Category Archives: Biology Education

On Immigration – An Ecological Perspective

There is a great deal of discussion in the news about immigration into developed countries like Canada, USA, and Europe. The perspective on this important issue in the media is virtually entirely economic and social, occasionally moral, but in my experience almost never ecological. There are two main aspects of immigration that are particularly ecological – defining sustainable populations and protecting ecosystems from biodiversity loss. These ecological concerns ought to be part of the discussion.

Sustainability is one of the sciences current buzz words. As I write this, in the Web of Science Core Collection I can find 9218 scientific papers published already in 2017 that appear under the topic of ‘sustainability’. No one could read all these, and the general problem with buzz words like ‘sustainability’ is that they tend to be used so loosely that they verge on the meaningless. Sustainability is critical in this century, but as scientists we must specify the details of how this or that public policy really does increase some metric of sustainability.

There have been several attempts to define what a sustainable human population might be for any country or the whole Earth (e.g. Ehrlich 1996, Rees and Wackernagel 2013) and many papers on specific aspects of sustainability (e.g. Hilborn et al. 2015, Delonge et al. 2016). The controversy arises in specifying the metric of sustainability. The result is that there is no agreement particularly among economists and politicians about what to target. For the most part we can all agree that exponential population growth cannot continue indefinitely. But when do we quit? In developed countries the birth rate is about at equilibrium, and population growth is achieved in large part by immigration. Long term goals of achieving a defined sustainable population will always be trumped in the short term by changes in the goal posts – long term thinking seems almost impossible in our current political systems. One elephant in the room is that what we might define now as sustainable agriculture or sustainable fisheries will likely not be sustainable as climates change. Optimists predict that technological advances will greatly relieve the current limiting factors so all will be well as populations increase. It would seem to be conservative to slow our population growth, and thus wait to see if this optimism is justified (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2013).

Few developed countries seem to have set a sustainable population limit. It is nearly impossible to even suggest doing this, so this ecological topic disappears in the media. One possible way around this is to divert the discussion to protecting ecosystems from biodiversity loss. This approach to the overall problem might be an easier topic to sell to the public and to politicians because it avoids the direct message about population growth. But too often we run into a brick wall of economics even when we try this approach to sustainability because we need jobs for a growing population and the holy grail of continued economic growth is a firm government policy almost everywhere (Cafaro 2014, Martin et al. 2016). At present this biodiversity approach seems to be the best chance of convincing the general public and politicians that action is needed on conservation issues in the broad sense. And by doing this we can hopefully obtain action on the population issue that is blocked so often by political and religious groups.

A more purely scientific issue is the question why the concept of a sustainable population is thought to be off limits for a symposium at a scientific meeting? In recent years attempts to organize symposia on sustainable population concepts at scientific conferences have been denied by the organizers because the topic is not considered a scientific issue. Many ecologists would deny this because without a sustainable population, however that is defined, we may well face social collapse (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2013).

What can we do as ecologists? I think shying away from these population issues is impossible because we need to have a good grounding in population arithmetic to understand the consequences of short-term policies. It is not the ecologist’s job to determine public policy but it is our job to question much of the pseudo-scientific nonsense that gets repeated in the media every day. At least we should get the arithmetic right.

Cafaro, P. (2014) How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN: 9780226190655

DeLonge, M.S., Miles, A. & Carlisle, L. (2016) Investing in the transition to sustainable agriculture. Environmental Science & Policy, 55, 266-273. doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2015.09.013

Ehrlich, A.H. (1996) Towards a sustainable global population. Building Sustainable Societies (ed. D.C. Pirages), pp. 151-165. M. E. Sharpe, London. ISBN: 1-56324-738-0, 978-1-56324-738-5

Ehrlich, P.R. & Ehrlich, A.H. (2013) Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 280, 20122845. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2845

Hilborn, R., Fulton, E.A., Green, B.S., Hartmann, K. & Tracey, S.R. (2015) When is a fishery sustainable? Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 72, 1433-1441. doi: 10.1139/cjfas-2015-0062

