Monthly Archives: October 2013

Why The Environmental Sciences Always Lose Out

One of the basic observations of our time in almost all countries is that some sciences are held in high esteem while others are not popular. Science is often confused with technology, so positive marks are typically given for new types of cell phones, tablets and computers, and the sciences that give rise to these technological advances like physics, chemistry, and engineering are viewed as gold stars. Medical advances are also highly regarded out of self-interest and most medical science from basic to applied is given high support in our society. At the other end of the ranking is ecology and in general environmental science. These are viewed poorly by many, so that action on climate-change and biodiversity conservation are supported by a dwindling few. Why are some sciences highly praised and others damned?

Part, but only part, of the explanation lies in religious beliefs. I do not know of any major religious group that condemns Iphones and computers, or medical advances, or even space research. But many people seem to have objections to biological concepts like evolution and question the role of humans in affecting the earth’s ecosystems. Possibly a larger part of this rejection of environmental science is explained by the fact that environmental scientists bring mostly bad news to the social table, while physicists promise infinite free energy and medical scientists promise cures for diseases. We prefer good news to bad.

The most prominent bad news story currently is climate change and the role of humans in causing these changes. Climate change science is easy to deny. The data are always variable, sometimes it still snows in the wrong month of the year or the summer is particularly cool. But most importantly the problem is slow moving, and humans are not very good at assessing slow moving catastrophes. Few of us will be alive when the climate problems get so serious only a fool would deny them, and our penchant for demanding fast solutions to problems will not work when the reversal of the cause (e.g. CO2 enrichment of the air) takes 100-200 years. So it is better to put our head in the sand and deny everything.

The problem with conservation ecology and biodiversity loss is similarly long-term and slow. To solve these problems we have to do something and we are all in favour of doing something if it does not reduce economic growth. So population growth is favoured since exponential growth is the new God pushing economic growth, and biodiversity loss does not seem to impact on most of us living in large cities. Sustainability thus becomes a meaningless word in both politics and business, talk much and do little. If there is an apparent conflict between economics and the environment guess who wins. Convincing people that economics cannot exist without the environment is the challenge of our time. We could start by electing governments that cultivate environmental concerns on an equal basis with economic concerns.

Oreskes, N. and E. M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Press, New York. 365 pp.
Washington, H. 2013. Human Dependence on Nature. Routledge.144 pp.

The Ancient Cedars Trail in British Columbia

Whistler, British Columbia, is one of the famous ski hills in North America. Just north of the town of Whistler, above Green Lake, is a 4.5 km logging road that leads to the Ancient Cedars Trail, a 5 km round trip to see an old growth stand of several hectares of western red cedars (Thuja plicata). The red cedars are enormous, perhaps 700-1000 years old, and well worth seeing. But what disturbed me as I walked this trail is that this type of old growth forest with its rich diversity of tree species is what much of the forested world of coastal British Columbia and south-eastern Alaska used to look like, and I wonder what are we leaving in this part of the world for our great-grandchildren.

Trees are dollar bills in another form, and so the forestry industry thrives. But this is mostly crown land, not private land, and what do we the public get for this continual ravaging of the landscape? A strong economy to be sure, but is it sustainable? Forestry is sustainable if it allows ecosystem renewal at a time scale that is relevant to a human lifespan. Is modern forestry in British Columbia sustainable? We are told continually that it is.

Perhaps the paradigm is that we should log everything that can be converted into dollars, leaving a few hectares for the ancient cedars to remain. Then once we have logged up to the Arctic Ocean, we can come back south and start again. But will a logged forest ever recover as part of a forest ecosystem? And if it does will it take 300, 500, or 1000 years? If it takes that long, forestry is a mining operation, and from the point of view of our grandchildren the forests are destroyed not renewed.

The key issue for an ecologist is whether the forest ecosystem ever recovers after logging. It certainly does for some species but it is highly probable that other species are lost to the ecosystem. Part of this is because the forests that replace old growth are too often tree monocultures designed for optimum yield rather than for biodiversity maximization. So I think we should be more questioning when we are told an industry like forestry is operating sustainably. If it is sustainable, why are we logging old growth forests? If it is sustainable why are we logging 25° and 30° slopes? And what do we mean when we say that we are developing a forest harvesting plan when the time to recovery from logging is 200-300+ years? That is perhaps 3-4 generations of humans, more than we would like to tell our children. At a time when biodiversity conservation is being seen as more and more important, we are rushing ahead with logging old growth, hoping to get the dollars out before we find out that it was a mistake in management.

