Careers. Environmental science

June 19, 1998

Don't think you'll save the world as an environmental scientist - most end up working for industry. Ayala Ochert reports

Environmental scientists scanning newspaper appointments sections might soon come across some tempting advertisements for work in a new Global Climate Science Data Center in Washington, DC. These jobs may not be quite what they seem, as the institute, if it goes ahead, will be funded by the United States oil industry as an "alternative" to the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

As evidence emerges that tobacco firms have considered creating an alternative to the World Health Organisation, it seems that more than ever it is not what you do but who you do it for. Most scientists in the field would be hard to recruit, not least because many enter it out of a concern for the environment. For many, a career as an environmental scientist may seem like the ideal way to combine an intellectual challenge with improving the environment. But Helen Wallis, in-house scientist at Greenpeace, warns:

"Don't assume that you are going to save the world."

She says that people who want to protect the environment all too often find themselves working for industry. Many end up conducting environmental impact assessments, and some can get disillusioned as they find themselves rubber-stamping industry plans. "Only that science that can be incorporated into a predictive model is considered. But key to what determines policy is what questions are asked, what is included and what is left out."

It will probably be no surprise to most scientists that working for industry involves compromise, but doing environmental science research at a university can also be constraining. Gill Glegg, lecturer in environmental sciences at Plymouth University, explains: "You can get very immersed in one corner of research and convince yourself that it matters in the greater scheme of things. People are not so concerned with where their work is going, just in making things very clear.

"I used to work on monitoring trace metals. I thought it very important at the time, although I couldn't have told you how it was going to change the world," recalls Glegg, who then chose to work for Greenpeace because she felt she could make more of a difference to the environment there.

Others who have gone to work for environmental organisations strongly defend any suggestion they might be too deeply involved in environmental issues to conduct "good science". One such person is Sue Mayer of charity GeneWatch, who has little difficulty squaring her role as campaigner with her role as researcher: "It is easier to reconcile than working for a polluting industry, which is what a lot of environmental scientists do. Coming from a particular view means you ask different questions, not distort science."

One example of this, cited by Mayer, is the difference between how industry and Greenpeace monitor chemicals in industrial effluent. While industry may say levels of individual chemicals are within legal limits, Greenpeace will point out that the effluent contains hundreds of different chemicals, interacting with each other in as yet unknown ways.

Environmental organisations may have biases, Mayer says, but in that they are no different from others. "Mainstream science has buried in it taken-for-granted assumptions. We are out in the open, which is much clearer than a concealed set of values."

Tim O'Riordan, of the University of East Anglia's school of environmental sciences, says the beauty of environmental sciences is that "it does not spit out standard products, but highly variable people whose interests are shaped by their concerns". All the more reason, Wallis says, for people to consider whether they are doing something that conflicts with their beliefs.

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