Margaret Palmer: Actionable Science


Stream bed restoration and watershed preservation, testimony in a federal court on the harm done by mountain top removal of coal, an appearance on the Colbert Report in January, 2010: in a fantastic article by Erik Stokstad in Science (Science 343: 592-595, February 7, 2014), you can read about the career and life of Margaret Palmer. Save the article to read again for inspiration. 

That article brought me to interview Margaret, with a focus on her activism and advice for other scientists. But Erik’s Stokstad’s article, with its coverage of the reasons for and complexities of Margaret’s activism, reads as a primer for the ups and downs of a scientific life entwined with politics and policy.

Margaret Palmer received her Ph.D. in coastal oceanography, but soon shifted her work to streams and now runs a laboratory on stream bed restoration at the University of Maryland. This work led her to documenting the effect of the mountain top removal of coal upon streams, and into the political mire of competing interests in the environment. She is now also the director of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis.

In an institute named the “National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center,” (SESYNC) you might assume that activism is an important component of work and research. You would be right. But the balancing act between maintaining scientific credibility in stream bed research while being involved with political and legal protection of the environment is a constant personal challenge, even with institutional credibility.

SESYNC and Margaret’s science are run separately, funded separately, and have different purposes that must be transparent in order for all participants to retain integrity.

Around 1995, NSF first put out an RFP for restoration studies: rather than observation, which had been the core of ecology, NSF would now fund experimentation on ecological solutions. This itself was controversial, as how ecology even defined natural systems was not seen as a social construct open to interpretation. Timing was crucial, though, and as the changing environment was noted more and more by scientists an citizens, the wall between science and public action was lowered.

 Collaborators Margaret, John Cramer, and Jim Boyd recognized the role of social dynamics in environmental outcomes, and convinced NSF to fund an experimental program that would integrate public input with scientific results. SESYNC is a unique core program, funded by NSF (National Science Foundation)  to help the external community do actionable science. They would fund actionable science.

Note the use of the word “actionable.” “Activism” and “advocacy” are still seen as subjective and therefore, unscientific. “Applied” is palatable, but while it includes the public in outcome, it does not consider the public to be part of application.  Every proposal at SESYNC must include and describe consideration of the end user. Yet the federal government, and government organizations such as NSF, do not fund activism, so language must be considered. And boundaries made.

The center does not prohibit advocacy. But Margaret feels she must be careful about activism beyond the actionable science. Though her heart might be there, she does not go to rallies or fundraisers that promote causes she believes in. Participation in overt advocacy or activism could be used against what she sees as her place of highest effectiveness- testifying for science. And with her eyes on the outcomes she wants, she must be effective.

One of the ways Margaret tries to maintain actionability versus advocacy to is deliver the results of analysis without suggesting a particular action- that is, to say “if x is done, y is likely to occur, ” rather than “you need to do/not do x.” But In spite of the care to keep the activism out of actionable science, there are risks, especially to funding from NGO and non-profit organizations, who may see implied criticism of their policies in data. Because of her actionable science, and the perception that she must then be biased, Margaret has been disqualified from being on professional teams such as EPA panels, exclusions that can hurt a scientist’s career.

Staying professional publicly can mean masking personal views. Only once, on a panel at Brigham Young University, did Margaret give her truest answer to the question, “Why do you do what you do?” She answered simply, “I really care about the earth and about our future.” Being in nature, Margaret feels, is deep need not only for herself, but for many humans, and she does not want to see that destroyed.

Advice for activists:

You may not be able to be an activist early in your career. It takes a great deal of time, and will take time away from your science. Academics and academia are conservative, and there is generally no reward system for scientists doing activism or even actionable science. So, in order to be an effective science-activist, be sure you are an effective scientist.

Keep up your science. This is what gives you credibility in the activist world as well as in the scientific arena.

 Consider where you can be most effective! This is outstandingly important advice. What is the outcome you want? Choose the path and tools you need for that outcome.

Make the most of your opportunities. The 6 or so minutes on the Colbert show  brought notice (negative and positive) and funders. Many scientists are worried about saying something wrong, but any activism will involve communication, and you can find, for any medium, advice and suggestion for effectiveness. Even negative notoriety can be leveraged into positive interpretations.

Have a thick skin and look for resources to protect yourself. Any involvement with politics can bring very personal attacks, as opponents try to discredit you to reduce your effectiveness. Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOYA), lawyers for the mining industry requested not only Margaret’s emails, but documents such as reviews written  by in response to Margaret’s journal submissions. You do need advice and protection.

(All of your emails, even your personal accounts, can be requested. So telling the truth in all communications is good both morally and strategically!)

The University of Maryland seemed proud of Margaret’s activism, but they did not protect her against the attacks by the coal mining industries during court testimony days- they protected themselves. This is what universities do, so don’t take that personally, either. Margaret found support through PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) (, an alliance of state and federal legal and communication experts who protect employees who work on environmental issues.

Look for non-profits to work with also in non-crisis mode as collaborators. Non-profits want scientists to work with them, but don’t know how to find them. Don’t wait for an invitation, but contact organizations who share a mindset or mission with you.

