03 MENTORING FOR EVIDENCE  |  CANADA

Palen and her assistant Robin Munshaw measuring Cascades frogs in the Seven Lakes Basin. (Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden)

Part 3

Countercurrents

It’s February 5th, 2019, and Wendy Palen is already thinking ahead to October when Canada is holding a federal election. “It is going to get really exciting in the next six months,” she says. “There are so many things happening in the run-up to the federal election that I’m really interested in.” The rise of populism. Misinformation, and how much that has played into the public dialogue around politics in North America and Europe. That’s something she’s actively engaged in strategizing about and making plans to address as Board Chair with Evidence for Democracy (E4D), where she works with Executive Director Katie Gibbs. Gibbs co-founded the non-profit in 2012 during Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government when scientists felt that science, and evidence-based decision-making, was under threat from their federal government. Now, in the run-up to the first election after Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 win, “We’re trying to figure out how we support evidence and information and knowledge transfer in a way that is honest, and real, combatting some of the trends that we’ve seen elsewhere,” says Palen.

 

The E4D plans for educating the Canadian public on how to push back against misinformation, and fact checking of political parties and pundits, are still emerging. “I don’t have the answer, but we’re going to be really in that space,” Palen says.

 

Right now, the space we’re in is her office. A noticeable addition to Palen’s office furnishings since my last visit is a dried cane toad mariachi band she’s inherited from a retiring colleague cleaning out his office. Fitting for this ardent amphibian conservation scientist, it’s creative up-cycling of actual demised toads. The species is a classic example of unintended consequences. Intentionally introduced to Australia in 1935 in efforts to control a native pest infesting sugar plantations, cane toads quite happily expanded their diet beyond the beetle larvae humans had chosen for it to eat. Now the invasive toxic toad is widespread. 

Palen’s gifted cane toad mariachi band. (Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden)

Acting with insufficient evidence is something Palen actively sets out to avoid. Using pure science and decision analysis to test assumptions and answer applied questions is a through-line of her research. For example, Palen has been actively involved in informing endangered species legislation in the Province of British Columbia. Here, despite being the most biodiverse province in Canada with the country’s most species at risk, there is as yet no provincial endangered species law. Palen played what she calls a minor role as part of a panel that released a set of recommendations for development of such a law, in October 2018. The team urged scientific rigour, transparency of decision-making, and an evidence-based approach to recovery. Palen also serves as “the lone academic” on the federal recovery team for the Oregon Spotted Frog. Aptly named Rana pretiosa, meaning ‘precious frog,’ it’s a species getting more precious all the time. The species is in “terrible shape,” Palen says. “We’re trying to make the best of all bad decisions,” she says, figuring out how to take limited conservation dollars and opportunity to have the best possible outcome for Canada’s most endangered amphibian. 

 

In tackling the enormous challenges of biodiversity loss, a species-by-species approach, she admits, is not ideal. In the science of conservation, problems pop up faster than a game of whack-a-mole – or perhaps more fittingly, whack a frog.

Whack-a-frog. Yes, at a kids’ arcade in Vancouver this game really exists. (Video: Lesley Evans Ogden)

Setting priorities on policy projects

 

Acknowledging that the problems of conservation are ever-expanding and the scope of environmental policy to address such problems so far-reaching, How does Palen prioritize which projects are important?

 

“That’s the hardest part,” she says.

 

For Palen, it comes down to two things.

 

One is intellectual. Is there a good chance the project will have an impact? Does it have a clear target? Is the timeline right? These are the questions she considers. 

 

The second decision criteria is “much more from the heart,” says Palen. “It’s who asked me to get involved. Are these people I really care about?” If they are passionate about what they do, she finds that enthusiasm infectious.

 

“With the kind of daunting things we work on, it’s all pretty depressing. So I want to work with people that I find inspiring, and who I like to work with, who are nice people, motivated for the right reasons and generous and considerate in how they show up, in groups.” Those considerations wouldn’t have been her first concern straight out of grad school, she admits. Now, she has realized, “this is what you end up doing with your life,” so spending that time with “real allies,” people she sees eye to eye with, is important.

