Category Archives: Political Ecology

On Questionable Research Practices

Ecologists and evolutionary biologists are tarred and feathered along with many scientists who are guilty of questionable research practices. So says this article in “The Conservation” on the web:
https://theconversation.com/our-survey-found-questionable-research-practices-by-ecologists-and-biologists-heres-what-that-means-94421?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=twitterbutton

Read this article if you have time but here is the essence of what they state:

“Cherry picking or hiding results, excluding data to meet statistical thresholds and presenting unexpected findings as though they were predicted all along – these are just some of the “questionable research practices” implicated in the replication crisis psychology and medicine have faced over the last half a decade or so.

“We recently surveyed more than 800 ecologists and evolutionary biologists and found high rates of many of these practices. We believe this to be first documentation of these behaviours in these fields of science.

“Our pre-print results have certain shock value, and their release attracted a lot of attention on social media.

  • 64% of surveyed researchers reported they had at least once failed to report results because they were not statistically significant (cherry picking)
  • 42% had collected more data after inspecting whether results were statistically significant (a form of “p hacking”)
  • 51% reported an unexpected finding as though it had been hypothesised from the start (known as “HARKing”, or Hypothesising After Results are Known).”

It is worth looking at these claims a bit more analytically. First, the fact that more than 800 ecologists and evolutionary biologists were surveyed tells you nothing about the precision of these results unless you can be convinced this is a random sample. Most surveys are non-random and yet are reported as though they are a random, reliable sample.

Failing to report results is common in science for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with questionable research practices. Many graduate theses contain results that are never published. Does this mean their data are being hidden? Many results are not reported because they did not find an expected result. This sounds awful until you realize that journals often turn down papers because they are not exciting enough, even though the results are completely reliable. Other results are not reported because the investigator realized once the study is complete that it was not carried on long enough, and the money has run out to do more research. One would have to have considerable detail about each study to know whether or not these 64% of researchers were “cherry picking”.

Alas the next problem is more serious. The 42% who are accused of “p-hacking” were possibly just using sequential sampling or using a pilot study to get the statistical parameters to conduct a power analysis. Any study which uses replication in time, a highly desirable attribute of an ecological study, would be vilified by this rule. This complaint echos the statistical advice not to use p-values at all (Ioannidis 2005, Bruns and Ioannidis 2016) and refers back to complaints about inappropriate uses of statistical inference (Armhein et al. 2017, Forstmeier et al. 2017). The appropriate solution to this problem is to have a defined experimental design with specified hypotheses and predictions rather than an open ended observational study.

The third problem about unexpected findings hits at an important aspect of science, the uncovering of interesting and important new results. It is an important point and was warned about long ago by Medewar (1963) and emphasized recently by Forstmeier et al. (2017). The general solution should be that novel results in science must be considered tentative until they can be replicated, so that science becomes a self-correcting process. But the temptation to emphasize a new result is hard to restrain in the era of difficult job searches and media attention to novelty. Perhaps the message is that you should read any “unexpected findings” in Science and Nature with a degree of skepticism.

The cited article published in “The Conversation” goes on to discuss some possible interpretations of what these survey results mean. And the authors lean over backwards to indicate that these survey results do not mean that we should not trust the conclusions of science, which unfortunately is exactly what some aspects of the public media have emphasized. Distrust of science can be a justification for rejecting climate change data and rejecting the value of immunizations against diseases. In an era of declining trust in science, these kinds of trivial surveys have shock value but are of little use to scientists trying to sort out the details about how ecological and evolutionary systems operate.

A significant source of these concerns flows from the literature that focuses on medical fads and ‘breakthroughs’ that are announced every day by the media searching for ‘news’ (e.g. “eat butter”, “do not eat butter”). The result is almost a comical model of how good scientists really operate. An essential assumption of science is that scientific results are not written in stone but are always subject to additional testing and modification or rejection. But one result is that we get a parody of science that says “you can’t trust anything you read” (e.g. Ashcroft 2017). Perhaps we just need to repeat to ourselves to be critical, that good science is evidence-based, and then remember George Bernard Shaw’s comment:

Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.

