How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

Remembering Jonathan Higgins

The best keep surprising you, even after they’re gone. So it is with Jonathan Higgins, a scientist and conservationist who worked at The Nature Conservancy for 27 years and who died in late July at age 64 after what seemed like a battle for half his life with cancer.

Jonathan was a singular life force — crass, hilarious, intensely combative, thrillingly (and sometimes embarrassingly) outspoken and, at the end of all of it, kind and life changingly generous to an endless number of people in conservation and beyond. The Conservancy’s science website, Cool Green Science, has now published short tributes to Jonathan from eight of his colleagues (including myself), touching on what he meant to science, conservation, The Nature Conservancy and, in every case, our own lives.

I learned a lot from these tributes about Jonathan — particularly about his crucial contributions to thinking about and developing freshwater conservation planning worldwide. But it wasn’t until I sat down to write my tribute to him that I realized something about our relationship — how crucial my experiences as Jonathan’s editor back when we both worked at The Nature Conservancy had been to developing my idea of the public expert as a role, opportunity and discipline apart from expertise per se. Jonathan was so proud of being a first-rate scientist, but unlike most scientists he took his advocacy for change based on science seriously as well. In him and other scientists I worked with at TNC, I began to see the struggle and the necessity for scientists to have clear pathways to make change in the world without that change-making contradicting their identities as scientists and experts. I opened up channels and training for that change-making, but at the time it just felt like a thing I needed to do to get a job done. Now I see it for what it is: a thing the world needs.

Below, the tribute I wrote for Jonathan. I recommend the others — they are wonderful.

Truth is a Habit

In 2010, when I became TNC’s director of science communications, one of my assignments was to take over editing Science Chronicles, the old TNC Science newsletter. Chronicles was a scruffy little monthly, written by TNC scientists for each other — but it was also read closely by TNC’s CEO and half the board and executive team for its candor on all matters TNC. The stakes were high, so I decided to liven things up.

My first call was to Jonathan. We didn’t know each other, but everybody knew about Jonathan — that he was a hilarious, cantankerous rabble-rouser who always said what was on his mind, especially when he was talking about or with TNC upper management. Perfect columnist material, I thought, and told him so. He agreed and said he’d do it.

A couple weeks later, Jonathan sent me a draft of his first column. It was well-argued (Jonathan was an excellent writer). It was on point (about TNC’s struggles at the time in measuring its successes). And, because it was from Jonathan, it had three hilarious passages about upper management that would get us both fired instantly were I to run them.

Jonathan had another reputation at the time: He got into long, loud arguments over matters of principle. I called him and said the passages had to come out. There was a moment of silence; I braced for an oncoming hurricane. Finally, Jonathan said: “Yeah, you’re right. Take ‘em out.”

I was stunned. I still am. The funny thing is — every column he sent me had multiple passages that would have gotten us fired. Every damned column. The list of Jonathan’s dissatisfactions at TNC was very long, exceeded only by the ribald inventiveness of his insults. I would point out the offensive parts every time, and every time his response was identical: Yeah, you’re right, take ‘em out.

Eventually, I figured out what was happening. Jonathan wasn’t afraid of being fired. Here’s what scared Jonathan: not making a difference when he had the chance. In his Chronicles columns, as in his life, he took big swings at the biggest issues; and given the access to management I was offering him, he wanted nothing getting in the way of being heard.

Jonathan was a hero to many TNCers for “speaking truth to power.” Here’s what I saw, as Jonathan’s editor and then his friend: Truth and speaking it are habits; they are hard and you must practice them; doing so is your duty as a scientist; and you must do everything to ensure you are heard. If you see something, if you know something, you must say something — and in a way that sticks. This is the way to impact.

Of all the lessons Jonathan taught me, I cherish this one the most.