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Scientists And Grassroots Organizations: Good Work That Matters

A Guide for Citizens and Scientists Working Together to Solve Environmental Problems Prepared for The Science and Environmental Health Network by Mary O'Brien

Introduction: What can scientists and activists do for each other?

The cause of environmental protection is well-served when grassroots groups work closely with scientists who volunteer their expertise for the good of the earth. Scientists have unique skills that citizens need to solve local environmental problems. And citizens have unique wisdom based on observation and evaluation that enhances the work scientists can do.

The evolution of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring demonstrates the extraordinary potential of scientist-citizen collaboration. Carson, a trained zoologist and career biologist, began the research on DDT in response to a plea from a citizen who had watched songbirds die in a nearby marsh.

While there are many scientists willing to provide professional help, it's not always easy for public interest groups to find the right kind of expertise or scientists with a pro bono ethic. This Guide gives some ideas about how to find scientists and researchers and how to work with them to solve environmental problems. The second half of the Guide gives some ideas to scientists who may want to volunteer their time in a professional capacity with an environmental group.

Many groups have not worked directly with scientists and haven't thought out the best way theycould work with scientists. Here are some ways scientists might contribute assistance:


  • Review and explain technical and scientific articles, documents, and environmental impact statements.
  • Comment on documents groups are preparing or to which they are responding.
  • Be available to answer questions.
  • Testify in a court or administrative hearing on particular issues for the group.
  • Help groups find other appropriate experts.
  • Send groups helpful articles and information.
  • Help write documents or fact sheets.

Academic scientists may be able to introduce a group's issue to classes and supervise particular students as they work on projects, theses, or dissertations in conjunction with the group.

Part One: For Grassroots Organizations Working With Scientists

At some point in working on almost every environmental issue, we need technical, medical, or scientific expertise to answer questions, add credibility, or approach the problem in new ways. Finding that expertise is not quite as easy (but almost) as looking in the yellow pages of the telephone directory. This section of the Guide describes ways to locate and work with two kinds of scientific assistance - professional scientists and student researchers - to help with your environmental or public health problem.

But first, do your homework. Do what you can to learn about a particular issue on your own before contacting a scientist or researcher about that issue. Try to gather and analyze information held by environmental organizations or government agencies. That way, you'll be able to show a scientist or researcher that you have done your part to understand material.

I. Finding and working with professional scientists

Many universities have departments for community outreach that can help connect you with scientists who are committed to collaborative research.

One of the best ways to find out who is working in an area relevant to your group's work is to read scientific literature and note who works in that area. Note who is cited in documents prepared by environmental organizations.

Listen to scientists at environmental conferences and university or other public conferences on environmental and health issues.

You can explore various information sources on the Internet which may lead you to scientists who specialize in the area of your issue.

Note who is quoted in local newspaper stories regarding particular issues.

If you know students at the local university or college, ask which professors are versed in particular issues and who might be willing to answer some questions you have.

Many of the larger environmental organizations can refer you to scientists and other resources that might help solve your problem.

Don't confine yourself to scientists specializing in your precise issue. Sometimes the question you have could be answered by a scientist in a related field. A scientist in a related field may feel more free to point you toward the crucial questions regarding your issue.

A. Getting Started with a Scientist

In general, approach a scientist with the questions you want answered, not your group's position on the issue. You don't have to sell your position to the scientist in order to ask a technical question. Similarly, the scientist doesn't have to buy into your group's position in order to respond to the request you have.

Make your request for assistance as small as possible in your first contact with a scientist. Be very specific about your questions. You can get a sense of the possibilities for future work based on how this process goes.

A useful way to start is to present some information you have gathered to the scientist and ask, "What do you think of this?

If the scientist says s/he can't help, ask if s/he knows who might be able to help with this issue. Ask if it's ok to call again about another issue that may come up with your group.

B. Presenting information

The background information you bring to the scientist should only be what s/he needs in order to deal with the question you have.

If particular paragraphs or tables are of particular importance, highlight them with a colored pen.

For each excerpt from a document, place a cover sheet on top which identifies the document, source, date, etc.

If there are several documents, prepare a cover memorandum indicating what documents are enclosed and the particular significance of each one.

If it is both useful and possible, a field trip for the scientist to the place that is of concern (e.g., a forest, a spot in a community, a facility) will help the scientist get a sense of the context of the problem. The most knowledgeable citizens should accompany the scientist on the field trip. Don't take more time than is necessary for the trip.

