Tag Archives: research priorities

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