I would add that working with or within an organization such as SESYNC can greatly give a mantle of actionable science (an thus, trust for some agencies) that advocacy/activism does not. Scientists working in traditional environments have no way to fund and publicize actionable science, and so all efforts will be activism to the world. It is very difficult to be a lone and effective activist, and it might be impossible.

April 2, 2014 interview.



Academics and scientists on preventing war

Academics and scientists on preventing war.

I was fortunate to work with a group of public health folks on looking for ways that public health workers  might not not just repair the effects of war, but be able to actually prevent it. The resulting paper in the American Journal of Public Health gives the reasons why war is rationalized, and suggests a curriculum and competencies that could reverse the presumption that war is inevitable.

The Role of Public Health in the Prevention of War: Rationale and Competencies

William H. Wiist, DHSc, MPH, MS, Kathy Barker, PhD, Neil Arya, MD, Jon Rohde, MD, Martin Donohoe, MD, Shelley White, PhD, MPH, Pauline Lubens, MPH, Geraldine Gorman, RN, PhD, and Amy Hagopian, PhD

American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 104, No. 6, June 2014: e34-e47.  to access AJPH website.

(AJPH charges authors $2,500 to make the papers open access. Many academics pay for this through grants, but we were unable to do so- antiwar research isn’t exactly a hot topic for government funding. AJPH refused to waive the fee.)

email to see a personal copy of the paper.

Here is a posting by antiwar author David Swanson on the AJPH paper:

Public Health Experts Identify Militarism As Threat

By David Swanson
A remarkable article appears in the June 2014 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The authors, experts in public health, are listed with all their academic credentials: William H. Wiist, DHSc, MPH, MS, Kathy Barker, PhD, Neil Arya, MD, Jon Rohde, MD, Martin Donohoe, MD, Shelley White, PhD, MPH, Pauline Lubens, MPH, Geraldine Gorman, RN, PhD, and Amy Hagopian, PhD.

Some highlights and commentary:

“In 2009 the American Public Health Association (APHA) approved the policy statement, ‘The Role of Public Health Practitioners, Academics, and Advocates in Relation to Armed Conflict and War.’ . . . In response to the APHA policy, in 2011, a working group on Teaching the Primary Prevention of War, which included the authors of this article, grew . . . .”

“Since the end of World War II, there have been 248 armed conflicts in 153 locations around the world. The United States launched 201 overseas military operations between the end of World War II and 2001, and since then, others, including Afghanistan and Iraq. During the 20th century, 190 million deaths could be directly and indirectly related to war — more than in the previous 4 centuries.”

These facts, footnoted in the article, are more useful than ever in the face of the current academic trend in the United States of proclaiming the death of war. By re-categorizing many wars as other things, minimizing death counts, and viewing deaths as proportions of the global population rather than of a local population or as absolute numbers, various authors have tried to claim that war is vanishing. Of course, war could and should vanish, but that is only likely to happen if we find the drive and the resources to make it happen.

“The proportion of civilian deaths and the methods for classifying deaths as civilian are debated, but civilian war deaths constitute 85% to 90% of casualties caused by war, with about 10 civilians dying for every combatant killed in battle. The death toll (mostly civilian) resulting from the recent war in Iraq is contested, with estimates of 124,000 to 655,000 to more than
a million, and finally most recently settling on roughly a half million. Civilians have been targeted for death and for sexual violence in some contemporary conflicts. Seventy percent to 90% of the victims of the 110 million landmines planted since 1960 in 70 countries were civilians.”

This, too, is critical, as a top defense of war is that it must be used to prevent something worse, called genocide. Not only does militarism generate genocide rather than preventing it, but the distinction between war and genocide is a very fine one at best. The article goes on to cite just some of the health effects of war, of which I will cite just some highlights:

“The World Health Organization (WHO) Commission on the Social Determinants of Health pointed out that war affects children’s health, leads to displacement and migration, and diminishes agricultural productivity. Child and maternal mortality, vaccination rates, birth outcomes, and water quality and sanitation are worse in conflict zones. War has contributed to preventing eradication of polio, may facilitate the spread of HIV/ AIDS, and has decreased availability of health professionals. In addition, landmines cause psychosocial and physical consequences, and pose a threat to food security by rendering agricultural land useless. . . .

“Approximately 17,300 nuclear weapons are presently deployed in at least 9 countries (including 4300 US and Russian operational warheads, many of which can be launched and reach their targets within 45 minutes). Even an accidental missile launch could lead to the greatest global public health disaster in recorded history.

“Despite the many health effects of war, there are no grant funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health devoted to the prevention of war, and most schools of public health do not include the prevention of war in the curriculum.”

Now, there is a huge gap in our society that I bet most readers hadn’t noticed, despite its perfect logic and obvious importance! Why should public health professionals be working to prevent war? The authors explain:

“Public health professionals are uniquely qualified for involvement in the prevention of war on the basis of their skills in epidemiology; identifying risk and protective factors; planning, developing, monitoring, and evaluating prevention strategies; management of programs and services; policy analysis and development; environmental assessment and remediation; and health advocacy. Some public health workers have knowledge of the effects of war from personal exposure to violent conflict or from working with patients and communities in armed conflict situations. Public health also provides a common ground around which many disciplines are willing to come together to form alliances for the prevention of war. The voice of public health is often heard as a force for public good.
 Through regular collection and review of health indicators public health can provide early warnings of the risk for violent conflict. Public health can also describe the health effects of war, frame the discussion about wars and their funding . . . and expose the militarism that often leads to armed conflict and incites public fervor for war.”