Hurlbert, S.H. (2013) Critical need for modification of U.S. population policy. Conservation Biology, 27, 887-889. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12091

Martin, J.-L., Maris, V. & Simberloff, D.S. (2016) The need to respect nature and its limits challenges society and conservation science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, 6105-6112. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1525003113

Rees W.E. &, Wackernagel, M. (2013). The shoe fits, but the footprint is larger than Earth. PLOS Biology 11, e1001701. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001701

On Defining a Statistical Population

The more I do “field ecology” the more I wonder about our standard statistical advice to young ecologists to “random sample your statistical population”. Go to the literature and look for papers on “random environmental fluctuations”, or “non-random processes”, or “random mating” and you will be overwhelmed with references and biology’s preoccupation with randomness. Perhaps we should start with the opposite paradigm, that nothing in the biological world is random in space or time, and then the corollary that if your data show a random pattern or random mating or whatever random, it means you have not done enough research and your inferences are weak.

Since virtually all modern statistical inference rests on a foundation of random sampling, every statistician will be outraged by any concerns that random sampling is possible only in situations that are scientifically uninteresting. It is nearly impossible to find an ecological paper about anything in the real world that even mentions what their statistical “population” is, what they are trying to draw inferences about. And there is a very good reason for this – it is quite impossible to define any statistical population except for those of trivial interest. Suppose we wish to measure the heights of the male 12-year-olds that go to school in Minneapolis in 2017. You can certainly do this, and select a random sample, as all statisticians would recommend. And if you continued to do this for 50 years, you would have a lot of data but no understanding of any growth changes in 12-year-old male humans because the children of 2067 in Minneapolis would be different in many ways from those of today. And so, it is like the daily report of the stock market, lots of numbers with no understanding of processes.

Despite all these ‘philosophical’ issues, ecologists carry on and try to get around this by sampling a small area that is considered homogeneous (to the human eye at least) and then arm waving that their conclusions will apply across the world for similar small areas of some ill-defined habitat (Krebs 2010). Climate change may of course disrupt our conclusions, but perhaps this is all we can do.

Alternatively, we can retreat to the minimalist position and argue that we are drawing no general conclusions but only describing the state of this small piece of real estate in 2017. But alas this is not what science is supposed to be about. We are supposed to reach general conclusions and even general laws with some predictive power. Should biologists just give up pretending they are scientists? That would not be good for our image, but on the other hand to say that the laws of ecology have changed because the climate is changing is not comforting to our political masters. Imagine the outcry if the laws of physics changed over time, so that for example in 25years it might be that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas. Impossible.

These considerations should make ecologists and other biologists very humble, but in fact this cannot be because the media would not approve and money for research would never flow into biology. Humility is a lost virtue in many western cultures, and particularly in ecology we leap from bandwagon to bandwagon to avoid the judgement that our research is limited in application to undefined statistical populations.

One solution to the dilemma of the impossibility of random sampling is just to ignore this requirement, and this approach seems to be the most common solution implicit in ecology papers. Rabe et al. (2002) surveyed the methods used by management agencies to survey population of large mammals and found that even when it was possible to use randomized counts on survey areas, most states used non-random sampling which leads to possible bias in estimates even in aerial surveys. They pointed out that ground surveys of big game were even more likely to provide data based on non-random sampling simply because most of the survey area is very difficult to access on foot. The general problem is that inference is limited in all these wildlife surveys and we do not know the ‘population’ to which the numbers derived are applicable.

In an interesting paper that could apply directly to ecology papers, Williamson (2003) analyzed research papers in a nursing journal to ask if random sampling was utilized in contrast to convenience sampling. He found that only 32% of the 89 studies he reviewed used random sampling. I suspect that this kind of result would apply to much of medical research now, and it might be useful to repeat his kind of analysis with a current ecology journal. He did not consider the even more difficult issue of exactly what statistical population is specified in particular medical studies.

I would recommend that you should put a red flag up when you read “random” in an ecology paper and try to determine how exactly the term is used. But carry on with your research because:

Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all.

