Autumn evening light over one of the larger fish-invaded lakes in the Seven Lakes Basin. (Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden)
Evolution of a Politically Engaged Scientist
On a high rocky bluff as the evening light wanes, I arrive sweaty and panting from a 10-mile climb. Despite her heavier pack filled with camp gear plus electronic weigh scales and tools, my smiling hiking companion, Wendy Palen, has barely broken a sweat. I calm my laboured breathing as she points into the distance towards the far side of a turquoise lake half darkened with shadows. “Our campsite is just over there,” she says before her gaze shifts to the left. There, a distant black fuzzy blob moves slowly beside the water. “Hello bear,” calls Palen nonchalantly, in a singsong voice, as if chatting to a friendly neighbour.
It’s September 2016, and Palen, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, has invited me along on an amphibian research expedition in the Seven Lakes Basin of Washington’s Olympic National Park.
Palen is totally at ease in this remote natural habitat. Here, for the nearly two decades since graduate work during her doctorate at the University of Washington, she has monitored the impacts of a duo of environmental predicaments. This cluster of small ponds and wetlands is home to the Cascades frog (Rana cascadae), found only in islands of high elevation habitat in the United States, from northern California to northern Washington.
Palen beside one of the small lakes in the Seven Lakes Basin of Olympic National Park where she has monitored Cascades frogs (Rana cascadae) since 2000. Below, Palen and research assistant Robin Munshaw weigh, measure, insert tracking tags, and release frogs so they can monitor their populations. (Photos: Lesley Evans Ogden)
Palen (left) and field assistant Robin Munshaw (right) at their temporary frog research hub - a back country campsite in the Seven Lakes Basin in Olympic National Park, Washington State, USA. (Photos: Lesley Evans Ogden)
On the trail near the campsite, after setting up our temporary camp, Palen explains the back country toileting procedures: poop in the outhouse, but pee on the trail. Outhouse tanks of solid waste are flown out by helicopter, she explains, adding that when peeing, I should watch out for mountain goats. These formidable horned invaders – introduced to Olympic National Park for the benefit of recreational hunters in the 1920s - are known to pursue and pester peeing hikers to lick salts from their urine, a hircine habit that hasn’t always ended well for human visitors.
Toileting in the back country in the Seven Lakes Basin area of Olympic National Park. Tanks of human feces are air lifted out. (Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden)
As for the twin troubles facing the high elevation hoppers that Palen studies here, the first is invasive frog-hungry fish. Rainbow trout were introduced to these remote lakes for the benefit of recreational fishing, first backpacked in, later carpet bombed into mountain lakes by repurposed military aircraft as far back as the 1940s. Fish are not naturally found in these mountain-top wetlands. So, when trout arrived, they feasted on everything they could find. Cascades frogs and their tadpoles got hammered. Since fish have moved in, it’s only the smaller shallower, often ephemeral wetlands that can support these cold-adapted frogs. But the double whammy comes because now, small pond refugia are themselves being squeezed. Climate change is desiccating or shortening the wet season for these smaller waters, leaving frogs high and dry. In the exceptionally dry summer of 2015, Palen’s then graduate student Amanda Kissel discovered some frogs completely dried out – parched to crunchy dead shells.
The dry summer of 2015 was deadly for some Cascades frogs in the Seven Lakes Basin, where their wet habitat became parched. (Photo: Amanda Kissel)
The search for solutions
But Palen is not just studying problems. In every project she takes on, she is doggedly searching for solutions. In this case, to provide park managers with options for tackling amphibian declines, Palen and collaborators are combining their hard-won frog population data with climate projections to model which lakes are the most cost-effective priority areas for fish removal. In quiet moments between days of frog catching, tagging, measuring, and monitoring Palen sometimes dips her own fly fishing rod into these waters, pulling out a few trout of her own. She muses to me that it would be fun to tie a fly with mountain goat hair - using one invasive species to snare another.
