Is EIA's work scientific? Fundraiser Steve discusses

Trees. Credit EIA

EIA started back in 1984

I’m not someone you’re likely to see a blog from that frequently and this is actually my first since joining EIA in November last year. I’m one of a number of behind the scenes people and my realm is fundraising. Specifically trusts and foundations, which means I get to read about pretty much everything EIA does, and is doing, often before it is published, and use that information to craft written applications to trusts asking for grants. A typical application would be to cover costs of one of EIA’s many groundbreaking investigations, and in a typical week, I’d be working on material across most of the campaign areas. One of the reasons I’ve not entered the blog writing arena before is a feeling of not having all that much to contribute to “front of house” activity, however, Sophia persuaded me by pointing out it doesn’t have to be about trusts fundraising, and it just so happens there is something I felt it was worth me writing about! So here goes….

Rogue Traders: press launch in Jakarta. Credit EIA.

As part of my role I read every report EIA produces and also keep an eye on the feedback. Clearly EIA isn’t there to be a friend to everyone: The environmental criminals, people who are out to make a fast buck at the expense of making a species extinct, won’t appreciate the publicity we give them and that is as it should be. In the course of my work I have noticed a theme of sorts that turns up quite frequently from the disgruntled being exposed or shamed by EIA’s work, and that theme is that “EIA aren’t scientists so these results have no value” An example would be some of the supermarket responses to Chilling Facts. It happens that as well as being a fundraiser I was also a fully fledged, Ph.D carrying, glasses and (sometimes) white coat wearing scientist. Until joining EIA, I had been working as a scientist since the late 90’s, so think I am qualified to comment on this, and as a newish staff member can consider myself to have a little perspective.

So….. EIA isn’t scientific? Lets explore that a bit….

Perhaps they think EIA’s campaigners aren’t as qualified as scientists? Actually, the campaigners have university backgrounds, relevant to their areas of expertise. I’m sure Debbie (Head of tiger campaign) won’t mind me mentioning she has an M.Sc in Wildlife Conservation, that’s post graduate and requiring scientific research skills. So it seems the staff are scientifically qualified, it can’t be that…

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Perhaps they are thinking we aren’t publishing in science journals so its not science? Actually sometimes we do, but fair enough, its true, we usually don’t. But EIA’s publications are intended to effect change in governments and inform the public to rally support behind an issue. It would be a little foolish of EIA to put one of its hard hitting investigative reports in the “journal of plankton research”;  it wouldn’t be seen by the people who need to see it. The purpose of publication is primarily peer review, to see if other people agree with what you are saying. Speaking as someone who has been through the science journal publication process I would say that it is far easier to get a paper past the reviewers into the scientific press than to get an entire government to agree with you and change direction. This feat is exactly what EIA has achieved on many occasions: For example, Faith’s recent piece on the VPA signing with Indonesia and the amount of dedicated effort it took to get there… EIA puts the information out there, the governments who see it have their own teams of scientific advisors who will without doubt be going over EIA’s material with a fine tooth comb. You can be sure that in a world where the power of the tweet terrifies the spin doctors witless they won’t put their political reputations on the line to support our findings unless they are 100% convinced of the validity of EIA’s material. Nothing wrong with our peer review process then, sounds pretty scientifically robust to me….

Tiger skin taken on an EIA investigation. Copyright EIAPerhaps they feel that in some way the fact that EIA are Investigators, means they are unscientific? (Mike Hammer, The saint, James bond… etc etc) Well, actually, all science really means is simply to observe and categorise events. It is about the discovery of knowledge, and the answering of questions. Many scientists would and do call themselves investigators, (sometimes great investigators from a certain ego-centric glaciologist I once had as a lecturer in my undergraduate days!) The recording of a scientific experiment uses the precise same skills and methodologies of an undercover investigation. Seems we draw a parallel there too, so that can’t be the reason EIA’s opponents think us unscientific.

All we are left with is that EIA is not a science institute or a university, so how can the results be valid? They have me there. It’s true, EIA isn’t based in a sparkling research centre made out of glass and steel, it doesn’t award degrees or diplomas, but, just a moment, is that where science actually happens? Sorry to say this, but some of the time actually not…. There’s a certain Jewish German chap who people think a lot of, he was famous for mad hair and sticking his tongue out a lot at cameras. He also did a bit of science of course, rather a lot of it actually. The science he did, the discovery he is credited with, that is considered his most important, was made in the dingy attic where he lived, in his spare time in the evenings, whilst working as a humble patent clerk by day. Who am I talking about? The theory was general relativity, his name was Albert Einstein, you may have heard of him….

As it happens EIA’s offices are also in an attic, not particularly dingy perhaps, (though on the very rainy day I’m writing this, not terribly brightly lit, it’s true!). But it’s actually rather homely and is an attic none the less.

The people who try to belittle EIA’s achievements by claiming we are unscientific, couldn’t be further from the truth. We do everything a scientist does, are as qualified, and publish reports that really do change the world for the better. On top of that we do our office work in the same type of quarters as the great Albert Einstein used to craft his world changing theories, what more could you ask for? Perhaps we aren’t about to be an academic threat to folks like Stephen Hawking, but with the continued support of trusts, foundations, and not least our supporters like yourselves, we will continue to be a threat to the environmental criminals, and work to ensure that the world in which future generations learn about Einstein in their school books still contains Tigers, still have forests, and whales, and have coastlines in much the same place as they are today.

Dr Steven Abbott

Senior Fundraiser