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.

2 thoughts on “Should All Ecologists Become Social Scientists or Politicians?

  1. eco_chemist_in_training

    Great post. Ecological health is the foundation of human health. When foundations are neglected, things resting upon them collapse. Therefore, even if one’s primary concern is human health, ecological health should be a top priority. But medical science and technology- even in relatively frivolous areas- receives vastly more funding and attention, because the economy does not operate on logical principles. What is to be done about it? I wish I knew.

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  2. Martin Brummell

    ““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.”

    1. I have done some of this, and in addition to being useful, it’s very enjoyable. To me. Apparently, there are a great many people who would not find this activity enjoyable. I don’t understand such people.

    2. The amount of money required for this activity depends on the distance to be travelled to the ecosystem of choice. Obviously, the arboretum on campus or the intertidal at the bottom of the hill are nearly free (a good pair of boots perhaps counts as the cost of transport?). I work in the Arctic, and Twin Otter time is considerably more pricey than the boots on my feet. Still, not too much compared to cutting-edge physics or medical research.

    “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).”

    3. Can I have a job, please? I’d love to join that happy lot, but I suppose the first order of business is to get back to work. Thanks for a thought-provoking and entertaining post.

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