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How Scientists Are Fighting For Truth in a Burning World

A stressed scientist sits at a lab bench with her head in her hands as other scientists pass, blurred in the background.
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Read time: 4 minutes

As humanity faces a growing climate and biodiversity crisis, the scientific community finds itself on the frontlines. Scientists, tasked with understanding and mitigating these issues, can often feel burdened by such responsibilities, resulting in feelings of guilt and pressure.

In this article, Dr. Natalie Cooper, an ecologist and senior researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, shares her insights on how to persevere as a scientist amidst global crises.

The importance of the scientific voice

Interdisciplinary collaboration   

The climate crisis is a multi-faceted challenge requiring interdisciplinary solutions from experts across a variety of fields such as ecology, sociology, economics and policymaking. Collaboration between scientists, the public and government is vital to save our planet.

Cooper emphasizes the need for scientists to be mindful of their communication, explaining how public engagement has changed how she does her research. “I think carefully about what I'm doing and how that information might be transmitted to the public,” she says.

She explains that her role in the museum enables her to interact with donors and government departments: “Even if I'm not working directly on those climate solutions, I can be working with people who might control policy or the funding of work on climate solutions,” she says. The role of the scientist extends well beyond pipetting and writing research papers; the scientific voice is powerful and significant in the public sphere – and we must use it wisely.

Advocacy and activism

Scientists have a unique position of authority and credibility, which can be used to raise awareness, influence policy and advocate for sustainable practices.

Are scientists doing enough to advocate for the planet, and, if not, what more they could be doing?

“Scientists are doing a pretty good job of getting the word out about the climate crisis,” Cooper says. “Everyone could be doing a good job; I'm not a climate scientist, but I will shout about it … if I give a presentation with a funny animal fact, I will ensure we also talk about how those animals are facing extinction.”

“There are some scientists who feel that science should be kept separate from politics and emotion,” she adds. “I would encourage those people to realize that nothing is without context, including science. They need to get involved.”

Individual actions that scientists can take beyond the laboratory environment to lead by example include joining a charity, working in a nature reserve or getting involved with local campaigning groups, for example.

Empowering young people is particularly important, Cooper highlights: “Working with young activists who come from around the world is very inspiring; it does make me feel better about the future. As people who have gone through their whole lives with [knowledge of the climate crisis] underlying their childhood, they will, hopefully, make great change when they get to positions of power.”

The importance of community

Collaboration across scientific networks allows for not only the exchange of ideas, but also emotional support. Cooper emphasizes the importance of community for coping with difficult emotions surrounding major crises such as the climate crisis: “Some people manage to put it into a little box in their head, but most people have been really open about saying [the climate crisis] is something that upsets them,” she says.

“For some [scientists] it's especially difficult; they're working with species that are really close to extinction … coral reefs they may have worked on are dead and don’t exist anymore. Having a community to chat with has been really important,” she adds.

Now more than ever, scientists must come together. With the help of social media platforms, connection to a supportive network can be a mere click away, whether you fancy joining a network such as this LinkedIn group for women in STEM, or joining an online community via one of the myriad science associations.

Fostering hope

In the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, Cooper reminds us that small successes can make a difference, recalling examples of people coming together to solve major environmental problems. She describes the remarkable resurgence of osprey and bald eagle populations in the US, and peregrine falcon and red kite populations in the UK, following the 1972 ban on the once routinely used pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) after it was found to cause eggshell thinning for birds of prey. Recounting the recovery of blue whale populations from the brink of extinction, Cooper reiterates, “It’s not all bad. There’s definitely hope.”

Even when it may feel like our accomplishments are just a drop in the ocean, progress is progress. Amidst significant challenges, it’s vital that we take the time to celebrate our successes, however small they may seem.

Prioritizing mental health

A career in science can be noble, but often carries an emotional toll and significant self-sacrifice, with scientists finding themselves unable to “switch off”. With over 20 years of research experience, Cooper recounts the challenges she faces as an ecologist amidst the climate and biodiversity crisis. “I go through cycles of feeling very guilty [about not working more], but I have my own life. I can be worried about climate change, but I still need to do the washing,” she says. Her comments highlight the almost comical challenge many scientists face, juggling their personal lives – picking up the kids, taking out the bins – with the weighty responsibility of helping to solve humanitarian and environmental crises through the humble tools of research.

Cooper reminds us of the importance of balance between personal life and concern about the climate crisis, urging us to prioritize our mental well-being: “If I can’t do something [about the climate crisis] right now, what else do I need to be doing to make sure that my life continues running? [Eco-anxiety] is a constant undercurrent. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it motivates researchers – but it’s important to make sure that the undercurrent doesn’t overwhelm you.”

Despite pressure to remain current and impassioned regarding every problem world-over, the daily barrage of distressing news we are exposed to can become overwhelming. Cooper advises: “It’s okay to have a social media detox…self-care is really important. If you're feeling bad, sitting down and ruminating isn’t going to help. Try to do nice things, hang out with your friends, engage in hobbies.”

Balancing a personal life with the struggles of the research environment can be a challenge, both for the burnt-out post-grad student and the esteemed senior researcher. Having spent time working as a researcher in the US, Cooper highlights the differences between UK and US work culture, emphasizing the importance of a work-life balance. The US system is at an extreme where it’s not unusual for people to be working 60 to 70 hours a week … that’s really unhealthy,” she says. “I strongly encourage my students to take breaks, holidays and work a standard nine-to-five so they don’t feel they have to be working constantly.”

In a culture where success is increasingly defined by the arbitrary metrics of career progression or monetary wealth, it’s crucial that we focus on real successes – creating a better world, supporting our loved ones and living a fulfilling life. Achieving these goals, and doing good science, can only happen if we are mentally well enough to do so. So, how do you remain a good scientist while the world burns? Step one: look after yourself.