Tag Archives: research priorities

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.

What is the Ratio of Thought to Action in Biodiversity Conservation?

Many ecologists who peruse the conservation literature will come away with a general concern about the amount of effort that goes into thoughts about how conservation should be done and how much action is currently being carried out to achieve these goals in the field. My premise here is that currently the person-power given to thought greatly exceeds the person-power devoted to actually achieving the broad conservation goal of protecting biodiversity. Let me illustrate this with one dilemma in conservation: should we be concerned predominately with the loss of threatened and endangered species, or should we concentrate on the major dominant species in our ecosystems? Of course, this is not a black-or-white dichotomy, and the first answer is that we should do both. But the economist would suggest that resources are limited, and you cannot do both, so the question should be reworded as to what fraction of resources should go to one or the other of these two activities.

Consider the example of threatened and endangered species. Many of these species are rare numerically at present. In the past they may have been abundant but that is not always the case. The ecologist will know as a universal constant that most species in ecosystems are rare, and because they are rare, they are most difficult to study to answer the simple question why are they rare? Pick your favourite rare species and try to answer this question. For some species under persecution by humans the answer is simple; for most it is not, and ecologists fall back on explanations like the resources they require are not abundant, or their niche is specialized, meaningless statements that can be called panchrestons unless we have infinite time and funds to find out exactly what the limiting resources are, or why their niche is specialized. Now let us make a simple thought experiment that asks: what would happen if all these rare and endangered species disappeared from the world’s ecosystems? The first response would be total outrage that anyone would ask such a terrible question, so it is best not to talk about it. The second would be that we would be outraged if our favorite bird or frog disappeared like the passenger pigeon. The third might be that we should consider this question seriously.

Some community and ecosystem ecologists might wager that nothing would happen to ecosystem dynamics if all the rare and endangered species disappeared. No one of course would admit to such a point of view since it would end their career. At the moment we are in the unenviable state of doing the opposite experiment on the world’s coral reefs which are suffering in an ocean that is acidifying and heating up, pollution that is increasing, and overfishing that is common (Fraser et al. 2019, Lebrec et al. 2019, Romero-Torres et al. 2020). Coral reefs are an extreme example of human impacts on areas of high conservation and economic value such that the entire ecosystem will have to reconstruct itself with corals of greater tolerance to current and future conditions, a future with no clear guess of what positive effects will transpire.

Perhaps the message of both coral reef conservation and terrestrial ecosystem conservation is that you cannot destroy the major species without major consequences. Australia provides a good example of the consequences of altering predator abundance in an ecosystem. The dingo (Canis familaris) has been persecuted because of predation on sheep, and at the same time domestic cats (Felis catus) and red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) have been introduced to the continent. The ecological question is whether the reintroduction of the dingo to places where it has been exterminated will reduce the abundance of cats and foxes, and thus save naïve prey species from local extinction (Newsome et al. 2015). The answer to this question is far from clear (Morgan et al. 2017, Hunter and Letnic 2022) and may differ in different ecosystems within Australia.  

The bottom line is that our original question about rare species cannot be answered. There is much literature on introduced predators affecting food webs, following from Estes et al. (2011) important paper. and now there is much research effort on the roles of apex predators and consumers on ecosystem dynamics (Serrouya et al. 2021). Much of this effort concentrates on the common animals rather than the rare ones with which we began this discussion. Much more action in the field is needed on all conservation fronts since in my opinion the amount of thought we have available now will last field workers for the rest of the century.

Estes, J.A., Terborgh, J., Brashares, J.S., Power, M.E., Berger, J., et al. (2011). Trophic downgrading of Planet Earth. Science 333, 301-306. doi: 10.1126/science.1205106.

Fraser, K.A., Adams, V.M., Pressey, R.L., and Pandolfi, J.M. (2019). Impact evaluation and conservation outcomes in marine protected areas: A case study of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Biological Conservation 238, 108185. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2019.07.030

Hunter, D.O. and Letnic, M. (2022). Dingoes have greater suppressive effect on fox populations than poisoning campaigns. Australian Mammalogy 44. doi: 10.1071/AM21036.

