Lessons learned in not being "such a scientist"


Cheryl Chetkiewicz
Director, Indigenous Communities and Conservation


Conservation planning



Some months ago, in a meeting with First Nations leaders, I was asked what the difference between a reindeer and caribou was.

Pleased at this invitation to share my knowledge, I naturally launched into a concise speech about their genetics being the same even though behaviourally they were quite different. Since I had completed a Masters of Science on reindeer ecology, I felt I was, in fact, a bit of an expert in this area. When I was politely told it was because reindeer could fly, I knew I'd been caught talking like a scientist in public again.

I became a scientist for a number of reasons, including a desire to create positive change by sharing my love and understanding of the natural world with other people. My professional training did a great job of teaching me the research skills needed to help answer questions about nature, how to write scientific publications, and how to critique others’ scientific work. Yet, academia didn't do a very good job of preparing me to communicate the importance of protecting nature to people who were not scientists. In reality, the scientific research is probably the most straightforward part of the whole process. But ultimately for us to be able to inspire others to love and care for nature, it is not enough. We must find ways to change human behaviours, including our own, and a scientific presentation or a paper are not very useful tools for engaging the public or, in some cases, the decision makers. As Dr. Randy Olson says in his book, "Don't Be Such a Scientist", if you want real change, you have to be able to speak to people's hearts, guts and sex organs.

I live near and work in a very special part of Canada: Ontario’s Far North. What makes it so special? It covers 452,000 km2 - nearly half the area of Ontario - and is larger than Newfoundland and Labrador. It also contains the world’s largest continuous area of boreal forest free from industrial development, making it a globally significant landscape. There are few intact places like this left on our planet. Together with wetlands and peatlands, the Far North’s forests make up the world’s single greatest storehouse of carbon – and as long as it's stored, it is part of the solution to slowing down climate change. The region is a stronghold for a number of species-at-risk including woodland caribou, wolverine, and lake sturgeon. Ontario’s Far North is also a home to Indigenous Peoples - First Nations - who have lived here for millennia. First Nations communities' close ties to the land are a foundation for their worldviews, as well as the spiritual and cultural values that have contributed to maintaining this unique place.

In 2010, the Government of Ontario passed the Far North Act to protect at least 50% of the region. The Act created a framework for land use planning in the area, which should help sort through various mounting pressures from existing projects like mines and new development projects that will demand all-weather roads and powerlines. These considerations are especially important in the Ring of Fire, a part of Northern Ontario that is world-class deposit of minerals such as nickel and chromite.

Unfortunately, the current land-use planning processes and the way that government approves industrial projects in this landscape do not work together or at a scale that can address the impacts of multiple development projects - known as cumulative effects (learn more about cumulative effects and their impacts on the region in our report A Fork in the Road) - especially under changing climate conditions. This challenge with planning processes affects not only the environment, but the long-term social and economic prosperity of First Nations and other Ontarians.

For the last year, I've been working on a report about Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA), which is a regional planning process that thinks about the future of the region in a more comprehensive and inclusive way compared to current planning tools. SEA considers the future of the people that live there (First Nations) as well as those that are responsible for the landscape (First Nations and governments), and creates a regional planning framework that considers new development projects in a better way. To create the SEA report, I reviewed close to a hundred scientific publications and reports and read a few books. I talked to experts who were practicing and writing about SEA. The report was a collaboration between WCS Canada and Ecojustice. Dr. Anastasia Lintner, an environmental lawyer, ensured the legal context and analyses were accurate. I worked with other EA and SEA practitioners to bring together compelling examples from other parts of the Canada and the world to illustrate how SEA has been successfully applied. I wrote at least three drafts before sharing a version with six well-respected, mainly scientific, experts and practitioners on the subject of environmental assessment. The result was a 100-page document detailing the context, legal framework, and the need for regional planning in the Far North. As I revised it one last time, I found myself thinking that with all these details and facts, it would be impossible for anybody (read: decision maker) to fail to recognize the importance and need for this approach in the Far North. Grateful to be nearly done, I sent the draft off to the editor.

The feedback was sobering. The editor highlighted my "dispassionate and detailed" writing coupled with a healthy dose of "throat clearing" - long, introductory sentences that, while factually correct, delay getting to the point for the lay reader. As a well-schooled scientist, I had forgotten my audience and slipped comfortably into my science-speak. I recalled Randy Olson’s advice: don't be so cerebral, don't be so literal minded, be a storyteller, and be more likeable in both what you say and how you say it. With the guidance from the editor, I re-worked the main parts of the report, focusing on the audience as best I could. It’s probably still far from perfect, but now more likely to reach a reader who is not an expert in the field and may be a decision maker in the region. I'd welcome your thoughts too!For a scientist like myself, the Muddy Boots blog offers a great place to try different ways to inspire others to care for nature. This is timely because our organization, WCS, is developing a new strategic plan to guide our work through 2020. One of our core strategies is to "inspire" people to care about wildlife and wild places. How can something like strategic environmental assessment be inspiring? While it was important to have a scientific approach to conducting the research and bringing the information together in some form - I chose a report - communicating the value of this work requires a different set of skills, skills that require us to tell a story about our role and the importance of our work in taking care of nature. For myself, this has been a very rewarding personal journey. I just have find different ways to share this story without sounding like such a scientist!

Reindeer - an Enduring Holiday Icon - Face Increasing Threats

Reindeer - an Enduring Holiday Icon - Face Increasing Threats

Reindeer are an enduring and beloved Christmas icon
Justina Ray