Tag Archives: political ecology

How to Destroy a Research Station

I have had the ‘privilege’ over the last 60 years of watching three ecological field stations be destroyed. Admittedly this is a small sample, against which every ecologist can complain, but I wanted to present to you my list of how to achieve this kind of destruction should you ever be commanded to do so. I will not name names or specific places, since the aim is to develop a general theory rather than to name and pillory specific historical actions and people. I suggest that nine rules are needed to proceed smoothly in this matter if you are given this job.

  1.  Have a clear vision why you wish to destroy an existing station. Do not vacillate. The background may be money, or philosophy of science, or orders from those higher in the echelon, or a personal peeve. Remember you are an administrator, and no one can challenge your wisdom in making major changes or closing the station.  
  2. Speak to none of the current users of the research station. If the research station has a Users Committee, avoid talking to them until after all the decisions are made. A users committee is just an honorary appointment, and it helps if very few of the users are actually people who do research at the station. It is very important that your vision should not be clouded by personnel or research programs currently running at the station. And it is best if the scientists using the station have no information except gossip about the changes that are coming.
  3. Avoid loose talk around your office. If you or your group are paying a visit in the field to the research station before closing it or repositioning its purpose, give out no information to anyone on future courses of action.
  4. Communicate upwards in the hierarchy, never downwards. You must keep all the members of the higher echelons fully informed. Do not dwell on the details of your progress in destruction but emphasize the gains that will flow from this dismantling. Tell fibs as much as you like because no one will question your version of events.
  5. Never read anything about the history of the research station or read any of the papers and reports that have originated there. The key is that you as an administrator know what should be done, and the last consideration is history. Administrators must keep a clear mind, unconcerned with historical trivia.
  6. Let none of the destruction news reach the media lest the public in general might begin to see what is happening. Newspaper and media coverage are rarely flattering to bureaucrats. If possible, line up a sympathetic media person who can talk about the brilliant future of the research station and the wisdom of the decisions you have made.
  7. Take a strong business approach. Do not worry if you must fire people currently running the research station or eject scientists currently working there. Everyone must retire at some point and all business leaders have solid recipes for hiring contractors to take care of any problems with the buildings. No matter what the extra cost.
  8. Sell the research station if you possibly can in order to gain revenue for your yet to be revealed vision. You may talk complete nonsense to explain why you are making major changes or closing the research station because few of your possible critics will be in a position to distinguish nonsense statements from truth. ‘Alternative facts’ are very useful if your decisions are questioned.
  9. Realize that if you have made a mistake in destroying a research station, your employer will not know that for several years. By that time, you will have ascended in the hierarchy of your employment unit for having carried out such a definitive action. And if your co-workers know the poor job you are doing, they will write sterling letters of reference for you to move you to another position in a different department or agency so that the worse the job you have done, the stronger will be the reference letters to recommend you for another job.

There is almost no literature I can find on this topic of administering a field station. If you think field stations are eternal, it may be a sign that you are very young, or you are very fortunate in working for an agency where moving forward is correctly labeled as progress. I have always thought that long-term field research stations were considered sacred but clearly not everyone agrees. Administrators must have something to do to leave their mark on the world for better or worse. All we can do is watch and be alert for emerging symptoms of collapse.

Swanson, F.J. (2015). Confluence of arts, humanities, and science at sites of long-term ecological inquiry. Ecosphere 6 (8), Article 132. doi: 10.1890/ES15-00139.1.

On Culling Overabundant Wildlife

Ecologists have written much about the culling of wildlife from an ecological and conservation perspective (Caughley 1981, Jewell et al. 1981, Bradford and Hobbs 2008, Hampton and Forsyth 2016). The recommendations for culling as a method for reducing overabundant wildlife populations are typically scientifically well established and sensitive to animal welfare. The populations chosen for culling are classified as ‘overabundant’. But overabundant is a human-defined concept, and thus requires some form of social license to agree about what species, in which conditions, should be classified as ‘overabundant’. The problem of overabundance usually arises when humans make changes that permit a species to become so numerous locally that it is having an adverse effect on its food supply, its competitors, or the integrity of the ecosystem it occupies. Once overabundance is recognized, the management issue is to determine which methods should be used to reduce abundance to a suitable level. Culling is only one option for removing wildlife, and animals may be captured and moved elsewhere if that is possible or sterilized to prevent reproduction and further increase (Liu et al. 2012, Massei and Cowan 2014).

