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

Alexander M. Costidis ACostidi at virginiaaquarium.com
Tue Jul 21 08:20:43 PDT 2020

Dear fellow SMMers,

Watching this discussion unfold, I feel compelled to contribute. While I cannot help but support the open and honest exchange of ideas and philosophies, I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with Phil Clapham. As someone who has both benefited tremendously from being unpaid labor, and also seen others benefit from it, I cannot in good conscience support an outright professional ban on such opportunities. I believe that would be a misguided broad brush stroke that takes away positive programs rather than creating more of them.

There is no question that the system as a whole needs to be re-examined carefully, but as I believe Phil alluded to, it is a structural change that is needed. Many (perhaps even most) organizations that are not part of a large university or government system simply do not have the resources to pay people to receive an education, which is what many internships provide. Internships in this business are frequently unlike veterinary or medical internships, in which a certain expertise and/or certification has already been acquired by the intern. Intern candidates often have little to no relevant experience and are not much different from a brand new volunteer. Some have considerable experience or education in other areas, but are trying new things. A one-size-fits-all strategy for addressing the baked-in inequities seems restrictive at best, as the inequities are not all one size or one shape.

Many organizations do everything they can to facilitate people's education. It is done as unpaid community outreach, unfunded participation in graduate student committees, unsupported participation in student conferences, and providing volunteerism and internships. Those internship opportunities are not charged for in the way an academic institution would charge for an education, despite having many similarities. Those same organizations often have staff that are not paid what they deserve based on their work ethic, their competencies, their qualifications, or their dedication. Their operations are often chronically underfunded on federal, municipal and institutional levels. All these things take a toll on staff retention, conservation effectiveness, etc. Perhaps because this is personal, it seems reciprocally unfair to categorize all organizations with blanket statements of unfairness, when many are already stretched thinly, with funds diluted beyond belief, trying their best to make a small bit of difference.

Having such organizations stop offering unpaid internships without already having a viable alternative to this process will likely have other unintended consequences, such as reduced capacity for research or conservation work. This will not only affect those interns who have and continue to benefit from robust internship programs, but will likely also impact the very animals we are all so passionate about helping. I would urge this passionate and vocal community to come together to build more opportunities, rather than suggest removal of pre-existing ones which have given many people the chance to course correct or enrich their lives. To that end, I offer up a few modest suggestions that might conceivably help jump start such an effort, if embraced.

1) Create consortium of organizations that offer internships. Each organization contributes seed money to an endowment or some other means of growing a fund to support financial need-based internships within the consortium. Those organizations can use their political and economic clout and their media presence to promote additional outside support. Such a consortium may also help with promoting successful interns toward employment opportunities within the consortium.

2) SMM members join to form virtual classes or thematic video shorts that can help address the very insightful point Phil made about reaching young people and infecting them with our excitement and passion, on topics so few of them are ever exposed to until it's too late. Many of us have been to SMM video night and seen the exciting whale tagging videos, gross necropsy videos, heartbreaking bycatch videos, etc. Those same visuals that move us, could move current students, form future researchers, and reach broader audiences.

3) Unified messaging (and lobbying) to government and funding agencies for need-based federal/national support of career training programs related to marine mammal science. Perhaps this could have some sort of accreditation process to weed out those organizations with questionable intern practices and questionable intern education.

4) Grant funded academic research programs that depend on free labor to run large programs should indeed re-examine if/how intern funding is written into grant proposals. It is common practice for grant budgets to have graduate student funds built into them, so if those projects will require intern labor, perhaps that should be a consideration. There has to be recognition however that such practices could impact competitiveness of many grant applications by inflating the budgets in a funding environment that is already anemic. Perhaps it can be built into the institutional overhead costs?

My kindest regards to every single one of you across the world, and my best wishes that we all overcome whatever challenges we currently face. Stay safe.

Alexander M. Costidis, Ph.D.

Senior Scientist

Stranding Response & Biomedical Research

Phone: +1 (757) 385-6482

Cell: +1 (727) 543-6263

ACostidi at VirginiaAquarium.com<mailto:Email at VirginiaAquarium.com>

Stranding Response Hotline: (757) 385- 7575

Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center<http://www.virginiaaquarium.com/>

717 General Booth Blvd.

Virginia Beach, Virginia 23451, USA


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