C. Respecting boundaries and roles

Never forget that the scientist is probably just as busy as you are, has professional and employment obligations, and has things on her/his mind other than your pressing issue. Too many activists can get rather righteous about their issue and act as if the scientist ought to be caring about their issue.

Don't phone or contact the scientist any more frequently than you have to. Try to make an appointment time to ask a specific question or have a conversation rather than expecting that the scientist can handle your question right when you phone.

Do not abuse the scientist in any way. Don't push for more time commitment, more radicalism, more help, more anything than the scientist wants to give. Thank the scientist for whatever help is given - not because the scientist deserves any more thanks than any other volunteer, but because the scientist deserves just as much thanks.

Listen to everything the scientist says regarding her/his area of expertise, orientation toward the public limelight, preferred methods of work, etc. Each scientist is a person who should be accepted as such; you should know and honor the person with whom you are working.

If a scientist wishes to be kept entirely out of the limelight in relation to your group, honor that. Help the scientist feel comfortable in working with your group.

Don't pass the name of a scientist with whom you've worked on to other groups so that they start phoning or contacting her/him. A scientist can rapidly feel inundated, and it is a reason many scientists avoid contact with grassroots groups: They're afraid that they will be deluged with requests for help. You might, if it seems appropriate, contact a scientist with whom you work, to ask if a particular group may contact her/him with a question. If the scientist feels wary, you might ask who else might be able to deal with that question.

D. Protocol for using information

Use information that the scientist provides; don't use the scientist. Many scientists are wary that if they help a grassroots organization, their name will become tied to everything the organization does. If a scientist has provided you with information, use that information, not the scientist's name. The scientist can always defend providing information to a group; s/he may not wish to defend the group.

Allow the scientist to respond to your request for information and help. Don't ask the scientist to aggressively reach out to the media, or other scientists and legislators with her/his information. Your group should be the ones to gather attention to the information.

If you are preparing any document that uses information the scientist gave you, try to pass a draft by the scientist to be sure you are accurately conveying the information. Again, highlight the section you need the scientist to check, so that s/he doesn't have to read the whole document to get to one section that is relevant to her/him. Check ahead of time with the scientist regarding the draft, deliver it on time, and incorporate whatever suggestions the scientists makes, unless they seem inappropriate.

Document your scientific information extensively. It assures the public, decision makers, and the scientists with whom you work that you keep your information straight, and that you are accountable.

Do not bend scientific information to your purposes. Do not take scientific information out of context, or otherwise weasel around with information. Environmental problems are real; you don't have to alter reality at all to make the case for environmental problems.

E. Money

While you will generally work with a scientist on a pro bono basis (i.e., the scientist donates time and help), many scientists would like to devote much more of their time to public interest work, and would be able to do so if they were able to earn money for some of that time. Likewise, the work the scientist can do with your group may be expanded greatly if you are able to obtain money for costs of some analyses, site visits, or other items which might end up being out-of-pocket expenses for the scientist. If you are able to work with the scientist to secure grant proposals or otherwise raise money for the scientist's work with you, you may both benefit greatly.

II. Finding and working with student researchers

One interesting way to address your research needs is to offer ideas to professors and students for student research.

If you have a university, college, or junior college near you, investigate the various classes, departments, and graduate degree programs that the university has. Often the admissions department will send a free catalog that lists all of that information. Once you have a sense about the organization of the school, you can approach professors about ways that you might work collaboratively with the professor and students.

If you know of particular classes and professors who might be interested in exploring your problem, you have already accomplished the hardest part of finding scientific help. If you do not know anyone initially, you could advertise your group's existence and the opportunity for a student or scientist to help by putting up a poster in the halls of the appropriate department, with relevant questions that might be pursued. Or you could advertise with a 'help wanted' notice in the school newspaper.

If one of your group's members is ever asked to speak in a university class about some issue your group works on, let the class know that your group is willing to help them plan a particular project. There are lots of ways to communicate opportunities to work with your group, if you have thought them out carefully.

The university may also have a PIRG (Student Public Interest Research Group) that can take on a project related to your group's issue. There may be other student environmental groups. Check out the possibilities.

A. Thinking out research questions

Think out questions that would be good for masters' theses, doctoral dissertations, and smaller, individual class projects regarding your group's issue. Think widely. Depending on your issue, a broad range of disciplines could prepare interesting studies.

Recently, I generated a list of disciplines relevant to questions that Hells Canyon Preservation Council has about ecological conservation issues in the Forest Service-managed Hells Canyon National Recreation Area of northeastern Oregon and western Idaho.