All these policy issues are subject to open public debate and these debates are often heated because of different belief systems. Animal rights advocates may push the assumption that we humans have no rights to kill any wildlife at all. News media often concentrate on the most stringent views on controlling populations that are overabundant, and public discussion becomes impossible. Two aspects need to be noted that are often lost in any discussion. First is the cost of alternatives in dollars and cents. As an example, most ecologists would agree that wild horses are overabundant on open range in western United States (Davies et al. 2014, Rutberg et al. 2017) but the question is what to do about this. Costs to reduce horse populations by capturing horses and penning them and feeding them are astronomical (the current situation in western USA, estimated at $25,000 per animal) but this method of control could be done if society wishes to spend money to achieve this goal. Culling would be much cheaper, but the killing of large animals is anathema to many people who speak loudly to politicians. Fertility control methods are improving with time and may be more acceptable socially, but costs are high and results in population reduction can be slow in coming (Hobbs and Hinds 2018). Models are essential to sort out many of these issues, whether it be the projected costs of various options (including doing nothing), the expected population trajectory, or the consequences for other species in the ecosystem.

The bottom line is that if overabundant wildlife populations are not reduced by some means, the result must be death by starvation or disease coupled with extensive damage to other species in these ecosystems. This type of “Plan B” is the second aspect not often considered in discussions of policies on overabundant species. In the present political scene in North America opposition to culling overabundant wildlife is strong, coherent discussion is rarely possible, and Plan B problems are rarely heard. Most overabundant wildlife result from human actions in changing the vegetation, introducing new species, and reducing and fragmenting wildlife habitats. Wishing the problems will go away without doing anything is not a feasible course of action.

These kinds of problems in wildlife management are soluble in an objective manner with careful planning of research and management actions (Hone et al. 2017). Ecologists have a moral duty to present all scientific sides of the management of overabundant species, and to bring evidence into the resulting social and political discussions of management issues. It is not an easy job.

Bradford, J.B., and N.T. Hobbs. 2008. Regulating overabundant ungulate populations: An example for elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Journal of Environmental Management 86:520-528. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2006.12.005

Caughley, G. 1981. Overpopulation. Pages 7-19 in P.A. Jewell S. Holt, and D. Hart, editors. Problems in Management of Locally Abundant Wild Mammals. Academic Press, New York. ISBN: 978-0-12-385280-9

Davies, K. W., Collins, G. & Boyd, C. S. (2014) Effects of feral free-roaming horses on semi-arid rangeland ecosystems: an example from the sagebrush steppe. Ecosphere, 5, 127. doi: 10.1890/ES14-00171.1

Hampton, J. O., and D. M. Forsyth. 2016. An assessment of animal welfare for the culling of peri-urban kangaroos. Wildlife Research 43:261-266. doi: 10.1071/WR16023

Hobbs, R.J. and Hinds, L.A. (2018). Could current fertility control methods be effective for landscape-scale management of populations of wild horses (Equus caballus) in Australia? Wildlife Research 45, 195-207. doi: 10.1071/WR17136.

Hone, J., Drake, V.A. & Krebs, C.J. (2017) The effort–outcomes relationship in applied ecology: Evaluation and implications BioScience, 67, 845-852. doi: 10.1093/biosci/bix091

Jewell, P. A., Holt, S. & Hart, D. (1982) Problems in Management of Locally Abundant Wild Mammals. Academic Press, New York. 360 pp. ISBN: 978-0-12-385280-9

Liu, M., Qu, J., Yang, M., Wang, Z., Wang, Y., Zhang, Y. & Zhang, Z. (2012) Effects of quinestrol and levonorgestrel on populations of plateau pikas, Ochotona curzoniae, in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Pest Management Science, 68, 592-601. doi: 10.1002/ps.2302

Massei, G. & Cowan, D. (2014) Fertility control to mitigate human–wildlife conflicts: a review. Wildlife Research, 41, 1-21. doi: 10.1071/WR13141

Rutberg, A., Grams, K., Turner, J.W. & Hopkins, H. (2017) Contraceptive efficacy of priming and boosting doses of controlled-release PZP in wild horses. Wildlife Research, 44, 174-181. doi: 10.1071/WR16123

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

Fire and Fury and the Environment

The media at present is full of comments about having a war that will stimulate the economy, at least in reconstruction. And this concern over war and the costs of war prompted me to investigate the relative costs of military funding and environmental funding. So here is a very coarse look at the relative positions of military funding and environmental funding in a few western countries. All the numbers are approximate and refer to 2016 and possibly 2017 budgets, and all are in billions of dollars.