Palen fly-fishing in the Seven Lakes Basin where she studies frog populations. (Photo: Robin Munshaw)
This amphibian conundrum – the squeezing of Cascades frogs in an ecological vice – is one of many wicked problems that Palen takes on by means of strategic, systems thinking. Following postdoctoral research at University of California-Berkeley, Palen took up a professorship at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Burnaby, near the city of Vancouver, in 2007. In collaboration with three other SFU faculty, Palen co-founded the Earth to Ocean research group in 2010. Within that multi-scientist group, Palen has been part of a collaborative effort to help students “communicate their science in ways that I don’t see at a lot of in other PhD level programs,” says Kissel, who now works for Conservation Science Partners, a US-based non-profit scientific collective.
Palen’s quest to encourage communication and collaboration - to make research matter in the wider world - goes far beyond her academic home turf. Atop Burnaby mountain, where the utilitarian concrete of the 60s-built Simon Fraser university contrasts starkly with the stunning background of Vancouver’s north shore mountains, an aboriginal frog design hangs framed on Palen office wall. Here, she runs a laboratory of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, teaches and provides work experience for undergraduates, and heads multiple research collaborations. But her sphere of influence extends well beyond this academic realm. Palen is deeply engaged in communicating science - not only hers, but that of others - strategically nudging at policy pivot points outside the ivory tower.
Pushing for evidence-based policy in Canadian government
In Canada and the US, Palen “has her finger in almost every pot that has anything to do with science and policy,” says Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy (E4D), a not-for-profit organization that took root in the era when Canada’s government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was muzzling federal scientists. In what many scientists now reflect on as a dark time in Canadian history for science and democracy, the Harper government became infamous for requiring high level approval for scientists to deliver “approved lines” to media while flanked by bureaucratic babysitters, sometimes stalling media access to government scientists until news windows had passed, or outright forbidding scientists to speak to journalists about their work. The cases later investigated and confirmed by Canada’s federal Information Commissioner, were numerous. In 2011, for example, top bureaucrats silenced government fisheries scientist Kristi Miller (now Miller-Saunders) from speaking about her work as her salmon virus research was published in Science, a muzzling story broken by Canadian science journalist Margaret Munro.
“The muzzling of federal scientists was an issue I took real notice of,” says Palen. Others did too. On July 10, 2012, Canadian scientists protested en masse with a rally. “Death of Evidence,” a mock funeral in the nation’s capital, was co-led by Gibbs, then a University of Ottawa doctoral student studying endangered species legislation. Satellite marches were held across the country. Alarmed by muzzled federal scientists alongside funding cuts and closure of scientific libraries, the wave of protest thrust Canadian science into the spotlight as never before. Palen was in the field studying frog survival during that summer of scientific discontent, but she followed the news closely from afar. At that time, she says, “a sense of responsibility took hold for me.”
With momentum from the nation-wide protest, Gibbs, who defines herself as a “recovering scientist” in her LinkedIn tagline, co-founded Evidence for Democracy (E4D). E4D is a non-profit, non-partisan organization advocating for evidence-based policy-making, and holding politicians to account for doing so. In the run-up to Canada’s federal election of October 2015, “The role of science and science integrity issues was a top tier part of the political platforms of the Liberals and NDP [New Democratic] parties in a way that I think no one really anticipated, and Evidence for Democracy worked really hard to have that happen,” says Palen.
“One of the lessons learned from that muzzling time was that academic colleagues had a real opportunity to speak up for their [silenced] counterparts in government agencies -- to be that more independent voice calling attention to what was going on and the way that science was being manipulated,” says Palen. Evidence for Democracy, she explains, was a natural outgrowth of that sentiment, and has been a catalyst for big changes in Canada’s public conversation. In the 2015 federal election, Canada brought in a new Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, ousting incumbent Conservative leader Stephen Harper. An explicit promise of the new government was a strong role for science in policy-making. Now, in tallying a score sheet on those scientific election promises, Evidence for Democracy is holding the Trudeau government’s feet to the fire. It engages in regional science integrity issues as well. Eager to participate, when an opportunity arose to join Evidence for Democracy as Chair of its Board of Directors in November 2015, Palen jumped at it. The Board plays a key role in E4D’s strategic decision-making. “That’s really where Wendy plays into it,” Gibbs says.
