Wilma Subra knows the frustration of trying fruitlessly to protect people from dangerous exposures to known toxic materials. After finding arsenic and other toxins in the layer of sludge Hurricane Katrina dumped on streets and lawns along the Louisiana coast, Subra implored the Federal Emergency Management Administration to remove the sludge.
“The Feds said, ‘We’re not going to do it,’” she says. “Privately, they tell me they know it’s a health threat.”
Chemical engineer Don MacKenzie faces the same sort of roadblocks when he lobbies Congress to improve the fuel efficiency of cars. MacKenzie works for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.
“There’s been very little progress,” MacKenzie says of the Union’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions. “It’s frustrating.”
Frustrations abound and victories are rare for Subra, MacKenzie, and every other chemist out to change the world. Workdays are long, and paychecks are small. As if that isn’t enough to send every bleeding-heart lab rat scurrying for the security of corporate America, advocates face criticism from relatives, neighbors, and even fellow chemists who don’t share their point of view. Yet chemists who choose to work as advocates wouldn’t trade it for the world.
MacKenzie, for example, could have had a lucrative career in industry. He worked for ethanol producer Syntec Biofuel before joining the Union of Concerned Scientists three years ago.
“I’d been very much of a technology guy,” MacKenzie says. Working as an advocate “was a little bit of a risk. But jumping into this policy world was the best decision I ever made.”
For chemists who want to reshape the world, opportunities abound. The Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Working Group are among the major nonprofits that hire scientists.
Advocacy demands science as precise as that of industry and academia. Anything less would be an easy target for opponents.
Scientific know-how is just the foundation for a career as an advocate. A crucial skill is the ability to explain complex issues in layman’s terms. Independent advocates also need to understand their clients’ legal rights, which means understanding the regulations and laws as well as any lawyer would.
But the most important quality every advocate must have—the desire to do what’s right, not what’s easy—can’t be picked up from a Web site, chemistry class, or Toastmasters group.
It’s what drives Subra to work 12–15 hours a day, often for people who can’t pay her a dime. The independent environmental consultant informs Louisiana communities of the hazards of factories and waste sites in their backyards. Her efforts were rewarded with the prestigious MacArthur Prize in 1999.
But her real compensation comes from the satisfaction she gets from helping David fight Goliath. “We’ve had a lot of success stopping proposed facilities in inappropriate locations,” Subra says. “We defeated a lot of landfills. We also worked with existing facilities to reduce emissions.”
This article was written by Cynthia Washam, a freelance science writer in Florida.