What Conservationists Need to Know About Surveys

This post in the first of a new series entitled “The Basics of the Human Dimensions”, which gives the most basic tips for how to work with social scientists and social questions in marine conservation efforts. Whether you are the stakeholder, the collaborating natural scientist, or both, this series will hopefully make the journey into the human dimensions easier. 

Whether someone has emailed you a survey asking for your expert opinion on something or you would generally like to poll the audience of your research about their thoughts, the basic survey is often the first experience with social science one encounters. And yes, these surveys come in a wide variety of forms and quality, and you are right to judge and raise an eyebrow at them to a certain degree, whether that is out of sheer curiosity or justified skepticism. If you are on the side of wanting to deploy a survey, my best piece of advice would be to hire or consult with a survey writer, particularly if you’re not crystal clear on how the questions and the later statistical analysis will relate. But there’s some more subtle things you should know in dealing with surveys at all stages of the process.

When someone asks you to take a survey

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The disastrous feedback of what happens when fisheries funding dries up

Last week I had the good fortune of attending the NC Oyster Summit, hosted  by the NC Coastal Federation in the Museum of Natural Sciences. We talked about the wonders that oyster restoration and aquaculture development can do for water quality, economic development, and taste buds. We enjoyed the demonstration of ‘merriore’, or the taste of the sea that lends a particular flavor to each oyster that captures the ecosystem it grew in. Yet, the fact that stuck with me most is that despite all of these wonderful celebrations of the oyster for the health and well-being of NC’s coastal communities, funding cuts of around 40% to the Department of Marine Fisheries mean that a large portion of the Albemarle Sound remains closed to harvest or aquaculture because there are no staff to check those oysters for public health risks.

The “Administrative Closure” of the most northern stretches of the state’s prized Albemarle-Pamlico estuary system is a worrying precedent in many ways that highlight how leadership withdrawal of support for science can trickle down to real economic, environmental, and cultural harm.

Economic flight Read More

The words we use matter in climate change adaptation

In 2012, North Carolina outlawed climate change, receiving major press as the face of conservative climate policy. The intent of the law was to stop planning processes from basing their decisions on modeled climate change scenarios of the future, which would halt large investments in coastal development. But the letter of the law actually outlawed the sea from rising, and the new legislation met the American public as the face of many public jokes making North Carolinians look quite naive about the future changes in our ecosystem. The immediate response of state agencies was to follow the letter of the law and remove the phrase “climate change” from their websites, reports, and other public-facing documents.

This fits with the cultural understanding of climate change in much of North Carolina, where many do not believe that climate change is human-caused but instead what happens to our planet is directed by God. According to this philosophy, we should trust God to do what’s right for the planet instead of moaning about how sea level rise might take your house and put it in the ocean. The new law aligns with this resurgence of religious conservatives in state politics and the general notion that you don’t bring up climate change at the dinner table.

Yet, for years before this law and continuing after its enactment, the state and its residents continue to plan for sea level rise at a community or personal level. Residents are moving their houses inland, raising them on stilts, and reconsidering coastal purchases. According to research out of ECU, these residents are perfectly okay planning for sea level rise and discuss many of the effects of climate change freely over the dinner table or in the local newspaper.

from coastalcare.org When you're facing the ocean out your front door, sometimes the cause is not that important to decide to do something about it.

from coastalcare.org
When you’re facing the ocean out your front door, sometimes the cause is not that important to decide to do something about it.

To a scientist, like many readers of this blog, this logic may seem like the very definition of cognitive dissonance: how can you talk about sea level rise without bringing up its cause, global climate change and humans drastically altering the planet’s carbon cycle? Well, because to those who ascribe to the worldview that God caused the sea to rise, these concepts are not connected. However, if God is causing the sea to rise, there’s still good reason to plan on rising ocean waters, talk about adaptation, and lift the house. In the end, to someone seeking climate adaptation and community resilience, many families are reaching that goal through the belief they’re reacting to God’s challenge, not anthropogenic climate change. But the result is in many cases the same.

The ECU research in a nutshell highlights that you have to speak to members of the community, figure out what terms people are using for the effects of climate change, how they fit them into their worldview, and how to communicate about a changing globe in the context of that worldview. Heading straight for the politically contentious fight by using the wrong terms can take the options toward successful adaptation off the table. But there is another way. Rather than attacking someone’s worldview, understand it, talk within it, and get at the concepts through a different path. If we’re all a little more empathetic, we can create more resilient communities.

Forest Service Wants Commercial Photography Out of its Wilderness

Ansel Adams helped create what we now call American wilderness through his skillful photography – both his photographs and the places he used them to protect are national treasures. Recently, many of us were reminded of our country’s wilderness legacy through celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. For a quick reminder, the Act designated some of our federally-held lands as wilderness:

For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as “wilderness areas”, and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character, and for the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness.

Ansel Adams: The Tetons and the Snake River

Ansel Adams: The Tetons and the Snake River

Yet, along with this celebrated history, these recent discussions have also provoked a number of managers to utilize this strong piece of legislation to their political advantage – and dare I say, without keeping in the spirit of the law. Read More

Connecting the Town and Gown: Cooperative Extension

Over the last few months, I’ve seen a few efforts proposed to better connect universities to local community research needs. While whole practices and skill sets around participatory action research, community-based research, etc., exist, these don’t quite meet the need these recent proposals attempt to address. These proposals are not talking one faculty research program implementing participatory methods, they want a fundamentally different relationship between researchers and the community surrounding them – which, in many ways, gets back to the roots of many universities in the United States: land-grant universities.