Amrhein, V., Korner-Nievergelt, F., and Roth, T. 2017. The earth is flat (p > 0.05): significance thresholds and the crisis of unreplicable research. PeerJ  5: e3544. doi: 10.7717/peerj.3544.

Ashcroft, A. 2017. The politics of research-Or why you can’t trust anything you read, including this article! Psychotherapy and Politics International 15(3): e1425. doi: 10.1002/ppi.1425.

Bruns, S.B., and Ioannidis, J.P.A. 2016. p-Curve and p-Hacking in observational research. PLoS ONE 11(2): e0149144. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0149144.

Forstmeier, W., Wagenmakers, E.-J., and Parker, T.H. 2017. Detecting and avoiding likely false-positive findings – a practical guide. Biological Reviews 92(4): 1941-1968. doi: 10.1111/brv.12315.

Ioannidis, J.P.A. 2005. Why most published research findings are false. PLOS Medicine 2(8): e124. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124.

Medawar, P.B. 1963. Is the scientific paper a fraud? Pp. 228-233 in The Threat and the Glory. Edited by P.B. Medawar. Harper Collins, New York. pp. 228-233. ISBN 978-0-06-039112-6

A Need for Champions

The World has many champions for the Olympics, economists have champions for free trade, physicists have champions for the Hadron Collider, astronomists for space telescopes, but who are the champions for the environment?  We have many environmental scientists who try to focus the public’s attention on endangered species, the state of agriculture, pollution of air and water, and the sustainability of marine fisheries, but they are too much ignored. Why do we have this puzzle that the health of the world we all live in is too often ignored when governments release their budgets?

There are several answers to this simple question. First of all, the ‘jobs and growth’ paradigm rules, and exponential growth is the ordained natural order. The complaint we then get is that environmental scientists too often suggest that studies are needed, and the results of these studies produce recommendations that will impede jobs and growth. Environmental science not only does not produce more dollar bills but in fact diverts dollars from other more preferred activities that increase the GDP.

Another important reason is that environmental problems are slow-moving and long-term, and our human evolutionary history shows that we are poor at dealing with such problems. We can recognize and adapt quickly to short-term problems like floods, epidemics, and famines but we cannot see the inexorable rise in sea levels of 3 mm per year. We need therefore champions of the environment with the charisma to attract the world’s attention to slow-moving, long-term problems. We have some of these champions already – James Hansen, David Suzuki, Tim Flannery, Paul Ehrlich, Naomi Klein – and they are doing an excellent job of producing scientific discussions on our major environmental problems, information that is unfortunately still largely ignored on budget day. There is progress, but it is slow, and in particular young people are more aware of environmental issues than are those of the older generation.

What can we do to change the existing dominant paradigm into a sustainable ecological paradigm? Begon (2017) argues that ecology is both a science and a crisis discipline, and his concern is that at the present time ecological ideas about our current crises are not taken seriously by the general public and policy leaders. One way to change this, Begon argues, is to reduce our reliance on specific and often complicated evidence and convert to sound bites, slogans that capture the emotions of the public rather than their intellect. So, I suggest a challenge can be issued to ecology classes across the world to spend some time brainstorming on suitable slogans, short appealing phrases that encapsulate what ecologists understand about our current problems. Here are three suggestions: “We cannot eat coal and oil – support agriculture”, “Think long-term, become a mental eco-geologist”, and “The ocean is not a garbage can”. Such capsules are not for all occasions, and we must maintain our commitment to evidence-based-ecology of course (as Saul et al. 2017 noted). That this kind of communication to the general public is not simple is well illustrated in the paper by Casado-Aranda et al. (2017) who used an MRI to study brain waves in people exposed to ecological information. They found that people’s attitudes to ecological messages were much more positive when the information was conveyed in future-framed messages delivered by a person with a younger voice. So perhaps the bottom line is to stop older ecologists from talking so much, avoid talking about the past, and look in the future for slogans to encourage an ecological world view.