About that militarism. What is it?

“Militarism is the deliberate extension of military objectives and rationale into shaping the culture, politics, and economics of civilian life so that war and the preparation for war is normalized, and the development and maintenance of strong military institutions is prioritized. Militarism is an excessive reliance on
a strong military power and the threat of force as a legitimate means of pursuing policy goals in difficult international relations. It glorifies warriors, gives strong allegiance to the military as the ultimate guarantor of freedom and safety, and reveres military morals and ethics as being above criticism. Militarism instigates civilian society’s adoption of military concepts, behaviors, myths, and language as its own. Studies show that militarism is positively correlated with conservatism, nationalism, religiosity, patriotism, and with an authoritarian personality, and negatively related to respect for civil liberties, tolerance of dissent, democratic principles, sympathy and welfare toward the troubled and poor, and foreign aid for poorer nations. Militarism subordinates other societal interests, including health, to the interests of the military.”

And does the United States suffer from it?

“Militarism is intercalated into many aspects of life in the United States and, since the military draft was eliminated, makes few overt demands of the public except the costs in taxpayer funding. Its expression, magnitude, and implications have become invisible to a large proportion of the civilian population, with little recognition of the human costs or the negative image held by other countries. Militarism has been called a ‘psychosocial disease,’ making it amenable to population-wide interventions. . . .

“The United States is responsible for 41% of the world’s total military spending. The next largest in spending are China, accounting for 8.2%; Russia, 4.1%; and the United Kingdom and France, both 3.6%. . . . If all military . . . costs are included, annual [US] spending amounts to $1 trillion . . . . According to the DOD fiscal year 2012 base structure report, ‘The DOD manages global property of more than 555,000 facilities at more than 5,000 sites, covering more than 28 million acres.’ The United States maintains 700 to 1000 military bases or sites in more than 100 countries. . . .

“In 2011 the United States ranked first in worldwide conventional weapons sales, accounting for 78% ($66 billion). Russia was second with $4.8 billion. . . .

“In 2011-2012, the top-7 US arms producing and service companies contributed $9.8 million to federal election campaigns. Five of the top-10 [military] aerospace corporations in the world (3 US, 2 UK and Europe) spent $53 million lobbying the US government in 2011. . . .

“The main source of young recruits is the US public school system, where recruiting focuses on rural and impoverished youths, and thus forms an effective poverty draft that is invisible to most middle- and upper-class families. . . . In contradiction of the United States’ signature on the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict treaty, the military recruits minors in public high schools, and does not inform students or parents of their right to withhold home contact information. The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery is given in public high schools as a career aptitude test and is compulsory in many high schools, with students’ contact information forwarded to the military, except in Maryland where the state legislature mandated that schools no longer automatically forward the information.”

Public health advocates also lament the tradeoffs in types of research the United States invests in:

“Resources consumed by military . . . research, production, and services divert human expertise away from other societal needs. The DOD is the largest funder of research and development in the federal government. The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allocate large amounts of funding to programs such as ‘BioDefense.’ . . . The lack of other funding sources drives some researchers to pursue military or security funding, and some subsequently become desensitized to the influence of the military. One leading university in the United Kingdom recently announced, however, it would end its £1.2 million investment in
a . . . company that makes components for lethal US drones because it said the business was not ‘socially responsible.'”

Even in President Eisenhower’s day, militarism was pervasive: “The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.” The disease has spread:

“The militaristic ethic and methods have extended into the civilian law enforcement and justice systems. . . .

“By promoting military solutions to political problems and portraying military action as inevitable, the military often influences news media coverage, which in turn, creates public acceptance of war or a fervor for war. . . .”

The authors describe programs that are beginning to work on war prevention from a public health perspective, and they conclude with recommendations for what should be done. Take a look.

David Swansons wants you to declare peace at His new book is War No More: The Case for Abolition. He blogs at and and works for He hosts Talk Nation Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook.

Sign up for occasional important activist alerts here

Sign up for articles or press releases here

This email may be unlawfully collected, held, and read by the NSA which violates our freedoms using the justification of immoral, illegal wars absurdly described as being somehow for freedom.



Notoriety pays: Cliff Mass

Cliff mass 1 Influenced by mentors Carl Sagan and Steve Sneider, University of Washington atmospheric meteorologist Cliff Mass has always happily considered himself to be an activist. As a university professor, he already saw himself as more than a scientist in being an educator. His list of outreach activities- and especially, his very public firing by radio station KUOW – has made him quite well known in Seattle.

The reasons Cliff was fired are political and comical.

For 15 years, Cliff had a segment on public radio station KUOW, where he gave the weather forecast and discussed Pacific Northwest weather, climate, and education-related topics. His show had a large following, and audience response to his descriptions of the need for coastal radar played a large role in the establishment of that system. But then Cliff made a big mistake- he spoke about math.

