How researchers get heard

The Wrong Kind of Serenity

It’s that middle part of the prayer that many scientists and researchers gloss over.

People get stuff wrong. That’s not the worst thing.

The worst thing: when experts who know that people are getting things wrong keep their knowledge to themselves. When they’re “too busy” to weigh in.

That attitude was smug and self-defeating, even before the world was in crisis. Today, it’s inexplicable.

But it is, still and far too often, a pillar of research culture. We would rather stand in the corner bitching into our beers about how stupid everyone else is than take the stage to take a stand.

Example: Journalists and scientists have written a ton of articles in the last month about the wildlife trade and the global loss of biodiversity generally being drivers of the increasing zoonotic leaps of disease between wildlife and humans over the last three decades.

WWF (full disclosure: a client) is embarking on what looks like a substantial campaign to raise awareness of these links and press for action to curtail them.

The link between the wildlife trade and increased risk of zoonotic transmission of disease should be obvious: Create markets selling animals with disease, especially in close quarters with each other and human beings, and the chances of zoonotic transmission of that disease go through the roof.

The biodiversity angle is, to put it mildly, less obvious. Some studies have found evidence for high levels of biodiversity in a habitat having a “dilution effect” on the possibility of zoonotic transmission. In essence, the greater the variety of species in a given place, the less likely it is that any one animal of one species will have an opportunity to pass on a virus to another animal of another species. Some conservationists are now using that math to make the case that we need strong and large protected areas of rich biodiversity as buffers between ourselves and the next pandemic.

The second way the declining biodiversity-disease link is made is by citing “environmental degradation” as an accelerant of risk. “Environmental degradation” as deployed in these arguments (as best as I can determine, because it is a general and slippery term that often becomes “environmental destruction” or “environmental change” or any human activity impacting the environment) refers to humanity’s accelerating conversion of land that serves as habitat for species that are reservoirs of disease into agricultural or other uses, thus bringing those species (e.g., bats) into closer contact with more humans, and increasing the likelihood one of those encounters will result in a zoonotic transmission of disease.

Translation: If you’re logging a forest in Borneo, or you’re farming palm oil or raising cattle there, you’re going to run into some bats. One might bite you or your livestock. And as a result, a few months later, the world economy might grind to a halt.

There are several dozen scientific articles stretching back over the last 15 years that, taken together, make the case for either the dilution effect or habitat conversion’s role in increasing risk of transmission. Some are self-citing. At least one I’ve read says species diversity can both dilute and amplify transmission of zoonotic pathogens.

Now, I know there are conservation science experts who dispute the link between increased biodiversity and decreased risk of a pandemic. I know this because I’ve exchanged emails with a few of them, and asked them how they were getting the word out about the lack of a link.

No answer.

And no evidence that they’re intervening publicly to challenge the growing calls to take conservation actions in order to stop the next pandemic.

I decided years ago to work only with scientists and researchers who were burning to use their expertise to make a difference in the world and for the centers, NGOs or for-profits they run. So I usually don’t find myself struggling to short-rope the reluctant into doing public scholarship or thought leadership content. My clients and I push each other.

Even so, it seems superfluous to me to point out that, no matter what your base of operation as a research leader — academics, an NGO, an independent research group or a for-profit — the current crisis is roiling all of your past assumptions about where your support is coming from. A frightening number of colleges and universities will close in the next year. NGOs are slashing payroll and will soon slash work forces. For-profits are having contracts withdrawn or deferred. Foundations are reassessing their programs and concentrations.

As they say about planting trees: The best time to turn your expertise into public scholarship and authority was years ago. The second-best time is now.

If you are still serene about your freedom to not make a difference as an expert, that’s not serenity anymore. That’s a Hail Mary.