A report card for Canada’s new government
How has science integrity fared under Canada’s new Trudeau government? Elected on a platform of making science, and open communication for scientists, a priority, results have been mixed, reported Gibbs, Palen and five colleagues, speaking at a session on US and Canadian science integrity at the North American Congress of Conservation Biology (NACCB) held in Toronto, Ontario in July 2018.* There, Gibbs, the session’s opening speaker, outlined that under Trudeau “there absolutely has been a lot of progress… but there is still work to do.”
Gibbs, speaking for E4D, voiced concern over recent government funding cuts to climate and ozone monitoring research and noted that in a survey of Canadian government scientists conducted a year ago, over half still felt unable to speak freely. Nevertheless, explains Gibbs, when a similar survey of government scientists was conducted under the Harper government, that number was 90%, hinting at progress. Shortly after the conference, a new set of scientific integrity guidelines was introduced in a model policy for Canada’s federal departments. How that policy translates into practice remains to be seen. E4D had earlier collaborated with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the union representing most scientists in government labs, in a campaign that successfully saw science integrity elements enshrined in worker collective agreements.
Palen, speaking at the NACCB session, introduced herself as “an academic scientist, but I try to keep one or more feet planted firmly outside the walls of academia, working on conservation science policy issues,” she said, highlighting that advocacy for science ought not to be “a four letter word.” Science advocacy “is a social and public responsibility for many of us that are funded by public dollars,” she said. Reflecting on the recent history of Canadian politics, covering what she termed the “low lights” of the Harper era - government science job losses, research library closures, erosion of environmental policies affecting environmental assessments, fisheries, and species at risk - Palen struck a hopeful note too. Restoring and improving federal environment legislation under today’s more supportive government may be “a once in a generation opportunity for Canada,” she said.
But lest scientists think that a governmental shift lets them off the hook for continued pressure on advocating on a role for science at the policy table, in her conference abstract, Palen did not mince words:
Three years after the election of a center-left Liberal government, Canada remains at a crossroads, as campaign promises have run up against powerful industries, and commitments to reduce carbon emissions, protect biodiversity, and reform environmental assessment practices languish. However, commitments to restore scientific integrity and increase transparency are progressing, and these offer hope for meaningful reform through improved public debate, even where governmental leadership is lacking.
From the stage, in Palen’s confident yet slightly enigmatic manner – friendly yet assertive, hopeful yet concerned - she voiced a report card on how well the Trudeau government has done on meeting its scientific promises. While celebrating some hopeful progress - appointment of a Chief Science Advisor, modest improvements in integrity protections for government scientists, marginal improvements to environmental legislation – she has major concerns too. When it comes to meeting its international climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement, Canada, Palen points out, is “not even close to meeting any sort of target that’s even the least ambitious target that we have,” she says. Palen highlights that extraction of Alberta’s oil sands are a significant contributor to Canada’s emissions overshoot, and notes that the possibility of a climate change agreement between Canadian provinces now looks bleak.
Oil sands and pipelines - a political hot potato in Canada - are another of Palen’s pet projects of policy and personal engagement. On Burnaby Mountain, the site of rallies against expansion of the existing Kinder Morgan Alberta-to-British Columbia pipeline, Palen has been known to show up on the protest line.
Palen speaking at the Science Integrity session at the North American Congress of Conservation Biology (NACCB) held in Toronto, Ontario in July 2018. (Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden)
“The mobilization of the scientific community has to happen as much or more now, with a supportive government, than it does when it’s under attack,” urges Palen. When it comes to standing up for science, she cautions, “the race is long and apparently never ends.”
Mentoring a new generation of politically engaged scientists
Early in her research career, Palen cut her teeth on controversy. Her early graduate research challenged the work of more senior and mainly male colleagues on the idea that ultraviolet light was a major contributor to global amphibian declines (her studies showed it was not). Palen also engaged with the State of California when her collaborative research revealed that altered flow imposed by dams was a key driver of declines for the California-listed Foothill yellow-legged frog. But scaling up from single-species issues to bigger problems – things she describes as “the Godzilla issues of our time,” – says Palen, “requires a really different approach to how we think about science, and how we think about scientists.”
