I am a forest ecologist and ecoservice enthusiast. You may be wondering, “What is ecoservice?” In a recent paper on the subject, Roberto Salguero-Gomez and others defined ecoservice as an activity other than research and teaching assistantships that increases the public’s environmental awareness. Ecoservice may include teaching K-12 students, volunteering at environmental organizations, or organizing workshops for the general public, but it always uses science to educate and engage others about the world around them.
Why I engage in ecoservice
Why am I such an ecoservice enthusiast? Because I care deeply about the environment and am passionate about creating a socially just planet. Of course, I view scientific research as an integral component in addressing many looming environmental issues (I am a scientist after all!), but I also feel that another big piece of the puzzle involves raising public awareness of environmental issues and increasing scientific literacy. It is critical that scientists communicate their knowledge about topics that may be viewed by the public as controversial but are not actually controversial among scientists, such as human-induced climate change and evolution.
Oftentimes we expect that communicating our scientific knowledge though publications in peer-reviewed journals and presentations at academic conferences is enough. Yet it is clear to me that this is not a sufficient method to communicate with the general public. A substantial percentage of the general populace in the United States and elsewhere have shunned some of the ideas and conclusions of science for cultural, political, or religious reasons. This has made it increasingly important for scientists to go out in their communities and interact with the public at a more intimate level. This allows scientists to better explain the nuances of their work and hopefully remove the political and cultural narratives from the subject.
I also feel that ecoservice is an effective way to increase social equity. For me, experiencing nature can contribute to both a greater sense of personal well-being and an appreciation of the environment. Yet disadvantaged inner-city youth often don’t have the opportunity to spend time outside of urban landscapes. These youth need encouragement and opportunities to become involved in the sciences. I volunteer with a local non-profit to take youth from low-income families on camping, hiking, and fishing trips. During these trips, I get to know the students well and am able to have one-on-one conversations about their plans after high school and answer questions about college and life as a scientist. I always enjoy these conversations and believe they open up these students’ eyes to other potential career paths.
You won’t hurt your scientific career by engaging in ecoservice
Too often, ecoservice is considered to come at a net cost to the ecoserver, which is why many young ecologists feel that they don’t have time or support from their department/advisor for ecoservice. Ecoservice can have many benefits to scientists. By engaging in ecoservice, scientists have the opportunity to step back and see their research and the impact it can have from a broader perspective. Ecoservice has expanded my scientific network and increased my communication skills, and I feel that would be true for almost any ecoserver. In addition, I don’t think an hour spent doing ecoservice is an hour of research lost. For me, participating in ecoservice activities is a refreshing break that enables me to be more efficient when I am doing research.
Let’s all hop on the ecoservice train
In order to motivate young ecologists to increase their ecoservice efforts, it is necessary to recognize and understand the myriad of benefits that result from participating in these activities. Departments and advisors need to be more supportive of the scientists and students who engage in ecoservice. In addition, it would be helpful to have more public recognition of these efforts through fellowships and prizes, such as the one currently awarded by the Ecological Society of America and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Awards such as these increase awareness of student engagement in ecoservice and encourage scientists to engage in ecoservice in their communities.
William F. Lawrence, a prominent scientist at James Cook University, sums it up with one of my favorite quotes about ecoservice:
“One of the keys to happiness in life is to have a personal mission –to believe in, and fight for, something bigger than yourself. In this sense, ecoservice can be enormously gratifying, helping to give you a sense of personal meaning that precious few enjoy.”
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.