What’s the point?

By Joern Fischer

Many researchers engaged in biodiversity conservation and sustainability science struggle – sooner or later – with seeing the point of their work. Since I have found myself amongst these, it’s not quite clear if I have anything sensible to say on the topic. But I have made a few observations that I think may be interesting to share on this topic. The following are “stages” of despair and recovery that many in our business appear to go through at various stages. They are in an approximate order, but I don’t mean to imply they are some kind of pre-destined phases – from my observation, many people (myself included) appear to jump back and forth between these.

Disillusionment with science. Many students or PhD scholars start out feeling immensely empowered by this new tool they have discovered – science. Through apparently rational reasoning, within a community of reasonable and intelligent fellow scientists, real hope appears that this can do good. Think of all the clever brains getting together at a conference to talk about how to solve big problems. This can be a tremendous source of inspiration for next-generation scientists! But soon enough, many students reach a point of frustration or even anger. Scientists more often than not seem to turn out to be ego-maniacs, who are interested in pushing agendas just as much as people in business or government. In fact, successful scientists sometimes seem to have more of the attributes one would associate with successful business people or politicians – sleek, smart at the right times, but essentially just selling their products and seeing who can sell most.

Disillusionment with “impact”. Having realised that science may be no purer (or at least not always) than other activities (such as politics or business), at least we can console ourselves that we work for “real-world impact”. Our papers inspire others. Our findings have real potential to inform those in charge, so that they can make decisions that are better for the world. But what if those in charge are not interested? What if governance systems are such that it is difficult to see how anyone would fix anything? What if it’s clear what ought to be done, and you’ve written about it, as well as others, but nobody really seems to act on it? Disillusionment with the potential to have a positive impact is not an unlikely outcome in this case.

Disillusionment leading to a loss of hope. Add to that global statistics of things getting worse, not better, and once passionate scholars can become depressed, feeling a sense of hopelessness about the state of the world. When it comes to the global scale, extinctions of species continue unhalted, so does climate change, and we still have a billion people going hungry. We don’t seem to be acting on our science in ways that actually make a difference. Nobody cares, some kind of global collapse seems likely (just a question of when), and this leaves the question why to bother with any of this science nonsense. What, actually, is the role of discovery in our current era?

Regaining perspective. When things seem pointless because the global problems just seem too big to solve, it’s taking the “big picture” perspective that is so overwhelming. But there is another side to this perspective, too: each of us are only one of seven billion or so people, so clearly, our individual impact is going to be minute. Expecting anything other than that is setting ourselves up for failure (and may in fact be quite arrogant)! Of course, collectively, the problems we ought to solve are massive, but it is reasonable to recognise which share of the overall burden each individual should carry. None of us, on our own, will be of much use or impact.

Doing the best along the journey, without knowing its destination. Based on that then, it may be possible to re-gain some energy. Even if we’re working on a single landscape or study system, the problems in such a system are typically too large and complex to simply be “solved”. Of course a strategic view on how to solve them is helpful, but it can be useful to not be too obsessed with the destination, but rather focus on the journey. Simply contributing to sustainability or biodiversity conservation – i.e. being focused on the journey – may end up not enough to avert global collapse. But even if that is so, there is not a lot more that individuals can do than travel the journey to the best of their abilities – the outcome will depend on many more individuals also choosing a similar (or at least compatible) journey.

Connect. Along the journey, despite its unknown and uncertain destination, it is energising to connect with others who share the journey, who would like to reach the same destination, but who are similarly powerless (on their own) to actually change the trajectory of the world in any major way. Personally, I believe that such connections are the single most important ingredient to making it through phases of despair with the state of the world.

Focus inwards, as well as outwards. At the deepest, and some would say most esoteric, level, I believe there would be value in focusing inwards more often while being less obsessed about the state of the world. Many wise people living before us have shown that inner spiritual development and outward impact tend to go hand in hand. And this takes us back to the first point above: Focusing on the outside only risks that we simply are part of the “science industry”, seeking to aggressively sell our gadgets (= papers or ideas) to the world because we take it as obvious that this is how it ought to be. It may seem counter-intuitive, but at least some of the time, we’d probably achieve more in the outside world if we focused instead on our inside worlds.

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18 thoughts on “What’s the point?

  1. You rise many interesting points in this excellent post, Thanks! Many students are attracted to science by the thrill of discovery and the nobility of the thought of contributing to humanity. Science is fun, and a great tool for knowledge, unfortunately, academia, the formal environment where most science is done, suffers from all the same problems as any other human environment: greed, ego, and materialism.

  2. Simply contributing to sustainability or biodiversity conservation – i.e. being focused on the journey – may end up not enough to avert global collapse. But even if that is so, there is not a lot more that individuals can do than travel the journey to the best of their abilities – the outcome will depend on many more individuals also choosing a similar (or at least compatible) journey.