Through the years, he had notice a diminution of math skills in the K-12 schools and in entering freshman at the university, which he blamed partially on the discovery math curricula that was recommended by many Schools of Education, including the University of Washington School of Education. The problem here was that the University of Washington School of Education was a big donor to KUOW. So KUOW issued a no-math warning.

Cliff complied reluctantly, having other avenues (such as a popular blog) where he could discuss math. But on another show, a Seattle Times article about the rejection of in-state A student applicants (the University of Washington is a state university) in favor of higher-paying out-of-state students came up. As a faculty member who was an undergraduate advisor with colleagues on the admissions committee, Cliff knew this urban legend to be untrue, and said so. And the next day, he was fired, primed by speaking out about math. You can read Cliff’s account of this here.

Another radio station, KPLU, picked up Cliff’s segment, and there he enjoys free rein of expression and a larger audience. Another windfall is that many people cancelled donations to KUOW, sending them instead to Cliff, for his lab, or to KPLU. He is yet better known, and this notoriety can be very, very useful.

True citizen, Cliff is constantly involved in one civic issue after another, often controversial. As part of his crusade for better math education, Cliff has worked on the elections of 3 pro-math Seattle Public Schools board member elections, and has seen all 3 candidates win despite money poured into opponents’ elections by business interests in town.

He is also activist in his field, speaking out publicly on science issues. Early in his career he began advocating for better weather prediction in the USA, which was seen as criticism of NOAA. On April 1, H.R. 2413, The Weather Forecasting Improvement Act passed a vote in the House of Representatives and has gone to the Senate, a gratifying and long-coming result.

While a believer in anthropogenic climate change, Cliff is outraged that many people, including scientists, overhype and overstate data, and has publicly dissected scientific literature that exaggerate the data. He is particularly annoyed at scientists and media who attribute specific weather events to long term climate change. (See on the Texas heatwave and on snowpack association with climate change.)

“Careers are made and lots of research money comes to the ‘right’ position,” he says. “And the media loves global warming. But if you don’t know the facts, you can’t fight it. It isn’t worth it to do the right thing with the wrong information.”

An unfortunate side of Cliff’s responses to exaggeration is that climate change deniers quote him to demonstrate lack of scientific consensus on climate change, or even as a disbeliever. But being as honest and accurate trumps the occasional misuse of words.

(This is a very important point, and I like Cliff’s take on it. Many scientists refuse to speak with media representatives, as they fear being misquoted. This is a shortsighted fear of little actual significance. Your credibility can ultimately be more hurt by staying silent.)

Still, Cliff says, you have to protect yourself, and you can’t let activism get in the way of developing your career. He advises academics to get tenure before taking on too much controversy. Universities can, as Cliff’s did, put pressure on a faculty member because of their own vested interests, and won’t always protect their faculty in public conflicts.

Update: On June 3rd, Cliff’s choice for elementary school curriculum was voted in by the School Board, throwing over the District choice.






Military funding and the discretionary budget- the bigger picture in science funding.


Discretionary desk

Today is tax day.

We know little money is going to NIH and NSF (or social support programs), but who is getting it?

A peek at the discretionary budget, compiled by the National Priorities Project, will tell.

The USA Federal budget is divided into 3 main categories:

Mandatory funding (approximately 64%), entitlement programs such as Social Security with eligibility rules.

Discretionary spending (approximately 30%), determined by appropriations process in Congress yearly.

Interest on federal debt  (approximately 6%).

Science gets 2.5% of the discretionary budget. Food and agriculture- and this, with loud pronouncement by scientists and the White House on the effects of climate change- is 1.1%

The military gets 55.2 %. That’s about 640 billion dollars.

It’s really unclear exactly how much money is where. Below is another chart, from the War Resisters League which shows the total federal budget for 2015. Contributions to science are sprinkled about, and military money is embedded within other categories in some cases. The web site will give a great deal more information on the budget, and explain how high a priority military spending is.


FY2015 pie chart front  web


So, when wanting more money for NSF and NIH, considered from what other source it might be coming from… Food stamps? Education?

How about from the military?

And yes, this is an issue scientists can be involved with. The War Resisters League has terrific suggestions on whom you can contact to express your opinion about federal spending.



Union of Concerned Scientists: How to talk with journalists.

Wordsalad Scientists are urged to communicate, to talk with journalists about their own work as well as larger political and scientific issues, but it isn’t so easy to know how to do it. Great help is available from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and 3 of their latest webinars are a jumpstart to getting your thoughts and your research out there in the bigger world beyond the the bench.

“Communication science amid confusion: How to deal with tough questions,” was given on September 17th by Nick Schrope and Rich Hayes, who wrote one of my favorite communication books, “A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media.” (2006, Rutgers University Press). This theme was carried further on September 19 with “A Scientist’s Guide to the Media: Sharing a Compelling Message with the Press.” Rich Hayes gave this webinar as well, joined this time by Brenda Equizol.

