A Bunch of Cool Things I Learned at the World Conference of Science Journalists

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About a week ago, I returned from the World Conference of Science Journalists, which was held in San Francisco. Although the coolest thing was seeing that there are so many of us doing science journalism in so many countries (more than 1,300 attended from seventy-three countries) — some of whom are the type who wear DNA double helix earrings — I learned many other interesting things during the five days of sessions.

Here are the highlights:

  • In writing a profile about a scientific woman, remember that, “If you wouldn’t say it about a male scientist, don’t say it about a woman scientist.” This applies to factors like cooking prowess, childcare arrangements, familial relationships, etc. This should go without saying, but apparently, some journalists don’t know this yet!
  • The current anti-science political climate makes our profession more important than ever. (Ron Winslow, National Association of Science Writers).
  • The term “climate disruption” is preferable to the term “climate change.” (John Holdren, Harvard).
  • “I love science because it can improve the human condition. The current absence of trust in science threatens this.” (Susan Desomond-Hellmann, Gates Foundation). She also said that skepticism of science is okay. Denialism is not. Science journalists and scientists need to re-establish confidence by being credible.
  • “Our oceans are our lives.” (Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia). Sixty percent of the world population lives within sixty km of the coast. Fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe is generated by the ocean.
  • Most of the extra heat generated by climate change is going into the ocean (93%). (Malin Pinsky, Rugters University). He also said that ocean animals are moving ten times faster than land animals to new areas in response to climate changes.
  • Some solutions to overfishing: use algal oil in animal feed instead of fish oil. Consume lower on the food chain. (Julie Thayer, Farallon Institute).
  • The arctic is a hotspot for ocean acidification. Unfortunately, with climate disruption, it’s also where most of the fish are moving in general. (Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia).
  • There’s a relationship between climate disruption and human violence. (Solomon Hsiang, Berkeley). It can take fifteen years for economic recovery to start happening after only twelve hours of a hurricane. Hurricane Maria undid twenty-six years of economic development in Puerto Rico. “The only thing more destructive is a nuclear bomb.”
  • It would only take three hours for the water supply for the reservation near Standing Rock in the Dakotas to be impacted by an oil spill, given the current location of the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Phil McKenna, InsideClimate).
  • UC Berkeley has twenty-nine libraries, and some have interesting specialties. There’s a “no-technology” one (put those phones away!) There’s one where it’s okay to talk. There’s one for meditation. There’s even a “food-is-okay” one.
  • There’s a way to verify carbon dioxide emission levels of different countries. It’s called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. (Inez Fung, UC Berkeley). The levels of U.S. emissions are lower than those of China and Europe.
  • A lack of wild fish can have harmful impacts on us humans, including slavery and an increase in HIV. See the full story on my work blog, here. (Justin Brashares, UC Berkeley).
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A Vision of Abundance

Alexandra Cousteau

Alexandra Cousteau

Like many baby boomers, I could be found on Sunday evenings in the 1970s, cozied up to the television, watching a gnarly red-capped Frenchman exploring the depths of the ocean. The opening music to “The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau” — full of violins and trumpets, with a playful xylophone riff — conveyed a sense of adventure and wonder that was unmatched by any other television show at the time.

The series inspired me to pursue a career as a marine biologist. Although that did not come to pass, I write about aquatic science, which is just about as good.

Like many young girls who watched the program, I had a crush on Cousteau’s son, Philippe. His other son, Jean-Michel, was okay, but Philippe – oooh la la! I was devastated when he died in an aircraft crash. And I thought Calypso crewman Falco had the coolest name.

Even as a poor college student, I donated money to the Cousteau Society and followed their adventures after the television show no longer aired.

So it was inevitable that I attended a talk last week by Philippe’s daughter, Alexandra. She was the keynote speaker at a celebration in Superior, Wisconsin, for the Lake Superior Research Institute.

The leggy blonde, whose mother was a model, is coming into her own as an icon for water issues. She founded a water organization, called Blue Legacy International, and was honored by the National Geographic Society as an Emerging Explorer.

Her talk centered on the theme of the importance of conservation and sustainable management of water for a healthy planet. However, Cousteau doesn’t like the word “sustainable.” She thinks that to most people, it means they must sacrifice something to achieve it, and that what is achieved is only marginal, not like things were before environmental problems happened.

The status of the oceans before humans started impacting it was one of abundance – huge schools of fish, giant pods of dolphins, a bay covered with oysters. Cousteau argued that we should have a vision of abundance instead of one of meager sustainability. It’s something people can be more enthused about and it’s an easier concept to imagine.

