What is Effective Science (Effective Scientist)?

I have such gratitude to be able to share my thoughts on the Tracking Change project in Brazil. Tracking Change, led by Dr. Brenda Parlee (University of Alberta), bridges science with local and indigenous knowledge to help inform governance structures. As a fisheries scientist, I have always strived to meet the top end of precision when studying aspects of global change, like the decline in freshwater fishes. If I need to analyze the water for contaminants, I send my samples to world class labs. If I need to sample fish, I think about gear selectivity, habitat structure and potential bycatch. I think about calibration standards, replication of samples, and all other sources of bias that may jeopardize my sample, even if only by a small fraction. I take pride in writing my detailed results to other academics in high impact journals, or describing at conferences around the globe. Taking part in Tracking Change has really changed my mentality about “what is effective science” or perhaps more importantly “how can I be a more effective scientist”. As an applied scientist, I strive for my research to help change the world for the better.
As part of Tracking Change in Brazil I have watched as fisheries scientists, like Renato Silvano and Gustavo Hallwass and their teams, listen and talk to local and indigenous people to understand their issues. I was skeptical about this approach at first. People are fallible in many ways. We can easily over or under estimate things, just someone in a car accident how long it took for emergency response to arrive. This skepticism may be warranted at an academic level, seeing the interviews first hand really changed my perspective into the greater purpose of research. Who better to inform your research than the people who are affected by it? The people in many of the local communities in the Amazon were extremely knowledgeable about the fish species, their habitats, behaviours and trends through time. Further the engagement aspect of interacting with the communities was really positive.Each community welcomed us with open arms and many of the stories were very powerful.  This experience of discussing issues with local and indigenous people I found to be very informative. I was especially inspired by the dedication our Brazilian team took in returning to communities to share the results of their previous research. The communities were very grateful for the information. In one case, we were invited into a grade 1-4 classroom and the kids asked us questions. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
After these experiences, I see how biased my training and mentality have been. In my academic position, I am rewarded for my high precision, high impact journal publications, that few may read, least of all the people who are impacted by the results. There are many reasons for this, too long to get into, but in short academia does not reward academics for spending my time engaging with local and indigenous people, or sharing their results with them. In the rush to publish, we often lose the importance of our research to the people that are most effected. The truth is, the highly competitive nature of science has left many (including my former self) disengaged with those on the ground. For scientists to be effective they need to not only understand the high precision lab environment, but they need to understand how the results impact local communities. I found the engagement portion of this trip to, dare I say, life changing. I hope that I can live up to the task of being an effective scientist. For me to do so, I need to make more an effort to get out of the office/lab and get back to engaging with people. This isn’t to say that all research/researchers are inadequate. There is a need for people working tirelessly in labs, or conducting important theoretical work. As an applied ecologist, this trip has reemphasized thatI need to ensure that my science reflects not only the data I collect, but the people who are effected, and ensure that I am communicated with and between the two. I think that might be a good lesson for academia as well.
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