In the end we need to ask over and over again – what are we leaving for our grandchildren? And if you go walking in the coastal forests of western North America you need to look and then ask yourself what “sustainability” means, and whether the landscape is being managed sustainably. Perhaps many of our old growth forests in Canada are too important to be left to the management of the forest industry.

How to Run a Successful Scientific Conference

Over the last 50 years I have attended about 200 ecological conferences. The best meetings have followed a series of practices that I present here. This list can be viewed as a practical example of adaptive management, since conferences that score low on the scale of suggestions here have in my opinion been less successful. Two major items drive a conference – papers and posters. Three other items are critical – good food, a spacious venue, and well organized symposia, but I will not discuss these three here.

Papers are presented at conferences largely as powerpoint talks. Most of these talks are 15 or 20 minutes but the rules for good powerpoint talks are quite simple.

  • A good slide in Powerpoint makes no more than 2 or 3 points, and these points should augment, emphasize, and explain the speaker’s words.
  • For complicated subject matter, use 2 or 3 simple figures rather than one complex, cluttered and unclear figure.  A series of slides that build on each other is very effective.
  • Effective labels for slides are briefer and larger than those for publication.  Titles should be 40-44 point font (14 mm) and text 32 point (11 mm).  Bold and italic labelling should be saved for special emphasis. 
  • Slide titles should be relatively short – 1 line only.
  • If using colour, stick to primary, bright, and clear colours.  
  • Do not use a photo as a background for the slide. It may be good artistically but it distracts from the points you are making.
  • Word slides should contain no more than 5 short statements.  The information on the slide should be simplified to the point of being skeletal.  It is up to the presenter to fill in gaps.  You should never have more than 30 words on a slide. 20 would be better.
  • Presenters should not read word slides to the audience.  The audience can read the slide faster than the presenter can speak it.
  • If all the information on a slide is not valuable to the audience, leave it out.  Take the time to adapt figures or tables for your presentation.
  • A good average is one slide per minute of talk.  If you have more, you are going too fast for the audience.
  • If people remember your presentation, they will remember only one or two key points. Summarize these at the end of your talk.
  • Never never never put 2 or 3 graphs or photos on a powerpoint slide since no one will be able to read the labels.
  • Look at your powerpoints in a bright room and in a dark room and see if you can still read them. You will not know how the conference lighting will be arranged.
  • Go to the back of the room and look at your Powerpoint presentation. If you need binoculars to read the slides, go back to step 1.

So if you are giving a 15 minute talk at the next conference you attend, prepare 15 slides in powerpoint. If you are giving a 3 minute speed talk, never have more than 3 slides. Simple arithmetic.

Posters are the next most important communication device used in scientific conferences, and unfortunately posters are typically awful as they are usually constructed with far too much detail. Here are a few rules for posters.

  • Focus on 3 points or less. If you can get across even 1 point clearly and quickly to your viewer, your poster is successful. Remember that you will be there to answer questions and fill in details.
  • Lengthy poster titles discourage viewers! Titles should be brief, informative, and interesting.
  • Text should be readable without strain from 1 m. Height of TITLE text should be about 100 point (3 cm) and height of BODY TEXT should be about 30 point (0.8 cm). Figure labels should be a minimum of 24 point (8 mm). See if you can read it from 1 m distance.
  • Use simple fonts such as Arial, Helvetica, or Univers. These are proportionately spaced and conventionally shaped so will not distract from the information they describe.
  • Avoid abbreviations and jargon. Avoid all but the simplest tables. No one will read a table with 10 columns and 25 rows.
  • Because all graphs should be large, information on graphs should be limited, and labels should be short. Specify measurement units. Provide scales on maps.
  • Plan the poster to be read in sections from left to right and top to bottom. Each section should be easily read while standing in one spot.
  • Colour keys used consistently throughout the poster make information easier to follow.
  • Avoid using photographs as a background for text or figures.
  • If your poster has more than 300-400 words, you have too much detail.
  • Give an executive summary or abstract of 50 words or less at the start of the poster. What is the question or problem, and what have you achieved in answering it?
  • Put a small, clear photo of yourself on the top right of the poster so people will recognize you.
  • Provide copies of a one-page printed summary of your poster for viewers who are interested in more detailed information or do not have time to read it, and give your contact information on this page.
  • Images should ideally be scanned at the size that they are to be used on the poster (not scanned and then dragged to the appropriate size). Most poster printers can’t process higher than 300dpi, so there’s no point scanning at a resolution higher than this.
  • Look at your poster in a bright room and see if it is readable under bright light conditions.