Given the realities of human abundance on the planet, this may be a pipe dream. But what a happy pipe dream!

Cousteau also thinks we focus too much on the environmental problems that exist and not on the vision we want to achieve. She gave the example of a tip from her downhill ski instructor, who told her not to look at the trees while she was skiing. “Because that’s where you’ll end up.” He advised her to focus instead on where she wanted to go.

Since I had just listened to a talk about sustainability by Andrew Revkin, I found Cousteau’s concept of abundance intriguing. I think those two should get together and compare notes, if they haven’t already!

I didn’t have my notebook with me, so am writing this all from memory. Two other things that struck me were her story about a child who was banned from watching the Cousteau TV show, and her story about how she learned scuba diving from her grandfather, Jacques.

Cousteau said that people usually gush about her grandfather’s television show (much like I did at the beginning of this post). But a man who attended one of her talks said he would get too excited by impending peril in the underwater adventures. When Cousteau would enter a cave filled with sharks, the boy would jump up and down on the couch, yelling at the divers not to go into the cave. He’d end up hyperventilating every episode until his parents took matters in hand and banned him from watching the show. Funny!

Cousteau said she learned how to swim before she could walk. At age seven, Jacques decided she was old enough to learn how to scuba dive (a technology he invented). As she sat on the edge of the boat, getting used to the regulator in her mouth and the gear on her body, she decided she didn’t like it. She was about to tell Jacques that she didn’t want to do it when he gave her a little push, and into the water she went. The undersea world has captivated her ever since.

Cousteau’s talk ended with a question and answer session. One of the last questions came from a tearful fifteen-year-old. She said that the students in her high school were all pessimistic and hopeless about the environment. She wanted to know how to offer them hope.

After taking a moment to compose herself, Cousteau, who was tearing up too, offered stories about things that are making the environment better. But perhaps, sensing the inadequacy of this in the light of teenage angst, offered to continue the conversation with the girl through her web site.

By now, most of the crowd was wiping away tears, including the director of the Lake Superior Research Institute, who closed the session in a choked voice.

Like her grandfather, this Cousteau has the ability to move people with her storytelling. I hope she inspires a whole ‘nother army of marine biologists and aquatic scientists. And a whole bunch of people who can tell the story of the environment, showing us where to go without crashing into the trees along the way.

8 Steps Toward Sustainability

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Andrew Revkin, playing a right-handed guitar left-handed.

Former New York Times environmental reporter, Andrew Revkin, spoke in my neighborhood yesterday. I meandered over to hear him because he’s an acquaintance of mine and because I just think he’s cool. Little did I know he would offer ideas for making our world more sustainable, plus end his talk with a song!

His talk was part of a Peace & Justice series put on by the Alworth Center at the College of St. Scholastica. Currently the senior environmental reporter at the independent investigative newsroom ProPublica, Andy specializes in the topics of climate change, the Amazon rainforest, and sustainable development.

I met Andy years ago when I took part in a week-long science writing workshop put on by the New York Times in Santa Fe. He was my small group leader. He offered critiques on our stories and gained inspiration from us for new topics to cover for his beat.

One morning, he was reading a copy of the Times and railing at some edits made to his story. I recall being so tickled that even reporters at a venerable institution like the Times are at the mercy of their editors.

At the end of the week, we gathered for an outdoor barbeque and Andy strummed his guitar and sang for us. (He has accompanied the likes of Pete Seeger.) I added to the mix, singing the only song I have memorized, an old revolutionary war folksong called Katy Cruel.

Andy even offered to write me a letter of recommendation for my journalism grad school application, so he has a special place in my heart, and I couldn’t miss an opportunity to hear him again.

Many people don’t know that when Andy started his career, he wanted to be a marine biologist. I can’t recall the specifics, but he was working on a project about “Man and the Sea,” in a far-flung location like New Zealand, when he got distracted by an offer to crew a sailboat that was sailing the world. He joined the crew and spent a year-and-a-half at sea, broadening his literal and figurative horizons.

20170928_192357He explained all this during his talk (called “Ending Life as we Knew it”), and showed a photo that he took during his sailing travels of a modest shop in a small town that had piles of leopard skins stacked outside it for sale. This got him thinking about the sustainability of our species on the planet. In hopes of changing peoples’ attitudes toward the world in which they (we) live, he turned to journalism and started covering environmental issues.

Andy refers to climate change and sustainability as “super wicked” problems that will only be solved with multi-pronged approaches, including on the most difficult battlefield, which is inside peoples’ minds.

