[MARMAM] Unpaid positions in marine mammal science: a response

Phil Clapham phillip.clapham at gmail.com
Fri Jul 10 09:33:10 PDT 2020

At the risk of becoming unpopular with some good folks, I have to offer a
different perspective on unpaid positions to that given in the letter
posted by Eiren Jacobson on 2nd July, addressed to the leadership of the
Society for Marine Mammalogy.  The authors of the letter are of course
correct in that unpaid positions favor those who can afford to work for
free, and as such they exclude numerous people, including minorities.
Maybe a few institutions do intentionally exploit younger people in this
way.  However, for many, this situation is a simple reflection of the state
of funding in marine mammal science.
   Many institutions - notably smaller non-profits - have a hard time
raising enough money to pay their own staff, support basic field work, and
keep the lights on.  If you ban advertisements of unpaid positions, you are
depriving countless people of the only opportunity they may ever get to
participate in marine mammal science.  I'm a good example.  When I arrived
on Cape Cod in the fall of 1980, I volunteered at the Center for Coastal
Studies in Provincetown.  They weren't about to pay me, a young guy with
zero experience; no one at the institution was receiving much or any
salary, and our research budget for the entire year was a few thousand
dollars.  Yes, I was able to support myself (barely) for a few months.  And
yes, that was forty years ago; but for many small institutions, life today
isn't radically different in terms of funding.  Indeed, these days there is
more competition for money than there was when I entered the field.
   If I had insisted on being paid, or if the student internships we later
offered were subject to a ban on advertizing, I and many other individuals
who are today well known in the field would never have had that chance to
work with a research program, and try out for themselves the idea of a
career involving study of these fascinating animals.  My wife, Dr Yulia
Ivashchenko, has a similar story: had she not volunteered for an
underfunded whale research project in Russia, she almost certainly would
not be involved in the field today.
   By accusing underfunded institutions of unethical or illegal behavior,
and depriving everyone of such opportunities just because some are
disadvantaged, you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  We'd all
like to see everyone who wants to be involved, paid and given health
insurance.  But the harsh reality of funding is that this is often not
   Funding is hard enough to come by in the US, and far more difficult in
many other countries.  Do people really want to hobble projects in the
developing world from recruiting assistance with poorly funded studies
which sometimes involve critical conservation issues?
   There is a much broader issue here which the letter does not address,
and that is the failure of society in general, and the education system in
particular, to encourage minority and other under-represented school kids
to enter science.  During the ten years or so that I directed the
internship program at the Center for Coastal Studies, we were able to offer
internship positions that included accommodation and a small stipend; it
wasn't much, but was at least sufficient to keep our interns fed during the
two or three months they spent with us.  Every year, we had anywhere from
fifty to a couple of hundred applicants for the five or six internship
slots we offered.  They were almost all undergraduates - and, tellingly,
close to 100% were white.  I suspect that many institutions offering paid
internships see a similar disparity in applicants today.
   Given that our internships were actually paid at a basic level, what
this says is that the lack of minority applicants had little to do with
financial inequities.  Rather, the problem begins much earlier than the
undergraduate level.  As the infamous Sheldon Cooper once said in an
episode of The Big Bang Theory in which they're trying to recruit more
women into science, you have to start at least in middle school.  As is
well known, girls are still often actively discouraged from pursuing STEM
careers early on, and by the time you're dealing with the university level,
as Sheldon noted, it's too late.  The same applies even more markedly to
minorities.  I've been involved in this field for forty years, and I can
probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of African-Americans
I've known who've been significantly involved in US whale or seal research.
   So yes, try harder to fund internships and other entry-level positions.
But there also needs to be a concerted effort by the Society, and by the
field in general, to reach out to schoolchildren, notably girls and
minorities, and to aggressively promote programs that encourage kids from
all backgrounds to see careers in science as achievable (and cool).  Put
bluntly, you can offer paid internships all you want, but you probably
won't see people from under-represented populations flocking to apply when
an interest in the field was never cultivated - or was culled out of them -
at an earlier age.
   Given the dismal statistics regarding minority involvement in our field
and the current explosion of attention on minority issues, I would think
that the time is ripe to seek funding from foundation or other sources for
well-thought-out programs aimed at recruiting under-represented young
people - including school kids - into science.  I would respectfully
suggest that those who signed Jacobson's letter concentrate on this
potentially game-changing idea instead of berating and hamstringing
underfunded researchers.  Most of these are well-intentioned people who are
just trying to keep things going, while giving at least some students
potentially invaluable opportunities to jump-start a career in our field.

Phillip J. Clapham, Ph.D.
Research Associate
Smithsonian Institution
National Museum of Natural History

Senior Scientist
Seastar Scientific Inc.
Vashon Island, WA
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