Lebrec, M., Stefanski, S., Gates, R., Acar, S., Golbuu, Y., Claudel-Rusin, A., Kurihara, H., Rehdanz, K., Paugam-Baudoin, D., Tsunoda, T., and Swarzenski, P.W. (2019). Ocean acidification impacts in select Pacific Basin coral reef ecosystems. Regional Studies in Marine Science 28, 100584. doi: 10.1016/j.rsma.2019.100584.

Morgan, H.R., Hunter, J.T., Ballard, G., Reid, N.C.H., and Fleming, P.J.S. (2017). Trophic cascades and dingoes in Australia: Does the Yellowstone wolf–elk–willow model apply? Food Webs 12, 76-87. doi: 10.1016/j.fooweb.2016.09.003.

Newsome, TM., Ballard, G.-A., Crowther, M.S., Dellinger, J.A., Fleming, P.J.S., et al. (2015). Resolving the value of the dingo in ecological restoration. Restoration Ecology 23, 201-208.  doi: 10.1111/rec.12186.

Romero-Torres, M., Acosta, A., Palacio-Castro, A.M., Treml, E.A., Zapata, F.A., Paz-García, D.A., and Porter, J.W. (2020). Coral reef resilience to thermal stress in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Global Change Biology 26, 3880-3890. doi: 10.1111/gcb.15126

Serrouya, R., Dickie, M., Lamb, C., Oort, H. van, Kelly, A.P., DeMars, C., et al. (2021). Trophic consequences of terrestrial eutrophication for a threatened ungulate. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 288, 20202811. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2020.2811.

On How Genomics will not solve Ecological Problems

I am responding to this statement in an article in the Conversation by Anne Murgai on April 19, 2022 (https://phys.org/news/2022-04-african-scientists-genes-species.html#google_vignette) : The opening sentence of her article on genomics encapsulates one of the problems of conservation biology today:

“DNA is the blueprint of life. All the information that an organism needs to survive, reproduce, adapt to environments or survive a disease is in its DNA. That is why genomics is so important.”

If this is literally correct, almost all of ecological science should disappear, and our efforts to analyse changes in geographic distributions, abundance, survival and reproductive rates, competition with other organisms, wildlife diseases, conservation of rare species and all things that we discuss in our ecology journals are epiphenomena, and thus our slow progress in sorting out these ecological issues is solely because we have not yet sequenced all our species to find the answers to everything in their DNA.

This is of course not correct, and the statement quoted above is a great exaggeration. But, if it is believed to be correct, it has some important consequences for scientific funding. I will confine my remarks to the fields of conservation and ecology. The first and most important is that belief in this view of genetic determinism is having large effects on where conservation funding is going. Genomics has been a rising star in biological science for the past 2 decades because of technological advances in sequencing DNA. As such, given a fixed budget, it is taking money away from the more traditional approaches to conservation such as setting up protected areas and understanding the demography of declining populations. Hausdorf (2021) explores these conflicting problems in an excellent review, and he concludes that often more cost-effective methods of conservation should be prioritized over genomic analyses. Examples abound of conservation problems that are immediate and typically underfunded (e.g., Turner et al. 2021, Silva et al, 2021).   

What is the resolution of these issues? I can recommend only that those in charge of dispensing funding for conservation science examine the hypotheses being tested and avoid endless funding for descriptive genomics that claim to have a potential and immediate outcome that will forward the main objectives of conservation. Certainly, some genomic projects will fit into this desirable science category, but many will not, and the money should be directed elsewhere.  

The Genomics Paradigm listed above is used in the literature on medicine and social science, and a good critique of this view from a human perspective is given in a review by Feldman and Riskin (2022). Scientists dealing with human breast cancer or schizophrenia show the partial but limited importance of DNA in determining the cause or onset of these complex conditions (e.g., Hilker et al 2018, Manobharathi et al. 2021). Conservation problems are equally complex, and in the climate emergency have a short time frame for action. I suspect that genomics for all its strengths will have only a minor part to play in the resolution of ecological problems and conservation crises in the coming years.