Begon, M. 2017. Winning public arguments as ecologists: Time for a New Doctrine? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 32:394-396. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.03.009

Casado-Aranda, L.-A., M. Martínez-Fiestas, and J. Sánchez-Fernández. 2018. Neural effects of environmental advertising: An fMRI analysis of voice age and temporal framing. Journal of Environmental Management 206:664-675. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2017.10.006

Saul, W.-C., R.T. Shackleton, and F.A. Yannelli. 2017. Ecologists winning arguments: Ends don’t justify the means. A response to Begon. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 32:722-723. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.08.005

 

On Politics and the Environment

This is a short story of a very local event that illustrates far too well the improvements we have to seek in our political systems. The British Columbia government has just approved the continuation of construction of the Site C dam on the Peace River in Northern British Columbia. The project was started in 2015 by the previous Liberal (conservative) government with an $8 billion price tag and with no (yes NO) formal studies of the economic, geological or environmental consequences of the dam, and in complete opposition by most of the First Nations people on whose traditional land the dam would be built. Fast forward 2 years, a moderate left-wing government takes over from the conservatives and the decision is now in their hands: do they carry on with the project, $2 billion having been spent already, or stop it with an additional $1-2 billion in costs to undo the damage to the valley from work already carried out? 2000 temporary construction jobs in the balance, the government in general pro-union and pro the working person rather than the 1%. They decided to proceed with the dam.

To the government’s credit it asked the Utilities Commission to prepare an economic analysis of the project in a very short time, but to make it simpler (?) did not allow the Commission to consider in its report environmental damage, climate change implications, greenhouse gas emissions, First Nations rights, or the loss of good agricultural land. Alas, that pretty well leaves out most things an ecologist would worry about. The economic analysis was sitting on the fence mostly because the question of the final cost of Site C is an unknown. It was estimated to be $8 billion, but already a few days after the government’s decision it is $10.5 billion, all to be paid by the taxpayer. If it is a typical large dam, the final overall cost will range between $16 to $20 billion when the dam is operational in 2024. The best news article I have seen on the Site C decision is this one by Andrew Nikiforuk:

https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2017/12/12/Pathology-Site-C/

Ansar et al. (2014) did a statistical analysis of 245 large dams built since 1934 and found that on average actual costs for large dams were about twice estimated costs, and that there was a tendency for larger dams to have even higher than average final costs. There has been little study for Site C of the effects of the proposed dam on fish in the river (Cooper et al. 2017) and no discussion of potential greenhouse gas emissions (methane) released as a result of a dam at Site C (DelSontro et al. 2016). The most disturbing comment on this decision to proceed with Site C was made by the Premier of B.C. who stated that if they had stopped construction of the dam, they would have to spend a lot of money “for nothing” meaning that restoring the site, partially restoring the forested parts of the valley, repairing the disturbance of the agricultural land in the valley, recognizing the rights of First Nations people to their land, and leaving the biodiversity of these sites to repair itself would all be classed as “nothing” of value. Alas our government’s values are completely out of line with the needs of a sustainable earth ecosystem for all to enjoy.

What we are lacking, and governments of both stripes have no time for, is an analysis of what the alternatives are in terms of renewable energy generation. Alternative hypotheses should be useful in politics as they are in science. And they might even save money.

