Science with heart: Dealing with pollution, harm, and suffering as a scientist

By Alex Bond, with Max Liboiron

Science is supposed to be detached, objective, and disinterested. It’s supposed to mimic what some have called “the God trick,” where the object of study is seen from above, detached from a body, by an all-seeing super-being without feelings, opinions, or culture (Haraway 1988). At the same time, we as scientists know that this is never the case. We have many methods, instruments, and protocols to try to achieve this, but at the end of the day, science is not neutral. As biologist Mary O’Brien has written, when we choose our research questions, it “means not asking other questions, and this decision has implications for society, for the environment, and for the future. The decision to ask any question, therefore, is necessarily a value-laden, social, political decision as well as a scientific decision” (1993: 706). Likewise, the tools we use to measure some things and not others. Where and how we publish, who we work with and who we do not work with, where we circulate our knowledge, and countless other decisions have uneven effects that accrue value to some places and not to others. There is an entire discipline called science and technology studies (STS) that looks at the varied relationships and influences between science, technology, society and values.

For this post on Discard Studies, I want to focus on the tension between the pressures on professional scientists to be detached and objective, and the emotional work of studying pollution. Different scientific disciplines have specific concepts of harm, which usually have to be measured at cellular, organ, individual, population, or species levels. For science, damage must be identifiable, discrete, and demonstrable so everyone can agree that it has occurred. At the same time, there are lots of types of harm that are not and cannot be measured and demonstrated in a laboratory. Many pollution scientists work in the grey area between these different concepts of harm and damage.

I interviewed Alex Bond, a conservation biologist who specializes in birds, about some of these tensions. Bond does scientific research in many areas, including how toxicants like mercury and plastics accumulate and affect birds. He began plastic pollution research in 2006 and has completed many studies on a variety of birds species around the world. One of the main findings in plastic pollution research is that the presence of plastic in an animal does not automatically correspond to damage. We know what many animals, from dogs to humans to plankton, ingest plastic regularly, and they seem just fine. But how can that be ok?

I asked Alex Bond how emotions come up in his scientific work on pollution in birds, and how he manoeuvres them.

Science with heart

By Alex Bond

As a scientist, you have to take a step back and almost detach yourself from the situation. But as a human being, when I cut open a dead bird and see bottle caps, tetra-pack lids and balloon clips gushing out of the stomach, it just breaks my heart. You think, “God, there’s no way that this has not severely affected this bird.” But that’s a different thing than the scientific weight of evidence, hypothesis-refuting approach.

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When I put my scientist hat on, I think the greatest source of harm from plastics to birds is probably in the contaminants that get picked up by the plastic when it’s floating in the ocean. A bird doesn’t necessarily have to ingest a lot of plastic for those contaminants to make their way into the bird.

If enough individual birds are severely affected, that’s going to affect a population. As conservation biologists, usually our main concern is at the population level, so even though there might be harm going on at the individual level, the cellular level, or at the organ level, as long as the population isn’t going utterly downhill, there’s no harm. Because as a society that’s what we value. Part of it is also pragmatic. It’s much easier to work with and protect the populations than it is individuals because for most of these species, some would argue that the amount of money and effort that goes into rehabilitating individuals could be better spent dealing with things at a population level to ultimately save more individuals. It’s sort of a trade off.

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So we look at the population and say, “there are still heaps of shearwaters at this site” and that’s the study. We don’t ask, “are they the same shearwaters? What do the shearwaters that used to be there experience? Did they have an absolutely miserable time?”

I definitely fall towards the population end of things and I think part of that is a coping mechanism because you know that you can do nothing for all the individuals, or even individuals you come across sometimes, but by some other action at the population level you can hopefully prevent it from happening to other individuals in the future.

Those are some of the scientific ways we look at harm.

If I was to put on a more human hat–though scientists are humans too, so that’s not exactly true– I’m convinced that that plastic is killing some of these animals just from the sheer volume of it. You know there’s nothing about ingesting plastic that’s good. I don’t see it as ever being a positive thing. It’s just varying degrees of negative things.  So if you have one piece of plastic, that’s not good. It’s not completely detrimental from a science perspective perhaps, or maybe it is, but it can never be a good thing.

Emotional Work

This kind of science is a really emotionally charged sphere because so much of what we do is emotional work and there’s a huge amount of emotional investment and labour. For this field work collecting birds, you’re away for long periods of time, you work ridiculously unsociable hours a lot of the time, you’re under time constraints, but the thing about it is that it is just so emotionally draining.

When we’re on Lord Howe were we collect birds, we’re there for about 2 weeks, and we work just about every night, and the days are 16-18 hour days. The first thing you do in the morning is go to the beach, and you pick up all the beached birds. And some of them are still alive. I think if you shut off emotions, if you’re not careful, you lose part of your humanity. If offing a beached bird becomes normal, there’s something wrong. You know, it’s absolutely…

Anyway, you work all through the day, cutting open dead birds, hauling out plastic. If you don’t take time at the end of the day, or take a day off, to just to process and talk about what you go through, it’s not very healthy at all. I am convinced that there’s a case to be made for symptoms of PTSD in conservation scientists.  

Because also this work is not all about numbers and data. As a scientist, at the end of the day you’re telling a story, and that story is inherently bound in emotion, values, and concepts of as a society. You’re asking, what do we value? What are our norms around what we value?   