Feldman, Marcus W. and Riskin, Jessica (2022). Why Biology is not Destiny. The New York Review of Books 69 (April 21, 2022), 43-46.

Hausdorf, Bernhard (2021). A holistic perspective on species conservation. Biological Conservation 264, 109375. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109375.

Hilker, R., Helenius, D., Fagerlund, B., Skytthe, A., Christensen, K., Werge, T.M., Nordentoft, M., and Glenthøj, B. (2018). Heritability of Schizophrenia and Schizophrenia Spectrum based on the Nationwide Danish Twin Register. Biological Psychiatry 83, 492-498. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.08.017.

Manobharathi, V., Kalaiyarasi, D., and Mirunalini, S. (2021). A concise critique on breast cancer: A historical and scientific perspective. Research Journal of Biotechnology 16, 220-230.

Samuel, G. N. and Farsides, B. (2018). Public trust and ‘ethics review’ as a commodity: the case of Genomics England Limited and the UK’s 100,000 genomes project. Medicine, Health Care, and Philosophy 21, 159-168. doi: 10.1007/s11019-017-9810-1.

Silva, F., Kalapothakis, E., Silva, L., and Pelicice, F. (2021). The sum of multiple human stressors and weak management as a threat for migratory fish. Biological Conservation 264, 109392. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109392.

Turner, A., Wassens, S., and Heard, G. (2021). Chytrid infection dynamics in frog populations from climatically disparate regions. Biological Conservation 264, 109391. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109391.

On Global Science and Local Science

I suggest that the field of ecology is fragmenting into two large visions of the science which for the sake of simplicity I will call Global Science and Local Science. This fragmentation is not entirely new, and some history might be in order.

Local Science deals with local problems, and while it aspires to develop conclusions that apply to a broader area than the small study area, it has always been tied to useful answers for practical questions. Are predators the major control of caribou declines in northern Canada? Can rats on islands reduce ground-nesting birds to extinction? Does phosphate limit primary production in temperate lakes? Historically Local Science has arisen from the practical problems of pest control and wildlife and fisheries management with a strong focus on understanding how populations and communities work and how humans might solve the ecological problems they have largely produced (Kingsland 2005). The focus of Local Science was always on a set of few species that were key to the problem being studied. As more and more wisdom accumulated on local problems, ecologists turned to broadening the scope of enquiry, asking for example if solutions discovered in Minnesota might also be useful in England or vice versa. Consequently, Local Science began to be amalgamated into a broader program of Global Science.

Global Science can be defined in several ways. One is purely financial and big dollars; this not what I will discuss here. I want to discuss Global Science in terms of ecological syntheses, and Global Science papers can often be recognized by having dozens to hundreds of authors, all with data to share, and with meta-analysis as the major tool of analysis. Global Science is now in my opinion moving away from the experimental approach that was a triumph of Local Science. The prelude to Global Science was the International Biological Program (IBP) of the 1970s that attempted to produce large-scale systems analyses of communities and ecosystems but had little effect in convincing many ecologists that this was the way to the future. At the time the problem was largely the development of a theory of stability, a property barely visible in most ecological systems.

Global Science depends on describing patterns that occur across large spatial scales. These patterns can be discovered only by having an extensive, reliable set of local studies and this leads to two problems. The first is that there may be too few reliable local studies. This may occur because different ecologists use different methods of measurement, do not use a statistically reliable sampling design, or may be constrained by a lack of funding or time. The second problem is that different areas may show different patterns of the variables under measurement or have confounding causes that are not recognized. The approach through meta-analysis is fraught with the decisions that must be made to include or exclude specific studies. For example, a recent meta-analysis of the global insect decline surveyed 5100 papers and used 166 of them for analysis (van Klink et al. 2020). It is not that the strengths and limitations of meta-analysis have been missed (Gurevitch et al. 2018) but rather the question of whether they are increasing our understanding of the Earth’s ecology. Meta-analyses can be useful in suggesting patterns that require more detailed analyses. In effect they violate many of the rules of conventional science in not having an experimental design, so that they suggest patterns but can be validated only by a repeat of the observations. So, in the best situations meta-analyses lead us back to Local Science. In some situations, meta-analyses lead to no clear understanding at all, as illustrated in the conclusions of Geary et al. (2020) who investigated the response of terrestrial vertebrate predators to fire:

