Scientists Who Shift Their Focus To Fight Climate Change

Sophie Gilbert has left a tenure position to join a startup that allows small private land owners to sell carbon credits to conserve forests on their land.Credit: Sophie Gilbert

During a drive to California in temperatures sometimes exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, Sophie Gilbert decided she needed to make a major career change.

Driving to visit her family from her home in Moscow, Idaho, she passed plumes of wildfire smoke, and sweltering heat limiting the time she could spend outside her air-conditioned car. The two-day trip in the middle of last year helped create a sense that she desperately needed to do something more concrete to help deal with the threat of climate change.

“It hit a bit too hard,” Gilbert says. “Climate change is not something that will happen to someone else later. It has felt so deeply and deeply true to me, my family, and what matters to me.”

Given her role as a wildlife ecologist at the University of Idaho in Moscow, it may appear that Gilbert was already well positioned to have a positive impact on climate change. But the increasingly slow pace of academia, and the difficulty of persuading policymakers to act on its findings, made her feel it didn’t make as much of a difference as she had hoped.

“I’ve been studying how wildlife responds to environmental change to inform conservation planning for 15 years now, researching and publishing and waiting for something to happen and then not, even when I’ve worked closely with wildlife and land administration agencies,” she says. “The system is not designed to respond to the pressing challenges we face,” she says.

Gilbert evaluated her skills and knowledge, and how they can be used, and settled on nature-based solutions such as forest carbon storage and biodiversity. She shortlisted companies and NGOs that do this type of work and started contacting them to discuss their options.

In April of this year, a month after taking the position, Gilbert joined Natural Capital Exchange, a startup based in San Francisco, California. The company allows small private land owners to sell carbon credits to conserve forests on their land. Gilbert’s role as a major leader of natural capital includes adding biodiversity credits to the company’s offerings, to provide incentives to keep forests working and well-managed.

Giving up the security and freedom that a tenure provides was a big step, but Gilbert says the hardest part of the decision was actually reporting the news to the graduate students, whose reactions ranged from anger, to understanding, to a mixture of the two. “There is a lot of mentoring and mutual responsibility out there, so telling them and helping them through the process of finding a new counselor was by far the most emotionally difficult part,” she says.

But she is excited to take on the challenge of working in the fast-paced world of a startup company. “The company is full of tough, smart people who want to do a good job,” she says. “It’s going to be a wild and exciting ride.”

spread the word

It’s a journey that Alice Bell knows all too well. By 2015, she had spent 11 years working as Lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial College London, and as a Research Fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. She decided to leave academia for good and took a position as head of communications for the London-based climate change campaign group Possible.

The move came partly out of necessity – Bell’s contract was about to expire, and she felt that British government cuts were making academia an ever more precarious profession – but stemmed mainly from a desire to get more directly involved in tackling the climate crisis.

While at Imperial, she built and launched an interdisciplinary college-level course on climate change that forced her to look deeper into the issue. “I felt a greater urgency to put my skills where they could be best utilized,” she says.

Leaving academia, Bell says, was the right choice. She believes it has a greater impact on the climate crisis, and that the balance between her work and her life has improved; She also feels more involved in her work. “I feel more intellectually excited in workshops with NGOs than I would in most academic meetings,” she says, adding that she finds liberation from the pressure of academics to publish, and from the weight of that pressure on career advancement.

But there are some drawbacks. “When you work for a small charity, no one knows who you are,” Bell says. “I am taken very seriously when I can say that I am from Imperial.”

Some might fear that leaving academia might raise the suspicion that they weren’t good enough to survive. It advises “ignore this sound”. “For many individuals, the best decision may be to give up.”

Change from within

However, not everyone is ready or willing to let go of an academic career they spent years building. And some find opportunities to get more involved in concrete climate solutions from within academia.

Photo of Med Crosby outdoors

Med Crosby provides natural resource managers and policy makers with scientific evidence on the impacts of climate change and adaptation actions.Credit: Eric Bruns

Since 2017, Med Crosby has combined an academic position as a senior scientist in the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington in Seattle, working on climate vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning, with a director role at the university’s Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. The Center provides natural resource managers and policy makers in the region with scientific evidence on climate change impacts and adaptation actions. Crosby calls it a “frontier organization,” an interface between science and society, “acting as a conduit between the two.”

“We bring applied sciences into the decision-making process on climate change, and we bring the concerns of decision-makers, communities and knowledge back into academia to enrich the kind of research that is being done,” she says.

