveys. Oh, and report writing. Can’t forget the dreaded report writing.

Continue reading “Around the Philippines in 7 months”

The Scientist’s Guide to the BIR and Paying Taxes

The University of the Philippines System recently issued a memo that all contractual staff have to be registered with the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) as “professionals” and provide UP with official receipts for services rendered. Unfortunately, project-based research assistants are included in this category. MSI was nice enough to bring in a Certified Public Accountant to give a short talk/lecture about what the new memo means and how to go about the registration process and the additional tax forms we have to submit. That was the first time I’d seen an entire auditorium of MS and PhD students and graduates dumbfounded and confused. I’ve already started the registration process because of my freelance science writing gigs for GMA News Online, which started requiring ORs just last July, so I’m in a better position compared to the other RAs who are just doing it now. I hope this little blog post can help my fellow researchers navigate the murky waters of registering as a professional and what that means for taxes.

Note: This post is not a discussion about whether requiring RAs to provide UP with ORs is right or fair, but for the record, we work for unremarkable salaries, no benefits, no paid leaves, and no healthcare. The visiting CPA fielded a ton of questions about what registration means for ongoing contracts (those with ongoing contracts are essentially f*cked) and the additional tax filings (more on that later).

Continue reading “The Scientist’s Guide to the BIR and Paying Taxes”

Science Nerd Mode at the 3rd APCRS

These past few months have been pretty crazy. So these things happened this May and June:

1. Co-organized Nexcon, a f*cking kickass science fiction and fantasy convention
2. Went to Japan for the first time. JAPAN!
3. Helped train DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) personnel in coral reef survey methods
4. Presented at my first international scientific conference: the 3rd Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium (APCRS)
5. Went to Taiwan for the first time to present at APCRS and to explore

The blog posts will not be in chronological order. There. You have been warned 😛

Anyway, this here blog post is about APCRS. The Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium (APCRS) is an international gathering of scientists, policy makers, natural resource managers, and other stakeholders to share research and experience in coral reef biology, ecology, and conservation. I wrote about the conference here.

I wasn’t part of any research project and I didn’t want to ask for money from DOST (because that money always comes with strings attached) so I ended up paying for almost the entire trip out-of-pocket: the conference registration, hotel rooms, plane ticket, everything. I lucked out in that some of my labmates scored funding so they paid for the hostel rooms in Taipei both before and after the conference and since I have valid US and Canadian visas, I was visa-exempt for Taiwan.

We took an 11:00pm flight out of Manila on June 20 and landed in Taipei at 1:30am the next day. Took a cab to the hostel because the airport buses stop running at 12pm and arrived there at around 3am. Note to self: don’t take any more red-eye flights as much as possible. Gyah. June 21 was our lone “full” day in Taipei before taking the High Speed Rail from Taipei to Kaohsiung the next day. From Kaohsiung, it took a 2-hour bus ride to finally get to Pingtung.

This is me at Taipei Main Station killing time before our scheduled train. Since we were taking the HSR from end to end, we could take the express train with fewer stops and cut the travel time to 1 hour and 30 minutes instead of 2 hours.
02 me in taipei main station_ver2

Pingtung felt like Boracay sans the sand. Not sure why that is, but the Taiwanese don’t build permanent structures on the beach (local zoning laws maybe?). There are hotels, bars, and restaurants that face the beach but all the actual partying takes place on the road behind the hotels, parallel to the beach. I found that an excellent alternative to Boracay’s usual scene as it means less trash on the beach. After registering at the conference hotel, we walked back home and looked around for a place to eat. We met a Filipino waiter who recommended that we NOT enter the restaurant he was promoting because the food was expensive and not that good. Haha. When we asked him why he told us that, he said “E kababayan kayo e” (“You’re Filipino too”).

03 Pingtung night time

APCRS was a great experience. I learned a lot of new things from a lot of different people. Funnily enough, I just noticed near the end of APCRS that I ended up meeting a greater proportion of Singaporean, Malaysian, and Hong Kong-Chinese researchers and students because they were working on one of my favorite topics: the impact of pollution and sedimentation on coral reefs. I presented a paper (entitled Spatial Variation of Coral Recovery in the Shallow Water Reefs of Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan one Year After the 2010 Mass Bleaching Event, co-authored with my adviser) during the mini-symposium on coral bleaching and the impacts of climate change on reefs (my other favorite research topic). It was a supremely nerve-wracking experience and despite practicing several times, I still ended up talking a little too fast and ended my presentation with several minutes to spare. Ack. The moderators asked me two questions and three (three!) people told me that my research was interesting. YES! Although fine, one of those was a friend so I suppose that doesn’t count. All of the other COMECO labmates who came to APCRS were fisheries people so I only saw them during the breaks and only one of them attended my presentation. Ah well. The perils of having differing research interests.

02 me with APCRS sign

Aside from being able to learn from other, more experienced researchers, another thing I loved about APCRS was the chance to catch up with some science friends. I attended a training workshop in Sanya, China in 2011 (read about it here) and I saw many of the same students in APCRS. On the making friends front, I liked the IOC-WESTPAC training better because there were fewer participants (about only 2-3 per university) and and many of them also stayed in the marine station. In our case, we were billeted with the Thai and Malaysian participants, who were given a separate area because of their dietary restrictions. We added each other on Facebook afterwards and kept in touch. After three years of talking online, we finally saw each other again. Lots of hugs and “OMG you’re here!” all around, plus updates on what we’ve each been up to.

This is Mathinee from Thailand. She’s taking her PhD in Japan and the culprit behind the smuggled sake (more on that later). This brilliant lady studies coral diseases.