Charles Babbage (1792–1871

Krebs CJ (2010). Case studies and ecological understanding. Chapter 13 in: Billick I, Price MV, eds. The Ecology of Place: Contributions of Place-Based Research to Ecological Understanding. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 283-302. ISBN: 9780226050430

Rabe, M. J., Rosenstock, S. S. & deVos, J. C. (2002) Review of big-game survey methods used by wildlife agencies of the western United States. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 30, 46-52.

Williamson, G. R. (2003) Misrepresenting random sampling? A systematic review of research papers in the Journal of Advanced Nursing. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 44, 278-288. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.2003.02803.x

 

On Scientific Conferences

Should we ban scientific conferences and save the money for better science? What a terrible thought you would say if you were 25 years old, what a great idea you might say if you were 60 years old and have just come back from a conference with 9000 attendees and 30 concurrent sessions. So, there is no simple answer. Let us try to think of some rules of thumb if you are organizing a scientific conference. Since I am an ecologist I will talk largely about ecological meetings. There is already much interesting literature on this broad question (Zierath 2016, Blome et al. 2017, Hicke et al. 2017). For all I know conferences with 9000 registrants are ideal in neurobiology but in my opinion probably not useful in ecology.

Why have a conference? Simple, to transmit information among delegates. But you can do this more efficiently by reading current papers in the literature. So a conference is useful only if you get new insights that are not yet published, the cutting edge of science. Such insights are more likely to come from conferences that are spaced at 3-5 year intervals, a time frame in which some proper ecological research can be done. And insights are more likely to come from meetings that are narrow in scope to one’s immediate area of interest.

A second good reason for a conference is to meet people in your area of research. This is likely to be more successful if the meeting is small, perhaps a maximum of 150 attendees. This is the general approach of the Gordon Conferences. Meeting people is more difficult with larger conferences because, if there are multiple concurrent sessions, much time is spent moving among sessions and fewer people get the same view of scientific advances in an area. As one eminent ecologist pointed out to me, really important people do not go to any of the talks at conferences but rather socialize and conduct their own mini meetings near the coffee bar.

Organizing a conference is an exercise in utter frustration requiring the dictatorial behaviour of an army general. The general rule is the more talks the better, and never have a talk longer than 15 minutes lest someone get bored. In fact, speed talks are now the rage and you can have 3 minutes to tell the audience about what you are doing or have done. Perhaps if we are moving in this direction we should just have the conference via youtube so we could sit at home and see what parts of it we wanted to watch. If we add ‘tweets’ to conferences (Orizaola and Valdes 2015), we would certainly be following some of our world leaders for better or worse.

I have not been able to find anyone who would dare to calculate the financial cost of any conference and to try to construct a cost benefit ratio for a meeting. The argument would be that the costs can be calculated but the benefits are intangible, somewhat reminiscent of the arguments of our military leaders who demand more financial resources to achieve vague benefits. These concerns disappear if we consider a conference as a scientific tea party rather than an intellectual event. Perhaps we need a social science survey at the end of each conference with the attendees required to list the 5 major advances they obtained from the conference.

All these concerns convince me that we should restrict scientific conferences to small meetings on particular topics at relatively long intervals. Large conferences, should they seem desirable, should consist largely of longer plenary talks that synthesize the status of a specific area of ecology and provide a critique of current knowledge and suggestions of what to do next. These kinds of plenary talks are equivalent to synthesis papers in scientific journals, the kinds of papers that are all too rare in current journals.

One important consequence of scientific meetings can be to reach out to the public with evening lectures on topics of global concern (Hicke et al. 2017). Where it is feasible this recommendation can be an important way of extending information to the public on topics of concern like climate change or conservation management.

Whatever is decided by ecological societies about the structure of scientific conferences, some general rules about presentations ought to be written in large letters. If you are talking at a conservation ecology meeting, you should not spend half of your talk trying to convince the audience that there is a biodiversity crisis, or that climate change is happening. And for the details of a successful conference, read my earlier Blog (https://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~krebs/ecological_rants/how-to-run-a-successful-scientific-conference/) or Blome et al. (2017). This is not rocket science.

