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

Eric Archer - NOAA Federal eric.archer at noaa.gov
Sun Jul 12 22:41:40 PDT 2020

I appreciate Phil Clapham's well-written opinion on unpaid positions, but
in general disagree with his conclusion that they do not represent a
significant barrier to entry to the field. I can offer my own experience as
a similar, yet counter example to Phil's. I am one of those few African
Americans that Phil can count on one hand as being involved in marine
mammal science I have been in the field for about 30 years, and I do not
know another African American in the field. That is, at least two of Phil's
fingers don't know each other.

Like Phil, I also owe my entrance to the field to a volunteer position. If
it wasn't for the generosity of Jim Mead, Charley Potter, and others at the
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who allowed me to
volunteer there for two summers during my last two undergraduate years, I
don't know where I'd be. There were many unpaid positions that I wanted to
participate in, but there was no way I could afford the travel, lodging,
and loss of income to take them. The only reason that I could volunteer at
the Smithsonian was that my parents lived in the Washington, DC area and I
was living with them during the summer. I also took on part time summer
work, but if I had to work full time, I would never have been able to
volunteer. I knew people who did have to work more hours to help pay for
school or help their families, and they thought I was extremely lucky. I
felt extremely guilty that friends and relatives did not have the same
opportunity that I did, but vowed to not waste the opportunity I'd been
given. In short, I was only a few socio-economic rungs away from not being
able to pursue my dream. Today, Phil would need fewer fingers.

My point is this: We are all a product of the current system. We all have
benefited from somebody taking a chance on us and most of us have made
sacrifices or taken advantage of opportunities to participate in work where
we had to fund ourselves. Few of us have been paid at the start to get
those critical first few experiences or make those important first
connections. We all have been lucky. The voices that we won't hear in this
debate are those that didn't have those opportunities. How many people are
we missing from this field because they had to make a choice of doing
something to pay for school, family, or just existence rather than being
able to put it into their future?

Phil makes an excellent point about the need to expose more
underrepresented people to the field. The SMM Diversity and Inclusion
Committee is pursuing several avenues to make a closer connection between
the society and minority serving institutions and make our science more
available to a wider group of young students. However, I'm absolutely
convinced that although this is an important filter to be addressed, it
doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention other obvious barriers like the
issue of unpaid internships.

While I don't agree with all of the demands of the Jacobsen et al letter, I
signed it because I strongly support the spirit of the initiative and want
to encourage the very discussion that we're having now. I think we can all
agree that we need to do everything we can to get as many voices to the
table as possible. Changing the way we think about unpaid internships is
one of them. Phil has outlined the harm that these changes would have to
research projects. I just wanted to add some words to voice the silent harm
experienced by people that we will never hear from.

Kind Regards,
Eric Archer

On Sat, Jul 11, 2020 at 8:05 AM Phil Clapham <phillip.clapham at gmail.com>

> 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
> possible.
>    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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> MARMAM at lists.uvic.ca
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*Eric Archer, Ph.D. *(he/him/his)
Program Leader, Marine Mammal Genetics Group: swfsc.noaa.gov/mmtd-mmgenetics
Southwest Fisheries Science Center (NMFS/NOAA)
8901 La Jolla Shores Drive
La Jolla, CA 92037 USA
858-546-7121 (work)
858-546-7003 (FAX)

Adjunct Professor, Marine Biology
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California, San Diego

GitHub: github.com/ericarcher


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