“There were no clear, general responses of predators to fire, nor relationships with geographic area, biome or life-history traits (e.g. body mass, hunting strategy and diet). Responses varied considerably between species.” (page 955)

Note that this study is informative in that it indicates that ecologists have not yet identified the variables that determine the response of predators to fire. In other cases, meta-analysis has been useful in redirecting ecological questions because the current global model does not fit the facts very well (Szuwalski et al. 2015).

The result of this movement within both ecological and conservation science toward Global Science has been a shift in the amount of field work being done. Rios-Saldana et al. (2018) surveyed the conservation literature over the last 35 years and found that fieldwork-based publications decreased by 20% in comparison to a rise of 600% and 800% in modelling and data analysis studies. This conclusion could be interpreted that ecologists now realize that less fieldwork is needed at this time, or perhaps the opposite. 

In an overview of ecological science David Currie (2019) described an approach to understanding how progress in ecology has differed from that in the physical sciences. He suggests that the physical sciences focused on a set of properties of nature whose variation they analyzed. They developed ‘laws’ Like Newton’s laws or motion that could be tested in simple or complex systems. By contrast ecology has developed largely by asking how processes like competition or predation work, and not by asking questions about the properties of natural systems, which is what interests the general public trying to solve problems in conservation or pest or fisheries management. Currie (2019) summarized his approach as follows:

“Successful disciplines identify specific goals and measure progress toward those goals. Predictive accuracy of properties of nature is a measure of that progress in ecology. Predictive accuracy is the objective evidence of understanding. It is the most useful tool that science can offer society.” (page 18)

Many of these same questions underlay the critical appraisal of ecology by Peters (1991).

There is no one approach to ecological science, but we need to continue to ask what progress is being made with every approach. These are key questions for the future of ecological research, and they are worthy of much more discussion because they determine what students will be taught and what kinds of research will be favoured for funding in the future.

Currie, D.J. (2019). Where Newton might have taken ecology. Global Ecology and Biogeography 28, 18-27. doi: 10.1111/geb.12842.

Geary, W.L., Doherty, T.S., Nimmo, D.G., Tulloch, A.I.T., and Ritchie, E.G. (2020). Predator responses to fire: A global systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Animal Ecology 89, 955-971. doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.13153.

Gurevitch, J., Koricheva, J., Nakagawa, S., and Stewart, G. (2018). Meta-analysis and the science of research synthesis. Nature 555, 175-182. doi: 10.1038/nature25753.

Kingsland, Sharon .E. (2005) ‘The Evolution of American Ecology, 1890-2000  ‘ (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.) ISBN: 0801881714

Peters, R.H. (1991) ‘A Critique for Ecology.’ (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England.) ISBN: 0521400171

Ríos-Saldaña, C. Antonio, Delibes-Mateos, Miguel, and Ferreira, Catarina C. (2018). Are fieldwork studies being relegated to second place in conservation science? Global Ecology and Conservation 14: e00389. doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2018.e00389.

Szuwalski, C.S., Vert-Pre, K.A., Punt, A.E., Branch, T.A., and Hilborn, R. (2015). Examining common assumptions about recruitment: a meta-analysis of recruitment dynamics for worldwide marine fisheries. Fish and Fisheries 16, 633-648. doi: 10.1111/faf.12083.

van Klink, R., Bowler, D.E., Gongalsky, K.B., Swengel, A.B., Gentile, A. and Chase, J.M. (2020). Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances. Science 368, 417-420. doi: 10.1126/science.aax9931.