Blome, C., Sondermann, H., and Augustin, M. 2017. Accepted standards on how to give a Medical Research Presentation: a systematic review of expert opinion papers. GMS Journal for Medical Education 34(1): Doc11. doi: 10.3205/zma001088.

Hicke, J.A., Abatzoglou, J.T., Daley-Laursen, S., Esler, J., and Parker, L.E. 2017. Using scientific conferences to engage the public on climate change. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 98(2): 225-230. doi: 10.1175/BAMS-D-15-00304.1.

Orizaola, G., and Valdes, A.E. 2015. Free the tweet at scientific conferences. Science 350(6257): 170-171. doi: 10.1126/science.350.6257.170-c.

Zierath, J.R. 2016. Building bridges through scientific conferences. Cell 167(5): 1155-1158. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2016.11.006.

The Conservative Agenda for Ecology

Many politicians that are conservative are true conservatives in the traditional meaning of the term. Many business people are conservative in the same way, and that is a good thing. But there exist in the world a set of conservatives that have a particularly destructive agenda based on a general belief that evidence, particularly scientific evidence, is not any more important as a basis for action than personal beliefs. Climate change is the example of the day, but there are many others from the utility of vaccinations for children, to items more to an ecologist’s interest like the value of biodiversity. In a sense this is a philosophical divide that is currently producing problems for ecologists in the countries I know most about, Canada and Australia, but possibly also in the USA and Britain.

The conservative political textbook says cut taxes and all will be well, especially for the rich and those in business, and then say ‘we have no money for ‘<fill in the blank here> ‘so we must cut funding to hospitals, schools, universities, and scientists’. The latest example I want to discuss is from the dismemberment of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia by the current conservative government.

CSIRO was sent up in the 1950s to do research for the betterment of the people of Australia. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s it was one of the world premier research organizations. If you do not believe this you can look at how many important papers, awards, and the occasional Nobel Prize came out of this organization. It had at this time perhaps 8500 employees in more than 25 Divisions. Divisions varied in size but in general they would have about 200-300 scientists and technicians. Divisions were run by a Chief who was a scientist and who decided the important directions for research in his or her area, whether it be horticulture, wildlife, energy technology, animal science, or mathematics and statistics. CSIRO itself was led by eminent scientists who provided some guidance to the Divisions but left the directions of science to the Chiefs and their scientists. It was a golden development for Australian science and a model for science that was appreciated all around the world.

This of course is dreamland in today’s world. So by the late 1980s the Australian federal government began determining scientific priorities for CSIRO. We know what science is important, the new leaders said, so do this. This would work well if it was not guided by politicians and MBAs who had no scientific training and knew nothing about science past or present. Piled on this were two neo-conservative philosophies. First, science is important only if it generates money for the economy. Coal mining triumphs wildlife research. Second, science in the public interest is not to be encouraged but cut. The public interest does not generate money. Why this change happened can be declared a mystery but it seemed to happen all around the western world in the same time frame. Perhaps it had something to do with scientific research that had the obvious message that one ought to do something about climate change or protecting biodiversity, things that would cost money and might curtail business practices.

Now with the current 2014 budget in Australia we have a clear statement of this approach to ecological science. The word from on high has come down within CSIRO that, because of cuts to their budget, one goal is as follows: “Reduce terrestrial biodiversity research (“reduced investment in terrestrial biodiversity with a particular focus on rationalising work currently conducted across the “Managing Species and Natural Ecosystems in a Changing Climate” theme and the “Building Resilient Australian Biodiversity Assets” theme in these Divisions”).Translated, this means about 20% of the staff involved in biodiversity research will be retrenched and work will continue in some areas at a reduced level. At a time when rapid climate change is starting, it boggles the mind that some people at some high levels think that supporting the coal and iron ore industry with government-funded research is more important than studies on biodiversity. (If you appreciate irony, this decision comes in a week when it is discovered that the largest coal company in Australia, mining coal on crown land, had profits of $16 billion last year and paid not one cent of tax.)

