Tag Archives: political ecology

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


Open Letter from a Scientist to a Bureaucrat

Let us assume for the moment that I am a scientist who has worked in a government research organization for 25 years under a series of bureaucrats. I have just retired and the object of this letter is to tell a bureaucrat what is good and what is bad about the bureaucratic government system. If you work in a perfect government system, perhaps you do not need to read further.

Dear Sir/Madam:

I would like to offer you some free advice that comes from a scientist who has worked in government for many years. This is presumptuous to be sure in light of our relative positions, but I feel you might benefit from some notes from the trenches.

First, science should never be organized in a top-down manner. We ecologists know about trophic cascades and the consequences it has for the lower trophic levels. You should not tell us what to do because you know nothing about the subject matter of the science, in this case ecology. I note especially that an MBA does not confer infinite wisdom on science matters. So I suggest you consider organizing things bottom-up. Your job is to provide scientists with the technical support, the funding, and the facilities to do their work. I note that this does not preclude you providing us with general areas of science in which we are expected to do our research. If our general position is to study the effectiveness of pollination in California crops, you should not tolerate us going to Africa to study elephant ecology. We appreciate that the government has at least some general ideas of what is critical to study. If they do not, it would be advisable to gather a group of scientists to discuss what the critical problems are in a particular area of science. Scientists do not work in closed rooms and do have a general understanding of what is happening in their field.

Second, do not muzzle us about anything scientific. We do not work for you or for the current government but we do work for the people of Canada or Australia or whatever country, and our mandate is to speak out on scientific questions, to provide evidence based policy guidance and to educate the public when errors are promulgated by people who know nothing about what they speak. This could well include government ministers who are known at least on occasion to utter complete nonsense. Our job is not to support the government’s policies of the day but to provide evidence about scientific questions. In general we scientists do not see government ministers crying out that they know more about brain surgery than trained doctors, so we think the same attitude ought to be taken toward ecologists.

Third, ask your scientists about the time frame of their scientific studies. Most bureaucrats seem to think that, since the world was created in 7 days, scientific work ought to take no more than a year or two or perhaps three. We would like to tell you that many, perhaps most, important ecological questions involve a time frame of 10 years or more, and some require continuous funding and support for periods in excess of 50 years. You apparently did not ask medical scientists to stop working on cancer or malaria after 3 years or even 50 years, so we are uncertain why ecologists should be kept to short time frames for their research. Ecological research is perhaps the most difficult of all the sciences, so if we do not find answers in a few years it is not because we are not working hard enough.

Finally, ask your scientists to publish in national and international journals because that is the corner stone for judging scientific progress. We do not mind having rules about rates of publication. And as a spur please fund your scientists to go to scientific meetings to present their results to the scientific world. And have them communicate to the public what they are doing and what they have found. After all the public pays, so why should they not hear about what has come of their tax dollars.

Your job, in a nutshell, is to support your scientists not to hinder them, to encourage their work, and to speak to the higher levels of government about why funding science is important. And to (at least on occasion) protest about government policies that are not based on scientific evidence. If you are successful in all of this, the people of your country will be the better for it. On the other hand, you may be headed for early retirement if you follow my advice.

I wish you success.

Sincerely yours,

A.B.C. Jones PhD, DSc, FRS, FAA

On Biodiversity Science

Biodiversity science features heavily in articles in Science and Nature and it is a good idea to look at the accumulated wisdom to date. We can begin with the Cardinale et al. (2012) paper in Nature (“Biodiversity Loss and Its Impact on Humanity”) which gives us six consensus statements:

Consensus statement one: There is now unequivocal evidence that biodiversity loss reduces the efficiency by which ecological communities capture biologically essential resources, produce biomass, decompose and recycle biologically essential nutrients.

Consensus statement two: There is mounting evidence that biodiversity increases the stability of ecosystem functions through time.

Consensus statement three: The impact of biodiversity on any single ecosystem process is nonlinear and saturating, such that change accelerates as biodiversity loss increases.