    This is the essential point, I think. Disillusionment is a widespread disease in our métier (and I would like to add one more point to its sources: when you, especially as a young, still highly dependent scientist, start asking yourself whether the specific topic you’re working on is of any relevance to the world, as compared to other topics in your field) and I guess, we have to accept that the world is “bad”. At least we try to make it better. This is worth a lot, I think. But, of course, one would wish to achieve something “real”, to make a noticable difference…

  3. This is a really interesting post Joern, and a topic that has been a part of my professional (and personal) life for as long as I’ve been a scientist. I’ve tended to frame it in terms of “is the work that I’m doing relevant?” without really defining what I mean by “relevant”. In the past my attitude has been that if I find it interesting, then it’s relevant, regardless of whether others see any value. And I still think that to a large extent: no one can predict what will be important in the future, even the most esoteric of research topics may be “useful” if only for inspiring further, more applied work. And even if not, knowledge for the sake of knowledge is worthwhile in itself.

    As my career has progressed the work of my research group has become more and more conservation-focused, in part because it’s hard to get funding for biodiversity projects that do not have such a slant. I’m more-or-less comfortable with that, but miss having the time to work on “pure” science, e.g. evolution of flowers.

    Something that I would add to what you say is that when I grow despondent at the state of the world and how the research work that I’m doing can contribute, I can at least draw comfort from knowing that the many students who I’ve taught and helped to educate are going on to have their own influence on the world. This chimes with your “connect” paragraph, though in a very particular way.

    A few final points:

    When you say that “Scientists more often than not seem to turn out to be ego-maniacs” that suggests that the majority of scientists are ego-maniacs and in my experience that’s not the case – such individuals are rare.

    The idea that “some kind of global collapse seems likely (just a question of when)” is another question that has exercised me, and I’m sure lots of others. A few years ago I got involved with a movement called the Dark Mountain project which is about creative ways of preparing humanity for such a collapse (which its founders see as inevitable). They have been criticised as being defeatist “collapsatarians” but have some interesting ideas and, not least, have generated some good literature and art. If you’ve not come across it the website is: http://dark-mountain.net/

    Finally: “I believe there would be value in focusing inwards more often while being less obsessed about the state of the world” – yes, agreed, which is one of the reasons I sometimes talk about gardening on my blog, an activity that can be hugely “spiritual” to me ☺

  4. Joern,
    Good to read your thoughts on this subject! It is important that we share our experiences along the way, and not just our academic results. If we succumb to depression we soon won’t be producing any results at all…
    Knowing that going through these patches of disillusionment is part and parcel of sustainability science may help those headed for – or in – a patch. In fact, it would be good if we made sure that students know of this part of the field in advance. Sustainability academics is not exactly the road most often traveled – the choice should be an informed one.
    At UCPH (University of Copenhagen) we (Sustainability Science Centre) try to reach out to students and prepare them as well as to connect to like minded. If anyone has any experiences with this kind of effort they’d like to share, I’d like to hear about it!
    Raising this issue is essential – Thank you for doing so!
    Best,
    Frederikke Oldin
    frederikke.oldin@snm.ku.dk

  5. Thank you. You could not say it better. This is exactly what I am going through and I was thinking I am the only one. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the post! I have recently been feeling stuck in the disillusionment phase which I recently realized was due to a lack of community of people who care or are interested in Sustainability where I work and live. We need to foster communities among academics as well as among students and between students and academics to get back on the upward phases!

  7. Nice reflection Joern.
    I think practitioners in the art and science of conservation science do it particularly hard compared to the other sciences. The physicists and the chemists can at least pretend things are getting better because they’ve discovered a new widget, compound or process. Conservation scientists, on the other hand, confront irreversible loss day in day out. Last year Richard Hobbs at the University of Western Australia reflected on the emotional dimension that underpins some of conservation science’s more heated debates. He found it illuminating to compare conservation science with the stages of grieving experienced around loss. Given Joern’s blog is set out as a series of stages, I thought readers might be interested in Richard Hobbs’ reflection. You can read it at:
    http://decision-point.com.au/images/DPoint_files/DPoint_70/dp70%20p4%20hobbs%20grieving.pdf
    Regards
    David

  8. Thought provoking stuff Joern, I think that you have captured the feelings of many. Aldo Leopold had similar observations:

    “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”

    Possibly explains why so many ecologists end up hanging out socially with other ecologists (and with disproportionate numbers of musicians and artists as well, in my experience) – solace in like-mindedness, a sense of camaraderie – all grist-to-the-mill in keeping disillusionment at bay.

    Thanks for your erudition (as usual) on this pervasive topic, Simon

  9. Thanks all for your comments! And especially for the links and references to related discussions/thoughts/writings elsewhere! Those are much appreciated and make for more interesting reading for everyone!

  10. Thanks Joern, really beautiful. I am indeed going through the very same period of life. Often I feel nothing works. Many actions, many this and many that. But ancient trees are deteriorating more than ever before. Wetlands and amphibians on the same path. Somehow exactly, if not more than, 10 years ago, when there were not so many initiatives. I can mobilise people, positively feed them and excite them e.g. for trees. We go very close to the point to protect them. But we fail. For various reasons. Mostly human related.