He offered eight strategies as a recipe for society to become more sustainable:

  • BEND. This deals with resilience. We need to learn how to live on the land in a way that takes current and future landscape changes in to account. Andy offered an example of an ocean island that is all built out. If the island had some undeveloped land around its edges, it would be less vulnerable and more adaptable to sea level changes.
  • STRETCH. We need to stretch our brains to think differently about things like land use planning and to think ahead to what conditions might be like in the future.
  • REACH. This deals with communication. We need to let people know what’s happening with their world in a way that reaches them. I thought Andy’s talk was a good example of this. He didn’t just present a bunch of facts/figures and scary graphs. He told his story and got the audience’s emotions involved.
  • TEACH our children and ourselves more sustainable ways of living.
  • REVEAL. This involves calling attention to hidden problems. Andy used the example of heat or gasses being emitted from a factory, which could only be seen with a special camera. This example reminded me of the underwater camera that was pointed at the BP oil spill gushing out of the pipe in the Gulf of Mexico. Things like that get people’s attention and lead to quicker action.
  • REFLECT. Get scientists together to cooperate on problems and give them time to reflect on solutions.
  • REJOICE. Relish the gift of life and our humanness.
  • REPEAT. Keep doing all these things over and over in a disciplined manner (like “lather, rinse, repeat”). Keep retesting systems and examining conventional ways of thought.

20170928_194201Andy said when he asked a prominent scientist what it would take to solve the issue of mankind’s sustainability, he was surprised when the man didn’t offer a lot of numbers and charts. Instead, the man said that sustainability will take “a miracle of love and unselfishness to solve” if we are to survive as a species.

Andy ended his speech by grabbing his guitar and singing a tongue-in-cheek song about how “liberating carbon” is the American way.

Let’s stop liberating that carbon people, and let’s keep thinking about how our actions affect the planet. And maybe, just maybe, things will get better.

Hope for Sea Grant

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The Mexico–United States barrier at the border of Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, USA. The crosses represent migrants who died in the crossing attempt. Some identified, some not. Image credit: © Tomas Castelazo, http://www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The federal funding situation is looking up for the provider of my livelihood, despite President Trump’s wishes. As you may recall from a previous post, I work as a writer for a state branch of the National Sea Grant College Program. Basically, Sea Grant provides federal money to university researchers to explore and protect our oceans, lakes, and rivers.

My job is to explain what the researchers find to the taxpayers who fund the program. (Which is most of you who are reading this.) I do this through storytelling, and my stories are published on our program’s website, blog, newsletter, news releases, etc.

President Trump proposed drastic cuts to the rest of our 2017 budget, and he zeroed out the program in his proposed 2018 budget to Congress. He thinks the money spent on our program would serve the country better if it went toward building a wall along the entire Mexican border.

Sea Grant’s 2017 budget was spared because Trump agreed to delay his push for wall money until the 2018 budget battle. Congress passed a continuing resolution for 2017, meaning that our funding remained steady. Thus, I still have my job!

I am very thankful for that, and very thankful for all the support I’ve heard for the program from my federal representatives, community, friends, and fellow bloggers.

Preparations for the 2018 federal budget have begun, and I have good news to report on that front, also. At the end of June, a House of Representatives subcommittee met to develop their version of the budget for the departments of Justice, Science, and Commerce (of which Sea Grant is a part). Their budget bill keeps Sea Grant’s funding at its current level.

According to the director of my program, who is ‘in the know’ about such things, this is a big deal because the House is typically the group that lowers budgets. Their rejection of the President’s recommendation to zero out our program is a crucial first step in the 2018 budget process.

The budget process isn’t over yet, but this news made all of us Sea Granters breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy celebrating the nation during the recent 4th of July weekend a lot more. It’s good to know that at least part of the government supports the work we do, even if the leader of the nation doesn’t.

Onward!

The Fox is Guarding the Henhouse in America

It was with great dismay that I read about the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator’s removal of nine members of from its scientific review board. The board in question (the Board of Scientific Counselors, or BOSC for short) is one of two that help the agency determine what issues need its attention and funding.

The dismissals hit close to home because I used to be on the BOSC. From 2010-2013 I served as a communications advisor to the EPA on this board.

I know, you’re looking at me and saying, “Really – you?” Yes me. I know I don’t seem like a high-powered research scientist because I am so fun, witty, and seemingly non-scientific. And besides, I get chased by turkeys and attacked by squirrels. But YES, I really was appointed to this influential federal committee not long ago.