 

Do those two distinct reasons for saying yes to projects ever create an intellectual conflict?

 

Yes, admits Palen. “Oregon spotted frogs were like that.” As scientists, it’s really clear that single species conservation is not the way forward. We don’t have the time, energy, resources, money, to save every species one at a time. So when a colleague invited her to sit on the species recovery team, “I immediately had my intellectual sceptical hat on,” says Palen. That inner voice was saying ‘this is not going to be a good use of my time.’

 

“But she was so persuasive, and she’s such a wonderful person, and I wanted to work with her,” says Palen. That passionate, persuasive colleague was Purnima Govindarajulu, conservation specialist at the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment. “When Purnima asks me to do something, it’s really hard for me to say no,” Palen says with a sigh-giggle.

 

She finds Palen persuasive too. And “super enthusiastic,” says Govindarajulu. Once the two started talking, they discovered a shared passion for applying science to policy. With that, combined with similar backgrounds in amphibian conservation, says Govindarajulu “we just hit it off like a house on fire.” Their convivial collaboration continues after more than a decade.

 

In endangered species conservation, where data needed for decision-making is often lacking, “sometimes expert opinion is the only thing we can do,” Govindarajulu explains. But “given that we all come with strong biases, it’s good to convert them into scientific hypotheses, and confirm or recalibrate our thinking on recovery.”

Mark recapture for Oregon Spotted frogs. (Photo: Andrew Wright)

Palen’s gifted cane toad mariachi band. (Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden)

Palen’s gifted cane toad mariachi band. (Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden)

Palen has been able to help fill some of those Oregon spotted frog knowledge gaps to better inform policy-makers about where to get the most bang for their buck. An example of this was testing assumptions around headstarting. Headstarting is a practice where wild eggs are collected and grown in captivity, then released. Headstarting is often assumed to be a cost-effective conservation strategy.  But for this species, that assumption was untested. So Palen’s former doctoral student Amanda Kissel, now Lead Scientist with Conservation Science Partners, studied these frogs, found in just a few wet pockets of southern British Columbia. Contrary to assumptions, they calculated that for the same investment dollars targeted at reducing extinction risk, captive breeding is twice as effective as head starting. Kissel, Palen and Govindarajulu published their cost-benefit analysis in Ecological Economics

Oregon spotted frog fieldwork. (Photos: Andrew Wright)

Policy work and applied conservation is “a slow process,” says Govindarajulu. Involving multiple stakeholders, it’s difficult to implement. As part of the recovery team, Palen and her team liaise with First Nations, government biologists, academia, land owners, Department of National Defence, local government, planners, park staff, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and zoo personnel. “Many academics really don’t want to wade into that because it takes time and effort in building the relationships and working over years,” says Govindarajulu. 

 

“For a young researcher going for tenure, it might have been a lot easier [for Palen] to work on simpler projects, but she didn’t shy away from taking on something that’s pretty complex,” says Govindarajulu. Working over years to build and foster relationships, “Wendy never shies away from that,” says Govindarajulu. “For me, working within government, on implementation -- the work on the ground -- that’s so essential. We really appreciate academics who take the time and effort to participate in these things.”

Palen pointing out one of the frogs she and Dan Greenberg have been studying in climate change experiments.

Navigating the science policy bridge

 

Many academic scientists, “aggressively just want to ‘stay pure’ and not get into the messy world of politics,” says Jeff Kinder. Palen, he observes, is willing to bridge that divide.

 

Jeff Kinder is Director of the Canadian Science Policy Centre in Ottawa, Ontario. He is one of the policy experts that Liber Ero fellows interact with during their trip to Ottawa to learn about government policy. Palen mentors postdoctoral fellows as Assistant Director of the program.  Kinder was formerly a research physicist working in a government lab, but says that he realized that policy work suited him better. Each year during the Liber Ero Ottawa visit, he provides fellows with a training session he calls “How government works 101.”