In 1862 and 1890, the Morrill Acts granted land to create universities to focus on practical education: agriculture, science, military, and engineering. Students and faculty research from these institutions, in return, would advance important industries and changing social class relations. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 later extended the mission of these schools to extend the research results to users – creating the cooperative extension system. In short, science in service of society. Read More

Education and Experience are Not Mutually Exclusive: Job Market Pet Peeves

While looking at positions that allow me to jump off the sinking ship of academia, I’ve seen plenty of rewarding, fun, and excitingly challenging job announcements out there. Most of them require two to five years of experience in the field, and I’ve looked at those, said ‘yep, I qualify’, and turned in the application. I can’t say what happens after, but here’s the type of experience I thought I could safely check off, which met with a surprisingly negative response:

  • communicating complex technical issues to a diverse audience
  • social media and online outreach
  • project management
  • volunteer coordination
  • budget management
  • community engagement
  • mentoring and training employees
  • grant management and program development

When did I learn these tasks? In graduate school. And here’s where I can feel the doors shut on interest in my application. After applying for positions doing any one of the careers listed above, I’ve met the following responses many times: Read More

Pondering the disruption of crowdfunding: It’s not a panacea.

On my train to work, I routinely am requested to donate money multiple times (and not just by the homeless guy outside the station). One comes in the form of a new project with a homemade advertisement up in the train station – and in the corner is a ‘find us on Kickstarter!’ logo. I’m then asked by my regular podcast to support them through Maximum Fun through either a subscription or one-time support.  The author of the article I’m reading asks for support through Patreon. By the time I get to work, where I could potentially pull out my banking information and support any of these initiatives, I’m thinking less about actually doing so and more about the new phenomenon of crowdfunding, wondering how effective this new phenomenon is. Not to mention, there’s no way I can support all the wonderful creators that solicited me during my commute. Plus, I realize I’m beginning to tune out the requests.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a time and a place for crowdfunding. It can support a new business during its most vulnerable time and can provide small injections of funding when all you need is to test an idea. But it does best for people actually producing something and for ‘sexy’ topics of the day. Yet, indiscriminately choosing crowdfunding (or any other sort of funding) without consideration of which funding strategy is best can really hurt your cause, causing groups to shift their mission. So let’s think about the science of fundraising and how crowdfunding fits into a larger fundraising landscape. How is it changing the relationship between those who need support and the typical people who fund them? Read More

Good fish, bad fish: new draft FDA guidance considering mercury exposures

After years of scaring pregnant women away from fishy nutrition, the FDA is finally updating its recommendations to encourage them to eat 8-12  ounces of low-mercury fish a week. That’s 2 or 3 meals per week in order to support fetal growth and development. Curious about what fish are low mercury? Stay away from tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, swordfish, shark, and king mackerel and limit albacore tuna to 6 ounces a week. Better options include “some of the most commonly eaten fish such as shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish, and cod”. For locally caught fish, you should check with your local authorities. The new recommendations aren’t final – read the draft and write in if you want more information that would help you make safe and healthy seafood choices. Here’s some things you should consider. Read More

We need a different economic model for supporting conservation work. Here’s my story.

Many years ago, I was offered a job doing restoration work at a coal company while perusing festival booths in Fairbanks, Alaska. Still wearing my college-aged rose colored glasses, I was skeptical of working for conservation within industry, said thanks-but-no-thanks, and returned to upstate New York to finish my degree. Looking back, I honestly believe I could have enacted more positive change for the earth had I taken that job than I have in the almost decade since.

I recall this story because while at a recent all-volunteer biodiversity festival, a friend asked me ‘why can’t people do all this great work as their paid work?’ A group of us stood around silently for a few minutes, realizing that this question derived of innocent curiosity delved deep into issues of societal values, our current economic system, and conservation philosophy. In short, the answer is that because conservation brings in none of its own revenue, but depends on the tax money or philanthropy of others. When that dries up, no conservation careers are available. And even when they are, a high percentage of time on the job is spent looking for future funding through grants. Read More

Beaufort NOAA Lab Builds Community: It would be a huge loss to say goodbye

Hopefully many of our faithful readers have seen the sad announcement that the NOAA lab in Beaufort, NC may be no more. The main reason cited for the potential closure is financial – the cost of maintaining an aging building. Our friends over at the fisheries blog have written a sound debunking of this reasoning, also lamenting the loss of an institution over a century old and hub of fisheries research for the mid-Atlantic. In short, the Beaufort Lab represents a strong history of productive research, recent investment into infrastructure, and a critical part of a much larger marine science community in the region. It’s fair to say that the lab is the founding member and backbone of a marine science consortium  with the Rachel Carson National Estuarine Research Reserves, Duke University, NC State, the University of North Carolina, NC Division of Marine Fisheries, and Carteret Community College.

Beyond the institutions in a list, the Beaufort lab cements a broader community and economy of Carteret County, which is still largely based on fishing. While relations with the universities and state fisheries enforcement can sometimes be strained, NOAA rises above as a voice of reason and glue of collaboration around protecting our marine resources for food, economy, and society. If you believe me, there are steps you should take right now to voice your support for the lab by contacting local Congressional representation – those with the power to stop the closure: Congressman Walter Jones, Senator Kay Hagen, and Senator Richard Burr – and write a public comment to the House Committee currently reviewing the decision. For those who need a little more context and information, read on for some personal testimony demonstrating the value of the Beaufort lab I observed during my dissertation work in the area, which was focused on collaborative fisheries research. In a nutshell, I’ve observed how the Beaufort lab builds relationships between scientists and fishermen and therefore, indirectly, trust in NOAA. Read More