The Changing Face of Ecology: Part Five
2019 was a year in which many changes that our planet is experiencing came to the fore, capped off in December by the Australian bushfires, a phenomenon that scientists predicted would start to occur with increasing intensity at the beginning of last decade. With all the change that our planet is currently undergoing, it’s always worth noting that the discipline of ecology itself has changed as well.
Over 2019 we got to sit down and talk to some pretty exciting people. And whether they were at the forefront of genomics, the science-policy interface, or the wave of inclusivity currently sweeping ecology, they all had some great comments on how ecology has changed over the last few decades.
NB: As always, you can see our full interviews with all people mentioned here by clicking on the links in their names. You can also find the other excerpts from this series at the bottom of the page.
Abigail McQuatters Gollop, Associate Professor at the University of Plymouth
Marine Ecology and Science Policy
I think the biggest change I’ve noticed, is that in the last 10 years there’s become a respect for people who work at the science policy interface. I’ve been told before that I’m not a scientist, and that working with policy makers to make sure that science is used in decision making isn’t the same as being a scientist. So obviously it’s been really undervalued. That has changed, especially in the last six or seven years, and there’s loads of evidence to prove it. There are now funding programs to get science into policy, relationships between scientists and policy makers have improved, there’s more and more members of the scientific community wanting to know how to engage with policy. And that interest just wasn’t that strong, even seven or eight years ago.
I remember giving a talk about how to get your science into policy, and someone asked “why would I care if my science gets into policy”. That kind of conversation happens less now, because people realise that we are having a climate and biodiversity emergency. Managers need to make good decisions about the environment, and we have knowledge that can help them make those decisions. Cooperation between scientists and policy makers is becoming more common, and I think it’s a real success story.
Donald Hobern, Executive Secretary of iBOL and former Executive Secretary of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and Director of the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA)
Genomics and Data Integration
I think that there’s been a broad change more generally, which is at various speeds in different countries that seeks to democratise data, knowledge, science and ownership of the future. When I’m in my more optimistic moods, this excites me. Back in 2002 in my early years with GBIF, GBIF was seen very much as focussed on providing a data discovery tool for museum and herbarium specimens. The notion was that because these were the materials that had been reviewed at some point by a taxonomist, this was trustworthy data. Back then citizen science and amateur natural history were viewed with suspicion, with the view that amateurs just love to stick names on things whether they know what they’re doing or not. Even academic field ecology was regarded as so riddled with errors that we couldn’t trust any of the data.
So one of the things that I’ve seen as most exciting over this period has been the degree to which broader and broader communities have been seen as part of solving the same problem. That means including citizens scientists, it means recognising the commonality of opportunities that intersect taxonomy and ecology. And then DNA barcoding meant that suddenly, the tools for ecological and taxonomic exploration become the same one. And that means we can tackle ecological and taxonomical questions at once rather than sorting the taxonomy before even thinking about the ecology.
Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
When I was a PhD student people worked on whatever they found intriguing or interesting, and it could be fairly arcane. Now it’s not that things that are theoretically interesting are unimportant, but there’s been a big shift towards solving societal problems. The topics that PhD students choose to work on these days reflect the enormous ecological crises that we are confronting. And that’s a big change in terms of what motivates people to do research and get an advanced degree.
In terms of technology, there are now amazingly powerful molecular methods. It’s not that people didn’t use molecular techniques when I was a grad student, but they’re just so much more powerful now. It used to be that the sequencing itself was difficult, but the analysis was easy. And now the sequencing is easy and the analysis is really hard because of the huge amounts of the data. We also have amazing remote sensing capabilities, which get more powerful every year. Both of those approaches yield vast amounts of data, so this whole approach of bioinformatics and big data science will only get more important in the future.
Fredrik Widemo, former Director of Science at the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management
The focus on climate change, which I think affects everything. It’s a very challenging but very interesting research field. It also means that for anyone working in environmental management, there are all sorts of new debates going on now. For instance, some stakeholders in the forestry sector are now claiming that we shouldn’t focus on biodiversity, we have to save the climate first, otherwise we’ll have no biodiversity. So we should be cutting down as many trees as possible, fertilising the forests, producing fast growing foreign trees to capture as much carbon dioxide as possible. And that of course a good way of getting more revenue for a forest company. But all sensible ecologists have realised that we need to handle climate and biodiversity at the same time, instead of focussing on one first and then the other later. But that debate is certainly shaping our focus at the moment.
Helen Roy, Professor at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
What we can do with statistics now is absolutely incredible. I really admire the ways in which statistical modellers are managing to use these very enormous, sometimes wildly unstructured data sets that we have, from everyone from long-term datasets to the citizen science community. When I was doing my Masters and PhD, we would have no opportunity to conduct that sort of analysis. I think it’s so exciting to see how those datasets can be used to address all kinds of scientific questions. Also how they meet the needs of providing indicators for things like conservation and policy decision making. It’s just inspiring, the computer power (and the people) and the statistical innovations at work now.
Esther Ngumbi, Assitant Professor of Entomology/African American Studies at the University of Illinois
I think I’ve appreciated the increase in diversity and inclusion. The appreciation of minorities and their contributions, the appreciation of the many unsung heroes that have been doing really instrumental research, and been excellent role models. In the past we were not recognising and valuing their works, not showcasing the rainbow of our talented scientists. And that makes me appreciate how we’ve brought those people in and are slowly changing the values of society, of universities, of departments.
It makes me look forward to what’s next in science. This new generation of scientists is speaking up. When things are wrong, this is a generation that is not sitting on things. For instance, if you have an all-male panel, people pick up on it and say no, this is wrong.
Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who has had way too much coffee today to make up for a lack of sleep. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.