 

“The fellows are coming from the sciences and don’t necessarily have a background in government,” he says. He also helps fellows understand how to communicate their scientific results in a way that decision-makers can digest. “It’s trying to bridge the divide between science and policy.”

 

There’s a long-standing notion in academia that scientists should do science, and leave policy up to the policy experts.

 

“Argh,” sighs Kinder. “Yes, I hate that.”

 

“It’s still a very prevalent view,” he says. “But it’s evolving.”

 

There’s a growing interest in science policy among academics, he explains, and a demand for it too.

 

“Granting councils that provide the funding for academic research are asking more and more for things like knowledge mobilization plans,” and asking how researchers are going to communicate their findings “in ways that go beyond just traditional research communications to your peers,” he says.

 

But for academics, navigating the science-policy bridge is not without challenges. “There are quite a few barriers,” says Kinder. One of them is a familiarity issue -- knowing where to plug-in, and who to talk to. Another challenge is around communications. Compared with writing a technical article for a scientific journal, “you need a very different skill set to write a plain language summary for a two-page briefing note for a decision-maker,” he says. There is also an issue of timing. Scientists may be working on experiments or research for months or years. But there tend to be very short, specific windows to inform decision-making. “So you have to act very quickly,” he says, and “the difference in time frame can be a barrier.”

 

There are also geographic barriers. Canada is a huge country, and policy at the federal level is primarily done in the nation’s capital, Ottawa, Ontario. So building relationships to facilitate science-policy integration, says Kinder, “can be difficult to do when people are so widely dispersed across the country.” From Ottawa, for example, Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, is over 3500 kilometres away.

Palen and Liber Ero fellows in Ottawa, Canada, in front of the Houses of Parliament. (Photo taken by a passer-by)

Those challenges, says Kinder, make Palen “refreshing.” 

 

“She’s the kind of scientist we need more of. A stellar academic scientist who produces excellent research but is also very engaged with helping to influence policy and is open to that relationship.”

 

He is struck by how passionate she is about helping fellows and students understand that it’s not just about what goes on in the lab or field, but that they are part of society, says Kinder, “and they can give back and contribute to where Canada is going.”

 

“A lot of academics,” says Kinder, “just don’t think that’s something they should be doing.”

 

A critical mass

All five of the principal investigators in the Earth to Ocean Group that Palen is part of at Simon Fraser University are involved in policy-related activities. These range from marine spatial planning issues to endangered species to salmon research at the science-policy boundary. Indeed, the idea of sharing support for engaging their science beyond the ivory tower is the reason Palen co-created the Earth to Ocean group. “These are all things that we care deeply about,” says Palen, and “we want to share that with our students. We want them to feel some support... and not just feel like they have to go to their discipline-specific conference and talk to the 22 other people who care about the… aromatic structure of dissolved organic carbon,” she laughs. “I was that person when I was a graduate student,” she adds.

 

When it comes to extending academic research to policy-related activities, Simon Fraser University Dean of Science Paul Kench acknowledges there is a tension and anxiety faced by faculty invested in that space. From his viewpoint, doing better at sending signals to faculty that such work is valued is important. He encourages faculty to document and highlight outreach and policy-related activities, but acknowledges that it’s difficult to demonstrate the value of such work quantitatively. "It’s much easier to tot up a list of publications, and impact factors and those sorts of things,” he says. 

 

And Palen does continue to tot up a list of solid scientific publications, some pure science, some in the policy realm. Recently she’s been co-author on several collaborative works, such as papers led by Liber Ero Fellows like Laura Coristine, on how Canada can better meet its commitments around designating protecting areasand on how Canada’s globally disproportionate share of ecosystem values gives it the capacity to be a ‘conservation superpower.’

Palen also contributed to a team paper in the UBC Law Review on environmental assessment and the role of science in decision-making

She co-authored a perspectives piece published in March 2019 in Science with her doctoral student Dan Greenberg, on the global rise of chytrid infection in amphibians, and she is co-author on work led by Amanda Kissel on climate change impacts on Cascades frog populations in Olympic National Park, where Palen has conducted research since her graduate school days.

Palen in the frog lab with her student Dan Greenberg. 