The list includes: toxicology, geography, botany, forestry, genetics, wildlife, fish biology, history, anthropology, economics, sociology, journalism, law, sociology, hydrology, entomology, political science, environmental studies, cartography, civil engineering, archaeology.

Generating a list like that might spur creative approaches and direct you to a scientist or student researcher who might be particularly useful in addressing your problem.

If you manage to interest a student in taking on a project for you, you're lucky, because lots of wonderful things can happen: the science student may become a lifelong activist; the student may learn the significance and challenge of grassroots work. The student's professor will learn of your group and may continue work with your group in the future, e.g., by announcing projects you have for future classes. The student may become so intrigued with the project s/he pursues that it turns into a larger project, e.g., a thesis or dissertation. Most important, you will probably get some great information, maps, tables, or data from the project.

B. Setting up a student research project

Write the question up. Include the background of the question, significance of the question, how the question could be pursued in the time frame of the class, backup support (e.g., information, beginning contacts, out-of-pocket costs, supervision) your group can provide, and how your group will be using the information generated by the project. This process will help you clarify your needs for technical assistance.

Assure both the student and the professor of the class that your group will respect the information the student gathers, however it falls out. In other words, you're not going to try to cook any results. Indicate that you will be needing to understand the bases for any conclusions in the paper or project, but that what you're interested in is the information and project, not predetermined results.

If you interest a student in a project, follow through with information, supervision, reading of outlines and drafts, and money for out-of-pocket costs.

Don't switch your question mid-stream, unless the information the student gathers shows both you and the student that the question needs to be rearranged.

Be respectful of the student: Don't suddenly pile other requests on top of the project s/he has agreed to do.

Keep in mind that the student has a limited amount of time to pursue your group's question.

Provide quality control and communicate with the student and, if appropriate, the professor, throughout the class. You generally know more than the student about particular aspects of the issue. Be sure those issues are handled accurately by the student. Carefully read drafts prepared by the student, to see if it is accurate, understandable and logical. You ultimately cannot make the student be accurate. You do not have to use the project if in fact it was not well done, but you should have done what you could to make it a quality product.

By the same token, do not set up a student for failure. You should have narrowed the project sufficiently that a moderately motivated, moderately skilled student can succeed at making a contribution through this project by the end of her/his class.

Make sure all arrangements are clear between you and the student and, as appropriate, the professor, at the beginning of the semester: What the student will do, what your group will provide, what costs will be covered, how expenditures will be recorded. The last thing you want is unclear arrangements or communication that translate into a sense of disappointment and failure. You can build a reputation for providing excellent support for class projects; or you can build a reputation for being "too busy," "flaky," or "disorganized."

C. Working with thesis or dissertation researchers

Theses or dissertations deal with major, long-term questions your group needs answered. Theses can take two years or longer; dissertations three years or longer. But you will be learning throughout the entire project. Most of the considerations given above for class projects apply to theses and dissertations, except that the commitment of your group must be longer-term, and the financial considerations may be greater.

Likewise, your group needs to have the expertise (on a multi-year, sustained basis) to understand and help the student with the thesis or dissertation. Finally, you should think out how you would use the project, given the long time it will take before completion.

You cannot expect the student to provide the costs of doing the research necessary for the thesis or dissertation (e.g., field costs, travel, phone calls, postage, copying). You may need to write a grant proposal or otherwise provide expenses for the student to do the research necessary for the thesis or dissertation. Perhaps the student and you can cooperate on a grant proposal, whether to the university, an environmental foundation, or a major donor.

The student will presumably have access to equipment such as a computer, or field equipment and space at the university, which is no small contribution. Likewise, the student will have access to the professors at the university for advice and information.


Part II: For Scientists And Student Researchers Working With Organizations

A. Finding Grassroots Groups

If you have decided you want to work with an environmental organization on a particular issue, you can be certain that there is a group out there who will need your help.

One of the best ways to learn which groups could use your help and which groups you would enjoy working with is to attend environmental conferences, e.g., a forest conference, a toxics conference, a public interest environmental law conference. There you can observe presentations by groups, the way they approach environmental and social problems, their distinct campaigns, and the care with which they handle and present information.

You can also see groups in action at public hearings, and can occasionally learn about them through the media.

If a particular group is dealing with an issue of concern to you, you can always call them, and make an appointment to talk with one of their spokespersons or staff members regarding the nature of the group, its projects and campaigns, its possible needs for your help. Different members of the group are likely to be more articulate about their work from a scientific viewpoint, so it is important to ask them which person would be best to speak with you.

