The Grass Is Greener on the Other Side

Science is an unusual business, in that the ideal to which one is trained to aspire is one of emotionless and cold objectivity. Although many critics have pointed to the impossibility of perfect objectivity, science, it is claimed, is conducted, or at least reported, in a manner that takes the human out of the equation.

This can leave some scientists with no outlet for their passion. If you became a scientist to make a difference and find yourself dissatisfied with your impact on the world, maybe you'll want to try something a little more proactive--and what could be more proactive than being an activist?

It is important for organisations such as Greenpeace to employ their own scientists if they are to confront corporations or governments on environmental issues. The current debates raging over genetically modified (GM) food and nanotechnology would be largely one-sided if the pressure groups didn't have access to the necessary scientific expertise and opinion. However, is working for such an organisation a good career move? Does working towards such specific goals compromise objectivity, leading to similar accusations as those levelled against industry-sponsored scientists? Does the role develop you into a highly skilled environmental scientist, or does its unorthodoxy take you 'out of the loop'? Next Wave talked to scientists working for a range of environmental groups to discover exactly what their work involves, its degree of objectivity, and their future career plans and prospects.

Meet the Scientists

Ruth Stringer is a senior scientist working for Greenpeace, a worldwide organisation that campaigns for the preservation of our planet's biodiversity and environment. On graduating in biochemistry and chemistry from the University of London in 1986, Stringer volunteered to work at the Greenpeace Research lab at London's Queen Mary College, becoming only the second member of the unit. The lab has since moved to the University of Exeter, and Stringer has been a paid employee for 16 years and counting. The research carried out by Greenpeace is largely analytical, and, she says, has gained respect from the international scientific community. Its results are used not only to support Greenpeace campaigns, but also to help shape international environmental policies.

Lotte Ramsay is a researcher for the Association for the Conservation of Energy ( ACE). Based in London, ACE campaigns, lobbies, and performs research on issues of energy efficiency and sustainability. Ramsay graduated in biochemistry in 1999 and went on to study for an MSc in environmental technology at Imperial College, writing a thesis about the impacts that fuel transitions in India were having on the population. During her MSc she was introduced to science policy, law, and economics, which prepared her well for her current role.

Finally, Dr. Helen Wallace is deputy director of GeneWatch, which is based in Buxton, Derbyshire, and was set up to ensure that new genetic technologies such as GM foods are used in the public's interest. She has a degree in physics from the University of Bristol and a PhD in applied mathematics from Exeter University and has worked as an environmental scientist in both academia and industry. Before working for GeneWatch, she was a senior scientist at Greenpeace UK. In Wallace's current role there is little space for practical scientific research, her work being more closely related to science policy.

Thoughts on Scientific Integrity

Accusations are occasionally made that Greenpeace's work lacks objectivity, but these are unfounded, says Stringer. She explains that due to the high profile of their work, the research carried out by Greenpeace needs to be exceptionally rigorous.

ACE's Ramsay is also aware that her work may sometimes be considered subjective. She explains that ACE researchers don't carry out lab work. Instead their research is more akin to social science, and she feels this could be one reason why ACE scientists are not always taken seriously. "There will always be other organisations who are better placed, with more academic credentials," she says. Another problem is that half the work carried out by ACE is environmental consultancy, which pays for their campaign work. Although they are confident their studies are reliable and unbiased (like Stringer, Ramsay feels her work has to be super-rigorous), ACE has considered splitting into separate research and campaigning organisations.

GeneWatch's Wallace says that although her work often pits her against industry and government scientists, she is respected by the larger scientific community. This is partly because she rarely disputes scientific findings or produces her own research; rather she raises certain issues when new technologies interact with human or animal welfare. Wallace believes that many of GeneWatch's concerns actually reflect those of scientists in academia, in terms of industry and commerce controlling the direction and application of new science.

Out of the Loop?

One fear for scientists considering working for environmental pressure groups may be that it's not a traditional route for a science career. Wallace concedes that this could be a problem, as she doesn't have much of a recent academic track record. To counter this, she feels that she's learnt new skills that would help her return to academic research. Her highly developed communication skills are needed in the scientific community, and her work at GeneWatch has given her a wide knowledge and broad view of science.

For Stringer the situation is different. She has been able to continue publishing scientific papers throughout her career at Greenpeace, and she is confident that she could move into academic or industrial research if she wished to do so.

Paying the Bills and Job Satisfaction

A move into science activism is not likely to make you rich. The pay, however, is comparable to that in academia, and the jobs are generally more secure. Although most environmental organisations are small (especially their scientific sections), leading to few job opportunities and little 'career structure', there are compensations.

The fact that the ACE team consists of only 10 people (three of them in research) means that there is little opportunity for moving up the career ladder within the organisation, says Ramsay. However, this doesn't mean a satisfying career can't be had. Ramsay is getting ready to start a PhD at Imperial College looking into renewable energy, after which she sees herself either staying in academia or moving further into environmental consultancy. Working for a small organisation also means that Ramsay's job is faster changing and more varied than it would be in a large company. She describes her various projects as typically being on a "3-month cycle". She also sees more of a project than a scientist in a large organisation would--for example, in addition to research she also gets to help with promotional and campaign work.

Wallace, meanwhile, also feels that her career path has been very rewarding. Her previous work in the small team at Greenpeace prepared her well for a move away from scientific research and further into science policy. Her work at GeneWatch is varied, including writing reports and giving lectures as well as meeting with MPs and participating in television interviews.

As a measure of their job satisfaction, only three scientists have left Greenpeace's research lab in its 17 years of existence, says Stringer, even though the lab, being a small facility, has limited career structure. However as a senior scientist Stringer, like Wallace, spends a lot of her time using the technical research from the lab in helping to shape environmental policy, and she can see herself moving even more in this direction, although she is personally reluctant to leave "the field".

Getting In:

If you're interested in breaking into that field, a science degree is essential. GeneWatch and Greenpeace say a PhD is desirable, although ACE mainly employs individuals with master's degrees. All three scientists agree that anyone interested in this work should try to get a good idea of what they are getting into beforehand, because it is not a career that is easy to learn about through your academic contacts. Stringer suggests volunteering, just to get involved and find out whether or not you like the work. Ramsay recommends taking an MSc course that, like hers, offers a broad overview of the area and allows you to make an informed choice about what field you may like to work in.

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