Ansar A, Flyvbjerg B, Budzier A, Lunn D (2014). Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development. Energy Policy 69, 43-56. doi: 10.1016/j.enpol.2013.10.069

Cooper AR, et al. (2017). Assessment of dam effects on streams and fish assemblages of the conterminous USA. Science of The Total Environment 586, 879-89. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.02.067

DelSontro T, Perez KK, Sollberger S, Wehrli B (2016). Methane dynamics downstream of a temperate run-of-the-river reservoir. Limnology and Oceanography 61, S188-S203. doi: 10.1002/lno.10387

 

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 Ecology and Economics

Economics has always been a mystery to me, so if you are an economist you may not like this blog. Many ecologists and some economists have written elegantly about the need for a new economics that includes the biosphere and indeed the whole world rather than just Wall Street and brings together ecology and the social sciences (e.g. Daily et al. 1991, Haly and Farley 2011, Brown et al. 2014, Martin et al. 2016). Several scientists have proposed measures that indicate how our current usage of natural resources is unsustainable (Wackernagel and Rees 1996, Rees and Wackernagel 2013). But few influential people and politicians appear to be listening, or if they are listening they are proceeding at a glacial pace at the same time as the problems that have been pointed out are racing at breakneck speed. The operating paradigm seems to be ‘let the next generation figure it out’ or more cynically ‘we are too busy buying more guns to worry about the environment’.

Let me discuss Canada as a model system from the point of view of an ecologist who thinks sustainability is something for the here and now. Start with a general law. No country can base its economy on non-renewable resources. Canada subsists by mining coal, oil, natural gas, and metals that are non-renewable. It also makes ends meet by logging and agricultural production. And we have done well for the last 200 years doing just that. Continue on, and to hell with the grandkids seems to be the prevailing view of the moment. Of course this is ecological nonsense, and, as many have pointed out, not the path to a sustainable society. Even Canada’s sustainable industries are unsustainable. Forestry in Canada is a mining operation in many places with the continuing need to log old growth forest to be a viable industry. Agriculture is not sustainable if soil fertility is continually falling so that there is an ever-increasing need for more fertilizer, and if more agricultural land is being destroyed by erosion and shopping malls. All these industries persist because of a variety of skillful proponents who dismiss long-term problems of sustainability. The oil sands of Alberta are a textbook case of a non-renewable resource industry that makes a lot of money while destroying both the Earth itself and the climate. Again, this makes sense short-term, but not for the grandkids.

So, we see a variety of decisions that are great in the short term but a disaster in the long term. Politicians will not move now unless the people lead them and there is little courage shown and only slight discussion of the long-term issues. The net result is that it is most difficult now to be an ecologist and be optimistic of the future even for relatively rich countries. Global problems deserve global solutions yet we must start with local actions and hope that they become global. We push ahead but in every case we run into the roadblocks of exponential growth. We need jobs, we need food and water and a clean atmosphere, but how do we get from A to B when the captains of industry and the public at large have a focus on short-term results? As scientists we must push on toward a sustainable future and continue to remind those who will listen that the present lack of action is not a wise choice for our grandchildren.

Brown, J.H. et al. 2014. Macroecology meets macroeconomics: Resource scarcity and global sustainability. Ecological Engineering 65(1): 24-32. doi: 10.1016/j.ecoleng.2013.07.071.

Daily, G.C., Ehrlich, P.R., Mooney, H.A., and Erhlich, A.H. 1991. Greenhouse economics: learn before you leap. Ecological Economics 4: 1-10.

Daly, H.E., and Farley, J. 2011. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. 2nd ed. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Martin, J.-L., Maris, V., and 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(22): 6105-6112. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1525003113.

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

Wackernagel, M., and W. E. Rees. 1996. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, B.C. 160 p.

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.

What Can Ecologists Do?

For about 40 years many ecologists as well as other scientists have reported on the consequences of climate change. In recent years there has been more and more public awareness of the problems associated with changing climate. But there it all seems to stop. Jobs and dollars trump everything in the western world. I sit today listening to the Federal Government in Canada approving a very large export agreement for liquefied natural gas (LNG) on the central west coast of British Columbia. The gas will be largely obtained by fracking and in spite of the fact that the shipping point is near the mouth of one of the largest salmon rivers on the west coast, and requires a long pipeline to deliver the gas with all its problems, the report of the government states that this development will have no harmful effects on the environment. The perception that burning natural gas is somehow good for the environment boggles my mind. You have heard all of this kind of discussion many times before I am sure.