Between 2016 and 2018, Crosby collaborated with Indigenous scientists, tribal organizations, and other university scholars to develop the Tribal Climate Tool, a free online resource that aims to get the best available climate projections into the hands of Indigenous communities, to inform their climate planning. they change. The tool, which was launched in 2018, is now being used in several risk mitigation plans, such as the Samish Indian Nation’s 2019 Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. Crosby also writes research on its development and use, producing a more traditional academic output to supplement a tool that makes a difference in the real world.

“You can do really useful work that’s not like basic science, but it’s not always the trade-off between doing great science and useful science,” she says.

Funding Challenge

Crosby knew early in her academic career that she wanted to make practical contributions that would help society prepare for climate change. She began researching this type of applied work in 2009, during her postdoctoral research at the University of Washington, but initially found it difficult to find funding — either from federal funding agencies or from private foundations. Then, in 2010, she received funding from the US Department of the Interior to look at species mobility and communication, and was able to use that to create a position for her in the Climate Impact Group.

But she soon discovered that her experience in traditional academia did not qualify her for the kinds of projects the group did, with the goal of making science useful to policymakers and the public. “It was shocking how unprepared I was for the interdisciplinary work,” she says. “We are not trained to do or evaluate these types of collaborations.” The center now supports fellowships and training in community research, and Crosby teaches a graduate course on how to connect science to society. “It’s an opportunity to train early-career scientists to do the work we were never trained to do,” she says. In 2020, I co-authored a research1 Advocating for changes in how scientists are trained, by emphasizing skills such as collaboration and communication1.

Academic professional structures are not set up to promote and reward work that requires a lot of collaboration with people outside the university, and that doesn’t necessarily result in a typical scholarly publication, Crosby says. “The work I want to do in a stable position will not be rewarded,” she adds. To do this effectively, universities need to think about their incentive structure. Is the peer-reviewed paper really the most important finding? “

Meet coral reefs

Julia Baum, a marine ecologist at Victoria University in Canada, has found a way to do practical climate-focused work in a standard academic job. For her, the turning point came in 2015, when a massive marine heat wave wiped out the tropical reefs she was studying. “I’ve watched beautiful pure corals melt within 10 months,” she says. “I used to think poaching was the biggest threat – then climate change came and hit me over the head.”

Julia Baum records data while snorkeling after the mass death of coral reefs on the island of Kiritimati

Julia Baum records data for the Pacific Island of Kiritimati, after a marine heat wave in 2015 nearly destroyed the reef.Credit: Christina Tetjen

This experience prompted her to overhaul her research program to focus exclusively on climate impacts and how to mitigate them. “I want to do more than just document a sinking ship—I want to help correct that,” she says.

A stable position at Baum provides her flexibility to make that change, and she says she felt a moral obligation to apply her knowledge in a way that would help counter the greatest threat facing the planet. In addition to reorienting her research, Baum is designing a cross-university graduate training program focused on coastal climate solutions. This will provide training in professional skills that are essential to climate action but rarely taught in universities – such as how to collaborate and negotiate with non-academic partners, and how to deal with the media.

But, like Crosby, Baum says she and many of her colleagues are frustrated that many universities don’t seem to appreciate or support any kind of work outside of traditional academic publications. Those who wish to apply their findings to real-world problems often have to do so on their own, without any real benefit to their academic career. “Universities need to rise to the challenge and find innovative ways to support their faculty, by evaluating and rewarding solutions that work within their recruitment and promotion criteria,” she says.

If they don’t, universities risk losing more dedicated researchers like Gilbert and Bell to the private sector. “If there is a point where the impact climate solutions can have within academia seems too small, then yes, I’m going to make that leap,” Baum says.

Max effect

For academics looking for a way to take on a bigger role in the fight against climate change, there are plenty of options – from finding or creating your own position at a university, to leaving for an immediate, hands-on business. But the first step is to determine where you can have the most impact, and what you can bring to the table. “For many people, the biggest impact you can make is through your students,” Gilbert says. “If you can focus on that and feel good, that’s great.”

However, for those who choose to leave, it’s worth taking the time to do your research, find companies and organizations that do the type of work you’re interested in, and talk to them about what you can offer. You might be surprised to learn how useful your skills are outside of academia – not just the disciplinary knowledge you’ve gained, but transferable skills like technical writing and the ability to review and synthesize complex research. “The list of things we’re good at is pretty cool,” Gilbert says.

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