Academic engagement with Stephen Pacala

I had an interesting lunch today with Stephen Pacala, along with Fiona, Sam, and Bhavya (other biogeochemistry students at Cornell). Dr. Pacala has a pretty cool career – besides directing the Princeton Environmental Institute, he  works with Climate Central, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and serves on the Environmental Defence Fund board. He was at Cornell to speak about the terrestrial carbon sink – eventually honing in on whether we should expect trees to invest more in woody biomass vs. leaves and fine roots, as CO2 increases and N becomes limiting (or not!), and what that might mean for the global carbon cycle.

We discussed academic engagement over lunch at Manndible. Dr. Pacala has had lots of success with doing research that has an immediate impact, as well as asking some pretty basic ecological questions. (He used the term “Curiosity Parasite” [which I love!] to describe himself during his early work, and framed the more “applied” work he’s doing now as repaying the public for their previous support.) I’ve been dwelling on the intersections of academia and activism recently, after the subject came up at the Cornell Climate Change Forum last week. There’s this common thread, where scientists spend two decades or so establishing their career and their reputation, after which they feel comfortable taking action on important issues. Making sure my research is impeccable  is important to me, but I don’t think that is mutually exclusive from being active on the issues I care most about, and I’m definitely not interested in waiting until 2034 to start doing something about them. (It’s already too late for that.)

I’ve been thinking about this issue from two angles:

(1) What constitutes activism? Is it marching in a climate demonstration or taking part in civil disobedience?  Is it lobbying – or even just advising – policymakers on specific issues within your area of expertise? Is it pushing the edge of our knowledge with research questions with specific, direct implications, such as measuring the climate impact of fracking or attributing superstorm Sandy to climate change? Is it discussing the implications of your research with the public? I think depending on which activities we’re talking about, the “academic risk” varies substantially.

(2) From where is one’s credibility as a scientist derived? The quality of your research methods and the length of time you’ve been in your field clearly are important. I’d say funding sources have a big impact as well, especially in some people’s eyes. I’d like to hear from scientists who have had the integrity of their research or the impartiality of their opinions questioned – does it most often come from the public, from policy makers, or from fellow scientists? Are there situations where you would lose trust from one group, but strengthen it from another? I think understanding this part of the equation can help determine when actions from (1) would put your credibility at risk, and with whom.

Still, Dr. Pacala made the point that the most important factor is your ultimate measurable impact, not whether you’re following what someone thinks is the appropriate protocol. I think I’d like to run a discussion group / workshop on these issues, maybe later in the year.

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