So perhaps all this illustrates that ecological research and all public interest research is rather low on the radar of importance in the political arena in comparison with subsidizing business. I should note that at the same time as these cuts are being implemented, CSIRO is also cutting agricultural research in Australia so biodiversity is not the only target. One could obtain similar statistics for the Canadian scene.

There is little any ecologist can do about this philosophy. If the public in general is getting more concerned about climate change, the simplest way to deal with this concern for a politician is to cut research in climate change so that no data are reported on the topic. The same can be said about biodiversity issues. There is too much bad news that the environmental sciences report, and the less information that is available to the public the better. This approach to the biosphere is not very encouraging for our grandchildren.

Perhaps our best approach is to infiltrate at the grass roots level in teaching, tweeting, voting, writing letters, and attending political meetings that permit some discussion of issues. Someday our political masters will realize that the quality of life is more important than the GDP, and we can being to worry more about the future of biodiversity in particular and science in general.

 

Krebs, C.J. 2013. “What good is a CSIRO division of wildlife research anyway?” In Science under Siege: Zoology under Threat, edited by Peter Banks, Daniel Lunney and Chris Dickman, pp. 5-8. Mosman, N.S.W.: Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M.M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 355 pp. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4

Shaw, Christopher. 2013. “Choosing a dangerous limit for climate change: Public representations of the decision making process.” Global Environmental Change 23 (2):563-571. doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.12.012.

Wilkinson, Todd. 1998. Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books. 364 pp. ISBN 1-55566-211-0

 

Wildlife Management Dilemmas

The science of wildlife management has moved from the good old days of worrying only about deer and ducks to the broader issues of conservation management of all species. But it operates in an impossible squeeze between human activities and wildlife responses. One key problem is the incremental creep of land use decisions. If we log half of the forest surely there is plenty left there for the wildlife to thrive, or so many people believe. So a central dilemma is habitat loss. The simple approach using ‘cow arithmetic’ says that if you have a farm one-third the size of what you have now, you will be able to have only one-third the number of cows. So habitat loss is critical but there seems to be no way of stopping it as long as the human population continues to expand.

To solve this problem we set up parks and reserves. That will please most of the botanists because if you have a plant species you are concerned about, you need set aside only a few hectares of land to keep it safe. This approach is at the core of wildlife management’s dilemma. You keep the plant species but lose the ecosystem. Certainly you can keep many of the small insects in a few hectares, so you protect not only the plant species but more of the biota. But you will lose all the birds and the larger species that need much larger areas of habitat. One of the defining moments in wildlife management and conservation ecology occurred when several ecologists recognized that even large national parks were not large enough for the charismatic megafauna.

Maybe we can rescue it all with metapopulations, islands of good habitat close enough to each other to permit dispersal. That will work in some cases and is a useful addition to the management arsenal of tools. But then we have to cope with additional problems – introduced pests and diseases that we may or may not be able to control, and global problems of air and water pollution that respect no neat geographic boundaries.

We cannot control species interactions so if we tinker with one aspect of the ecosystem, we find unintended consequences in another aspect of the ecosystem that we did not expect. We brought rabbits to Australia and to many islands with dire consequences no one seemed to anticipate. We also brought rats and pigs to island inadvertently with many well documented problems for bird and plants. We take predators away from ecosystems and then complain to the government that there are too may deer or Canada geese.

So part of the dilemma of wildlife management in the 21st century is that we do XYZ and then only later ask ecologists whether it was a good idea or not to do XYZ. Decisions are made by governments, companies, farmers, or city dwellers to change some element of the ecosystem without anyone asking a wildlife manager or an ecologist what the consequences might be. We love cats so we pass laws that prohibit managers from culling wild cats and only allow them to sterilize and release them. We love horses so we do the same. So wildlife management decisions are driven not by ecological studies and recommendations but by public demands and weak politicians. Wildlife management is thus a social science, with all the dilemmas generated when one part of society wishes to harvest seals and one part demands protection for seals.

Wildlife management has always been handicapped by the hunters and fishers who know everything about what management should be practiced. There is no need to have any professional training to decide management goals, management actions, and funding preferences for many of these people. I suppose we should at least be grateful that the same approach is not applied in medical science.

