Category Archives: Biology Education

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.