On A Global Agenda for Ecology

Reading the ecology literature now I am excited by the papers that are filling in small gaps in our understanding of population and community ecology. Good work indeed. But I am concerned more about the big picture – what would we like ecological science to show to the world in 50 years as our achievements? There are two aspects of this question. At present the findings of ecological research are presented in the media mostly as what could be coarsely described as ecological trivia, light entertainment. We must continue to do this as it is an important part of keeping the public aware of environmental issues. The second aspect of our public face is the bigger issue of how we can make the future world a better place. This part is a global agenda for ecology that should be the background focus of all our research. So what should be our global agenda?

We could call it global change. Specifically, how will our ecological systems change as a joint consequence of climate change and human disturbances? So look out the window to any natural landscape where you live and ask how much we now know that will allow you to predict what that scene will be like in a century or so. We should be able to make this prediction more easily with human disturbed landscapes that with those driven by environmental change, but I am not sure everyone would agree with this hypothesis. We will probably know that if we continue to overgraze a grassland, we will end with a weed infested wasteland or even bare soil. Consequently, a rational management agency should be able to prevent this degradation. These kinds of change should be easy to manage yet we as a society continue to degrade ecosystems all over the globe. Is there an general index for degradation for the countries of the world, so we could add it to Greenhouse Gas Emissions, freshwater contamination, overharvesting of fish and timber, and a host of other environmental indicators that are useful to the public?

The consequences of climate change are the most difficult to understand and possibly manage. We have lived in a dream world of a stable environment, and the mathematical gurus focus on stability as a sine qua non. Change in a system that is well understood should be predictable both in the short term of 50 years and in the long term of 500 years. But we are not there yet. We work hard on the pieces – is the bird population of this particular national park going up or down?, how rapidly are peat bogs releasing CO2 under current changing climate? – but these details while important do not allow one to predict whole ecosystem shifts. more rapidly. What do we need to do as ecologists to achieve a broad consensus on global issues?

Sutherland et al. (2013, 2018) have made a heroic attempt both to recognize fundamental ecological questions and to identify emerging issues in a broader societal framework. This helps us to focus on both specific ecological issues as well as emerging global problems. One useful recommendation that could proceed from these reviews would be a specific journal that would review each year a small number of these questions or issues that would serve as a progress bar on increasing understanding of ecological unknowns.

A personal example might focus the problem. My colleagues, students, and I have been working in the Yukon boreal forest at Kluane for 46 years now, trying to understand community dynamics. The ecosystem moves slowly because of the cold climate, so in the short term of 50 years we cannot see there will be much significant change. But this is more of a guess than a solid prediction because a catastrophe – fire, insect attacks – could reset the system on a different pathway. The long term (500 year) trajectory for this ecosystem is much harder to predict, except to say that it will be driven largely by the climate-vegetation axis, and this is the link in ecosystem dynamics that we understand least. We cannot assume stability or equilibrium dynamics in boreal forests, and while paleo-ecologists have given us a good understanding of past changes in similar ecosystems, the past is not necessarily a good guide to future long-term changes. So I think a critic could well say that we have failed our attempt to understand our boreal forest ecosystem and be able to predict its trajectory, even though we have more than 300 papers describing how parts of this system interact.

My concern is that as we make progress with the pieces of the ecology puzzle we more and more lose sight of the final goals, and we are lost in the details of local ecosystems. Does this simply mean that we have an ecological ‘Red Queen’ that we will forever be chasing? Perhaps that is both the fundamental joy and the fundamental frustration of working on changing ecological systems. In the meantime, enjoy slaying the unknowns of local, specific ecosystems and on occasion look back to see how far we have come.

Sutherland, W.J.et al. (2013). Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions. Journal of Ecology 101(1): 58-67. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12025.

Sutherland, W.J.et al. (2018). A 2018 Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33(1): 47-58. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.11.006.