The main point I tried to make to the EPA during my tenure was that they didn’t have public communications components to their programs, and that they needed them. I suspect this is one reason why more people aren’t even more upset about some of the changes President Trump has recently made or proposed for the agency. People don’t understand what the agency really does (other than fining corporations for pollution violations), so they don’t understand the significance of Trump’s actions.

Yesterday’s New York Times article says that administrator Pruitt plans on replacing the ousted members with people who represent industries that are regulated by the EPA. Pruitt spokesman, J. P. Freire said, “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.”

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My favorite name tag mistake of all time came from one of my BOSC meetings. The name tag makers just assumed I was a Ph.D. because everyone else on the committee is a Ph.D. Alas, I am only a “master.”

This almost sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But think about it. These people will be in a position of power to change things. Maybe they don’t like all the regulations their corporations are subject to. Gee, maybe they could fix that.

Let’s say the EPA is like a bank — a bank made up of natural resources, if you will. Corporations use natural resources to make their products. The EPA is in charge of protecting the health of natural resources – rather like how a bank vault protects the money from bank robbers. Take the vault away, and what do you have? Free money for bank robbers!

Allowing corporations to control the agency that regulates natural resources is like allowing bank robbers on the board of trustees for your bank. I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound like a very good idea to me. It’s the old “fox guarding the henhouse” deal.

Write your congressional representatives, please. Write letters to the editor. Bang on a drum. March in the streets. I’m going to.

Then I’m going to take all my money out of the bank and bury it in the back yard.

You Know it’s Bad When the Scientists are Marching

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Marchers for Science in Duluth, Minn.

Last weekend I marched with about 1,200 other people along the shores of Lake Superior in support of science. This was a cause I could easily get behind since I work for a water science research organization (Please refer to my previous post, “Why Sea Grant is a Kick-Ass Program (And Not Just Because I Work There)”).

I walked with a few other Sea Granters and recognized many of the researchers our organization funds among the crowd. It was encouraging seeing so many people upholding the value that science brings to our society and supporting full federal funding for scientific programs.

20170422_082249The sign I made for the march said, “Without Science, Life Itself Would be Impossible!” Does that ring a bell with anyone? I wanted something unique, but maybe it was a bit too unique.

I meant it as a play on a terribly blatant propaganda campaign that Monsanto ran in the 1970s in support of the idea of manmade chemicals. Their slogan was, “Without Chemicals, Life Itself Would be Impossible.” It featured a cute Aryan-haired little boy and his doggie. Surely, Monsanto-produced chemicals are just as harmless as this adorable duo. (NOT!)

Monsanto chemicals adI figured only people alive in the 1970s might “get” my sign. I tested a few of my age-appropriate friends as we made our way to the march, but nobody spontaneously recalled the Monsanto campaign. After explaining it, a few remembered, but they did not immediately start applauding my brilliance. I suspect they just thought my sign was saying that medical science is important to human life. That’s okay. My friend had a sign that was as obvious as mine was obtuse. Hers said “Marching for Science.”

You know these events are all about the signs. If you have a boring sign or one that people can’t understand, you might as well stay home.

While sitting on a bench waiting for the march to start, I was mulling over the lameness of my sign when I noticed a TV news crew filming it from afar as it rested on the ground propped up against the bench legs. Maybe it was my sign’s pretty colors or maybe it was the pithy message – anyway, it lured the reporter and cameraman over to our small group. The reporter asked if she could interview us for a story. My friend, her mother, and I readily agreed.

Little did the news crew know, but they had stumbled into a nest of trained media relations professionals. We were able to espouse our key messages and put in a plug for Sea Grant. We ended up being the only ones interviewed for their story. (Which turned out pretty well, given that it was Fox News.)

What didn’t get into the story was my friend Sharon’s explanation about her year-long climate change art project, “Penguins with a Purpose.” She’s a ceramic artist and after the presidential election, decided to put her skills and frustration to use by making large clay penguins to draw attention to one of the issues the president is trying to silence, namely, climate change.

Her goal is to make 100 penguins by the end of the year, which she will sell and donate part of the proceeds to climate science and policy. Each penguin is unique and has a purpose.

She carried one of her heavy penguins for the whole march. We saw dozens of people we knew and had many side conversations along the way. Even though the march took energy, I completed it feeling energized by the crowd.

For now, hopeful noises are coming out of Washington D.C. that my Sea Grant colleagues and I will still have our jobs after next week. It’s sounding like Congress will pass a continuing resolution on the budget for the rest of the year instead of going with President Trump’s plan to fund his wall on the Mexican border with the entire Sea Grant budget (and those of other agencies).