New beginnings

As for new beginnings, recently she has been applying for a grant to investigate a policy issue that lacks rigorous scientific testing: the death-by-a-thousand-cuts idea of cumulative effects. It’s the idea that any one development project might not have devastating environmental impacts on its own, but when the collective impact of multiple projects in the same region are not considered, serious negative impacts may be missed. Canada’s new environmental assessment legislation, the Impact Assessment Act, still under review by the federal government as part of Bill C-69, includes what Palen calls “enabling language” on cumulative effects. What this means in practice is more nebulous.

 

So Palen has an ambitious plan that involves a proposed research project engaging with stakeholders including British Columbia’s provincial government, NGOs, and BC Hydro, among others, to better understand cumulative effects. Her ambition is to build decision support tools – for hotspot areas, like where there are multiple mines and renewable energy projects proposed or already built — in places like northwestern British Columbia’s trans-boundary watersheds that span the Canada-US border.

 

It’s easy to criticize and say we’re not calculating cumulative effects well, explains Palen, but we need solutions that answer the question: if we were to improve things, how would it be done?

 

She had hoped to have personal input on improvements to the bill too. But, underlining that policy timelines can be tricky to adapt to, she was given only 48 hours’ notice about a request to testify in front of the Senate committee considering Bill C-69, on Monday April 8th, 2019. Unable to attend because she was away in Arizona taking a recertification course for wilderness medicine, Palen is disappointed by the missed opportunity.

 

As for the Liber Ero program, they’ve recently welcomed a cohort of five new fellows,  which is “always an exciting time,” she effuses. Palen is excited about the conflict resolution facilitation session that will be featured at their next retreat.

Academic freedom versus flood, and breaking the traditional mould

Palen is grateful for the academic freedom that comes from her academic position, but admits that with that freedom comes a tendency to be juggling too many things.

 

Though Palen has her fingers in many science policy pies, her partner and professional colleague Tom Sisk notes that Palen is no pushover in terms of the kinds of policy-related activities she chooses to take on. In fact, on their first meeting, Sisk says Palen was “pretty sceptical” about joining the research group he was trying to recruit her to join. At the time, in 2010-2011, Sisk was on sabbatical at the University of British Columbia from his position Northern Arizona University where he is the Olajos-Goslow Chair in Environmental Science and Policy. Sisk was looking for scholars based in Canada willing to help spearhead a rigorous look at the impacts of rapid expansion of Alberta’s oil sands. Initially reticent, Sisk says Palen quickly went from reluctant joiner to a leader moving things forward.

 

While acknowledged by many of her peers as a powerhouse for getting things done with or without help, Sisk says Palen also has “a very collaborative spirit.”

 

“She always gravitates towards inclusion and recognizing that one person can’t do a whole lot on their own and that you’re always better cooperating, collaborating and building relationships.”

 

How does Palen prioritize the overwhelming number of things she takes on?

 

“To be totally unfiltered,” says Sisk, “I think that’s one place where’s she’s not as great… She’s really committed to a lot of things, and she doesn’t necessarily step back and say ‘What are the most important things I can do with this amount of time?’,” he says. “Her tendency is to say, ‘Who’s the next person I can help? Or what’s the next project that needs my input?’ says Sisk.

 

As for Palen, how well supported does she feel by her host university in terms of her science and environmental policy-related activities?

 

“At a macro-level, the university is very supportive,” she says. That’s something she knows is not always the case, casting her mind eastwards at some of her colleagues that work at universities in Alberta. “SFU does do a very good job of saying ‘we are the engaged university’ – creating space for difficult conversations,” she says.

 

That engagement beyond the ivory tower, or “getting off the mountain,” in this case, since Simon Fraser University is situated on Burnaby Mountain, is partly what attracted Paul Kench

to the university where he began in September 2018 as the new Dean of Science. Lured from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Kench studies coral reef geomorphology and how climate change affects coastal processes. 