 

University Conundrums

Universities in Canada and the United States and probably in Australia as well are bedeviled by not knowing what they should be doing. In general, they all want to be ‘excellent’ but this is largely an advertising gimmick unless one wishes to be more specific about excellent in what? Excellent in French literature? Probably not. Excellent in the engineering that facilitates the military-industrial complex? Probably yes, but with little thought of the consequences for universities or for Planet Earth (Smart 2016). Excellence in medicine? Certainly, yes. But much of the advertisement about excellence is self aggrandisement, and one can only hope that underneath the adverts there is some good planning and thinking of what a university should be (Lanahan et al. 2016).

There are serious problems in the world today and the question is what should the universities be doing about these long-term, difficult problems. There are two polar views on this question. At one extreme, universities can say it is our mandate to educate students and not our mandate to solve environmental or social problems. At the other extreme, universities can devote their resources to solving problems, and thereby educate students in problem analysis and problem solving. But these universities will not be very popular since for any serious issue like climate change, many voters are at odds over what can and should be done, Governments do not like universities that produce scholarship that challenges their policies. So we must always remember the golden rule – “she that has the gold, makes the rules”.

But there are constraints no matter what policies a university adopts, and there is an extensive literature on these constraints. I want to focus on one overarching constraint for biodiversity research in universities – graduate students have a very short time to complete their degrees. Given a 2-year or 3-year time horizon, the students must focus on a short-term issue with a very narrow focus. This is good for the students and cannot be changed. But it is potentially lethal for ecological studies that are long-term and do not fit into the demands of thesis writing. A basic assumption I make is that the most important ecological issues of our day are long-term problems, at least in the 20-year time frame and more likely in the 50 to 100-year time frame. The solution most prevalent in the ecology literature now is to use short term data to produce a model to extrapolate short term data into the indefinite future by use of a climate model or any other model that will allow extrapolation. The result of this conundrum is that the literature is full of studies making claims about ecological processes that are based on completely inadequate time frames (Morrison 2012). If this is correct, at least we ought to have the humility to point out the potential errors of extrapolation into the future. We make a joke about this situation in our comical advice to graduate students: “If you get an exciting result from your thesis research in year 1, stop and do no more work and write your thesis lest you get a different result if you continue in year 2.”

The best solution for graduate students is to work within a long-term project, so that your 2-3 years of work can build on past progress. But long-term projects are difficult to carry forward in universities now because research money is in short supply (Rivero and Villasante 2016). University faculty can piggy-back on to government studies that are well funded and long-term, but again this is not always possible. Conservation ecology is not often well funded by governments either, so we keep passing the buck. Collaboration here between governments and universities is essential, but is not always strong at the level of individual projects. Some long-term ecological studies are led by federal and regional government research departments directly, but more seem to be led by university faculty. And the limiting resource is typically money. There are a set of long-term problems in ecology that are ignored by governments for ideological reasons. Some politicians work hard to avoid the many ecological problems that are ‘hot potatoes’ and are best left unstudied. Any competent ecologist can list for you 5 or more long-term issues in conservation biology that are not being addressed now for lack of money. I doubt that ideas are the limiting resource in ecology, as compared with funding.

And this leads us back in a circle to the universities quest for ‘excellence’. Much here depends on the wisdom of the university’s leaders and the controls on university funding provided by governments for research. In Canada for example, funding constraints for research excellence exist based on university size (Murray et al. 2016). How then can we link the universities’ quest for excellence to the provision of adequate funding for long-term ecological issues? As one recommendation to the directors of funding programs within the universities, I suggest listing the major problems of your area and of the world at large, and then fund the research within your jurisdiction by how well the proposed research matches the major problems we face today.