Consensus statement four: Diverse communities are more productive because they contain key species that have a large influence on productivity, and differences in functional traits among organisms increase total resource capture.

Consensus statement five: Loss of diversity across trophic levels has the potential to influence ecosystem functions even more strongly than diversity loss within trophic levels.

Consensus statement six: Functional traits of organisms have large impacts on the magnitude of ecosystem functions, which give rise to a wide range of plausible impacts of extinction on ecosystem function.

followed by four emerging trends:

Emerging trend one: The impacts of diversity loss on ecological processes might be sufficiently large to rival the impacts of many other global drivers of environmental change.

Emerging trend two: Diversity effects grow stronger with time, and may increase at larger spatial scales.

Emerging trend three: Maintaining multiple ecosystem processes at multiple places and time requires higher levels of biodiversity than does a single process at a single place and time.

Emerging trend four: The ecological consequences of biodiversity loss can be predicted from evolutionary history.

I encourage you to read this paper and consider how well it describes a blueprint of past and future research on biodiversity. Here I offer a few thoughts on why I think it consists of a set of worrisome generalizations.

First of all every biologist would like to think that biodiversity is important. But we should consider what the equivalent statement might be for chemistry – chemicals are important. Surely this is both true and of little use, since we can never define scientifically the word ‘important’. Biodiversity is so broadly defined as to be a rather poor noun to use in scientific statements unless it is strictly defined. But you can take any kind of biodiversity measure – species number (richness) for example, and you might find that species X is a terrible weed that is not desirable for farmers but is beautiful in your home garden or useful food for butterflies. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes are not particularly desirable members of the local biological community. But let us all agree that biodiversity is important because it is an ethical belief but not a scientific statement as it stands.

If we look at the consensus statements as scientific hypotheses (I note the word ‘hypothesis’ appears only once in this article), we can ask how you could test them and what the alternative hypotheses would be. For consensus 1 for example, what would be the result of finding a community that increased productivity if certain species were lost from the system? This finding would not be viewed as contrary to consensus one because it would be said that the increased productivity was not done efficiently. It is probably best to assume these statements are not hypotheses to be tested.

As we work our way through the consensus statements, we find they are filled with weasel words that are useful in eliminating contrary evidence. Thus for consensus statement 2 we can stop at biodiversity (many definitions) and then stability (perhaps 70 different metrics) and finally ecosystem functions (of which there are many) and time (weeks?, years?, centuries?). The consensus which sounds so solid is empirically rather empty as any guide to the world.

I am left with many questions. Could not all of these consensus statements have been written 30 years ago? All of them have contrary instances that could be given from the literature, if the terms were rigorously defined. But this many not matter. Let us concede that these generalizations may be right 90% of the time. The bottom line is that we should conserve biodiversity. But this is what everybody has been saying for decades so we are no farther ahead.

The singular problem that concerns me the most is that these kinds of consensus statements are of little use to the land manager or the wildlife manager or the politician who has to make applied decisions at the local level. If we wish to arrest the decline of a particular songbird, what is the utility of these kind of statements? I have concluded that these kinds of papers about biodiversity are a kind of pablum for conservation ecologists to show that Nature and Science really are concerned about conservation issues while at the same time they devote 97% of their issues to the technological fixes that will ‘solve’ all the problems conservation biologists continually point out. As such these kinds of papers are useful statements for political ecology.

The four emerging trends are themselves worthy of another blog. They are vague ideas expressing beliefs that cannot be considered scientific hypotheses without rigorous definitions, and in their present form are almost quasi-religious statements of belief. How they might ever be tested is unclear. I particularly enjoyed the fourth emerging trend since I think that one of the evolutionary laws is that evolutionary history is exactly that – history – not a predictive map of future changes. There is a certain irony of our time that some of the world’s most prestigious evolutionary biologists are anti-religion while biodiversity scientists are trying hard to set up a new religion of biodiversity beliefs.

Cardinale, B. J.et al. 2012. Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature 486:59-67.