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This Scientist Made Superhero Headlines. Why Doesn’t That Happen More Often?

Andrew Baker is the guy that rescues corals with his bare hands from the evils of industry. A recent article on National Geographic News featured him doing just that. Of course, as a scientist myself, I know Andrew through his alter ego: a renowned scientist unlocking the secrets of coral adaptation. But for those following the news in summer 2014, Baker took a stand against wasteful coral destruction and became professor-turned-superhero. All sorts of local and national news outlets picked up the story.

“You spend 95 percent of your year doing note-worthy science. Does it bother you that all anyone wants to talk to you about is this one 10-day rescue mission?” I asked Baker as we chatted in his University of Miami office before co-hosting a National Geographic Learning Google+ Hangout event earlier this year (see video above).

“No, not really.” He chuckles. “That’s why we got into this business in the first place.”

Dozens of my science colleagues think like Andrew Baker. Conservation biologists, for the most part, are supremely passionate about the places and things they study. If a call comes in the middle of the night, the professional culture within conservation biology encourages scientists to answer. Perhaps they volunteer manpower for a restoration project or attract celebrity attention to a new project. But the complete journey between picking up the phone and causing a media-worthy commotion is punctuated with real risk.

What prevents the majority of scientists from making the leap from the ivory tower to the front lines? If the accelerating ills of our planet require real heroism, it’s a question worth exploring. Baker’s story of public engagement lends insight.

Dr. Andrew Baker & the Port of Miami Coral Rescue 

Baker remembers that the voice on the other end of the phone call said something like this: “The good news is that your permit was approved. The bad news is that you only have ten days to collect as many corals as possible.”

He was threes time zones away from his University of Miami laboratory at the Rosenthal School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (RSMAS). Dredges helmed by the Army Corp of Engineers were about to excavate thousands of corals from the Port of Miami and bury their neighbors under silt. Bigger ships going to and from the Panama Canal needed deeper passage. A miscommunication between the Corp and the research-permitting agency of the State of Florida had squeezed their time window for a rescue mission. Baker was able to mobilize a team of divers and graduate students to start collecting corals until his return.

“As scientists, we’re used to being so careful [when collecting corals] … this was a free-for-all,” Baker recalls. “People were going crazy with hammers. We had to just collect as many as possible.”

Any corals left behind would be directly destroyed by dredging or–as NG News recently reported–indirectly harmed by silt. The Corps has transplanted a handful of corals mostly within a certain size range. But some of the rescued corals were over 30 pounds and more than two feet in diameter–a signal of old age.

Corals rescued from the port are being used for science, helping to ask some of Baker’s core research questions: What are the genetic and symbiotic secrets that make for hearty corals? Is there something unique in the DNA of these surviving “urban” corals?

What I want to point out is that this type of mission isn’t within the comfort zone of most scientists. Corals were sloshing around in old coolers. Nothing was labeled. Species identification didn’t matter. Students were jimmy-rigging shade cloth over an unused aquaculture tank at the lab’s outdoor facility for a makeshift holding tank. Any UM diver—coral expert or not—was asked to volunteer. As someone who collects corals for my own research, I know that these experts really had to “wing it” and do so on a shoestring budget.

Precision and planning are the golden rules in science. Perhaps a willingness to step outside of that comfort zone is fundamental to the superhero recipe.

Scientists as Witnesses? It’s Complicated.

By the time dredging began, Andrew Baker and his team had rescued 1200 corals. It was still only 10 percent of what could have been saved; the rest were eventually excavated and destroyed to deepen the port entry. No one got paid overtime, and Andrew’s rescue work was only the beginning of his call of duty.

“We really needed expert testimony,” says Dr. Rachel Silverstein, Executive Director of the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper. Her group is leading the lawsuit against the Army Corp of Engineers for mishandling this coral dredging project. “It’s so important to be backed up by scientists like Andrew. Otherwise, its impossible to do what we do.”

Baker provided written testimony for the suit and often shows up at court as a concerned citizen. “The scientists that work for the government aren’t talking about the bigger picture. It’s unbelievable,” says Baker. He continues to speak out about inadequate science used in the port dredging.

There are real risks to speaking out–and few rewards.

Many of my science colleagues from South Florida whisper caution about speaking out against the federal government. Some say it affects scientists’ ability to get field research permits or federal grants. Whether or not that’s true, fear becomes an filter preventing more scientists from making headlines.

There are other hurdles to headline-worthy heroism. “If scientists are seen as advocates, they are seen as less credible experts on the stand,” says an attorney for the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Whether its oral or written testimony, its hard to get scientists to contribute because it’s on the record forever. In my experience, they often put their jobs on the line,” the attorney says.

Neither Baker nor Silverstien wants to see this type of coral destruction happen again, so they continue to advocate together. “Andrew doesn’t have to stick his neck out,” said Silverstein. “He does it because he’s devoted his life to understanding coral survival.”

Scientists as Public Advocates? That’s Also Complicated.

Andrew Baker is somewhat unique among coral scientists for stepping up, but climate scientists are increasingly being asked to put on capes and fly into headlines. The New York Times recently summarized this new trend towards “the advocate scientist.” And within the scientific field, peer-reviewed journals are running op-eds urging climate scientists to “risk tenure” and “get arrested (if necessary).”

For Baker, who recently received tenure, securing research funds alone is a challenge. Money for future coral rescues? He laughs. His coral rescue work was done on the backs of volunteers and sleepless nights.

The incentives just aren’t there to support the superhero scientist. Eventually though, universities will have to realize that the younger generation of professors are being called to action and need the financial support to answer.

“Younger scientists are more likely to see themselves as advocates,” says the prosecutor for environmental crimes. “I definitely think there is a shift in attitude of what a scientist’s role should be, especially as science and environmental issues become more polarizing.”

The University of Miami is considering ways to expand resource availability to accommodate ad-hoc, unexpected research needs that respond to environmental emergencies. For now, however, these discussions continue to be exploratory.

And for the few brave superhero scientists, like Baker, nights continue to be sleepless.

Read All Posts by Clare Fieseler