The True Price of Experience and Opportunity
Go to school, they said. Get good grades and learn important skills, they said. If you’re that way inclined, go to university, they said. Work hard, they said. It’ll get you on the career ladder to a decent career, they said.
What they didn’t say was that the ladder has long been rickety and gnawed by termites. Taking your first step is incredibly daunting and, for the most part, teeming of disappointment and a lack of support. Those who make it are revered and seen as, wait for it, the exception rather than the rule. A worrying proportion that make it have to invest more money to gain this ‘valuable experience’, trying as hard as they can to fix the ladder ‘for free’.
We are Generation X: they have taken away our hopes, dreams and even our natural curiosity. They have squandered our talent, instead preferring your own outdated models of how to conduct yourselves in a ‘civil fashion’. They are the people who have caused this mess and have no intention of cleaning it up.
Causes, Concerns and Consequences
Why do I write such a scathing blog? After all, my blog is about popular science and exploring that, right? That is true but I am also a keen advocate of important social issues. And, at the end of the day, it is all interrelated: our passion for science and science communication can only hold so strong in the face of a stark lack of opportunities for young scientists and communicators to jump onto the career ladder. A jump that we have been working all our lives to make. We then arrive to the moment we make the professional leap to find our resources dwindling at an alarming rate and our opportunities increasingly less appealing or, in many cases, becoming non-existent. What could be worse? Well, how about the fact that we are told to ‘accept it, quit whining and deal with it’. Accept it? No thanks. Quit whining? Asserting myself is not the same as whining: it’s intended to make myself heard. Deal with it? Like previous generations have dealt with the economy and environmental conservation and…the list goes on. Oh, and the for the record, gay marriage bill? Well done on passing it, Britain. Go on, pat yourselves on the shoulders. Pat yourselves on the shoulders for your incredibly draconic ways and for being a huge disappointment where the ‘we’ll concentrate on the important issues’ dogma is concerned. As someone I know aptly put it, ‘it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic whilst the ship sinks’. And boy is this ship sinking.
What right have I to complain? As much of a right as the next graduate that was royally crushed by the schemes and shortsightedness of politicians and companies. Without bragging about my accomplishments, I have achieved a First Class Honours in Bsc Biology with Science Communication. A joint honours degree which, by the way, is no easy feat. I have healthcare PR experience which, only after much needed changes in labour laws, paid me minimum wage (I’m not complaining necessarily, the people were great and the work challenging, though not for me). I have then worked in sales and lamented the fact that this is the ‘golden opportunity’ I had, after working myself to the ground with my degree. Hey, ‘Mr. Man’, how could you possibly mistake ‘biology’ with ‘sales’? Transferrable skills? Erm, yes. A desire to do something completely unrelated to my degree? For a proportion of people but for the rest of us, we’re still waiting for those promised opportunities which you charged us a ridiculous amount of money to educate ourselves for. Oh, and those students who are paying an even more extortionate amount of money to study for their careers? I’d hire some decent bodyguards for when you break the news to them that you’re going to seriously let them down.
Resourcing Problems: The Conservation Communication Crisis
Bringing the issue around to my chosen field of biological study, ecology and the environment, I want to mention a conservation I recently had with a scientific expert. It is somewhat related, which I will make clear later. As part of my third year radio project at university, I interviewed a series of scientific experts. All of them were excellent communicators but some were more passionate and focused on science communication and public engagement than others. One in particular really stood out to me, which, given the calibre of interviewees and their expertise, was something indeed. Mark was always on hand to answer any questions, offer feedback and constructive criticism and make me think about the wider implications of my work. He also kindly mentioned me in a public blog post on the nature conservancy website: http://blog.nature.org/conservancy/2010/12/07/mark-spalding-environmentalist-communication/
His name is Mark Spalding and he is, a senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy, an international organisation whose work is crucial in safeguarding marine environments. Recently, I got in touch with Mark about another related issue and we exchanged e-mails that can only be described as a civil but lively debate, centring on Richard Dawkins. My position was that, whilst Dawkins had his issues, he had his uses in promoting science to a wider audience, namely fighting the use of creationist texts in scientific classrooms.
As can typically be the case with scientific debating, Mark strongly disagreed, with strongly being a bit of an understatement. Essentially, he pointed out how Dawkins had hurt the science communication cause due to his overzealous approach to not just creationists, but religious people altogether – a fallacy which is all too believable but quite erroneous. Mark further pointed out, rather astutely, that Dawkins has estranged himself from his peers with his fairly extremist views, which have created a wall between scientists and the public, causing science to neither be interesting nor accessible. After carefully considering Mark’s position, I am inclined to agree. I felt that what I was really being told was that Mark felt the already difficult job of a science communicator is hindered by the ‘extremists amongst us’. I also stopped to consider that Dawkins has turned the evolutionist-creationist debate (which, as Mark points out, a significant proportion of people side on the evolution side) into a religious-atheist debate. Sadly, it’s a mixup that is all too common: being a believer does not mean you are religious or not. For example, whilst I am a staunch evolutionist, I am not strictly an atheist (though not religious either). But neither should have an impact on each other. And for a passionate and excellent science communicator, such as Mark, there is no use in rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic whilst the conservation communication ship is sinking.