Yet as far as we can tell these are not evil people who are approving these developments but their decisions are so far away from scientific reality that one can only wonder what drives this current economic system. There are several competing hypotheses. (1) Climate change is not a problem and is not caused by human actions releasing greenhouse gases. This is not believable if scientific evidence is given any credibility. So we need a better excuse for our current myopia. (2) The problems of climate change are so uncertain and far into the distant future so that it is not our job to be concerned about action now. (3) We should take action now but if we do it will disrupt the global economy too much to contemplate. Taxes will have to increase. (4) Much money can be made by these enterprises and this will allow western countries to develop technologies that will remove carbon from the atmosphere, so all will be well in the future. (5) A price can be set on carbon so that business as usual under a carbon price will take care of the problem. The market will take care of us.

Take your pick on these last 4 excuses, but as an ecologist I cannot buy any of them. Clearly I am not a social scientist or an economist, and consequently have little understanding of how all of this proceeds and how the continued nonsense of business as usual is reported on much of the media as though this is the only way forward. The disconnect between what the educated public believes and what the government and business economists push has never been more serious. Perhaps the dominant view of many people is that we have always managed to muddle through in the past, and so this is a minor issue that we will overcome as usual by some kind of technological fix. And it is a long term problem, and I will not be here in the long term.

What can we ecologists do? Teach, report, communicate to the wider public via social media or traditional media, and hope that progress in understanding will finally take hold. Set an example, and hope that we can turn this juggernaut around. David Suzuki and Bill McKibben and many others are doing this. As an army dedicated to peace we can move forward and hope for wisdom to prevail.

Ehrlich, P.R., and Ehrlich, A.H. 2013. Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280(1754): 20122845. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2845.

Ehrlich, P.R., and Ehrlich, A.H. 2013. Future collapse: how optimistic should we be? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280(1767): 20131373. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1373.

Kelly, M.J. 2013. Why a collapse of global civilization will be avoided: a comment on Ehrlich & Ehrlich. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280(1767). doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1193.

McKibben, B. 2013. Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist. Henry Holt and Company, New York. 257 pp.  ISBN: 978-08050-9284-4

Does Forestry Make Money – Part 2

About 2 years ago I wrote a blog asking the simple question of whether the forest industry in British Columbia makes money or whether it is operational only because of subsidies and the failure to recognize that biodiversity and ecosystem services could be valuable. A recent report from the research group in the Fenner School of the Australian National University has put the spotlight on the mountain ash forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria to answer this question for one region of southern Australia. I summarize their findings from their report (Keith et al. 2016) that you can access from the web address given below.

The ANU research group chose the Central Highlands study area because it included areas with controversial land use activities. The study area of 7370 sq km contains a range of landscapes including human settlements, agricultural land, forests, and waterways, and is used for a variety of activities including timber production, agriculture, water supply and recreation. It is also home to a range of species, including the endemic and critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum. These activities and their use of ecosystems can be either complementary or conflicting. Managing the various activities within the region is therefore complex and requires evaluation of the trade-offs between different land uses and users, an issue common to forestry areas around the world.

