Marine mammalogy must battle against unpaid work, argues petition

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Credit: Adapted from Getty

Hundreds of scientists worldwide have petitioned an international marine-mammalogy society to take a stand against unpaid positions such as internships and work-experience placements, arguing that uncompensated work presents barriers to diversity and inclusion within the discipline.

The petition, which was signed by 727 marine-mammal researchers and others, was sent to the Society of Marine Mammalogy (SMM) in July requesting that the society change its code of ethics “to reflect that all workers in the field of marine mammal science should be compensated for their labor” and to bar any advertising on its website for unpaid internships. The petition had circulated for about a month on Twitter and on a public marine-mammal science listserv.

The petition has ignited heated discussion on the listserv and elsewhere about the value of unpaid work and of diversity in science. The society’s president says that its board of directors will wait until the issue cools down before considering whether to add guidance about pay and diversity to the society’s code of ethics. “We have taken the petition seriously,” says Charles Littnan, SMM president. He says that the membership is discussing it this month.

Some unpaid positions in marine mammalogy have requirements specific to field-based research; among these are full-time internships that last for months in remote locations. But the issues that the petition addresses, including how unpaid positions limit the diversity of junior researchers in any field, are widespread. Data are not available on the number of unpaid positions across all scientific disciplines worldwide, but anecdotally, they are thought to be numerous. The petition authors note that large US marine science and conservation organizations — including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the World Wildlife Fund — employ unpaid workers.

A 2014 report by the Royal Society in London, found that scientists and researchers who had economically advantaged backgrounds were more likely to enter the scientific workforce and to succeed professionally1.

Eric Archer

Eric Archer is a marine-mammal geneticist at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California.Credit: Bernardo Alps

The SMM petition was co-organized by Eiren Jacobson, an ecologist at the University of St Andrews, UK; Margaret Siple, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Chloe Malinka, a zoophysiologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. They say that the idea for the petition grew out of this year’s #ShutDownSTEM and #Shut Down Academia initiatives that developed from the Black Lives Matter movement. Scientists and academic researchers worldwide ceased work for a day on 10 June to protest against anti-Black racism. White scientists and academics were asked to quietly reflect on what they could do to address systemic racism. The three petition organizers say that the petition is their response to that question.

Junior scientists in marine mammalogy are expected to have at least one or two unpaid research experiences to qualify for a graduate programme, Siple says. Students who must pay for their studies, or who have families to support, are pushed out of the discipline because they cannot afford to work in unpaid positions, the organizers say.

All three of the petition’s organizers have worked as unpaid interns. Malinka’s food and lodging were provided when she did a three-month internship in 2011 in a European nation, and the non-monetary support was the only reason that she could afford to work without compensation, she says. But others need pay, she says. “If you have a family depending on you, you wouldn’t be able to do that,” she says (see ‘Find a work placement that works’).

The organizers wanted their SMM petition to reach beyond scientists who had successfully navigated unpaid positions. “We explicitly invited people to sign the petition who were considering careers in marine mammal science and couldn’t participate because of this requirement,” Jacobson says.

Those in other scientific disciplines have also picked up on the petition, says Eric Archer, a marine mammal geneticist at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, who co-chairs SMM’s diversity and inclusivity committee. “I’ve received e-mails from people outside of marine mammalogy who are re-evaluating their positions. It has gotten people thinking about where this particular issue sits in the pipeline.”

The petition has prompted discussion and disagreement on a public marine-mammal science listserv that has many SMM members. Phillip Clapham, a zoologist who recently retired from the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington, says that an unpaid eight- or nine-month stint at a small non-profit research institution after his undergraduate programme was crucial to his career success. He started his post entering whale observation data, and several months later he helped to collect those data. Eventually, he joined the research team.

“We would all like to have ample funding so you could offer at least some level of pay to bright young people,” Clapham says. But he adds that small non-profit groups typically cannot afford to pay workers. If pay is mandatory, he says, opportunities such as the one that changed him — from a young man travelling the world on savings from restaurant jobs and a small inheritance into a dedicated scientist — will disappear.

Auriel Fournier, a wetland bird ecologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that the scientific community does not hear much about those who are unsuccessful in science. “The people who miss out on these ‘opportunities’ are unrepresented in the discussion” about unpaid work, says Fournier, who has been writing about the issue for years and who co-authored a 2019 study on unpaid work and access to scientific professions2. Successful scientists talk about how they benefited from unpaid work, she says, but we hear little from the people who are forced to drop out of science in part because they can’t afford to work without pay, she says.

Fournier lasted a month in an unpaid internship that she had during her undergraduate years. She had to quit that position when she could no longer pay for her tuition, rent and other necessities. After that, she accepted only paid internships.

Today, she says, early-career scientists reach out to her to ask what they should do to curb unpaid work, when they don’t have the power to make changes that they would like to see. “I think as we move up the career ladder, we can play a larger role in making sure the way we do our science matches our values,” Fournier says. “A lot of folks have internalized the idea that science is a meritocracy and their success is due only to their hard work. It is hard to realize that your success may be related to your gender, to your race or to the unpaid job that you had the money to take.”

Finding a work-placement experience that works

Look for a paid placement. But those seeking internships and placements should be aware that studies have found that racial bias also affects who gets paid for placements, and who doesn’t.

Assess your needs. If you will receive room and board, but need income, you might prefer a local position that pays a minimum wage over an unpaid position. Under some circumstances, such as in a remote location, the minimum wage will not cover the value of the lodging and food provided with an unpaid position.

Get what you came for. You might be seeking recommendation letters for a graduate course, the chance for a paid post, the opportunity to develop a skill, or co-authorship of a paper. You need to make sure that the position you accept will offer the benefits you want.

Check with your institution. Some universities provide grants or financial-aid credit to students who accept unpaid internships.

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