 

Kench hasn’t yet met Palen, and is unfamiliar with her work. But as to his macro level, first impressions of the university, “what sets us apart, at least in intent, is wanting to have an impact on society at all levels, including policy,” he says. His work too has often involved work with community. Research that involves developing partnerships, rather than the traditional “linear information flow” of academia, he says, is extremely challenging, timing consuming, costly, and under-resourced. “Funding mechanisms that we typically have access to don’t… necessarily appreciate the fact that we’re trying to work with community and multi-disciplinary teams,” says Kench. But federal funding agencies in Canada, he says, are slowly moving in that direction.

 

Though Simon Fraser University uses the tagline “The engaged university,” something the Faculty of Science embraces, at least at the top, lower down the chain of bureaucracy, there is not a lot of encouragement, and not a lot of support,” for policy-related activities, says Palen. Such activities are not always appreciated. 

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Shortly before she went up for tenure, Palen gave a talk about her work on renewable energy, mentioning what an education it was to engage with multiple stakeholders including the province’s electricity provider, BC Hydro. In the question and answer session afterwards, one of her colleagues asked her “in a pretty pointed way,” says Palen, “whether I thought that [public policy engagement] was part of my job description as a faculty member.”

 

“There was a bit of a barb there,” says Palen.

 

So one of the things she shares with the Liber Ero Fellows, in training them about the difficulties of navigating the science to policy bridge, is the value of their network – the people and colleagues and friends they can look to for support “in those moments when colleagues don’t really understand what we do and why, and it hurts,” says Palen.

 

At the micro level, within the dynamic Earth to Oceans (E2O) research group at Simon Fraser University, Palen says she feels very well supported. Co-founded by Palen and a group in which is she one of five principal investigators, the Earth to Ocean lab is a powerhouse of change-makers whose science and its impacts flow well beyond the mountain.

 

Right across the hall, for example, is Nick Dulvy, Co-Chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Shark Specialist Group. “He works at this really global scale,” says Palen, attending CITES meeting where there are often complicated, weighty, controversial conversations going on behind the scenes between nations. “So him having that experience, and me having these experiences of working more regionally or nationally, we can compare notes, and then when we get bogged down with the micro stuff here in our department — with our colleagues who just don’t understand — we have that as a pressure release valve, and place to look for support.” 

Earth to Ocean Principal Investigators, minus Palen. From left to right John Reynolds, Isabelle Côté, Jon Moore, and Nick Dulvy.

That’s sometimes easier said than done, given the volume of projects and policy work the group is involved in. Finding the time to fit everything in, including policy-related meetings, can be particularly hard, explains Dulvy, who has just returned from an angel shark conservation policy meeting in Tunis, Tunisia. It’s April 3rd, 2019, and I’ve come up to the university to meet with Kench, and use the opportunity to try to find Palen, who I have not managed to reach by email. That’s been a not uncommon occurrence over the past year that I’ve been following her activities. Palen is not at her office, and Dulvy, across the hall does not know her whereabouts. As I continue my search, he says, half-seriously, half in jest, “If you figure out how to track her down, we’d all like to know.” 

 

On a more serious note, Dulvy is acutely aware of the workplace challenge of “persuading our colleagues of the legitimacy of what we do.” In academia, he explains, there are only three things officially in the scope of work: research, teaching, and service. “Normally when people think of service they think of departmental committees and so on,” he says. “Technically there is no real scope to do this kind of work as service, so it’s only now with the change of SFU’s vision to engage in the world that suddenly these activities are rated and valued. For a long period of time, they were not. So having supportive colleagues that value that type of contribution has been really important,” he says, pointing to Palen and his other E2O colleagues.

E2O faculty (from right: John Reynolds, Wendy Palen, Jon Moore, Isabelle Côté, Nick Dulvy), and (second from left) colleague Larry Dill at a Community Leadership Award dinner. Photo courtesy Nick Dulvy.

With the increasing awareness of climate change, Dulvy points to more and more academics getting engaged in policy work – internationally, and locally – and even running for political office. “People see that we’re getting consulted by MPs and other decision-makers who are seeing that it is valuable for society,” he says. 