The accounting structure (System of Environmental-Economic Accounting) which is used by the United Nations is described in more detail in the report. Both economic and ecological data are needed to produce ecosystem accounts and these sources of data must be integrated to gain an overall picture of the system. This integration of ecosystem services with traditional cash crops is the key to evaluating an area for all of its values to humans. In this particular area the provisioning of water to cities is a key economic benefit provided by this particular area. The following table from their report puts all these accounts together for the Central Highlands of Victoria:

Table 5. Economic information for industries within the study region in 2013-14
Agriculture Native Forestry Water supply Tourism
Area of land used (ha) 96,041a 324,380b 115,149c 737,072d
Sale of products ($m) 474 49 911 485
Industry valued added ($m) 257 9 233 260
Ecosystem services ($m) 121 15 101 42
Sale of products ($ ha-1) 4918 151 7911 659
Industry value added ($ ha-1) 2667 29 2023 353
Ecosystem services ($ ha-1) 1255 46 877 57

a area of agricultural land use
b area of native forest timber production
c area of water catchments
d total area of study region

The key point in this table is that the value-added per ha of forestry is $29 per ha per year. The equivalent value for water is $2033 per ha per year – or 70 times more, and the value added for agriculture is about 90 time more than that of forestry. The value-added value for tourism is $350 per ha per year, about 12 times more than that of forestry. None of this takes into account any potential government subsidies to these industries, and none involves directly the endangered species in the landscape. Three main points emerge from this analysis:

  1. In 2013-14, the most valuable industries in the region were tourism ($260 million), agriculture ($257 million), water supply ($233 million) and forestry ($9 million). This is as measured by the estimated industry value added (the contribution to GDP).
  2. In 2013-14, the most valuable ecosystem services in the region were food provisioning ($121 million), water provisioning ($101 million), cultural and recreation services ($42 million).
  3. At a carbon price of $12.25 per ton (the average price paid by the Commonwealth in 2015), the potential ecosystem service of carbon sequestration ($20 million) was more valuable than the service of timber provisioning ($15 million).

The main implications from the report for this large geographical area are three:

  • The benefits from tourism, agriculture, and water supply are large, while those from forestry are comparatively small. There is a potential for income from carbon sequestration.
  • The activities of tourism, agricultural and water supply industries are complimentary and may be combined with biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration.
  • Timber harvesting in native forests needs to better account for the occurrence of fires and can be incompatible with species requirements for conservation.

The recent global interest in both climate change and species conservation has pushed this type of analysis to uncover the complementary and conflicting activities of all major global industries. Replacing the conventional GDP of a country or a region with a measure that takes into account the changes in the natural capital including gains and losses is a necessary step for sustainability (Dasgupta 2015, Guerry et al. 2015). This report from Australia shows how this goal of replacing the current GDP calculation with a green GDP can be done in specific areas. Much of biodiversity conservation hinges on these developments.

Dasgupta, P. 2015. Disregarded capitals: what national accounting ignores. Accounting and Business Research 45(4): 447-464. doi: 10.1080/00014788.2015.1033851.

Guerry, A.D., et al. 2015. Natural capital and ecosystem services informing decisions: From promise to practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112(24): 7348-7355. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1503751112.

Keith, H., Vardon, M., Stein, J., Stein, J., and Lindenmayer, D. 2016. Exzperimental Ecosystem Accounts for the Central Highlands of Victoria. Australian National University, Fenner School of Environment and Society. 22 pp. Available from:
http://fennerschool-associated.anu.edu.au/documents/CLE/VCH_Accounts_Summary_FINAL_for_pdf_distribution.pdf

On Gravity Waves and the 1%

The news this week has been all about the discovery of gravity waves and the great triumphs of modern physics to understand the origin of the universe. There is rather less news on the critical ecological problems of the Earth – of agricultural sustainability, biodiversity collapse, pollution, climate change – not to mention the long recognized economic problems of poverty and inequality, globally and within our own countries. All of these issues converge to the questions of resource allocations by our governments that have failed to assess priorities on many fronts. Many see this but have little power to change the system that is continually moving to save and improve the fortunes of the 1% to the detriment of most people.

In scientific funding there has always been a large bias in favor of the physical sciences, as I have commented on previously, and the question is how this might be publicized to produce  a better world. I suggest a few rules for scientific funding decisions both by governments and by private investors.