Military expenditures by countries are easiest to obtain, and here are a few for the most recent years I could find:

United States:         $ 611 billion
China:                       $ 216
Russia:                      $ 69
Saudi Arabia:           $ 64
Australia:                  $ 24
Canada:                    $ 15.5

Environmental funding is much more difficult to decompose because different countries amalgamate different agencies into one Department. Consequently, comparisons are best made within one country rather than between countries. Here are a few details for particular agencies:

USA            Department of the Interior     $ 13.4            1 military year = 46 Dept. years
NOAA                                                             $ 5.77             1 military year = 106 NOAA years

Canada      Environment Canada              $ 0.987            1 military year = 16 EC years

Australia     CSIRO                                       $ 0.803            1 military year = 30 CSIRO years

Clearly there are many problems with these simple comparisons. NOAA for example includes agencies covering Marine Fisheries, Weather Service, Environmental Satellites, Aviation Operations, and Oceanic Research among other responsibilities. CSIRO includes divisions dealing with agriculture, climate change, and mining research. I am sure that someone has done a more detailed analysis of these comparisons, but the general message is very clear: the environment is a low priority among western nations, and if you want a rough number one might say the military is about 30 times more “important” than the environment when it comes to funding. If you look for example at the Australian budget for 2017 (http://budget.gov.au/2017-18/content/glossies/overview/download/Budget2017-18-Overview.pdf ) and search for the word ‘environment’ as in the real biophysical environment, you will find not a single case of this word appearing. It is as though the biophysical environment does not exist as a problem in 2017.

I am not clear if anyone worries about these simple facts. The general problem is that federal government budgets are made so complex and presented so poorly that it is nearly impossible to separate out different equivalent expenditures. Thus for example the military argues that it does scientific research with part of its funding, and universities fail to point out that some of their basic research focuses on military questions rather than questions that might benefit humanity (Smart 2016).

I hope that others might look into these expenditures in more detail, and that in the long run we might be more aware of where our tax dollars go. The simple suggestion that the last page of our tax file should give us a choice of what general areas we would like to support with our taxes would be a start. On the last list I saw of 25 ‘items of interest’ to taxpayers who might like more information, the words ‘environment’, ‘conservation’, or ‘sustainability’ never appeared. We should demand this be changed.
Smart, B. (2016). Military-industrial complexities, university research and neoliberal economy. Journal of Sociology 52, 455-481. doi: 10.1177/1440783316654258

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.

 

On Sequencing the Entire Biosphere

There is an eternal war going on in science which rests on the simple question of “What should we fund?” If you are at a cocktail party and want to set up a storm of argument you should ask this question. There may be general agreement among many scientists that we should reduce funding on guns and wars and increase funding on alleviating poverty. But then the going gets tough. It is easier to restrict our discussion to science. There is a clear hierarchy in science funding favouring the physical sciences that can make money and the medical sciences that keep us alive until 150 years of age. But now let’s go down to biology.

The major rift in biology is between funding blue sky research and practical research. In the discussions about funding, protagonists often confound these two categories by saying that blue sky research will lead us to practical research and nirvana. We can accept salesmanship to a degree. The current bandwagon in Canada is to barcode all of life on earth, at a cost of perhaps $2 billion but probably much more. Or we can sequence everything we can get our hands on with the implicit promise that it will help us understand these organisms better or solve practical problems in conservation and management. But all of this is driven by what we can do technically, so it is machine driven, not necessarily thought driven. So if you want another heated discussion among ecologists, ask them how they would spend $2 billion for research in ecology.

We sequence because we can. Fifty years ago I heard a lecture by Richard Lewontin in which he asked what we would know if we had a telephone book with all the genetic sequences of all the organisms on earth. He concluded, as I remember, that we would know nothing unless we had a purely ‘genetic-determinism’ view of life. There is more to life than amino acid sequences perhaps.

No one I know thinks that current ecological changes are driven by genetics, but perhaps I do not know the right people. So for example, if we sequence the genomes of all the top predators on earth (Estes et al. 2011, Ripple et al. 2014), would we know anything about their importance in community and ecosystem dynamics? Probably not. But still we are told that if in New Zealand we sequence the common wasp genome we will find new ways to control this insect pest. Perhaps an equally important area would be funding to understand their biology in New Zealand, and the threats and threatening processes in an ecosystem context.

We are back to the starting question about the allocation of resources within biology. Perhaps we cycle endlessly in science funding in search of the Promised Land. In a recent paper Richards (2015) makes the argument that genome sequencing is the key to biology and thus the Promised Land:

“The unifying theme of biology is evolutionary conservation of the gene set and the resultant proteins that make up the biochemical and structural networks of cells and organisms throughout the tree of life.”

