Pure science? To a traditional scientist the exercise might not seem so, because it relied on informants of varying reliability and because its methods were really those of anthropology, not biology. The project crossed the line between science and advocacy, and to call it “science” in the usual sense stretches the definition of the term.

Distinguishing between “science” and “advocacy” was at the heart of a discussion on science and society held Sept. 13 at the New England Aquarium. The occasion was the forum sponsored by the aquarium coinciding with the awarding of that institution’s annual David B. Stone Award for Achievement in Excellence in Environmental Education.

This year’s winners, Philip Conkling of the Island Institute and John Farrington of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, participated in the forum, along with Judy Pederson of MIT Sea Grant. Steve Curwood of the public radio program “Living On Earth” had been scheduled to take part but was unable to attend.

“How do we know who the real experts are?” asked Aquarium president Jerry Schubel as he introduced the forum. As they communicate with the public, scientists encounter problems of jargon and “get bogged down,” he observed. “The question is how to get information to the public so they have the means to make the best decision.”

The Island Institute “sees itself as a bridge,” Conkling said at the outset of the discussion. He described fisherman Ted Ames’s mapping project that had documented 1,100 square miles of groundfish spawning areas, 600 square miles of which were in Maine state waters. “The information turned our idea of cod and haddock spawning behavior on its head,” Conkling said. “It was a provocative new idea.” The project (and related Institute-sponsored effort to document herring spawning grounds) “increased our definition of what science is,” said Conkling. “We used to apologize for not being a scientist; it shouldn’t be that way – instead, we should increase our understanding of what scientific information looks like.”

John Farrington of Woods Hole, a scientist himself, said “we should be clear about what we mean by `science’ and `scientists’ – we should inform, not dictate, the scientific process, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the need to advance knowledge.” Farrington warned against “confusion” stemming from the need of industries and agencies versus those of the public. “Our goal should be to further the interests of the public.”

Judy Pederson of MIT Sea Grant asserted that science “is the cornerstone of what we’re all about, yet science and scientists are usually perplexed.” Good science, she said, pays close attention to the process, including accurate methods and peer review. “It’s slow, and it opens up more questions than answers.” She warned that resource managers must understand “the disagreements among scientists” such as what method might be best to measure productivity in Massachusetts Bay. “These are large issues,” she said. “If scientists don’t speak out, they will be ignored.” Academic scientists must act as a check on “advocacy” science, she said. “If not, we lose our ability to be critical.”

Schubel noted that the forum was taking place at a time of national crisis, two days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. It had been scheduled for months, and “we struggled over whether or not to hold this event,” he said. In the end, planners decided to proceed, believing it appropriate to proceed “in as normal a way as we can.” He opened the proceedings with a moment of silence.

Island Institute President
Wins Prestigious Environmental Award

Press Release

Conkling is the president and founder of the Island Institute located in Rockland. The Institute was founded in 1983 and offers programs in marine research and community development to help promote the sustainability of Maine’s year round inhabited islands and coastal communities. The Island Institute is also the publisher of The Working Waterfront and the Island Journal.

Conkling is well known for his efforts to bring different users of the Gulf together in dialog. Such accomplishments include the Pen Bay project, a five-year program funded by NOAA that brings together the work of scientists, fishermen and managers to increase understanding of the region’s lobster population and habitat. Conkling has also been instrumental in the development of GOMOOS (Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System) a pilot project taking place in the Gulf that transmits real time data on wind, waves, sea conditions, surface currents and visibility through ten buoys located along the coast. More information about GOMOOS can be accessed from the Institute’s website at www.islandinstitute.org or www.gomoos.org .

Prior to receiving his award, Conkling stated, “Our fundamental goal is to be a bridge between the users of the Gulf of Maine and the scientific community, particularly the fishermen. The people who live, use and work in the Gulf of Maine have tremendous insights.”

Under Conkling’s leadership, the Island Institute has developed a satellite imagery software program for education, conservation and natural resource management organizations that has been used in more than 150 Maine school classrooms. It’s called GAIA Geographic Access Image and Analysis. More recently the Institute developed a series of web-based geographic information tools for fisheries outreach purposes.

Conkling has served on many panels and boards dealing with fisheries management issues. He has encouraged scientists to more closely consider the information available from fishermen in managing fisheries stocks.

Conkling has published several books including Islands in Time, Cape Cod to the Bay of Fundy, Environmental Atlas of the Gulf of Maine. The American Publishers Association recognized it with a “Best Book Award” in the Professional and Scholarly Books category.

Conkling earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government from Harvard University and received a masters degree in Natural Resources Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Given out each two years, the David B. Stone Medal is given to two recipients. Also receiving an award this year is Dr. John W. Farrington, Senior Scientist and Dean of Graduate Education at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. Farrington has done research on the organic geochemistry of the marine environment. His work has influenced much public policy on PCB contamination in sediments and oil spill recovery efforts.

Located on Central Wharf in Boston, the New England Aquarium is dedicating to presenting, promoting and protecting the world of water through exhibits, education, conservation and research programs. The Aquarium is one of New England’s most popular destinations attracting over 1.3 million visitors per year.

Contacts: Linda Cortright, Island Institute, 207-594-9314