Science and Engineering Values

Conservation Biology and Environmental Sustainability

A major driver that led me to leave elementary education for academia was my passion for preserving biodiversity on Earth, both for moral/ethical reasons and also because of the vital role that this biodiversity plays in supporting and enriching human life on Earth. Even though these concerns are shared by many in clean energy research, however, they are typically not given much direct attention in our research, which instead typically focuses on improving device efficiency, durability or cost. 

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While these aims are important for limiting humanity’s environmental impact, they are inadequate. ‘Sustainable energy’ goes further, incorporating approaches such as life cycle analysis (LCA) to understand a technology’s full impact on the environment, typically in terms of global warming potential (GWP) and resource extraction/utilization.

However, there is still another level to consider. At its heart, preserving biodiversity is about modifying human behavior. The fundamental role of technological innovation is also to change human behavior. While approaches such as LCA and GWP capture the major ways that western societies interact with and impact the environment, this is but a small slice of human-environment interactions, and ignores the majority of the human population, in particular those who interact directly with some of the Earth’s most fragile and diverse habitats. More thought is required on how device design impacts behavior in these populations, and in turn how this new behavior impacts local ecosystem health. Would such a lens, alter the design criteria for a particular technology?

To answer these questions, the first step is enabling and fostering better communication and collaboration across the diverse fields involved, including technology research, conservation biology, environmental science and engineering, and social science (among others). I am a member of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) and led a Knowledge Café at the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) in 2017, titled “How can we foster collaboration between energy technologists and conservation biologists?”

I am also a member of SCB’s Conservation Technology Working Group. Conservation Technology is an emerging topic at the intersection of the fields mentioned above, which covers three main topics (in my view; others may legitimately disagree!):

  • Horizon scanning: identifying and understanding the public and ecological health risks posed by existing and emergent technologies
  • Conservaation tools: design of technologies to aid in conservation work, including detectors, sensors, and analytical measurement systems and other technological solutions.
  • Conservation-inspired design: integation of engineering, biology, and social science perspectives to incorporate the full conservation impacts (including LCA, GWP analysis, and techno-economic impacts on human behavior) of a technology into the design process.
  • Disseminating best practices to practitioners and researchers.

There is great work being done in this space by groups such as Conservation X Labs and Wildlabs, to name just two, and I’m excited to contribute to the field and see how it can help preserve Earth’s biodiversity going forward.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

While it is tempting to think of science and engineering as purely objective pursuits, the truth is that they are human endeavors. The work is conceptualized and carried out by people, and a scientist’s or engineer’s background can influence the questions asked (and those not asked), what methods are used to collect data, how that data is interpreted and applied, and how the work is executed. For many reasons, then, it is essential that diversity, equity and inclusion be cornerstones of our science and engineering practices (note: for brevity’s sake, I will henceforth just use the term science to refer to both science and engineering). Among many other factors, this includes who practices science, how science is communicated to the public and which stakeholders are given a voice in deciding how scientific findings are applied.

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At first glance, the case for diversity, equity and inclusion can be made along moral lines. Science is a way of understanding, making decisions about and changing the world around us; giving only part of the population access, training and opportunities to advance in the field is at its heart unfair. It restricts access to the levers of power, increasing inequality and bias in society at large, and also prevents entire segments of society from being able to realize the full range of their talents and passions.

Beyond that, there is a strategic case for improving access to science, as diversity is a key driver of progress: more diverse science = stronger science. Diversity introduces new ideas and perspectives, and diverse teams are less likely to fall prey to “blind spots” arising from blind adherence to conventional wisdom. A more diverse body of scientists will also be more effective at considering impacts of their work on society and in communicating scientific results and ideas to the public.

This problem has been centuries in the making, and the solution will likewise require persistent, sustained commitment and action. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has compiled a list of best practices (a PDF “action grid” can be found here). In the book A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (National Academies Press, 2012), there is a chapter entitled “Equity and Diversity in Engineering Education” (the lessons apply equally well at the university level). Universities and federal labs can be engines for new ideas and best practices (see Colorado School of Mines’ page on diversity, inclusion and access; Lawrence Berkeley Lab also has a particularly helpful webpage on the topic).