Rule 1: For maximizing scientific utility for the biosphere including humans, we require a mix of basic and applied science in every field. Whether this mix should be 50:50, 30:70, or 70:30 should be an item for extended discussion with the implicit assumption that it could differ in different areas of science.

Rule 2: Each major area of science should articulate its most important issues that must be addressed in the short term and the long term (>50 years). For biodiversity, as an example, the most important short term problem is to minimize extinctions while the most important long term problem might be to maintain genetic variability in populations.

Rule 3: The next step is most critical and perhaps most controversial: What are the consequences for the Earth and its human population if the most important issue in any particular science is not solved or achieved? If the required experiments or observations can be delayed for 30 (or 50) years, what will it matter?

If we could begin to lay out this agenda for science, we could start a process of ranking the importance of each of the sciences for funding in the present and in the long term. At the present time this ranking process is partly historical and partly based on extreme promises of future scenarios or products that are of dubious validity. There is no need to assume that all will agree, and I am sure that several steps would have to be designated to involve not only young and older scientists but also members of the business community and the public at large.

If this agenda works, I doubt that we would spend quite so much money on nuclear physics and astronomy and we might spend more money on ocean science, carbon budgets, and sustainable agricultural research. This agenda would mean that powerful people could not push their point of view in science funding quite so freely without being asked for justification. And perhaps when budgets are tight for governments and businesses, the first people on the firing line for redundancy will not be environmental scientists trying their best to maintain the health of the Earth for future generations.

So I end with 2 simple questions: Could gravity waves have waited another 100 years for discovery? What is there that cannot wait?

(Finally, an apology. I failed to notice that on a number of recent blogs the LEAVE A REPLY option was not available to the reader. This was inadvertent and somehow got deleted with a new version of the software. I should have noticed it and it is now corrected on all blogs.)

On Improving Canada’s Scientific Footprint – Breakthroughs versus insights

In Maclean’s Magazine on November 25, 2015 Professor Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Waterloo, and a member of the Royal Society of Canada, wrote an article “Ten Steps to Make Canada a Leader in Science” (http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/ten-steps-to-make-canada-a-leader-in-science/ ). Some of the general points in this article are very good but some seem to support the view of science as big business and that leaves ecology and environmental science in the dust. We comment here on a few points of disagreement with Professor Smolin. The quotations are from the Maclean’s article.

  1. Choose carefully.

“Mainly invest in areas of pure science where there is a path to world leadership. This year’s Nobel prize shows that when we do this, we succeed big.” We suggest that the Nobel Prizes are possibly the worst example of scientific achievement that is currently available because of their disregard for the environment. This recommendation is at complete variance to how environmental sciences advance.

  1. Aim for breakthroughs.

“No “me-too” or catch-up science. Don’t hire the student of famous Prof. X at an elite American university just because of the proximity to greatness. Find our own path to great science by recruiting scientists who are forging their own paths to breakthroughs.” But the essence of science has always been replication. Long-term monitoring is a critical part of good ecology, as Henson (2014) points out for oceanographic research. But indeed we agree to the need to recruit excellent young scientists in all areas.

  1. Embrace risk.

“Learn from business that it takes high risk to get high payoff. Don’t waste money doing low-risk, low-payoff science. Treat science like venture capital.” That advice would remove most of the ecologists who obtain NSERC funding. It is one more economic view of science. Besides, most successful businesses are based on hard work, sound financial practices, and insights into the needs of their customers.

  1. Recruit and invest in young leaders-to-be.

“Be savvy and proactive about choosing them…. Resist supporting legacies and entitlements. Don’t waste money on people whose best work is behind them.” We agree. Spending money to fund a limited number of middle aged, white males in the Canadian Excellence in Research Chairs was the antithesis of this recommendation. See the “Folly of Big Science” by Vinay Prasad (2015). Predicting in advance who will be leaders will surely depend on diverse insights and is best evaluated by giving opportunities for success to many from which leaders will arise.