This may just delay the wall-funding issue until the next budget cycle at the end of the year, but it’s comforting to think we’ll have our jobs for a few more months. Thank you to everyone who’s written their Congressperson. Every little bit helps.

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Standing strong for science in Duluth.

Why Sea Grant is a Kick-Ass Program (And Not Just Because I Work There)

Wi Point Ladies 2016 003We interrupt all these dreams of Aruba to insert some harsh (but hopefully entertaining and educational) reality. You may recall from my recent pancake recipe posting that President Trump has zeroed out the National Sea Grant Program that I work for in his proposed budget for 2018.

If that weren’t worrisome enough, he just recently he proposed drastic cuts to Sea Grant and other environmental and health and human services programs in 2017 in order to find funds to build the wall between Mexico and the U.S. You remember his beloved wall, don’t you? The one that Mexico was supposed to pay for (and like it)?

If Congress grants his request, Sea Grant would be gone – maybe as soon as May or August of this year, and I will be out of a job.

Maybe you’re wondering what a “Sea Grant” is. Sea Grant is a kick-ass program that funnels federal money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to universities in 33 states across the U.S. The money goes to university researchers for water studies and to people like me who let taxpayers know about the research results through the media and through other local communications outlets.

Our staff and researchers also develop tools that people can use for things like growing fish, protecting their towns from a messed-up climate, keeping invasive animals and plants out of their local lake, fixing up polluted swimming beaches, making seafood safe to eat and water safe to drink.

UWI_SeaGrant_logo_cyanI work as a writer for the Sea Grant program in Wisconsin. Why is there an ocean program in Wisconsin, you ask? Because the Great Lakes are the freshwater equivalent of oceans (Sweetwater Seas). As water sources for millions of people and home to one of the world’s largest economies, it makes sense to pay attention to the Great Lakes and to put money into understanding them and protecting them.

Nationally, Sea Grant has been around for over fifty years. The federal dollars ($67.3 million) that come into the states are matched by the universities.

One reason it’s a kick-ass program is that in 2015 alone, the work done nationally with these dollars led to an 854% economic return on investment (Turned $67.3 million into $575 million in the communities in which we work). I bet none of President Trump’s business ventures have provided such a huge impact. Seems like a bad idea to cut such a successful program.

We’ve restored over 127,000 acres of degraded ecosystems. We trained almost 2,000 people how to keep seafood safe to eat. We offered about 900 classes to people living on coastlines on how to improve their community’s resilience to storms. We also supported training and funding for 2,000 students who are the next generation of water scientists.

In Wisconsin alone, our programs save lives. Our Sea Caves Watch program, which warns kayakers about wave conditions in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has prevented deaths. Since it went online about seven years ago, no deaths have happened. Before, there was about one death every year. Seven people might not seem like a lot – but every person counts!

Last year, a boater who saw our video about “ghost nets” (abandoned nets lost in the lake) and how to get out of them without capsizing, remembered what the video said when his boat got into a tangle. He credits Wisconsin Sea Grant for saving his life.

In Wisconsin, we also fund a program that helps children who are going through rough times by getting them into the water and taking pictures. The underwater photography program has changed the lives of many of them, and their photos are good enough to be in public displays and even a book. Read the children’s testimonials in the book. They will make you cry!

We find cures to fish diseases. We created over 5,000 jobs during the past two years. We helped almost 12,000 anglers or aquaculture people. We helped find out what was causing the steel pilings in the Duluth-Superior Harbor to corrode (and won a national award for it). Through our sister program, the Water Resources Institute, we are changing how the state warns people about the chemical strontium in their drinking water.

If I lose my job, I can’t take any more nice vacations and write about them for your benefit. I also will be so busy finding a job that I won’t be able to write my blog any more, or my fiction.

So, if you give a rip, please email your Congressperson right away. Tell them to reject the Administration’s proposal in the Fiscal Year 2017 Security Supplemental that would cut the National Sea Grant College Program by $30 million. Also, please ask them to reject the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 proposal to zero out and terminate the Sea Grant program (for all the reasons I’ve just mentioned).

I had an interesting discussion with someone at my church about President Trump. She said she was finding it very hard to love him in a spiritual sort of way. I told her that I don’t like what Trump stands for, but I do like that he’s making us fight for what’s important. It’s definitely not politics as usual.

The only weapons I have to fight this with are my words. I hope you will join your words with mine to preserve a program that makes much more sense for this country than a wall with Mexico. For more information, please see the Sea Grant Association’s website (FY 2017 and FY 2018 documents).

Thank you for your support. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.