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Canada To spur change, conservationist urges scientists to speak up for themselves

Aerin Jacob paddles through a lake in Canmore, Alta.

Alex Ramadan/The Globe and Mail

AERIN JACOB

Location: Canmore, Alberta

Biggest influence: “My mum, a tireless community organizer and advocate for others.”

Best piece of advice: “Be brave, work together and learn from failure.”

This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.

When she saw the baby mountain goats, Aerin Jacob knew she was going to be unpopular.

It was spring 2007, and she was a young environmental consultant monitoring the impact of helicopters at a mining project in northern British Columbia. Helicopters are a panic-inducing hazard for mountain goats, who perceive large flying objects as eagles about to swoop down on their young. Her sighting of baby goats high on a rocky cliff meant that the helicopters would have to be rerouted at the mining company’s expense.

“Everyone in camp was listening for that call,” she said, recalling how it felt to be the source of bad news and one of a very few women in a work camp with some 300 men. “That was scary, but it was the only thing to do.”

Now 38 and a full-time scientist with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Dr. Jacob credits the experience as a turning point that pushed her to earn her PhD and become an advocate for a more independent and rigorous system of environmental assessment in Canada.

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Her calling comes with a family history. Born in Toronto, she spent her early years in East Africa, the child of an ecologist father from the United Kingdom and a Canadian mother, who was involved in community development and famine relief. Her mother raised her on her own and brought her back to Canada when she was 11, first to Ontario and then the West Coast.

It was through the influence of her mom that Dr. Jacob said she learned it was not enough to simply be fascinated by the scientific study of nature. Somehow that knowledge had to find its way to improving how humans and nature interact.

“Aerin is a master at being a link… at distilling information about what matters so that it can be useful and inspiring,” said Sarah Otto, a biologist at the University of British Columbia and director of the Liber Ero Fellowship program, which supports early career researchers and encourages them to engage with the public and with decision makers. Dr. Jacob was selected as a Liber Ero fellow in 2016.

By then, Dr. Jacob was finding ways to bring science into the public sphere, even at the risk of irking her superiors. It started when she was a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Victoria, and she organized a local candidates’ debate focused on science and the environment during the 2015 federal election.

As publicity built up around the politically charged event, administrators pressured Dr. Jacob to cancel it. She refused and the debate went ahead with the student union as its sponsor rather than the university. The event drew media attention and was an indicator of the Harper government’s growing public relations problem around science. But Dr. Jacob said it also made her realize that it was not enough to hear what politicians had to say. To make change, she decided, scientists have to speak up for themselves.

An opportunity came the following year, when the newly elected Trudeau government announced it would seek public consultation ahead of an overhaul of federal environmental laws. Together with a fellow researcher, Dr. Jacob organized an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from more than a thousand young scientists, with specific recommendations for how to place science at the heart of environmental assessment. The letter was widely seen as a reminder to Mr. Trudeau that he would be held accountable to his promises to uphold evidence-based decision making.

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Dr. Jacob said that some senior colleagues advised her to put off her activism until later in her career when she might be safely tenured in a faculty position. Others were annoyed that they were not asked to sign the letter, accusing her of ageism.

But for Dr. Jacob the focus on young scientists was crucial, both because they are trained in the latest methods and because they represent the future. Besides, those older scientists had had years to spearhead their own letters, she thought: "Now you want to sign mine?”

When the letter appeared with Dr. Jacob’s name atop the list of the signatories – a decision she hesitated over – it was her acknowledgment that while she is a newcomer to the environmental policy game she intends to be part of the conversation. But there have been setbacks, such as when she was not invited to speak during parliamentary committee hearings on the bill.

At such times, it is Dr. Jacob’s dogged determination that has helped her win allies and enlist others to carry her message, said Martin Olszynski, an environmental lawyer at the University of Calgary.

“She seems to have this infinite source of motivation and optimism to come back and keep trying,” he added.

Jonathan Moore, an aquatic ecologist at Simon Fraser who has worked with Dr. Jacob, said her ability to communicate with genuine passion and clear eyed facts has already begun to move the needle on environmental assessment.

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“She is really amazing at connecting with both hearts and heads,” he said.

Now, with the bill in the senate, Dr. Jacob is trying to ensure it is not weakened and that new provisions for science can form the basis for better practices in the field.

“It bothers me that a wealthy and peaceful country like Canada doesn’t use the best available information to make decisions about how people use and manage the environment,” she said. “I know it sounds cheesy, but I want to do what I can to help make a difference.”

Read more in the Stepping Up series:

Dalhousie Indigenous student showing Canada the way to reconciliation

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Toronto human rights lawyer sounds the alarm on Canada’s plans to use AI in immigration

Vancouver teacher is schooling educators on the value of inclusive classrooms

How one artistic director is casting for more diversity on stage

The animation executive who makes parents' lives easier

A theatre company without a venue? Yeah, Why Not

How a research lab is taking lessons from music

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Moms united in grief and new purpose: to change how addiction is treated in Canada

Halifax councillor inspiring youth to have a say in how their communities are built and run

Cannabis Amnesty founder pushing for change – and facts – around pardons for possession

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