    The journey certainly can be a goal and meaning: I meet really so many wonderful people. Amazing how many we are. So that, meeting them is already a good thing. Social context gives meaning dor many of us. Howing we are not alone.

    But with all respect to these wonderful people, for me, this is intermediary. I really want more. This – meeting these people – hould not be the endpoint, but, should represent a social capital for following our goals which often looks impossible to achieve in our lifetime.

    All the best dear Joern. You certainly inspired me, and many of your values and knowledge, and also human skills are now in me, and I try to pass them to others, in a way that I am myself.

    And maybe the ‘good ones’ will come after us. We just shape the basin for them.

  11. An insightful piece. Speaking as a land management practitioner based n the UK and following work with Save Our Woods it was astonishing to realise just how many people are ‘looking in’. Social media has supplanted general media in the wide arena of landscape and sustainability and as a result a living discussion is ongoing which bypasses the PR machines and into the ears of policy makers. Researchers provide the arsenal for this discussion. Thus all your work has a vital role you do not write about in the blog, all scientists are working for us; practitioners and public and most importantly for our children.

    Social media is also breaking down the ‘ego’ barrier. Many UK scientific commentators who had gained huge audences can now be challenged. Whilst they may have a book to sell, we have children and an entrenched misanthropic opinion does nothing for us anymore – we woke up a long time ago.

    As a protest banner read recently during a march ‘What do we want – Evidence Based Science. When do want it – After peer review’

  12. Great post and comments. I’ve been searching for a way to “make a difference” to the world for a few years now – and going through similar stages… I had advice from a scientist friend who recommended doing an MBA rather than a science PhD – his reasoning being that our current systems are more attuned to business and economics and thus “going over to the other side” may be more useful, practically and in the short-term, than being a scientist. But obviously he means that one should try and use the MBA to get business (and policy-makers) involved in conservation/ecology/etc. I thought an interesting observation at the time but not advice that I wanted to follow. I’d be interested in seeing what others thought of it…

    Regarding making connections, I do think it’s important that we try to connect with a wider group of people, both to broaden their perspective as well as our own. Start presenting to schools and local businesses and think of ways to get more involved in your work, in some way. Connection and ownership/partnership are powerful things!

  13. My two big comments, (for once!) in brief:
    (1) I think many of us also underestimate the degree to which what we *want* to do as scientists and in the “curiousity-driven” research realm may not be the most effective & important thing to do, forcing an unpleasant decision between considering refocusing and retraining, and figuring out how best to support change without significantly changing your current life/life-course. While reasonable to stick with your current choices and do the best you can with them, it can’t possibly be the case that sticking with current trajectories w/i research agendas is always the best action to encourage the change we want. (Parke Troutman said it well: “[activists may] figure out what to do by looking around them and seeing what they can do and then doing it… The problem is that it allows you to stick with what is comfortable even if it is not effective. Better is to ask where you want to go and work backward to figure out what it would take to get there.”

    (2) As Tibor and others point out, the scale of the changes we want may not be within our lifetime. It is very human to want to see the changes we need/want, if not to be their leading catalyst! But even the most scientifically-grounded, politically-active, cooperatively-inclusive attempts at change must realize that creating political change within our own lifetime is both a limiting and unlikely expectation, yet without our attempts now the change later would not come. My oft-used analogy: the Quakers in the US in the 1600s who opposed slavery likely didn’t even have living great-grandchildren around when slaves were emancipated in the 1800s, and it was many generations more before advocates for equality saw the end of legal racism in the US in the late 1900s. But without them–and abolitionists, allies, and dissident in all the 300 years in between–neither emancipation nor Jim Crow could’ve ended when it did.

    Our problems look (and are) urgent. But the fact that we might (probably) can’t be here when the regime shift that significantly solves/improves them doesn’t change that we need to do the work now. The loss of species and climate change *are* urgent. We would *love* to see it happen now. But like slavery, we can’t let this urgency get in the way of the fact that changing things in 25 or 50 or 100 years would still be better than changing them in 150 or 200 years. And we never know when that discontinuous “break” will occur–it could be in 5 years, or by tomorrow. But we can’t depend on that, nor expect it, even if and when we’re doing exactly the right things.

    Ok, not so brief! 🙂

  14. I enjoyed this blog post because it’s a cycle that I recognise in myself. In fact, I was recently in the ‘disillusionment with impact’ stage. One of the things that helped me to move on and regain some perspective was a discussion with another group member about different forms of impact. This relates to the ‘connect’ point in many ways. We were discussing that impact might be high level policy impact based on research results. This is the frustrating kind of impact that generally leads to my disillusionment. But impact can also be about helping to shape other people’s work, even if that’s ‘only’ with the people in your immediate group. Everyone forms some part of the puzzle. And sometimes, allowing myself to enjoy that form of impact makes me feel a bit better about the other.

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  16. Apologies, people, that your comments are online going live now! I have been travelling. Thanks so much for the interesting discussion!

  17. Pingback: Changing the world | Society of Biology blog

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