Scientist Tim Gordon studies how rising temperatures are damaging corals in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where intense cyclones and warm waters have caused extensive damage in recent years. What he sees brings him to tears.
“They used to be some of the most colorful, vibrant, bustling, noisy ecosystems in the world, but now many of them are eerily quiet, empty gray rubble fields,” Gordon said. “It’s haunting. The place is a ghost of its former self.”
At times when diving at the reef, he stops for a minute and just floats, gazing helplessly at the wreckage around him. “It gets quite overwhelming,” said Gordon, a marine biologist at the University of Exeter. “This sense of complete powerlessness sets in — this used to be the most beautiful place in the world, but now it’s crumbling into ruins around me.”
Gordon was, and is, experiencing something that the public does not typically expect from scientists — grief.
Although researchers are expected to distance themselves from their subject to ensure their work is free of bias, scientists — much like physicians, veterinarians, disaster relief workers, service members and others — often have strong emotional reactions to things they see and experience at work. Some of these professions have recognized the psychic toll of the job and are taking steps to help people cope. But scientists have not received the same level of support and frequently feel isolated or unable to express their feelings.
“It’s not just me,” Gordon said. “All around the world, from the rainforests to the poles, environmental scientists are measuring similar devastation, with similar consequences for both natural systems and the people that rely on them. We’re recording the most severe destruction of the natural world in human history. It’s really important that we are able to work with those feelings — and through those feelings — rather than being choked or paralyzed by them.”
He and two other researchers, Stephen D. Simpson, also a marine biologist at Exeter, and Andrew N. Radford, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Bristol, described the dilemma in a letter recently published in the journal Science. In it, they call for greater understanding of scientists’ responses to environmental damage, and permission for them to, well, cry if they need to.
Denying, ignoring or suppressing these emotions impairs their ability to conduct science effectively, the authors said, writing that forcing scientists to be “dispassionate observers” would be “dangerously misguided.” Rather, they “must be allowed to cry and be supported,” quoting Charles Darwin who declared that one “who remains passive when overwhelmed with grief loses [the] best chance of recovering elasticity of mind.”
“It’s really important that both doctors and environmental scientists stay objective and clear-minded in their work to make sure it’s done rigorously and accurately. But at the same time, in both professions, there are really hard moments watching patients and ecosystems get sick and die, and not being able to stop it from happening,” Gordon said. “Grief can either stop us in our tracks or galvanize and inspire us to move forward, [but] that depends on how we process and react to those feelings.”
Gordon says he personally knows several scientists who moved away from researching environmental degradation to guard their emotional health. “Some moved into different professions entirely, and some altered their research focus to address restoration processes, rather than measuring degradation,” he said.
Gordon said scientists will need help processing their grief. “If we only allow scientists to respond to their ecological grief in private, then we’re limiting their options for working through these feelings effectively,” he said, adding scientists may need to seek counseling or talk with colleagues working through the same feelings, strategies deployed by professionals in other stressful jobs. Veterinarians, for example, now have access to “well-being” workshops and emotional support seminars, “pet loss” counselors and other resources.
“The veterinary community has been quite responsive,” said Elizabeth Schooley, a veterinarian in Columbia, Virginia who struggled with many of these issues when she began practicing. “I wanted to help everyone and the money wasn’t available to help the patients. I took a lot of emotional stress from the pet owners… and it really affected my health and wellbeing.”
Tracey Shors, a neuroscientist at Rutgers University, who studies trauma, said one approach to managing stress might be for scientists to speak out about their findings and share their grief.
“If more scientists could get their findings out to the world, they would feel like they have more control,” she said. “If nothing else, they would know they are waking up others to the problem. Most of the [scientists] I know got into the field because they love nature. Then they are trained to distance themselves for the sake of objectivity. It must be breaking their hearts. It breaks my heart, and I am not a field scientist.”
Gordon said they have received a great deal of positive feedback from environmental scientists. “Some are people we know as current and previous colleagues, and some of them we’ve never met before,” he said. “They’ve all been thanking us for expressing a view that they strongly agree with, and have been relieved and comforted to see shared publicly.”
Not every scientist, however, agrees that it’s a good idea for researchers to share their grief, at least not publicly. “It does deeply hurt to see Arctic and Antarctic wildernesses being invaded and ravaged by plastic, but indeed it is crucial for scientists to be independent,” said David Barnes, a marine ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey who studies ocean plastic pollution. “I wince at the hundredfold increase in plastic washing ashore on the remote islands I work around. [But] we are not policymakers. We are key providers of evidence.” He added, “When scientists express strong views it is unsurprising that concern of bias is likely to emerge.”
Gordon and his colleagues said they appreciate this point of view. “Many people understand and support emotional responses from scientists to what they study happening in the environment,” he said. “Others dismiss it as scientists being overly sensitive, unprofessional or letting their emotions get in the way of their work. I think the split in public opinion goes to show it’s a discussion that needs to be had if we’re serious about moving forward and working for a better future for the natural world. That’s why we wrote this letter — to provoke discussion about these feelings and how we can support each other to use them for positive change.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.