Conservation Commons

Positivity Has a Voice in Science

The Smithsonian's Earth Optimism Summit was a 3-day global live-streamed event that took place on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 2020, through April 24.
The Smithsonian's Earth Optimism Summit was a 3-day global live-streamed event that took place on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 2020, through April 24.

When Dr. Nancy Knowlton, the thought-leader behind the Earth Optimism movement, was invited to give a lecture for one of my courses at George Mason University, I initially treated it as just another three hours of time in my day. Like any busy student, I arrived having done little prior research beyond what was assigned for the class. What followed instead was a refreshing take on conservation research science, how we view our work, and how we translate it to the public. Dr. Knowlton’s lecture changed how I viewed my own work and inspired me to volunteer to give a lightning talk at the 2020 Earth Optimism Digital Summit. She instilled in me a drive to be greater than the publications I submit for peer review and to focus on communicating to the public what success in research can look like.

Science is a blunt instrument. A tool that we, as researchers, wield and shape to answer a question. Yet, inherent in the process is the gradual progression of research. We accrue more and more evidence in support of our hypotheses, and when there is a substantial amount of consistently repeated results, we consider field applications. I have always appreciated this systematic approach to answering questions about the amazingly complex world we live in. However, at times it feels like this methodical march towards the possible moves too slowly.

Dr. Knowlton recognized in her talk that within our field, there is a consistent sense of existential dread that can easily encroach into our work. Working with species listed on the IUCN Red List can bias us towards a pessimistic view of the world. Suddenly the scientific method seems to move at a snail's pace. I find myself fighting the nagging sense of dread that carries with it the inevitable question, "what if they go extinct on my watch"? I can't help but dread a day when children must go to museums to see skeletons of elephants next to mammoths, or cheetahs next to saber-tooth tigers.

Dr. Knowlton highlighted how these problems can be "sticky." We often use this to our advantage when writing grants or communicating the importance of our work to the public because it leaves a lasting impression. She, very rightly, warns that there is a thin balance between translating the urgency of these problems and risking the rise of apathy for seemingly insurmountable issues. We so very often publish our successes but fail to follow up with an approachable format for the general public. Dr. Knowlton's work utilizing a global social platform like Twitter was encouraging for me because it represents a success story of a scientist reaching the public in a positive and meaningful way.

In my classes, I often feel as though the science communications students are so much more equipped to disseminate information – and they are. However, Dr. Knowlton represents an example of how we can support them. She demonstrates that a next-generation scientist must recognize that to succeed, we must not only be competent researchers but also be willing to communicate our success to the public in a positive light.

Her enthusiasm during this lecture inspired me to volunteer to give a lightning talk at the 2020 Earth Optimism Digital Summit. She instilled in me a spark of optimism. Optimism for a future where positivity can come from publications and scientists can work together with communications professionals to disseminate their research to a curious public. I want to aspire to be greater than the publications I submit for peer review. I'm ashamed to admit, but incredibly proud to say, that this will be my first step towards achieving that goal. However, after listening to Dr. Knowlton's success and seeing her optimism, I'm determined that this will not be my last.

Robert is a comparative stress physiologist and research fellow under Dr. Janine Brown at the Center for Species Survival at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. He is also currently earning his PhD in Environmental Science and Public Policy working with Dr. Scott Glaberman at George Mason University. He was a speaker for the 2020 Earth Optimism Digital Summit Student Lightning Talks.