Telling stories of harm

We have to deal with these different parts of being a pollution scientist. We have to deal with that gut feeling that plastics can’t possibly be good, and the science saying that there is no demonstrable evidence of harm. To do that, I look for where the bad is. I look for why it’s not good.     

For example, on a study we did on birds at Midway Atoll, we went beyond just shouting about plastics from the rooftops. We looked at how plastic loads related to trace elements of other contaminants in the feathers like arsenic and mercury (Lavers & Bond 2016). We know that when we measure mercury in feathers there’s lots of science about harm. Some will come from plastics, some of its natural from volcanoes, but the vast majority comes from coal fire power. So we can talk about harms in combination.

Ecology and conservation biology is just quantifying the obvious. That’s what we try to do with plastic. We know what the costs are; it’s obvious! Now we have to quantify them.  

In the science, there are different places that emotion comes out. Scientific papers are not typically an emotional outlet. I am sick and tired of papers that go, “plastic is ubiquitously found in the world’s oceans, it comprises 250 million pieces…” It’s just so cookie cutter and sterile.

An interesting example is that Jennifer Lavers and I had a paper out recently on plastic on Henderson Island which was had received quite a bit of media attention, so for us that was an opportunity to express the emotional side of it (Lavers & Bond 2017). So we wrote a op-ed for The Guardian on that paper– it’s not emotionless but certainly has restrained emotion, since we are still writing as scientists. We wrote, “this is how much plastic there is, this is how it compares to other sites,” and used really impactful figures. The article is called, “38 million pieces of plastic waste found on uninhabited South Pacific island.” But we also used it as an opportunity to express the part of the story of how we reacted to this study, the experience of it, which we didn’t include in the original research publication:    

“The quantity left me speechless and that’s why I went to such pains to document it in such detail.” Lavers found hundreds of crabs living in rubbish such as bottle caps and cosmetics jars, and has been told of one living inside a doll’s head. “From the looks on people’s faces, it was quite grotesque,” she said. “That was how I felt about all these crabs – we are not providing them a home, this is not a benefit to them. “This plastic is old, it’s brittle, it’s sharp, it’s toxic. It was really quite tragic seeing these gorgeous crabs scuttling about, living in our waste.”

I think the emotional story is just a different way of telling a similar story, a different angle but it’s a side of the same coin.  

Killing birds

IMG_3406I want to talk about killing birds to study plastics. I have never killed a bird to study plastic. All the plastic work that we’ve done has been from beached birds. Or we’ve flushed birds, pumped their stomachs, and then released them (Bond & Lavers 2013). Or we use birds collected through other means. I’m not opposed to lethal collection, because I think in some cases there is merit to it. It just has to be ridiculously well justified. It means that sometimes in this opportunistic sampling you might get three kittiwakes for your whole study, which isn’t great from a sample perspective. But I think there are ways to get beyond that problem without having to resort to lethal collection.  

The thing about capturing birds, flushing them out, and then releasing them is that it’s a kind of intervention. You assume that flushing gets most if not all of the plastic out of the bird’s stomach and so the assumption is that the individual bird will be okay and that any suffering from the plastic will have been alleviated.

Neglected birds

Another way that emotions and values guide my scientific work is that I work on birds no one else does. I work on Gulls in Witless Bay. I work on gulls because nobody else works on Gulls. In reality, they’re not doing so hot. We’ve found they eat a lot of plastics, but they aren’t the birds in documentaries or in advocacy campaigns.

It’s the same with flesh-footed shearwaters. Until Jen Lavers started working on them in 2008, and I joined her in 2009, people were just counting them. That was it. There was nothing about how they were doing in terms of plastics and other contaminants. When I look back and see how far we’ve come, and the stories we’ve been able to tell about them, professionally I’m very proud of that (Bond et al 2014, Lavers et al 2014). We were able to do it! Working on the sides of benches, with no budget, half time on evenings and weekends, we were able to do more than other studies were doing even with research scientist positions and millions of dollars.    

These are some of the ways that emotions and values guide scientific research–it results in some researching happening when it never would have happened otherwise, doing research in particular ways and not others, and what it feels like to be a scientist working on pollution.

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Works cited

  •    Bond, A. L., Provencher, J. F., Daoust, P. Y., & Lucas, Z. N. (2014). Plastic ingestion by fulmars and shearwaters at Sable Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. Marine pollution bulletin, 87(1-2), 68-75.
  •    Bond, A. L., & Lavers, J. L. (2013). Effectiveness of emetics to study plastic ingestion by Leach’s storm-petrels (Oceanodroma leucorhoa). Marine pollution bulletin, 70(1-2), 171-175.
  •    Haraway, D. (1988). “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies. 14 (3): 575–599.
  •    Lavers, J. L., & Bond, A. L. (2017). Exceptional and rapid accumulation of anthropogenic debris on one of the world’s most remote and pristine islands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(23), 6052-6055.
  •    Lavers, J. L., & Bond, A. L. (2016). Ingested plastic as a route for trace metals in Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and Bonin Petrel (Pterodroma hypoleuca) from Midway Atoll. Marine pollution bulletin, 110(1), 493-500.
  •    Lavers, J. L., Bond, A. L., & Hutton, I. (2014). Plastic ingestion by Flesh-footed Shearwaters (Puffinus carneipes): Implications for fledgling body condition and the accumulation of plastic-derived chemicals. Environmental Pollution, 187, 124-129.
  •    O’Brien, M. H. (1993). Being a scientist means taking sides. BioScience, 43(10), 706-708.