Some of the key points of these lectures are:

Be prepared to actively seek out opportunities to communicate.  Make sure the communication center at your workplace knows about your work, and understands the significance of interesting results: they may put out, with your help, a press release. Pitch your own stories and ideas directly, as well. If you want to comment on issues beyond your immediate research, consider writing an op-ed or letter to the editor to your local paper. Contact a local reporter, offer to be a resource, or suggest stories.

Know your core message. Before a media interview, find out from the reporter or interviewer what the topic will be. Never, if possible, do any interview without at least a few minutes preparation time: it is quite okay to say on the phone, “Could you call me back in 30 minutes.” Use the time to think about what you want to say- and what you don’t want to say.

Prepare your message for the audience, not the reporter, and help the reporter give your message. Have a quote or two ready- reporters will almost always like to have a quote for the story. Perhaps have an astute quip or metaphor ready, even a cliche, if that will help the audience understand your point. Avoid science jargon, however- even words as seemingly innocent and clear as aerosols might mean only spray cans to some members of the public. Anticipate questions: you can ask your public affairs office, or a non-scientist friend, what questions they would have for your topic.

Everything is on the record! (Even if the reporter says it isn’t.)

Practice the bridge! Transition back to your core message! The reporter may have another agenda (sometimes curiosity, sometimes hostility), or you may see that the point of the interview is getting lost in unrelated or difficult questions. Acknowledge the question, and redirect the topic. The bridge can also be used if you don’t know the answer. Some examples might be: “That is a matter that is still confusing to scientists. But what I can tell you is that…” or “The short term effects are certainly a problem, but the long term effect has been described in this study…”

Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Our fears are greater than reality here, as journalists are generally trying to honestly reflect scientist’s views. Prepare, and make sure your core message comes through, and don’t worry too much about being misquoted. There is a slight chance someone may push your words to enhance controversy, but at the worse scenario, you can ask for a retraction. As for fear of omission, very common among scientist’s- prepare beforehand, and remember that no one

Don’t be afraid to say what you don’t know! One attribute of science (and scientists) that is often misunderstood is the changing nature of what is known.  I heard a great example last week of this at a seminar given by Peter Doherty, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996. He has written several books for the public and was in Seattle on a book tour. He urges scientists to speak out about climate change, and said about himself, “With climate change, I don’t follow all the math, and tend to accept the conclusions, but with biology, I can understand it and see the effects.”

Think like a scientist- and a citizen. You are both.

The 3rd seminar in the mini-series, “Advocacy for the Aware but Busy Expert,” perhaps should have been the first seminar, as it was a good introduction to both the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and a bit of the history of scientists speaking out to the public about science issues. Speaking were Peter C. Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy at UCS, and Michael Halpern, Program Manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at the UCS.

Whether or not scientists should be involved in the use of science in society is still debated, but the UCS always made such activist work central to the organization. UCS was founded by physicists at M.I.T. in 1969, while the U.S. war on Vietnam was being waged to great protest in the U.S. The founders wanted to advocate as physics practitioners  for environmental protection, and this continues as the mission today, with a focus on climate change and clean energy sources.

Peter Frumhoff gave the introduction to UCS, and to some of the opposing viewpoints scientists working on climate science encounter today. He gave two quotes from scientists with differing opinions on the role of scientists as activists:

“If you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn’t it your responsibility [as a scientist] to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place….we just have to be clear when we are speaking as scientists and when we are expressing values.” 2001, Mario Molino, UCS member and 1995 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry for the study of depletion of stratospheric ozone.


“I became a climate scientist because I care about the environment but we have a moral obligation to be impartial” said Tamsin Edmonds of the University of Bristol in the UK, quoted in The Guardian on July 13, 2013.

Speaking out, not speaking out- each is framed as a moral issue. Our training is in objectivity in observation and decision making, and this idea that we must be impartial is deep, almost as deep as the idea that science is done to better mankind.  Peter noted an important addition to the arguments: that scientists are members of the public and have a right to express their convictions (found in the 2009 3rd edition of “On Being a Scientist,” by the  National Research Council). They are citizens and scientists, both, with the rights and responsibilities of both.

Michael discussed the practical aspects of being an outspoken scientist, as the question he often hears at UCS is “What can I do?” It is not always immediately obvious what an individual can do in any particular place, and he suggest each person consider the following points:

1. What issues interest me? Obesity, drug addiction, etc.

2. What parts of my skill set do I want to share? Analyze data, speak out, etc.

3. What time commitment am I willing to make? Long or short term, want to work steadily or in bursts, etc.

4 What activities fit me best? Public speaking, assistant to non-profit, resource for journalists.

5. How do I want to benefit? Build your profile, become a better communicator, shape public opinion, etc.

Michael emphasized that is is a process to know what you want to work on, and gave (besides suggesting contacting USC to plug into already organized and ongoing initiatives) sources of information for getting engaged, such as the American Geophysical Union ( and Nature (

The session ended as did the others with questions from the web audience, many of which concerned communication worries and interacting with members of the media. One subtlety that might be very useful to many is that scientists should not start with uncertainty in dealing with the public, even when trying to counteract political pundits who conversely push certainty without  evidence.

Remember that it is not necessary to transmit every detail of every possible exception, but be as accurate and honest as you can.

