Learning Lessons from Science Experiments

EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 79, no.3, January 20,1998, p.31

Lincoln S. Hollister

I am writing to comment on the article by Baldridge et al: "Science and SociologyButt Heads in Tomography Experiment in Sacred Mountains" (EOS, v 78, no 39). Istrongly support their conclusion that scientists must learn to communicate with thepublic if we are to continue to receive taxpayer support for our projects.

I am lead PI of the interdisciplinary project ACCRETE (funded by the ContinentalDynamics program of NSF) which also involved what could easily have been perceived to bean environmentally and culturally invasive seismic experiment. We proposed to take the 240foot seismic ship R/V MAURICE EWING through the inland waterways of southeast Alaska andBritish Columbia, firing airguns every 20 seconds for 10 days, all within"earshot" of marine mammals and fish. Consider the permitting challenge involvedwith two countries engaged in a fish war and three ethnically distinct First Nations whoare in the midst of land claims negotiations. In addition, we had to deal with commercialfishing interests (imagine sailing a ship with 4 km of towed instruments through a couplehundred fishing boats with their nets out), marine mammal protection groups, a wildernessarea, and a nuclear submarine base. We had many of the experiences Baldridge et al report,but nevertheless were able to do our experiment as planned, without any modificationimposed by local groups.

Here I review key points that contributed to our success with permitting. It is my hopethat this review, along with Baldridge’s report, will help future PIs navigate themaze of consultations with the public. In a broad sense, there are two approaches forbeginning the permitting process. (1) contact the governmental authorities, who in thiscase were in Juneau, Ottawa, Victoria and Washington, and leave the job to theseauthorities; or (2) get the local inhabitants so interested in the experiment that thegovernmental authorities couldn’t say no. Since other projects had faced horrendousproblems in mainly following only the first route, we concentrated on the second. TheContinental Dynamics program of NSF funded this effort. We could not have been successfulwithout this "up front" money. The first route was not neglected; we aregrateful to Peter Carroll and the LITHOPROBE management office at University of BritishColumbia for assisting in the official permitting process. Because of difficulties inscheduling the EWING, my colleagues and I had almost 2 years for the permitting process.During this time, all of which we needed, we learned what the core concerns of the regionwere, and who represented those concerns. Glenn Woodsworth of the Geological Survey ofCanada and I talked directly with community representatives and, in the process, developeda vocabulary that we could use in answering the core questions: "What harm will yourairguns do?" "Why here?" "What’s in it for us?" "Whyshould anyone be interested in the results?" Having someone from the area to talk tothe public was essential. We prepared a video and a press release that addressed thequestions of most concern to the local populations, and we benefited from positivecoverage from the local media. The key to our success was getting the local inhabitantsinterested in the success of ACCRETE. In the process, we brought geology into the publicconsciousness in a way that not only helped the ACCRETE project succeed, but alsogenerated local public support for geology in general. We succeeded in getting the localpopulation (approximately 30,000 people in the Ketchikan, AK and Prince Rupert, B.C. area)so supportive of ACCRETE that an inevitable minority who disapproved of it did not find aconstituency.

Several aspects of outreach were particularly important. First, it was the projectleader who was taking the time to meet with the people. This was particularly meaningfulwith representatives of the First Nations and helpful in formal presentations to thetribal councils. Respect was shown for their concerns, and, if I didn’t know ananswer, I would get it - often within 24 hours. Second, I discovered how profoundlycurious virtually everyone is about their immediate surroundings. It certainly helped thatour study was in an area where Canada’s largest recorded earthquake had occurred(Queen Charlotte Islands, magnitude 8.1, 1946) and where a recent volcanic eruption (NassRiver, 250 years BP) had destroyed two villages of the Nisga’a Nation. Third, aprevious experiment done in nearby waters (marine MCS in Queen Charlotte Sound, by theGeological Survey of Canada, organized by Kristin Rohr) was done with careful diplomacyand engendered such goodwill amongst the local constituencies that my job was made a gooddeal easier than it might have been.

While seeking local support, I promised to return after the experiment to communicateour results to the communities. I have been doing this and in the process seem to beaccomplishing a measure of informal science education via presentations to communitygroups, taking school classes on field trips, working with teachers to enhance theirknowledge of the region, and preparing an interactive road geological tour for residentsand tourists.

I believe the permitting process for any large land-based experiment is worth doing. Itprovides a tremendous opportunity for doing informal science education outreach. Suchoutreach can and should be generously supported by our granting agencies, and grantingagencies and scientists must adapt to the need for spending the time necessary to get thesupport of local constituencies. The bottom line is that local constituencies pay taxes, and they vote.