Wildlife management has always been a low priority activity, underfunded and moved more by political whims than by science. This is not at all the fault of all the excellent wildlife and fishery scientists who try their best to protect and manage our ecosystems. It is a victim of the constraints of making decisions on the spot about long term issues without the time or money to investigate the science necessary for knowledge of the consequences of our actions. The world changes slowly and if our memory is on the time span of 1-3 years, we are not on ecosystem time.

Much action must be spent on trying to restore ecosystems damaged by human activities. Restoration ecology recognizes that it is really partial restoration ecology because we cannot get back to the starting point. None of this is terribly new to ecologists or wildlife managers but it is good to keep it in mind as we get lost in the details of our daily chores.

Humans are destroying the earth in their quest for wealth, and simultaneously producing the problems of poverty and obesity. Led by politicians who do not lead and who do not seem to know what the problems of the Earth are, we keep a positive view of the scientific progress we generate, enjoy the existing beauty of biodiversity, and hope that the future will somehow cope with the changes we have set in motion.

“Humans, including ecologists, have a peculiar fascination with attempting to correct one ecological mistake with another, rather than removing the source of the problem”.   (Schindler 1997, p. 4)

 

Estes, J.A. et al. 2011. Trophic downgrading of Planet Earth. Science 333:301-306.

Likens, G.E. 2010. The role of science in decision making: does evidence-based science drive environmental policy? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8:e1-e9.

Newmark, W.D. 1985. Legal and biotic boundaries of Western North American National Parks: A problem of congruence. Biological Conservation 33:197-208.

Pauly, D. 1995. Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10:430.

Schindler, D. W. 1997. Liming to restore acidified lakes and streams: a typical approach to restoring damaged ecosystems? Restoration Ecology 5:1-6.

 

When Should One Retire from a University Appointment?

In the good old days universities had a hard retirement policy that once you reached age 65 you were retired whether you liked it or not. Then in the age of entitlement it was declared that this was discrimination on the basis of age and thus could not be allowed. Universities bemoaned the fact that they had no firm financial projections under the new policy, and many different policies were introduced partly to solve this problem. In some cases you could gradually go to half-time, and then at some age to quarter time, until you eventually did retire, but most of these policies were voluntary.

It is useful to look at the broad picture that these changes produced in the university community. If there was indeed some general plan of development in a particular discipline like zoology, committees could lay out a future hiring plan but it was usually chaos because the time frame was so uncertain. So in my experience most carefully thought out hiring plans went out the window and hiring became ad hoc with the accompanying ‘departmental drift’. So, as a hypothetical example, if a professor in entomology retired, he or she might get replaced by a young assistant professor in microbial genetics.

On a larger scale, we need to look carefully at the consequences of keeping older professors on the books commandeering relatively large salaries. There are no clear rules but in general one might recognize professors that are worn out at age 55 and ought to retire, others that are happy to stop at 65 and relax more, and others who ask to stay on indefinitely. Every case is an individual one. Some of the age 55 scientists are still vigorous and any concerned department ought to work to make their life easier so they can continue to work. Others of the same age should be encouraged to go. The same should occur at age 65. The worry I have most is about those over 65. I give no names but I can list brilliant scientists who continued to be paid and work until they were 75 or 80. I can also list scientists who were brilliant in their time but had passed the gate by 65 (or even 55) but insisted in taking up a position for many years after age 65. This is a tragedy for the individual, for the department, and in particular for young scientists looking for a university position but finding none because the money is tied up in professors well past their use-by-date. I would expect that the only possible solution to this issue is for the university to evaluate every professor over 55 with strict demands of performance if they wish to remain on the payroll and to do this on a 1 or 2 year timetable. No one likes doing such evaluations so perhaps the university would have to hire one of the many hard-nosed CEOs of companies that are seen to be effective at firing all their workers.

