Meg Weesner’s undergraduate degree was in journalism. After graduating, she got a job as a lifeguard at the Grand Canyon National Recreation Area. She worked her way up the National Park Service ranks from the bottom, through interpreter and volunteer positions, during which time she earned a graduate degree in wildland recreation management. Eventually, she wound up in Tucson, where she spent 20 years working at Saguaro National Park. Now, she’s retired, and continuing her work through environmental advocacy, including a position as Chair for the Sierra Club, Rincon Group.
What kind of work did you do during your time at Saguaro National Park?
My job title was Chief of Science and Resources Management at Saguaro National Park. My staff and I were the ones who identified issues that needed more investigation. We tried to find scientists and students who could pursue those investigations. Like, why are these saguaros looking unhealthy, what does fire ecology do to this ecosystem, how can the desert tortoise survive as a threatened species? What can we do to help protected habitat? Parks are great control areas to do studies.
Has your focused changed now that you’re no longer employed by the National Park Service?
As a career federal employee, I was not allowed to participate in elections. It’s not so much for control, it’s actually for protection of the government employee. If you’re working for the federal government, they don’t want the elected official to have control over the whole civil servant mass. The civil service is nonpartisan. You’re allowed to vote, contribute, put a yard sign, but you’re not allowed to do political activity on government time. You’re not allowed to put political things in your office. You’re not allowed to canvas in a partisan election or do phone banking or anything like that. The first year after I retired, all of a sudden, those restrictions weren’t on me anymore. I said, you know what? I can be involved in partisan politics now.
How is the Sierra Club different from other environmental advocacy organizations?
One of the interesting things about the Sierra Club is that, although it does have staff, it is volunteer driven. It didn’t have an executive director until the 50s. They elect the officials at each level, they elect all of the executive committees and boards that make decisions. It’s really a pure democracy. Anybody who’s a member can vote for who they want to serve in the offices that make decisions. Almost every other environmental organization has a board at a high level. They hire staff and the staff do all the work. They don’t ask much of their members except to give them money. The Sierra Club is really activist down to the grassroots and always has been. It allows any individual members and volunteers to be active and to do things. Sierra Club even encourages and trains them to be more active, including politically.
So, working with them is a more politically oriented position?
Every federal agency is political at some level. From what I hear now, it’s gotten incredibly political and many civil servants are kind of being told to keep their mouths shut. Depending on the circumstance of where you work and who you work for, that’s more or less the situation. I never really felt frustrated by not being able to do political stuff outside of my work, because inside my work I was able to do a lot of things. Science education for the public is certainly one thing both organizations agree on. It’s mostly policy things that cause disagreement.
You mentioned science education. What are your thoughts on how we’re teaching science, right now?
Kids are natural scientists. I guess that maybe the way we approach science education kind of beats it out of them. But, you know, kids go through this why stage at about three or four years old. Everything they see is, why is this this way? Why is that that way? Those are questions for a research project. Well, how would we know? How would we figure that answer out? Using those questions, that natural curiosity, kids are investigators. Science is nothing more than the process through which you identify a question and thinking of ways that you could answer that question. Science is figuring out how things work. Maybe, there’s something about science education that just beats it out of them, and instead has become about just memorizing facts.
Do you have any suggestions for improving the science education system?
I had staff members that really brough this to my attention, I’ll give all credit to those guys. They were really good about not only working with the researcher, but then providing information to the park interpreters who took the messages to the public. This includes programs for park visitors. Not all scientists are suited for this, but some are. That’s where this science education and science writing, I think, comes in. Not all scientists can do it, but if you have that person who can make the link between science, the park visitor, the public and students, that’s where we have opportunities for real change. These are people who know the science but can also see the big picture framework and make those linkages to why it’s important.
So, some scientists might have trouble communicating about their work?
They do. I don’t know whether it’s better to teach them to communicate or to find other people who can communicate and understand the science, to do that. I don’t think it’s fair to insist that all scientists do that. Some of them, their time is better spent doing something else. The important part is making sure all scientists know that ultimately, doing science for science’s sake isn’t going to get us very far. We really need to educate the populace about it.
Do you think that the way we communicate science influences public opinions?
There are so many people right now that aren’t willing to listen, that aren’t able to understand. I don’t know where the root of that is. Is it our science education? People have their cell phone, which is based on science. They’re happy to see astronauts in the space station and land, based on science. But when it comes down to science that keeps you healthy or prevents air pollution or shows that certain levels of air pollution are harmful to our health and will result in so many early deaths… There’s so much of it that so many people don’t seem to care about. I just don’t understand the contradiction. How can you pick up your cell phone, or entertain your child on some electronic device that was built based on science, and then poo-poo science all day?
Could that lack of caring affect the state of science communication in the U.S. as whole?
It’s starting to turn around just a little bit, but in the last decade, newspaper after newspaper have dismissed their environmental reporters and taken environmental and science sections out of their newspapers. That was really scary. I think we might be reaping some of the fruits of that, because the science was taken out of the forefront. The politicians won’t listen to the scientists, unless the people insist that they do. I mean, they might, but if the people insist that the politicians should listen to scientific fact, then, they will. Some of them are, now.
What do you think that means for the future of science communication?
If we can make such drastic changes to all of our lives as we’re seeing right now, even on a temporary basis, it actually gives me a little more hope that the world might be motivated to do something about climate change. A year ago, oh man, it just looked like such a huge hurdle to get everybody to change the way they do everything. Like, boom, you have one big pandemic, and all of a sudden everybody changes the way they do everything. It’s kind of amazing.
This interview was conducted via phone | Photo by Daniel Tuttle on Unsplash