How does this relate to jobs, then? Explicitly, it does not. Implicitly, it actually shows there is a lot of work to be done on the science communication front. Mark works in conservation, with conservation communications being his role. Commonly, a theme I have picked up on his e-mails is that he feels somewhat dismayed that messages aren’t conveyed properly which leads to a stark lack of action. I could be wrong but, at the very least, there is a definite room for improvement. Public speakers such as Dawkins can undermine our true purposes here and distract from key issues that we need to put onto the public agenda. In his blog post, linked above, Mark notes how it’s time to get more communicative creatures onto the conservation ice floe: ones with ‘a different view, fresh perspective, and a longing to tell their friends in the ocean’. Whilst I long to be one of these creatures because of my passion to make a difference to environmental issues, I sadly believe that the reality of it is that the field is severely underfunded. I do not have the funds to support myself whilst not being paid for a demonstrable amount of time (one advert I saw wanted unpaid volunteers for 6-12 months). We creatures who long to champion the cause on the ice floe are struggling to get ourselves on there, and the severe lack of support to help us get there is incredibly striking. But we are the ones with the drive and motivation to bring new ideas to the conservation effort.
Money Can Buy You Anything…Including Work
What’s the biggest incentive to get a job? Satisfaction? Er, well, probably not according to a large proportion of workers that you ask. It’s money. Money, money, money. So imagine the immensely counterintuitive notion that we pay to work! The one reason we have to go to work is taken away from us and we’re accepted to have our bank accounts dwindle whilst we gain ‘crucial experience’. The issue has been particularly extenuated in the past when Conservative backers paid as much as £2000-3000 to get their children top internships in London. Paying a disgusting amount of money to further perpetuate the gross amount of money already poured into ‘the City’. And imagine asking to siphon off some of those funds – even a meagre amount – to support environmental efforts? Then we become filthy communists and extremists, shortsighted and unable to understand financial markets. Actually, I’m probably not the only one unable to understand financial markets based on the current state of the global economy. Cheap shot? Well, as cheap as a City internship, right Mr. Cameron?
Am I angry? You bet. I’m here, ready, willing and able to take up a job for comparatively lower pay to do something actually useful for society – nay, humanity – than someone who wants loads of money for selling a product or service that you can’t really equate to being useful really to anyone (it happens more often than you think). I’m hearing distant voices telling myself to watch where I’m going with this. But let’s be real: the actual fields or areas we pour heaps and heaps of money into really have no benefit to the human race and its survival. Incidentally, shouldn’t the actual survival of our species sort of be…our real aim here? Hard to believe when we literally give money to ‘professional sportspeople’ for kicking a ball around or top bankers for ruining our economy (zing). But, I hear you retort, the life sciences is extremely profitable! Yes, pharmaceutical and medical ventures are. Er, yeah…but when you strip aside the ‘quest to help human health’, you’re just looking at corporate money making machines, really. Controversial? Not really. Can we stop making the truth such a taboo subject?
We environmentalists and ecologists are a jolly bunch, but not because we earn more money than we know what to do with. We are severely underfunded and underrepresented in society, actually. We are jolly because we have to be: our mission is what’s important to us. Being able to preserve natural wonders and ecosystems for future generations to prosper. I was shocked to hear a friend expressing how he’d ‘eat his fill’ of resources because there’s no point in saving it for future generations. Sadly, this admission is probably all too resonant amongst society. I let loose a long sigh.
We aren’t asking for heaps of money. Just a clever reallocation of funds from banking, sales, recruiters, sportspeople etc etc to help create opportunities for people who want to preserve the natural world and provide important scientific services beyond that. Even to communicate science, which is a crucial aspect in and of itself. That should not be too much to ask, even though it is. I do not want to have to pay thousands of pounds to go to help conservation efforts either in the UK or abroad. Alright, to you it’s a holiday going to Costa Rica or the Amazon to preserve a species. To me, it’s a lot more hard work and dedication than you need to sit on your backside 8 hours a day behind a computer screen, which anyone can do. Meanwhile understanding species biology and careful handling techniques – be it animals or plants – are what I invested money to do as part of my degree. A staggering amount of conservation/environment/ecology opportunities aren’t jobs at all: they are unpaid voluntary positions. A glorified working holiday.
I want to be able to throw myself on the conservation ice floe to join all the other penguins trying to communicate important environmental issues. I just don’t have the funds to do it.
Will my post change anything? It depends:
Who else thinks it’s time for a paradigm change to actually benefit society and the world at large?
It’s time to be awesome.
Disclaimer: All opinions in this post are my own, with as accurate as possible references to the opinions of Mark Spalding based on communications.