 

“It takes academia a long time to catch up to what is legitimate academic enterprise,” he adds.

 

For years, says Dulvy, “this has been the wallpaper of our lives,” referring to the fact that for academics that want to see their science do more than collect dust on the shelves of academic libraries and be read by a handful of colleagues, “we’ve all been trying to do this stuff off the side of our desks.” Not technically paid or rewarded or supported for this work, it's only recently they’ve reached a critical mass of acceptance. “For junior faculty like Wendy, that’s been particularly hard,” says Dulvy. 

 

The challenges of navigating the science-policy space from the not-always-supportive environments of academia appear to be one of the drivers for Palen’s strong motivation to see the generation of scientists succeed more easily. One of Dulvy’s postdoctoral fellows, and a current Liber Ero Fellow, David Shiffman is grateful for new portals to a network of support and policy learnings, including his mentorship by Palen. No stranger to engaging with the public as a well-known blogger as well as shark expert, Shiffman first heard Palen speak at a conference. While many researchers talk about how their research might have policy or management relevance, Shiffman was struck by how Palen provides examples of the practical tools needed for science-policy engagement. 

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Hints from the past, challenges of the present

 

Wading into muddy waters, and standing her ground against a strong countercurrent, were things Palen started doing early in her career, as a graduate student. Cognizant of amphibian declines across the globe, many researchers had converged on the idea that perhaps an excess of ultraviolet light was the culprit. 

 

Putting this hypothesis to the test, Palen studied 136 frog breeding sites in the northwestern US. She determined that in 85% of the ponds frogs were inhabiting, waters were too murky for ultraviolet light to penetrate enough to do damage. For researchers who had built careers around this line of study, this young female graduate student took them aback, says her former lab-mate Amanda Stanley. “Wendy handled this with a great deal of courage and forthrightness,” says Stanley, who is now Executive Director of COMPASS, a US-based non-profit, non-advocacy organization focused on conservation science communication.

 

Palen’s determination and drive was one of the first impressions she made on her then lab mate, and now colleague and friend Stanley. Palen was the fourth graduate student to arrive in the lab of Daniel Schindler, then a new professor at the University of Washington, where Stanley was already working. We were all crammed around this little table, with a whiteboard, in the Lake Washington lab Schindler had taken over, with cabinets archiving a half-century of lake data, Stanley recalls.  Palen came in with an immediate intensity. “So smart, and so motivated,” Stanley recalls. “It was clear right from the get-go that she’s super driven.”

 

Palen apparently wasn’t short of drive as a kid either. Her family, she admits, has a newspaper clipping that speaks to her youthful resourcefulness. That article is about Palen selling insects out of her locker in grade 6, “to kids who weren't as enthusiastic as I was about a semester-long insect collection assignment,” she chuckles.

 

But that energetic drive has been challenged over the last seven months with health issues – her own but also those of her family. “It’s complicated,” she says. What seemed like a bad cold when I spoke to her back in July 2018 at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology in Toronto turned into seemingly pneumonia, and now, despite “specialist after specialist,” says Palen, a mystery illness that is still not diagnosed. It’s taken a toll on her ability to juggle all that her academic, policy-related and mentoring activities entail.

Restructuring her teaching load into an intensive short course instead of a term-long commitment, is part of her experiment in trying to get better. Still though, in terms of the illness that plagues her, there are “no real satisfying answers,” she says, so it’s “pretty frustrating.”

 

The health setback has made her think a lot about the cost of all she takes on, and the risks of de-prioritizing self-care. “I’ve been doing a little bit of reflecting,” says Palen. “Knowing how stressed I was when I got sick back in July.” Ironically, the stress came in part because of trying to negotiate a more flexible work schedule. “You look back and you say, ‘this is probably a product of the way you’ve literally run-run-run-run-run.”

Palen in her office, February 2019. (Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden)

“All of this has made me think about some of the unintended costs of what we do,” she says. And it’s given her an appreciation of her colleagues in the environmental non-governmental organization world, who deal with burnout in a really big way.

