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Ecological Grief – when scientists think they need therapy, but what they really need is debate

By Jo Nova

Once upon a time, scientists had colleagues that brought them back to earth. Then sensible scientists were sacked and the only people left in the department were the hyperbolic dramatists. Is it any wonder that what’s left of university departments thinks they need  therapy? Every time one of them hits the panic button they all panic together.

‘Ecological grief’ grips scientists witnessing Great Barrier Reef’s decline

Barnes, who is still analysing her results, was surprised that many of the scientists whom she interviewed felt intense grief and sadness about the reef’s deterioration. Nature has also spoken to several coral-reef scientists not involved in Barnes’s study who echo those sentiments.

“I now feel much more hopeless, and there’s a deeper anxiety breaking through,” says John Pandolfi, a marine ecologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

David Suggett, a coral physiologist at the University of Technology Sydney. “Nothing can prepare you for seeing it play out in real time,” he says.

Nothing can prepare you — unless of course a wiser older colleague reminds you when it all happened before. “No biggie.”

Suggett says that he finds it difficult to set his emotions aside about the reef’s condition when talking to the public. He worries that if he shows his feelings, then people will accuse him of being biased. “It’s very challenging for researchers to maintain the appearance of being objective while showing that they care about the ecosystems they’re working on,” Suggett says. He thinks a lack of support networks for scientists struggling with the emotional effects of their work could also lead to feelings of isolation.

Dear Dr Suggett — why maintain the appearance of objectivity when you could maintain objectivity instead? We can show we care about the ecosystems by studying them better — by listening to opponents, debating it freely and tossing out cherished assumptions.

Scientists don’t need a therapy group — they need a debate.


Cunsolo, A. & Ellis, N. R. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 275–281 (2018).