“The absence of these genome references is not just slowing research into specific questions; it is precluding a complete description of the molecular underpinnings of biology necessary for a true understanding of life on our planet.” (p. 414)

There seems little room in all this for ecological thought or ecological viewpoints. It is implicit to me that these arguments for genome sequencing have as a background assumption that ecological research is rather useless for achieving biological understanding or for solving any of the problems we currently face in conservation or management. Richards (2015) makes the point himself in saying:

“While the author is fond of ‘stamp collecting’, there are many good reasons to expand the reference sequences that underlie biological research (Table 2).”

The table he refers to in his paper has not a single item on ecological research, except that this approach will achieve “Acceleration of total biological research output”. It remains to be seen whether this view will achieve much more than stamp collecting and a massive confusion of correlation with causation. It requires a great leap of faith that this approach through genome sequencing can help to solve practical ecological problems.

Richards, S. (2015) It’s more than stamp collecting: how genome sequencing can unify biological research. Trends in Genetics, 31, 411-421.

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

Ripple, W.J., et al. (2014) Status and ecological effects of the world’s largest carnivores. Science, 343, 1241484.

Ecosystem Science to the Rescue

What can ecologists do to become useful in the mess that is currently the 21st Century? In Australia we have a set of guidelines now available as “Foundations for the Future: A Long Term Plan for Australian Ecosystem Science” (http://www.ecosystemscienceplan.org.au ) It is a useful overall plan in many respects and the only question I wish to discuss here is how we ecologists come to such plans and whether or not they are realistic.

We should begin by treating this plan as an excellent example of political ecology – a well presented, glossy brochure, with punch lines carved out and highlighted so that newspaper reporters and sympathetic politicians can present sound bites on air or in Parliament. One example: “Healthy ecosystems are the cornerstone of our social and economic wellbeing”. No arguments there.

Six key directions are indicated:

  1. Delivering maximum impact for Australia: Enhancing relationships between scientists and end-users
  2. Supporting long-term research
  3. Enabling ecosystem surveillance
  4. Making the most of data resources
  5. Inspiring a generation: Empowering the public with knowledge and opportunities
  6. Facilitating coordination, collaboration and leadership

Most ecologists would agree with all 6 key directions, but perhaps only 2 and 3 are scientific goals that are key to research planning. Everyone supports 2, but how do we achieve this without adequate funding? Similarly 3 is an admirable direction but how is it to be accomplished? Could we argue that most ecologists have been trying to achieve these 6 goals for 75 years, and particularly goals 2 and 3 for at least 35 years?

As a snapshot of the importance of ecosystem science, the example of the Great Barrier Reef is presented, and in particular understanding reef condition and its changes over time.

“Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world, an Australian icon that makes an economic contribution of over $5 billion annually. Ongoing monitoring of the reef and its condition by ecosystem scientists plays a vital role in understanding pressures and informing the development of management strategies. Annual surveys to measure coral cover across the Great Barrier Reef since 1985 have built the world’s most extensive time series data on reef condition across 214 reefs. Researchers have used this long-term data to assess patterns of change and to determine the causes of change.”

The paper they cite (De’ath et al. 2012) shows a coral cover decline on the Great Barrier Reef of 50% over 27 years, with three main causes: cyclones (48% of total), crown-of-thorns starfish (43%) and coral bleaching (10%). From a management perspective, controlling the starfish would help recovery but only on the assumption that the climate is held stable lest cyclones and bleaching increase in future. It is not clear at all to me how ecosystem science can assist reef recovery, and we have in this case another good example of excellent ecological understanding with near-zero ability to rectify the main causes of reef degradation – climate change and water pollution.

The long-term plan presented in this report suggests many useful activities by which ecosystem studies could be more integrated. Exactly which ecosystem studies should be considered high priority are left for future considerations, as is the critical question of who will do these studies. Given that many of the originators of this ecosystem plan are from universities, one worries whether universities have the resources or the time frame or the mandate to accomplish all these goals which are essentially government services. With many governments backing out of serious ecosystem research because of budget cuts, the immediate future does not look good. Nearly 10 years ago Sutherland et al. (2006) gathered together a list of 100 ecological questions of high policy relevance for the United Kingdom. We should now go back to see if these became a blueprint for success or not.

De’ath, G., Fabricius, K.E., Sweatman, H., and Puotinen, M. (2012). The 27–year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(44): 17995-17999. doi:10.1073/pnas.1208909109.

Sutherland, W.J., et al. (2006). The identification of 100 ecological questions of high policy relevance in the UK. Journal of Applied Ecology 43(4): 617-627. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2006.01188.x