A mug sits on a window sill, as if waiting to catch a ray of sunlight, a stroke of inspiration. Perhaps it is yearning for rain, the next drop of genius to fill its cup, so that when the morning coffee has been drained, the much-awaited eureka moment would finally materialize.
Science has built its name in the big breakthroughs: groundbreaking discoveries about how the universe and its inhabitants work; game-changing cures for prevalent diseases; revolutionary technologies that make processes and systems more efficient. Too often, the value of research is measured in the outcomes, anchored in a discipline that has prided itself in its apparent verifiability and objectivity, in its truth-seeking and problem-solving ways, in its inherent complexity.
But becoming a scientist in fact begins with something much simpler—an idea, a niche, a point of interest.
“I tried to figure out which [course] would have the most field trips, so that was Marine Science,” says Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan, who is a full professor and a University fellow hailing from the Biology Department. He is also the Director of the Br. Alfred Shields FSC Ocean Research (SHORE) Center and has specifically directed his attention to studying coral reefs and to the development of technologies that can aid in his line of work. His decision to specialize in corals was about choosing the path less taken; at the time, he recalls that more people had been selecting reef fishes over corals, so he opted for the less crowded subject area with the reasoning that, “Well, we can’t all be doing the same thing.”
The Philippine marine research scene has continued to gain ground over the past years but remains to become as extensive as the archipelago’s diverse aquatic lifeforms. Extra pressure is felt by scientists in this discipline because of growing environmental concerns leading to heightened diseases jeopardizing the survival of marine life, including the corals.
Recently, his research team had accomplished a comprehensive mapping of the quality of live coral cover present in Philippine waters. These initial assessments revealed the drastic degradation of the local reef systems, but Dr. Licuanan insists that saving these corals will require much more than just knowing “what’s there and what’s not there anymore.”
Moving toward a monitoring phase is particularly important as this would enable marine scientists to respond to small changes detected before they evolve to bigger, sometimes irreversible damages. For scientists to understand why and how these phenomena occur, they would need to watch how these coral species might, in their own way, attempt to adapt to environmental stressors and find ways to recover.
Acquiring support for such research ventures is, of course, easier said than done. “I specialize in interspecies communication,” Dr. Licuanan explains, “It is my job to tell [humans] what the reef is trying to say.” But finding listening ears is another beast entirely.
Communication beyond publication
Perhaps one of the largest problems scientists face is convincing people to care enough to do something regarding the information in their research. Even significant research findings rarely propel the intended audience, including policymakers, to spring to action.
The overall low science literacy rate among the general public exacerbates this issue as they can be misinformed by fads and marketing strategies, prominently in the food and health industries, that may not always be based on scientific experimentation. Dr. Licuanan attributes part of the problem to the inability to separate the mainstream-ready solutions from those that are still being investigated. “They hear that somebody is studying this, but that just means somebody is beginning to figure it out but has not [yet],” he elaborates.
Dr. Licuanan acknowledges that the scientific community is partly to blame, too. Scientists carry the responsibility of sharing the knowledge they generate, however, he says, “Not everybody is ready to do that…they would rather leave that part to somebody else.” Researchers may not always communicate just the facts. Much of science revolves around predictions and approximations—educated guesses that ultimately are still guesses—so mismatched perspectives do tend to arise between the scientists’ side and the society or decision-makers’ side.
The remedy may lie in effective science communication—Dr. Licuanan’s other advocacy aside from reef conservation. Beyond writing the technical paper, science has to be made readily available for everyone to consume and be exposed to. The ideal is non-sensationalized writing, objective and formal in tone, with words simple enough for non-scientists to grasp. Only then can the public learn to appreciate the process behind the research.
Trusting the Process
In the midst of his daily meetings with various individuals and managing the SHORE research unit, Dr. Licuanan takes time for himself to focus on his research. He reserves a few hours in the morning to get the writing out of his system as a way to prepare himself for the day ahead.
“With writing, you have to find that magic hour, so I make sure to spend at least 30 minutes doing actual science…if I get that 30 minutes in, then I go, ‘Okay, I’m a scientist today.’”
Science, then, is found in the quiet stillness of the early morning, in the day-to-day “I have to write something,” in the late night frustrations probed by errors and repetitions, in the sounds of crumpled paper and a pounded backspace key, and in the persistence to find the answers to the unsolved questions and problems about the world.
“You don’t get the answers right away, not in one study, or even in one career,” reminds Dr. Licuanan. He stretches out his arm, his fingers curling as if holding an imaginary block, which he motions to stack upon the unfinished makings of an invisible tower on his desk. The pioneering path does not always guarantee recognition, but Dr. Licuanan says placing a building block is enough to empower him to say, “I did my part; I made it possible for someone to build on what I built.”