None of this is to say that any and all professors who have retired at age 55, 65, 75, or 85 should not be encouraged to continue research work, but they must do it on their retirement savings. In my youth I met a 98 year old Drosophila researcher who was continuing to do valuable research in his long retirement. In Canada the federal research agencies do not seem to care how old you are when they evaluate the quality of your research work and contributions to science, so they at least do not appear to discriminate in awarding research funds on the basis of age. Scientific journals do not ask you how old you are when you submit a potential scientific paper.

There has always been a paradigm that scientific advances are made entirely by young scientists, so that, as the joke goes, almost all mathematicians should be shot after age 30 (that is a joke….). In at least some of the ecological sciences this age paradigm is not correct, but nevertheless I think it is morally recumbent on older professors to realize that their time on the payroll should be limited in order to release funds for the aspiring young scientists who can rejuvenate university departments.

Should All Ecologists Become Social Scientists or Politicians?

Two items this week have stirred me to write about the state of ecology. The first was a talk by an eminent biologist, who must remain nameless, about how scientists should operate. All very good, we should be evidence-based, open to falsification of hypotheses, and we should work as best we can to counter media misinformation. He/she talked about the future of biology in optimistic terms and in the entire one hour talk the word ‘biodiversity’ occurred once and the word ‘environment’ once. So my conclusion was that to this eminent biologist ecology was not on the radar as anything very important. We should be principally concerned about improving the health and wealth of humanity, and increasing economic growth.

This got me to thinking about why ecology falls at the bottom of the totem pole of science so that even though we work hard to understand the functioning of nature, ecologists seem to have value only to ourselves rather than to society. Perhaps society as a whole appreciates us for light entertainment about birds and bees, but when ecologists investigate problems and offer solutions they seem to be sidelined rapidly. Perhaps this is because taking care of the biosphere will cost money, and while we happily spend money on cars and new airplanes and guns, we can afford little for the natural world. One possible explanation for this is that many people and most politicians believe that “Mother Nature will take care of herself” at no financial cost.

If this is even partly correct, we need to change society’s view. There are several ways to do this, perhaps most importantly via education, but a more direct way is for ecologists to become social scientists and perhaps politicians. My experience with this recommendation is not terribly good. Social scientists have in my experience accomplished little for all their work on the human foibles of our time. Perhaps going into politics would be useful for our science if anyone wishes to cross that Rubicon, but there are few role models that we can put up.

So we continue in a political world where few ecologists sit in high places to challenge the modern paradigm of economic growth fuelled by non-renewable resources, and many of our national leaders see no human footprint on climatic warming. Short-term thinking is one element of this puzzle for we ecologists who take a longer view of life on Earth, but it must really rankle our paleo-ecologists who take a very long term look at changes in the Earth’s environment.

The second item this week that has encapsulated all of this was the announcement from a developed country that a new institute with over 1000 scientists was to be set up to study molecular biology for the improvement of human health. Now this is a noble cause that I do not wish to cast aspersions on, but it occurred to me that this was possibly a number greater than the total number of ecologists working in Canada or Australia or New Zealand. The numbers are hard to document, but I have not seen anything like this kind of announcement for a new institute that would address any of our many ecological problems. There is money for many things but very little for ecology.

None of this is terribly new but I am puzzled why this is the case. We live in a world of inequality in which the rich squander the wealth of the Earth while the future of the planet seems of little concern. Luckily ecologists are a happy lot once they get a job because they can work in the laboratory or in the field on interesting problems and issues (if they can get the money). And to quote the latest Nature (March 13, 2014, p. 140) “If ecologists want to produce work useful to conservation, they might do better to spend their days sitting quietly in ecosystems with waterproof notebooks and hand lenses, writing everything down.” That will cost little money fortunately.

On the Need for Ecological Meetings

Perhaps I am the only ecologist in the world who is overwhelmed by the number of conferences that go on every year. I think we need to consider why we have so many meetings and consider some of the problems of the current model for ecological scientific communication. The problems that bring this to the fore for me are five:

  • Travel in its many forms increases greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. Ecologists in particular are not supposed to be happy about that.
  • The number and frequency of meetings operate on a time scale completely inconsistent with having any new experimental data to report.
  • Large meetings operate with 6 or more concurrent sessions that cannot all be attended and there are so many people you cannot possibly talk to many you wish to meet.
  • Many of the talks at some meetings are poorly presented and a complete waste of one’s time.
  • Modern forms of electronic communication produce much more rapid and efficient transfer of scientific information than attending conferences.