Communicating Science Amid Confusion:

A Scientist’s Guide to the Media:

Advocacy for the Aware but Busy Expert:



















Suicide- Turning grief to action.

suicide 2 On February 18, 2011, Matt Adler, a successful lawyer and father of 2 young children, killed himself.

His wife, Jennifer Stuber, was stunned. Although Matt was suffering with a dark bout of depression, he was being treated, and Jennifer assumed he was being treated thoughtfully. But when she sought Matt’s medical records to try to understand what had happened, she ran into difficulty. No one wanted to give her the records.

As Jennifer herself points out, she was in a position to find out more. An academic and sociologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, she had plenty of experts to consult when she finally did obtain some records. She found that the medical personnel knew Matt was a suicide risk, and actually labeled him as a “risky patient’ as a lawyer with a potential lawsuit, but did not act to prevent suicide.  7 suicide prevention experts Jennifer consulted sadly said they were sorry, but were not surprised: few mental health professionals had training in suicide prevention.

This was not acceptable. Not only had Matt’s death been avoidable, but other people would be left at risk. How could what seemed to be a systematic hole in the medical system be fixed?

As a sociologist, Jennifer had a background in policy, and knew how the legislative process worked. (Lobbyist? for what?)  In July, a time when the state legislature was in recess and representatives had time to speak locally with constituents, she made an appointment with State Representative Tina Orwell, who represented the 33rd district. Jenniifer chose Orwell because she was a social worker, and so would know of the devastating effects of suicide on families: she was also a University of Washington alumnus.

Along with Sue Eastguard, a suicide prevention advocate, and with a lawyer from her husbands firm, Jennifer met with Orwell- and after they explained to Orwell what they had learned about the treatment of people who were suicide risks, Orwell said, “Let’s work on a piece of legislation.”

The legislation was written by Orwell and her colleagues with the help of Jennifer and her collaborators and was submitted for its first reading in the House in January as HB 2366- Requiring certain health professionals to complete education in suicide assessment, treatment, and management. The bill went through the House Health Care & Wellness, was passed by the House in on Feb 10, an amended version passed by the Senate on February 28, and was the Matt Adler Suicide, Assessment, Treatment and Management Act of 2012 (ESHB) was signed into law by the Governor on March 29, 2012, not even a year after its conception and initiation.

This bill required mental health professionals to receive training every 6 years in identifying and treating those at risk for suicide, which might have saved Matt, and would undoubtedly save other people. But the more one looked at the hugeness of the impact of suicide- over 36,000 people in the USA kill themselves every year- it was clear that there were many other pipelines to stop. Washington is one of only two states (Kentucky is the other)  that require that mental  health professionals be trained in suicide prevention.

Jennifer and her collaborators, with allies Tina Orwell and other state representatives, passed 2 more bills in the next 2 years: HB 1336, Increasing the capacity of school districts to recognize and respond to troubled youth, and HB 2325, concerning suicide prevention, which requires primary care medical professionals, among others, to be trained in recognizing and treating those at risk for suicide.

It was HB 2315 that was the most difficult to pass.

Approximately 50% of people who commit suicide have been to their primary care doctor in the month before they died. Surely, training would improve knowledge of suicide and would reduced the suicide rate. There was opposition from professional organizations and lobbyists serving doctors and nurses, who protested that they did not want anyone telling them how to use their CME (Continuing Medical Education) hours. There was opposition in the Washington State Senate, as the chair of the Healthcare Committee was aligned with the medical professional associations.

Because the bill would have have more trouble in the Senate,where there was organized opposition, Forefront focused on the Senate on the February 25th 2014 Lobby Day at the state capital. In that one day, 40 people whose lives had been affected by suicide spoke with 36 state senators. This testimony, which showed the life-or-death essence of the issue, was xxxx, and an amended form of the bill was unanimously passed on March 6. The bill signing by the governor took place on March 27th, 2014, making the bill law.

3 bills through the state legislature in 3 years is astounding activist success.  What enabled this success (and what other activists can learn from this) is, according to Jennifer:

Go local!  While suicide is not just a local issue, addressing the problem in the legislature is much more efficient at the city or state level. You can more easily find collaborators with whom you can work. You know the other issues the legislators face. The local victories have great potential to become other local, or national, causes.

Follow the “textbook” of activism in policy change: Know how the system works. Take advantage of a focusing event (in this case, the suicide of Matt Aler) and run with it. Find an effective champion in the legislature, someone who is sympathetic to the issue and is effective at making and keeping coalitions. Be adept yourself at making and keeping coalitions and collaborators (Over 300 people collaborated on getting the bills through the legislature.)

Know the rules, not just in the legislature, but in the other venues of your activism. For example, Jennifer is faculty at  the University of Washington, a state school. State schools follow state rules, and the University of Washington made it clear that there could be no grass roots lobbying in class or during a “regular” 9-5 day on the issue of lobbying for suicide prevention.

Jennifer continues to work with Forefront (, the non-profit organization she and Sue Eastguard began in 2013 at the University of Washington, in developing evidence-based approaches to suicide prevention. Forefront not only works on legislation for suicide prevention, but on developing and setting up suicide prevention curricula, and helping families and organizations find help in prevention of and healing from suicide.