19 mathinee

And this one is Yan from Singapore. She’s taking her PhD in Australia, shifted her research to seagrass (noooo!!!), and became a Whovian because of her Australian friends. Dangly TARDIS earrings!

22 yan

And this is Eric from Hong Kong. His work focuses on how pollution affects coral reproduction (perfect research topic for Hong Kong, IMHO). We actually saw each other a few months after the training in Sanya when I went to Hong Kong. He also came to El Nido earlier this year but since I wasn’t based there anymore, I asked Virgie to help him out. He and his friends now grace posters promoting stand-up paddleboard tours (not because of Virgie!), but that’s a story for a different day.

20 eric

He and his labmates from the Chinese University of Hong Kong are campaigning against the construction of a third runway at Hong Kong International Airport because the land reclamation will, among other things, drive out the few Chinese white dolphins still left in the bay. The reclamation will be the second-largest in Hong Kong’s history, only beaten by the reclamation to construct HKIA in the first place. Read more about it here.

No solo photos with Iris but I do have this nice photo of Team Philippines courtesy of Richard 😀 Lots of Filipino scientists at the conference, including those who represented universities outside of the Philippines. Apparently, the National University of Singapore is a popular destination for recent MSI graduates.

team Philippines at APCRS 2014_smaller

I also (sorta) got to make new friends courtesy of the student night. They took all the students who signed up to attend and randomly distributed them around several picnic tables where they could talk while grilling their own food. A noble effort and I did get to talk to the guys in my group but I’m a naturally shy person and don’t make friends easily. Ack. The organizers supplied beer and soda but Mathinee smuggled in some extra-strength sake [rice wine] from Japan that she so generously shared with the other students. I thought I would be prepared for the burn because of the sake-tasting in Japan but I was wrong 😛 The students were also supposed to present a “cultural performance” per country. No one prepared anything serious but I have to give credit to the Thai group for gamely going first and kicking things off with a lovely (and slightly drunken) dance number. Everything else flowed after that. The large amounts of beer probably helped too.

These lovely photos came from Eric. The top one has Dr. Nina Yasuda, me. Rem (my labmate), Yuta (Dr. Yasuda’s student – he studies population genetics), and Eric.
02 instax photos from eric

APCRS 2018 will be held in Cebu so I’m really looking forward to it. Let’s hope I get to publish and do more research before then 😛

Why women in science end up single

This blog post is a response to this article on successful women scientists. Among those interviewed is Dr. Luli Cruz from the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute (MSI represent!). Part of her interview:

Lourdes Cruz says that motherhood is one of the main reasons for the lack of female academicians in the country and elsewhere. Many women in the Philippines get first degrees — for example, 60 per cent of chemistry graduates are women — but few stay on to pursue careers in science.

“Women have greater opportunities here than in most Asian countries, but only 30 per cent of awardees [recipients of prestigious awards] are women,” says Cruz. “Sometimes you have to choose between career and family.” Cruz says this is one of the reasons she chose to remain single.

I’m estimating that the female senior faculty members of MSI are about 50/50 on the single versus married front. What I really want to know is out of the ones who are married, how many got married before getting their PhD versus those who married after getting the PhD. Why is this relevant?

Getting a PhD takes 6-7 years (maybe even longer) on top of the bachelor’s (and possibly a master’s) degree. You’d have to be very talented and determined to finish before you’re 30 years old. As Philippine society considers an unmarried 30-year-old female to be borderline “old maid”, with her chances of getting married decreasing exponentially with every year past 30, the “window of opportunity” for females to meet someone, start a relationship, and get married is between the ages of 21 and 29. For the women of Philippine science, this coincides with grad school – the years of your life where you’re too busy to do anything else.

Based on the people I know, female scientists who marry or otherwise have significant others either 1) met the guy during undergrad and they kept the relationship alive and healthy throughout grad school, or 2) met and dated a co-grad student (may or may not be in the same program). I’m not saying it’s impossible for a girl in grad school to nurture a relationship with someone who’s not in grad school. It’s just that people in the same boat as you tend to be more understanding when you say you can’t go out tonight because you have to finish looking at 2,000 more photographs from your transect. I give mad props to the people who stick with their grad students (whether male or female) through these tension-filled years. Remember: this is only the beginning! There’s also the tension to be had during grant-writing, manuscript-writing, and waiting for that tenure appointment 😛

I’m very happy to note that the “30-year-old finish line” is loosening its grip somewhat. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to get married and have your first baby before 30, but there shouldn’t be anything wrong with wanting to delay marriage for a few years in favor of a career either.

Ten lessons about writing that every scientist should learn (via Alternative Hypothesis)

I’m going to say something and it’s going to hurt: sometimes, scientists are not the greatest communicators. There, I said it. I’ve watched scientists I look up to give seminars on the importance of coral reef fish and throw around words like “pomacentrids”, “acanthurids”, and “scarids” (damselfishes, surgeonfishes, and parrotfishes to the non-science nerds) when their audience consisted of tourist guides, waiters, and cooks. This was a lost opportunity as their audience was genuinely interested in what they had to say. The goals of science (for me at least) are to 1) figure out how the world works, and 2) to share that information with everybody.

The post I’m reblogging is a list of 10 tips that scientists need to remember when writing. After all, our writing is a failure if no one can understand what we’re trying to say.

Ten lessons about writing that every scientist should learn... Yesterday, I spent the day at the horse races, taking in the pomp and pageantry of the biggest stakes card of the year. I find the racetrack fascinating, and not just in that girlish horse-crazy sense. For starters, it’s the only place I know where it is normal to see small men wearing outrageous colors and women wearing birds on their heads. Second, I love the wordplay of the racing form, with horse names like Two Horn Unicorn, Tiny Giant, We Ta … Read More

via Alternative Hypothesis