Lanahan, L., Graddy-Reed, A. & Feldman, M.P. (2016) The Domino Effects of Federal Research Funding. PLoS ONE, 11, e0157325. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0157325

Morrison, M.L. (2012) The habitat sampling and analysis paradigm has limited value in animal conservation: A prequel. Journal of Wildlife Management, 76, 438-450. doi: 10.1002/jwmg.333

Murray, D.L., Morris, D., Lavoie, C., Leavitt, P.R. & MacIsaac, H. (2016) Bias in research grant evaluation has dire consequences for small universities. PLoS ONE, 11, e0155876.doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0155876

Rivero, S. & Villasante, S. (2016) What are the research priorities for marine ecosystem services? Marine policy, 66, 104-113. doi: 10.1016/j.marpol.2016.01.020

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 Philanthropic Investment in Conservation – Part 2

Here is an optimistic thought for the day. After writing my previous blog on philanthropy and conservation, it occurred to me that a single scenario might focus the mind of ecologists and conservation biologists as we think about relevant research:

Suppose you are sitting in your office and someone comes in and tells you that they wish to donate one billion dollars to your research in ecology. What would you tell them you would like to do?

This is of course ridiculous but let us be optimistic and think it may happen. There are a lot of very rich people around the world and they will have to do something with all their money. Some of it will be wasted but some could do much good for the development of strong science. So let us pretend for the moment that this will happen sometime in the future.

We need to think clearly what this money entails. First, if we want to live off the interest and we expect 5% return on investment, we end up with $ 50 million to spend per year. What are we going to do with all this money? The two options would seem to be to buy land and maintain it for conservation, or to set up a foundation for conservation that would support graduate student and postdoctoral fellows. Let us check these options out with a broad brush.

The first option is based on the belief that habitat loss is the key process driving biodiversity decline so we should use part of the money for land purchase or marine rights to areas. But we note that land purchases are not very useful if the land is not managed and protected so that some group of people need to be in charge. So suppose we spend half immediately on land acquisition, and land costs are $100 per ha, we could purchase about 50,000 km2, an area approximately the size of Denmark, slightly smaller than Scotland, and about the size of West Virginia. Then we can employ about 250 people full time to do research or manage the protected landscape at an overall cost of $100 K per scientist including salary and operating research costs. This is an attractive option and the decision that would need to be made is what areas are most important to purchase for conservation in what part of the world.

The second option is to establish a permanent foundation for conservation that would be devoted to supporting graduates and postdoctoral fellows worldwide. I am not clear on the costs for a foundation to operate but let us assume $ 2 million a year for staff and operating costs. This would leave $ 48 million for operating costs, supporting 480 students or postdocs at $100,000 each per year or 320 students if you wished to give each an average $150,000 per year for research and salary. If these were spread out over the 196 countries on Earth, clearly there would be about 2 scientists per country. If we spread them out evenly over the 148 million km2 of land area over the whole Earth, we would require each student or scientist to be in charge of about 300,000 km2, an area about the size of Norway, or Poland or the Philippines. Clearly one would not operate in such a fashion, and would concentrate person-power in the areas of greatest need.

There is considerable literature discussing the issue of how philanthropy can augment conservation in the most effective manner, and a few papers are given here that further the discussion.

Where does this theoretical exercise leave us? Clearly there would be many other ways to utilize these hypothetical funds for conservation, but the point that shows clearly is that the funds needed to achieve conservation on a global scale are very large, and even a billion dollars disappears very quickly if we are attempting to achieve solid conservation outcomes. The costs of conservation are large and there is the need to recognize that government funding is critical, so that an additional billion dollars from a philanthropist will only add icing on the cake and not the whole cake.

Not that anyone I know would turn down a billion-dollar donation as too little.

Adams, W., and J. Hutton. 2007. People, parks and poverty: Political ecology and biodiversity conservation. Conservation and Society 5:147-183.

Diallo, R. 2015. Conservation philanthropy and the shadow of state power in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Conservation and Society 13:119-128. doi: 10.4103/0972-4923.164188

Ferraro, P. J., and S. K. Pattanayak. 2006. Money for Nothing? A call for empirical evaluation of biodiversity conservation investments. PLoS Biology 4:e105.
doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040105

Jones, C. 2012. Ecophilanthropy, neoliberal conservation, and the transformation of Chilean Patagonia’s Chacabuco Valley. Oceania 82:250-263.
doi: 10.1002/j.1834-4461.2012.tb00132.x