In my own work, I will admit that this is still an aspirational goal. There is a lot that I have yet to learn on the topic, and many steps yet to take in improving the culture in my research group, department, school, and broader scientific community of which I am a part. My focus thus far has been on mentoring and encouraging students from underrepresented groups and on improving the diversity of seminar speakers for our department’s seminar series (which I run). As my career develops and I assume greater leadership roles in the various organizations I am a part of, my goals are to:

  • Improve the diversity of the students recruited for and attending Mines, both graduate and undergraduate
  • Ensure that the demographic makeup of my research group better reflects that of society at large
  • Push for greater diversity in faculty hires in my department
  • Help institute broader cultural changes in my department and university to increase inclusion, so that all who study and/or work here feel welcome
  • Help improve the diversity, equity and inclusion in the professional societies of which I am a part: greater diversity in society leadership positions, conference invited speakers and session chairs, and inclusive language in all society communications
  • Promote greater outreach and SciComm to underrepresented groups (I will be participating inSkype a Scientist, beginning in Spring 2018)

Lastly, I encourage all who are reading this to help me in these pursuits through your own independent actions, by collaborating with me, or by helping me improve my own practices with constructive feedback. Thanks!

Open Science

Science plays many roles in our society, but perhaps the most important role is to unravel the mysteries of the world around us: to understand the physical, chemical, biological and social forces that influence a range of phenomena around us and to share our findings with others. Unfortunately, many practices in the current research climate are antithetical to this goal. To varying degrees, researchers keep their work under wraps, perhaps for fear of getting “scooped,” or for fear of harming their chances to publish in a “high impact” journal. When it is time to publish, researchers commonly sign away their copyright to for-profit companies who then put their results behind a paywall.

While some of these aspects are understandable and perhaps reasonable (I will admit that I am guilty of all of them, on occasion), it is worth asking: Is there a better way to conduct and share our research? Do these practices get in the way of our ultimate goal, which is to share our findings and processes with the world to increase knowledge about the way our world works? If so, are these practices avoidable? In short, can we simultaneously increase our impact (and thus build a sustainable research career) while also being more open?

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Open Science is a movement with the aim of increasing the openness of the entire scientific process, from the planning of a research project to execution and the publication of scientific findings. When done well, these principles have been shown to increase impact and access to the findings (reducing inequality) as well as to improve the quality of the underlying science.

There are a great many resources available, and those with much more expertise than I have written extensively about Open Science. The Open Science Wikipedia page gives a thorough overview of the subject, presenting different approaches and arguments for and against Open Science.

There are also an number of scientists on Twitter who passionately advocate and educate on behalf of Open Science. For example, Jeffrey Spies (@JeffSpies) is a co-founder of the Center for Open Science. 500 Women Scientists (@500womensci) is a grassroots organization whose mission is to serve society by making science open, inclusive, and accessible. This is just a sample – there are many, many others, and google is your friend! 🙂

Some other ideas and resources, for various stages of the research process:

  • The Center for Open Science is an excellent resource for pretty much anything related to Open Science.
    • You can preregister your research plan, which not only gives you an opportunity to think through your research plan more clearly but also allows you to solicit feedback from others in the field.
    • Their Open Science Framework is a free, open-source project management tool that helps you collaborate and also lets you make parts (or all) of your project (data, protocols, materials, preprints) publicly available.
  • Preprints are a great way to publish preliminary findings. They build awareness of your work, enhancing the impact of the eventual peer-reviewed publication, and are also a great way to solicit feedback for work in progress. They are an easy (and legal) way to share a version of paywalled articles. A number of preprint servers currently exist. Please note that some journals consider data published as a preprint to be “previously published,” so if you have a particular journal or set of journals in mind, check their preprint policy. All available preprints of my work are uploaded to the CORES Research Group site.
  • Publish open access. There are a number of open-access journals available, and many “traditional” journals have an open-access option, which typically involves an article publishing fee. For exorbitant fees, consider publishing a pre- or post-print of the article instead, with a link to the DOI of the official version.
  • Make your software publicly available by posting on public repositories, such as GitHub. Even better, use open-source software options, when possible. You can view my publicly available codes by visiting the DeCaluwe GitHub repository. Making more of my codes publicly available is a near-term goal.
  • Finally, share your conference slides! FigShare is a great way to publish and share slides, posters and other non-paper outputs of your research. It offers a DOI for all shared items, so you can receive proper credit (citations) for your work! A recent approach I’ve taken is to upload my presentation before giving it and then to post a link to the FigShare upload on the slides that I present. Visit the DeCaluwe FigShare profile.

As with diversity, equity and inclusion, please feel free to provide feedback and suggestions for how I can improve this list!