Gene Likens never intended to let himself get drawn into the maelstrom of environmental politics. But that was before his low-key style of activism earned him a sterling reputation both as a researcher and as an advocate for bringing attention to the problem of acid rain.
When the 67-year-old ecologist began his research career in 1962 at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire's White Mountains, he wanted to know how nutrients cycle through a watershed. But his team's meticulous measurements revealed a more insidious threat: Increasingly, acidic rain and snow were steadily lowering the pH of lakes and streams and killing fish. By the time acid rain made it onto the environmental agenda in the early 1970s, Likens was the leading scientific voice on the issue--and a target of industries blamed for releasing too much sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other acrid pollutants. While defending his science, Likens briefed President Reagan in 1983, testified before Congress, and advised a massive government study documenting the tie between acidic waters in the Northeast and coal-burning power plants in the Midwest. These efforts culminated in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. Recently, Likens has taken up the cause again, arguing that pollution regulations don't clamp down hard enough on nitrogen oxides, and that forests still haven't rebounded from decades of nutrients leached from soil by acid rain ( Science, 12 April 1996, p. 244)
Colleagues describe Likens as an advocate with his views firmly rooted in basic science. "He's cautious but not to the point of being paralyzed," says Duke University ecologist Norman Christensen. Likens, who now heads the nonprofit Institute of Ecosystem Studies in upstate New York, has blended his commitment to research with a more subtle brand of activism: As president of the Ecological Society of America in 1981, Likens lobbied hard for what became the National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research sites, which he felt were essential for amassing the kind of data necessary to convince policy-makers that certain environmental problems were real and were not going away.
A longtime board member of Environmental Defense, Likens says he often mulls the fine line between environmentalism and ecology. "There's tremendous public confusion, because we often work on the very same things," he says. One way he counters this is by "trying very hard not to let my emotions and my personal views color my science." And when he's asked his views on a policy question, "I will say, I'm going to take off my science hat and give my opinion as a person."
Despite Likens's high scientific standing--he's a National Academy of Sciences member and a 1993 co-winner of the Tyler prize, considered the Nobel of ecology--you won't often find his name in letter-writing campaigns or on commentaries. Likens says he avoids getting caught up in what he calls the "the Nobel syndrome": weighing in on issues he hasn't studied directly. He urges younger scientists to concentrate on building a strong research record before becoming too active in environmental issues. Says Likens, "You shouldn't speak out unless you have something to say."