After the election of President Trump, as it became clear that federal scientists in the United States were facing issues of government muzzling, manipulation, and funding cuts, Palen penned an op-ed in the New York Times. There she told her US colleagues not to feel disempowered, and not to disengage. “Things can get better,” she told US scientists. And “as a scientist, there are things you can do to help.”
Palen has increasingly taken on a role not only as a voice for her science, but as a voice for science in the policy realm in general. Palen is “a really big mentor to a lot of young conservation scientists who are very involved in political policy work, particularly through the Liber Ero program,” Gibbs says. Palen, she says, has had a role, beyond just E4D, in shaping the whole ecosystem of scientists – particularly conservation scientists - engaging in the policy process.
Palen is Assistant Director of the Liber Ero Fellowship Program, a privately funded post-doctoral fellowship that supports early-career scientists tackling Canadian conservation problems. Palen was a key founder of the program, along with fellow SFU faculty Jon Moore, Nick Dulvy and University of British Columbia evolutionary biologist Sally Otto. The program, modeled after the US-based Smith Fellowship Program, trains a cadre of eight scientists at a time – in staggered four-per-two year cohorts. Fellows conduct conservation and management-related research, with targeted communications and leadership training opportunities for the group given by assistant director Palen and director Otto twice annually.
Speaking to me in a conference side room on a hot, humid Toronto day, Palen munches on lunch from a vegan take-out restaurant across the street from the Westin Harbour Castle hotel. Apologizing for sniffling – she has a cold that later turns out to be pneumonia - she explains that a key goal of the Liber Ero program is training scholars to more effectively communicate their research applications to the wider world. Palen, as one of the mentors and facilitators at the twice-annual program retreats, sees her role with the fellows as “planting seeds.”
Liber Ero fellow Aerin Jacob, a scientist with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, recalls being a little in awe when she first saw Palen present at a conference in 2014. Struck by this young, dynamic female speaker, Jacob admits she was “a nervous fan girl” lurking in the back of the room. Since then, Palen has become a trusted mentor. In October every second year, Liber Ero fellows meet in Ottawa where the aim is to snag coveted meetings with Members of Parliament or their staff. During her fellowship, Jacob was working on ocean acidification and climate change, and it was suggested that she arrange a meeting with the federal all-party climate change caucus. “I was pretty intimidated to go and do that,” says Jacob, but Palen offered to go with her. “It made such a big difference,” says Jacob, “because I knew she wasn’t going to dominate the meeting... yet I knew if I was stumbling she would pick up on that, and be able to support in a way that wasn’t going to upstage me -- wasn’t going to make me look like I didn’t know what I was talking about,” says Jacob. As an early career researcher, Jacob says, it’s super important to know that somebody has your back.
Aerin Jacob (left) and Wendy Palen (right) at a Liber Ero Fellows retreat in Délįne, Northwest Territories. (Photos: Sheila Colla)
Jacob was lead author on a November 2016 Young Scientists Open Letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, copying six other federal Cabinet Ministers, concerning the scientific rigour of environmental assessments.
“…we are concerned that current environmental assessments and regulatory decision-making processes lack scientific rigour, with significant consequences for the health and environment of all Canadians,”
… outlined Jacob and a dozen others on her organizing team. The letter was later co-signed by over a thousand others. That letter was one of Jacob’s policy engagement projects during her Liber Ero fellowship, and Palen, says Jacob, was one of the key people who helped me figure out what I was going to do. Palen, she says, said yes to “everything from ‘can you read my fifteenth draft?’ to ‘can you practice an interview with me?" Palen would role-play and “grill me” like a journalist, says Jacob.
