A month ago I was a story teller at a Science Literacy Week event in Toronto called Story Collider. My story was about the excitement of travelling to the high Arctic for fieldwork the first time, only to find out during the first week that the government was cutting its funding. This prompted me down a path of science advocacy. This script aims to share some of my feelings on the experiences.
Story Collider was different from the other public speaking I’ve done. There was no one else on stage. There was nothing else on stage – no slides, no notes. Just me and a mic. The simplicity of this arrangement helped create a personal connection with the audience.
(Nice blog entry by science writer Mirjam Guesgen summarizing the event here.)
In this post I’ve added a few photos to illustrate what was in my head at the time. At some point, the audio recording of the event will be released and I’ll add a link.
Here we go…
Flying across the Canadian Arctic is an exhilarating experience.
It’s a full day’s journey. Canada’s Arctic is huge. The landscapes are stunning; there are mountains and fjords, waterways and sea ice (for the moment anyway).
I do the trip when it’s the end of Polar Night, when light is returning after months of continuous darkness. In a small charter plane, the ride is loud and bumpy. There is no bathroom. With lots of scientific equipment along for the ride and everyone wearing massive parkas, space is limited. Every pound of weight is planned and verified. Weather can be difficult.
I remember the time the landing gear wheels got stuck – likely due to ice – and the landing in Resolute Bay (along the northwestern passages) was… abrupt. Another time, there were high winds. I remember trying to enjoy the landscape growing ever-closer out the window as the plane approached a runway at a steep angle – only levelling out at the last minute. It was a relief to land.
The effort is worth it. When I finally arrive in the middle of Ellesmere Island’s polar desert, it takes a half hour drive, down a desolate Arctic dirt road, to reach the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, or PEARL.
It’s further north than the northern lights, Inuit, and all Canadian settlements except the Alert military base. I have done the journey many times to do fieldwork.
I’m an atmospheric physicist.
When everything is working well, I love going for hikes around the lab. Our parkas and snow pants mostly protect us from temperatures as low as -50ºC, but after a while your eyelashes end up freezing together. (The important thing is not to pull the ice off – melt it gently with your hands.)
If you can keep your eyelashes from freezing, it’s also awesome to see the wildlife. Arctic bunnies and foxes. (A few more photos here.) But sometimes, cables get chewed by curious Arctic wolves. So that’s a challenge, too.
Whether you’re a grad student or tenured professor, you’ll find yourself shovelling snow when the truck gets stuck in a snowdrift. I’ve shovelled snow next to the best in my field.
Without PEARL, scientists would have a big question mark across a significant part of the Arctic.
When I first joined the team, I was proud to be part of big, planet-wide endeavours aimed at understanding our changing world.
My first week at PEARL, in February 2012, was a whirlwind of activity. The cold was extreme, but I was thrilled. Maybe even moreso because of it. (I mean, I grew up in Ottawa, so I was ready for the Arctic, right??)
The Polar Vortex was overhead. The sawtooth mountain range carved out a jagged horizon to the east. A Canadian satellite mission flew overhead regularly; working in combination with PEARL instruments to observe the changing atmosphere. When I first arrived, the sun didn’t rise until 11 a.m. With each day, it rose a little bit earlier. After a month of being there, the sun set late into the evening.
When summer arrives, the sun doesn’t set at all.
….. But there was darkness on the horizon ….
A photo I’d taken of the lab and surrounding landscape during one of my very first days on the campaign made the front page of a major newspaper. I was excited but also heartbroken. The story was not about the tremendous science we were doing, but that it was all coming to an unexpected and sudden end. The government had decided to end funding for atmospheric and climate research. We would finish the campaign, and then the lab would be left in hibernation.
A few weeks later, the last day of the campaign arrived. I made the most of it and enjoyed the view from the PEARL roof. I didn’t know if I’d ever return.
When I got back to Toronto, I realized PEARL’s closure was one story within a much larger one. Canada seemed to be dismantling its research capacity, with environmental work taking the biggest hit. The Experimental Lakes Area was closing, the census was cancelled, science libraries were being shut. Scientists in the federal government were fired by the thousands and those remaining were muzzled.
My perspective on the situation expanded beyond the PEARL facility, beyond the Arctic, and beyond science. Into politics. I started a #SavePEARL campaign.
Hmmm, I didn’t expect to get involved in politics when I decided to do a physics Ph.D… it’s not what I signed up for, but it was what was needed.
I wanted Canadians to understand what was being lost, and why it was important. I wanted there to be a public outcry to Save PEARL, and to save Canadian science.
Fast-forward a few years
I find myself marching down the streets of downtown Toronto, with a lab coat on and bullhorn in my hand. Hundreds of people march behind me.
I’m feeling exhilarated again. This time, not for doing science, but for rallying people to support it politically. Today, it still amazes me this was necessary at all.
I joined Canada’s leading group of science activists, who’d formed a new organization called Evidence for Democracy to advocate for science. There were marches and protests across Canada, calling on the government to fund science. It was a scene that would be repeated again on a global scale with the March for Science, which I also helped lead with a lab coat on and a bullhorn in my hand. This time, there are thousands of people behind me.
I learned that when Canadians speak loudly enough, politicians listen.
PEARL was eventually saved by new funding. There was a big gap in valuable long-term datasets that could never be recovered – the damage was done, but at least the work could begin again.
I returned to PEARL each winter for fieldwork, and operated instruments remotely during the rest of the year. I upgraded instrumentation, tested new measurement techniques, and have been using PEARL measurements to validate new satellite data. Busy filling in those question marks with data.
When the 2015 federal election arrived, I was pleased to see the winning party had lots of promises on science. I thought this time would be different. My years of campaigning for science were finally paying off.
Maybe Canadian research would be on firmer footing now.
Today, I’ve got what I need: cool photos, amazing memories, and a soon-to-be-finished Ph.D. But I know Canada still needs PEARL, if we’re to understand the Arctic and our atmosphere. Our international partners still need PEARL, so we can together fill in those many question marks about how our world is changing.
I expected the new government would expand funding for atmospheric and climate science, but it didn’t. The only program supporting this type of work was ended. There have been no promises of funding in the future. I asked Trudeau himself when we, quite by chance, were both in Iqaluit several months ago. He said he’d talk to the Minister of Science. Nothing came of it.
Will it be saved this time?
How many times will I have to put on a labcoat, and instead of walking into a lab, walk into the street to march for science?
Science only happens when we decide to support it.
** Update: temporary short-term ‘bridge’ funding has been announced that ensure PEARL won’t close immediately. (CBC North story.). But it isn’t a long-term solution. It simply kicks the can down the road. (My thoughts here.) This script is as relevant as ever. Will I march for science again in 2019 to call on the government to fund PEARL? I hope it won’t be necessary.