  1. Recruit internationally.

“Use graduate fellowships and postdoctoral positions as recruitment tools to bring the most ambitious and best-educated young scientists to Canada to begin their research here, and then target the most promising of these by creating mechanisms to ensure that their best opportunities to build their careers going forward are here.” This seems attractive but means Canadian scientists have little hope of obtaining jobs here, since we are < 0.1% of the world’s scientists. A better idea – how about Canada producing the “best-educated” young scientists?

  1. Resist incrementalism.

If you spread new money around widely, little new science gets done. Instead, double-down on strategic fields of research where the progress is clear and Canada can have an impact.“ Fortin and Currie (2013) show that spreading the money around is exactly the way to go since less gets wasted and no one can predict where the “breakthroughs” will happen.  This point also rests on one’s view of the world of the future and what “breakthroughs” will contribute to the sustainability of the earth.

  1. Empower ambitious, risk-taking young scientists.

Give them independence and the resources they need to develop their own ideas and directions. Postdocs are young leaders with their own ideas and research programs”. This is an excellent recommendation, but it does conflict with the recommendation of many universities around the world of bringing in old scientists to establish institutes and giving incentives for established senior scientists.

  1. Embrace diversity.

Target women and visible minorities. Let us build a Canadian scientific community that looks like Canada.” All agreed on this one.

  1. Speak the truth.

“Allow no proxies for success, no partial credit for “progress” that leaves unsolved problems unsolved. Don’t count publications or citations, count discoveries that have increased our knowledge about nature. We do research because we don’t know the answer; don’t force us to write grant proposals in which we have to pretend we do.” This confounds the scientists’ code of ethics with the requirements of bureaucracies like NSERC for accounting for the taxpayers’ dollars. Surely publications record the increased knowledge about nature recommended by Professor Smolin.

  1. Consider the way funding agencies do business.

“We scientists know that panels can discourage risk-taking, encourage me-too and catch-up science, and reinforce longstanding entitlements and legacies. Such a system may incentivize low-risk, incremental work and limit the kind of out-of-the-box ideas that….leads to real breakthroughs. So create ambitious programs, empower the program officers to pick out and incubate the brightest and most ambitious risk-takers, and reward them when the scientists they invest in make real discoveries.” What is the evidence that program officers in NSERC or NSF have the vision to pick winners? This is difficult advice for ecologists who are asked for opinions on support for research projects in fields that require long-term studies to produce increases in ecological understanding or better management of biodiversity. It does seem like a recipe for scientific charlatans.

The bottom line: We think that the good ideas in this article are overwhelmed by poor suggestions with regards to ecological research. We come from an ecological world faced with three critical problems that will determine the fate of the Earth – food security, biodiversity loss, and overpopulation. While we all like ‘breakthroughs’ that give us an IPhone 6S or an electric car, few of the discoveries that have increased our knowledge about nature would be considered a breakthrough. So do we say goodbye to taxonomic research, biodiversity monitoring, investigating climate change impacts on Canadian ecosystems, or investing in biological control of pests? Perhaps we can add the provocative word “breakthrough” to our ecological papers and media reports more frequently but our real goal is to acquire greater insights into achieving a sustainable world.

As a footnote to this discussion, Dev (2015) raises the issue of the unsolved major problems in biology. None of them involve environmental or ecological issues.

Dev, S.B. (2015) Unsolved problems in biology—The state of current thinking. Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, 117, 232-239.

Fortin, J.-M. & Currie, D.J. (2013) Big science vs. little science: How scientific impact scales with funding. PLoS ONE, 8, e65263.

Prasad, V. (2015) The folly of big science. New York Times. October 2, 2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/03/opinion/the-folly-of-big-science-awards.html?_r=0 )

Henson, S.A. (2014) Slow science: the value of long ocean biogeochemistry records. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 372 (2025). doi: 10.1098/rsta.2013.0334.