For a more personal look at the frustration Jennifer felt at the stigma of suicide even with the health care system, and her inability to find help for her husband, see  .

Know where to get help for family, yourself, co-workers.


2015 update

Campus suicide prevention law passes

Last month, on April 23, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law SHB 1138 to create a suicide prevention task force across Washington’s 54 college campuses. The leadership of Rep. Tina Orwall and the persistence of many Forefront volunteers, some of whom lost a college-age child or a sibling to suicide, were essential to the bill’s success. Read more about the new law and the Husky Help and Hope (H3) initiative for promoting mental health and suicide prevention at the University of Washington in Faculty Director Jenn Stuber’s recent post on Forefront’s Insight Blog.



The CIA and the museum.


      Maybe it really is innocuous for the Pacific Science Center in Seattle to host “SPY: The Secret World of Espionage.” (
       The exhibit hasn’t opened yet, so I could only check on line to see if I was being paranoid. 
        The collector of the most of the historic instruments in the exhibit, H. Keith Morton, is known for his many books on spying, the CIA, and military and intelligence history. There is a lovely picture of him in front of his 12, 000 square foot house in Boca Raton, Florida- CIA cheerleading pays better than cancer research, it seems. Clearly, he is pro-espionage, pro-CIA- but how pro CIA can be seen in these quotes from reader Cee Martinez (July 3-25,, about Melton’s  “The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception”:

     “Many interesting details about the CIA during the MKULTRA years are discussed, including strange ones, such as the CIA use of prostitutes to lure Johns into motel rooms under surveillence so agents could record the Johns’ reaction to various mind altering drugs like LSD. The introduction alone is a must-read for any spy, CIA, or conspiracy geek. Although, a short internet search on the subject of MKULTRA would reveal a far more sinister, and disturbing look into the CIA than this book would ever hint at.

“That’s the main trouble with this book. I didn’t think it could be at all possible to sanitize and neuter the very idea of the MKULTRA project, which included disturbing studies of brainwashing on unwilling and unwitting subjects, some experimented on in mental hospitals, and taken from their own families. This book has done just that.”

      Still, the political beliefs of the collecter might not be embedded in the exhibit: the exhibit might really be only technological wonders of deception, unconnected to a philosophy or even to the CIA. Ah, but there are “educational resources” that accompany the exhibit, two educator guides, one for grades 4-8, another for grades 9-12.
      Both open with a large font quote from former USA President Ronald Reagan:
     “You are the trip-wire across which the forces of repression and tyranny must stumble in their quest for global domination. You, the men and women of the CIA, are the eyes and ears of the free world.”
       And from there we are in experiments, narratives, and timelines that laud the CIA. Neither curriculum makes the whisper of a suggestion that not all the CIA has done has been honorable, quite in contradiction of history and present day newspapers. It is a true trip to the past in the post WWII Cold War rhetoric.

       I dashed off a quick letter to members of the Pacific Science Center leadership, but there haven’t yet been any replies.



March 20, 2014
Dear Pacific Science Center folks,
I was appalled to see that you will be running an exhibition called SPY: The Secret World of Espionage. Running this exhibit is a tacit approval of the techniques and strategies of the CIA.
Melton’s books gloss over the ethics of the CIA, and your glorification of the his instruments of the CIA will do the same. Would you display instruments of torture? Or a knife used in a rape? How about land-mines and other instruments of war? How is this “science?”
If you want to stretch and call it technology, still it is not appropriate to host that exhibition at the Pacific Science Center. Science and technology (and the information in museums) are not value-free. People will internalize your message. All of us must think ahead to the world we want- and your vision of the world ahead and what you see in science, is grim.
It might bring you money, but it also brings ethical deficit.
Kathy Barker



Obituary: Lee Lorch, mathematician and civil rights activist

lee jpgLee Lorch died on February 28, 2013, in Toronto, Canada, at the age of 98. A well-respected mathematician as well as a dedicated civil rights activist, his activism and the effect of that activism are the focus of his obituary in the New York Times. Generally, scientists overestimate the professional risk to themselves for speaking out on political and social issues, but Lorch was treated badly at every place he worked in the USA. He moved to Canada- first to the University of Alberta in 1959 and later to York University in Toronto- when it was clear that, despite his stellar mathematic research and teaching, no American college would employ him.

Late in his life, Lorch received many honors from institutions, organizations, and fellow mathematicians, including an honorary degree from City College, a college that had blocked his promotion early in his career. In most of his activist endeavors, he was back by colleagues, but not by boards or administrators. Students protested for him, Albert Einstein protested for him, newspapers and professional organizations backed him- but he still was not allowed to keep his academic jobs.

His crimes….

At his first job after WWII, City College in New York City, he worked with tenants at Stuyvesant Town, a large housing complex , to eliminate the “No Negroes Allowed” policy. This initial work was vital in the eventual passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. His promotion was blocked by the appointments committee.

At Penn State University, he was denied reappointment for having invited a black family to live with them in Stuyvesant Town. That family stayed on when the Lorches (both Lorch’s wife and daughter were activists as well) were forced out, starting the integration of Stuyvesant Town.