Recalling a recent presentation at the Whyte Museum in Banff, Alberta, Canada’s oil-rich province, Palen spoke in tandem with her personal and professional partner Tom Sisk, Olajos-Goslow professor of environmental science and policy at Northern Arizona University. Jacob describes Palen as a remarkable speaker not only because of what she says, but how she delivers it. On stage, Palen is “friendly and open, but you’re not going to push her around,” says Jacob. Palen holds her ground, smiles, explain things, genuinely listens to other points of view and engages in a healthy debate, “but she’s no shrinking violet,” says Jacob. She holds Palen up as a valuable role model - a woman in science who knows her stuff, speaks about it with enthusiasm and passion, displays genuine comfort talking to people, and can bring a whole room together.
Palen presenting. (Photo: Aerin Jacob)
Modest is a word that many use to describe Palen, including her doctoral student Rylee Murray. Murray came to her lab via a circuitous route. One of Palen’s graduate students was on a recruiting drive for assistants, but mistakenly gave their pitch in a protein biology lab instead of the intended invertebrate zoology class. Intrigued by the opportunity, and “so tired of working with clear, colourless liquids,” Murray says, he started volunteering in her lab. That volunteer work evolved into a paid lab manager and field assistant position, followed by a Master’s with Palen and now a PhD. “Her energy was so exciting I got wound up in it,” he recalls, adding that “there’s always a fire under our feet with Wendy.”
Palen assists her graduate student Rylee Murray capture tadpoles in the fall. (Photo: Amanda Kissel)
As for how he and Palen get along, he says they haven’t yet butted heads. But, says Murray, she doesn’t shy away from academic arguments. Sometimes, he says, “when you’re sitting there watching her and another grad student argue it out, you feel like crawling out the back of the room,” he laughs. But it’s nothing personal, he adds. When people are headstrong in their ideas they may engage in academic disagreements, “which I think Wendy loves,” he says.
In a discipline where scientists have traditionally restricted their battles to those within science and not stuck their neck into the political realm, Palen is part of a new generation breaking new ground. But why engage so vigorously and enthusiastically outside of the walls of academe?
“I think scientists, supported by public money, have a responsibility to offer up perspectives, especially when we can see that the science that can support more effective decisions is either being missed, or misinterpreted,” says Palen. “That compels many of us to action.” But though Palen pluralizes her platitudes, there are few academic scientists in Canada as politically engaged, passionate, strategic, connected, and shrewd as Palen at making sure science has a voice at the decision-making table.
But this new model of politically engaged scientist can sometimes come at a professional price. Political activities and active media engagement, “are not necessarily looked upon kindly by some peers, regardless of career stage,” says Jacob. And yet, she adds, “it is so important to do it and we need to have models of people doing it … so that the next generation of scientists is more willing to engage.”
Wendy Palen and Sally Otto lead the Liber Ero fellows in a brainstorming session. (Photos: Jean Polfus)
During a Liber Ero Fellows retreat in Délįne, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, Palen and fellows set up tables at a local school, where students and the public could talk to fellows about their research. (Photo: Sheila Colla)
*Disclosure: Lesley Evans Ogden attended the North American Congress of Conservation Biology with a COMPASS journalism fellowship that supported travel and accommodation costs. Some of the reporting and interviews for this article were conducted during that fellowship.
Photo: Pascal Limothe-Kipnes
Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden
Lesley Evans Ogden
Lesley Evans Ogden is a freelance science journalist based near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She reports mainly on ecology, conservation biology, quirky animal behaviour and environmental health, but also explores the intersection of science, human rights, policy, and the challenges of freelancing. She leapt from scientist to science journalist after an MSc, PhD, and postdoctoral research in bird ecology. Lesley later completed Science Communications and Investigative Journalism programmes at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, and continues to avidly pursue professional development opportunities. Her clients include Natural History, BioScience, BBC, New Scientist, Scientific American, Mosaic, Storyboard, Science, Nature, CBC, Undark, Science News and others.
Wendy Palen is a freshwater ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is Chair of the Board of Directors for Evidence for Democracy (E4D). This non-profit organisation is non-partisan, focusing on evidence-based decision-making without supporting any one political party. Palen is also Assistant Director of the Liber Ero Fellowship Program, a post-doctoral fellowship that supports early-career scientists in tackling Canadian conservation problems, A key goal of the program is training scholars to more effectively communicate their research applications beyond the ivory tower - to the wider world.