I have of course left out the somewhat frivolous but true observation that really important people at meetings never go to any of the talks except their own.

The advantages of scientific meetings are many, and I am a believer in communication in person rather than via electronic media. So we must be careful here – I do not propose getting rid of all meetings. And I recognize that they are very important for young ecologists to help their careers develop.

So I think we have a problem and we need to think of possible solutions. One solution is to space meetings every 4 years instead of annually. Many societies do this already and do not seem to suffer. Even if we had an ESA meeting every second year we would have less stress. Another solution has been to divide up meetings into smaller groups, so the small mammal population ecologists meet as a unit, and the stream ecologists meet separately, and the carbon cycle ecologists meet on their own. This works to cut the size of meetings down and again they do not always need to hold meetings annually. Further reductions can occur by regional meetings, so the East Coast stream ecologists get together readily with minimal travel and so on. Much of this is already happening.

We have not yet used electronic forms of communication very effectively. Plenary lectures could be streamed on video and thus be available around the world for little cost and less CO2 emissions. I am hardly the one to tell you about modern communication but even I use Skype and other platforms to keep in touch with colleagues and ask questions.

There is a slightly frantic nature about ecological meeting e mails that reminds me of the Church in the good old days when every Saturday or Sunday you were supposed to attend for some reason never quite clear. If we are to continue to have large meetings often, we might at least have them in less developed countries that could use the economic stimulus that is clearly a large part of large scientific meetings. Which raises the issue of how much money should we spend on going to meetings versus doing some scientific work.

And my final complaint, having just witnessed the G20 Meeting in Australia, is that we should not adopt their model of meeting every year in very expensive places like Sydney and not having accomplished a single thing in recent memory except to say that they are a very important group.

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.

 

On the benefits of natural history knowledge

I am reminded today about the importance of ecologists knowing a good deal of natural history. Every species is in some sense a unique experiment in evolution, and our job as population and community ecologists is to understand how these species operate in the ecosystems in which they live. But this means we must know the details about how the species operates, what it eats and who eats it, and in some sense how it thinks about its world. I suspect that this is easier to do with higher vertebrates than it is with insects or protozoa but we need to do the same with all forms of life if we are to achieve ecological understanding.

There is in my experience a great lack of this approach in the universities I have seen. We no longer tend to teach about angiosperm systematics, or mammalogy, or ornithology. These are completely old fashioned, the world’s most condemning epithet. So we turn out biology students in British Columbia that cannot identify a Douglas fir tree (perhaps the most important forest tree in the province) and California students who think the eucalyptus trees originated in Berkeley. That would all be well if we perfected bar-coding on our iPhones for species IDs so we could spend more time learning about where and how these species live and die. But too often we seem to think there is a short cut to understanding species roles. It is always worth exploring short cuts to understanding if we can effectively make a simpler way to explain the world. But we try and fail at this enterprise again and again. Hope springs eternal. We need to know now, so let us assume that all algae can be grouped as one ‘superspecies’ in our models, and all ‘rats’ are bad and need to be exterminated, and adding CO2 to the air will make all plants grow faster. We learn by a lot of difficult and extended research that these are oversimplifications. But then the problem becomes communicating this complexity to politicians and the public who desire simplicity rather than complexity.

This whole task is much easier if you talk to a birder who being keen on birds knows that they all differ in many interesting ecological characters, that some individuals of the same species behave in quite different ways, and that the ecosystem continues to operate with this amazing complexity. So I think one solution to ecological oversimplification is to quiz those who start to tell you about harvesting whales, or poisoning rats, or bringing in genetically modified crops to find out how much they know about the natural history of the species they talk so confidently about. A dose of humility would not hurt our discussions of the current controversies of wildlife and fisheries management.