 

We have this culture of “there’s so much to do.” She recognizes the idea that ‘we have to be better at saying no.’ At the same time, says Palen, “when you work on things that are really important, “saying no has a cost – a social cost, a cost to your students, to the next generation of scientists, to your community of colleagues, and the people you try and support with your work.” So her scaled down energy level, she admits, and recognizing she’s not invincible, has been hard. “It’s been a bit of a wake-up call for me,” she says.

Reflections

In terms of talking to policy-makers versus talking to scientists, Palen says the evolution of her thinking has “moved from believing that more science will help solve the problem, to recognizing that science in service of communities solving their own problems is the only way forward.” It’s rare that there’s this missing piece of science, and you go out and do the science and then it helps solve the problem. “It almost never works that way,” she says. 

 

“Real change has to come from communities having some sense of ownership, and first, a desire for the information, and then a sense of ownership over the information. And it all involves this messy stuff of human values.

 

"So, I’m always going to try to play that role of providing what I think is credible information. And following my nose in terms of being interested in projects where I do think there’s a gap, or a missing part of the story, or conversation that’s not being had. But I think lasting change in terms of policy, that has to come through this completely different avenue, where engaging with different stakeholders, or communities, or sectors, and enabling them to take some ownership over the information that we maybe already have, is where I’ve seen real progress. That’s a big shift because it’s not how we do our science. We’re not trained to convene groups of stakeholders. That’s not our profession. But it’s arguably where we could have the most impact.”

In the preceding generation, most great ecologists, Sisk muses, were driven by the intellectual challenges of understanding the diversity of life and evolution and why the living world is the way it is. Palen, he says, is part of “an early generation of ecologists choosing to contribute to the betterment of the world.”

 

“She strives to reach far beyond academia.

 

“Her real commitment to policy is toward the importance of advocating for science. That science is the thing that will really help us to make better decisions. She’s less keen on being prescriptive about what policy outcomes should prevail than she is in advocating for being smart, and using the information that science has given us.”

 

Palen is determined to “continue to encourage other scientists to make this leap.” In terms of tips for others wanting to leap into the science policy fray, she has been thinking about how to ‘bottle that’ for her students, collaborators and colleagues, and working more systematically “to make engagement with the policy process something that we teach.”

 

In a moment of reflection as she reaches out for a just-before-deadline interview with me on April 15th, 2019, Palen leaves me with something she and Sisk discussed last week:

 

“Imagine if we were to take as much time thinking carefully and thoughtfully through how our work might affect policy and dialogue as we do, say, on study design or experimental design.” 


That is what she’s thinking about most urgently, right now. 

Palen and salamander.

Prologue

Casting my mind back to our 2016 trip to her Cascades frog research site in the Seven Lakes Basin in Olympic National Park in Washington State, there aren't many other human beings around in the backcountry where we are camping and scrambling up and down heathery slopes to ponds and small lakes. Where we do come across other hikers though, Palen is always engaging. Congratulating a lesbian couple celebrating their wedding anniversary. Helping out a fly fisherman she sees trying to snag a trout in a pond she knows has no fish — pointing out a better fishing spot nearby. After packing up to leave, a millennial hiking with her boyfriend strikes up a conversation with Palen on the trail down to the parking lot. Within minutes of chit chatting, her temporary trail companion, already mesmerized, is asking Palen if she is taking new graduate students.

Palen and Munshaw hiking down from the Seven Lakes Basin. (Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden)

The morning before we hike out, I ask Palen if she doesn’t feel the cold as she wades, bare footed, save some sandals, into a freezing cold pond in search of frogs with the zeal of a 10 year old. Her assistant Robin Munshaw, wading in the same pond, is wearing neoprene booties. “I think I may have done some nerve damage to my feet over the years,” says Palen. She says she doesn’t really feel the cold. Or perhaps it’s more a case of mind over matter. Either way, in both mountain frog research, and navigating the science-policy divide, it’s an advantage to not get cold feet.

Photo: Pascal Limothe-Kipnes

Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden

Lesley Evans Ogden

The journalist

 

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

The scientist

 

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.

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