At Fisk University, a historic black college in Nashville Tennessee, Lorch tried to enroll his daughter in an all black school, and refused to answer questions for the House Un-American Activities Committee about his interest in communism. At Fisk he taught 3 of the first blacks to get doctorates in mathematics. He was let go.

At Philander Smith College, in Little Rock, Arkansas, a small all-black institution, his prior interaction with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the activism of his wife, Grace, and daughter Alice in assisting the first black child, Elizabeth Eckford, to enter the all-white public school, and his own work in accompanying other black students to schools through angry crowds, caused Philander leadership to refuse to renew his appointment in 1957. A photograph of Elizabeth Eckford won a Pulitzer Prize, and Little Rock was a touchstone in school integration.

There are no lessons here for what he could have done “differently” that would have allowed him to keep working in academia in the USA. Considering black people to be equal to white people was considered to be subversive. Compromise would have made board members rest easy, but it would not have been effective.

A magnificent life.

Lee Lorch, Rights Activist Who Fought For Housing Desegregation, Dies at 98. David Margolick. March 3, 2014. The New York Times p A21.

See also: An appreciation to Lee Lorch. Mathematics Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Scott W. Williams. May 28, 1995.


Why science is telling us all to revolt…


Mention “capitalism” in a group of scientists, and most will grow uncomfortable. Scientists do not learn about the history of science and its relationship to economics in graduate school, and many scientists believe their profession to be untouched by the policies that affect the rest of the world. Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine,” herself an environmental activist, wonderfully sees that environmental scientists are moving beyond the bench and ivory tower to broadcast and exhort action on climate change as well as the economic underpinnings of that change.

It won’t be polite and pretty, but Klein argues that change cannot happen without activist scientists who connect personal and policy decisions to the pure science of climate change.

As Klein points out in her article, there have always been scientists who have gone beyond academic avenues to protest policies and urge change. But this has generally been in reaction to a particular event. In her article, “Why Science is Telling All of Us to Revolt and Change Our Lives Before We Destroy the Planet,” Klein highlights geophysicist Brad Werner of the University of California, San Diego and climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K. as scientists who speaking out not only on the effects of climate change, but on the underlying politics that must be changed if the world is to be saved.

Bows-Larkin and Anderson believe we have lost the chance for gradually cutting CO2 emissions, and must drastically reduce energy consumption now by at least 10% a year to even have a 50-50 chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius (an increase of 2 percent Celsius has been predicted to be the threshold for climate catastrophe). A 10 % reduction a year has not occurred since the 1929 Depression: After the 2008 crash of Wall Street, emissions were reduced by 7% and only for 2 years before rebounding. The impact of such cuts on the developing world  could destroy communities, and finding ways to handle the inequities of the impact of needed CO2 emission cuts must also be considered. These drastic cuts cannot occur with capitalism as it is now structured.

They fault other climate scientists for not speaking strongly and realistically enough to get across either the scientific predictions of climate change, or the economic and political steps that will be needed to reduce CO2 emissions.

In a recent interview with Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now!,” Anderson and Bows-Larkin further document what a 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature would look like- the loss of sea corals, an increase in flooding and droughts. But they also point out that the continued increase in emissions is on target to cause not a 2, but a 4 degree Celsius increase in temperature, and that a 4 degree increase would result in a 30% reduction in wheat and rice yields at low latitudes, and 80 cm sea rise that would be devastating for coastal communities. Swings of temperatures would bring even more temperatures, so we are looking at temperatures approximately 10 degrees warmer in New York and Chicago, which would wreck havoc with area ecosystems.

To even hope to reduce emissions, we cannot wait for low carbon energy supplies such as wind and solar to be in place. We are out of time. We must, Bows-Larkin and Anderson say, reduce consumption immediately, and scientists must speak out and be absolutely clear about climate predictions, and what it takes to mitigate them. They must communicate with the public, with politicians, in traditional and non-tradtitional ways, no matter what it takes.

Furthermore, scientists must also realize they they, too, must cut back with their own consumption. One example Anderson gives for scientists is to cut down on their work plane flights: Anderson himself traveled to China from the U.K. to do a lecture tour in Manchester by train. As he points out, it is not just the train emissions versus plane emissions, but the constant lifestyle choices of flying around the world, taking taxis instead of public transport, doing and spending to  save time and add comfort.

“We do not have to keep flying around the world in a sort of old-fashioned, colonial style. You know, here’s the great white hope, the great white males from the rich parts of the world, flying around to the poor parts of the world, telling them how they should be living their lives, “ said Anderson.

No one wants to hear or believe that is isn’t enough to advocate that others cut down on travel, or to rationalize that we are doing our part because of the work we do. Scientists are not entitled to be exempted from the hard work of reducing energy consumption. None of us can wait until policies change, but we all need to make individual lifestyle changes to reduce damage to the world.

“How Science Is Telling Us All to Revolt.” Naomi Klein. The New Statesman, October 29, 2013.

“We Have To Consume Less”: Scientists Call for Radical Economic Overhaul to Avert Climate Crisis. Amy Goodman. Democracy Now! December 9, 2013.