Nothing in such a meeting or call commits you to work on any of their projects; it's simply a way for you to find out whether you would be a good match working together.

Don't assume that the citizen group can instantly articulate a project for you. For instance, when I first visited Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides and offered my assistance while I was completing my doctorate in botany, the group didn't call me with a request for five months. Eventually they did call, and I worked as their staff scientist for eight years.

While it may seem professionally "safer" for you to offer your help to a group that is clearly well-funded, nationally recognized, and solidly credible, that may be the group that least needs your help. There are literally thousands of grassroots groups who are doing critical, incisive, on-site work to protect the environment and public health, and they need scientific assistance. Once you connect with one of these smaller grassroots groups, you will often be stunned at the fierce intelligence of their key activists, no matter what their level of formal education.

B. What can you do?

You might have to suggest ways groups could use your help. The list in the introduction is a good beginning.

Be broad-minded about the help you can offer. Even though you may be a specialist in one area, e.g., chemistry or hydrology, you are probably able to decipher a fair amount of scientific literature that is not directly in your field. Your general scientific literacy and knowledge of what types of conclusions can fairly be made from data can be of great help to a group. You may also be able to use connections at professional societies or through the Internet to find additional help for the group.

If possible, go to the actual location of the group's concern, with the group. First-hand experience with the group's site of interest will give your work an immediacy and purpose that is profound.

C. Respect the group intentions

Don't assume that a group that has made some scientific mistakes in their claims, or exaggerated them, intended to do so. Most grassroots groups are having to constantly learn about scientific complexities, terms, and information for which they have had formal training. They dig in, read, ask questions, and generally learn more about the science and reality of their issue than do most of the government bureaucrats who make decisions about their lives and surroundings.

My own experience over the past fifteen years with grassroots groups is that when someone points out to them that they have misrepresented some fact or over-generalized or otherwise not "gotten things straight," they immediately correct their mistake. Environmental problems are so large, real and severe, that the last thing environmental groups have to do is exaggerate or misrepresent anything.

Most groups know that since they have neither money nor political advantage, they have only three things going for them: truth-telling (i.e., accurate information, accurate perspectives, workable solutions), morality (e.g., it isn't moral to harm living beings unnecessarily); and concerned people.

Almost always, groups welcome suggestions for how to be more accurate.

Likewise, groups know that they are always under a microscope by their opposition, and that if they don't get things right, they will be crucified over some small error. They also know that the opposition often lies and gets away with it. Therefore, if you see a mistake some group has made, and you bring it to their attention in a helpful manner, and they react favorably, this may be just the group that can most use your help.

D. Setting up the relationship

Time: Figure out how much time you can give to a group, and communicate that clearly. Then follow through with what you promised. The group may try to get you to give more time than you have, but you can always say no. Citizen groups exist on volunteer help, and if they didn't press people to become more active and ever more helpful, they couldn't be accomplishing what they do. The important thing is for you to be clear about what you can and cannot do, and to follow through on what you say you can do.

Money: Citizen groups are often short of funds and may even find it difficult to give scientists money for out-of-pocket expenses. Many activists pour large amounts of their own savings or money into their work, and spend untold numbers of hours on the campaigns. (This is often a problem with grassroots groups: They too often put off the long term work of fund raising, because they are so busy trying to solve crises and address environmental problems.) These groups are also sometimes frustrated when a scientist requests money for the type of effort they themselves give freely.

But don't let the absence of money be a significant deterrent to working with a group. If you are involved in a project that will require raising money for your work, you could offer to lend your help in preparing fundraising materials, writing grant proposals, or meeting with major donors regarding the project you would be doing.

Roles: Be clear as to whether the group can use your name, whether they can refer other people to you, whether you are willing to speak with media, etc. Work out whatever conditions of the relationship you need to. Don't try to please the group. Instead, give them the objective information and technical help they need, so that they won't proceed with inadequate information or inadequate understanding of uncertainties, conflicting data, or evidence that is contrary to their ideas.

Finally, remember that there are so many groups, so many problems, so many levels of potential involvement, that you have twenty lifetimes of opportunities that you can pursue to be of help. If work with one group doesn't work out as well as it should, work with another group. Your contribution will make a difference in the health of the environment and its communities.


Mary O'Brien The Guide was written by Mary O'Brien, a scientist who has seen both sides of the issue. She has worked as a staff scientist for various environmental groups and has taught at a university.