Category Archives: The Forefront

The Changing Face of Ecology: Part Four

This installment includes thoughts from (left to right) Dag Hessen, Erica McAlister, Rasmus Hansson and Prue Addison (Image Credits: Dag Hessen, University of Oslo; Erica McAlister, CC BY-SA 2.0; Miljøpartiet de Grønne, CC BY-SA 2.0; Synchronicity Earth, CC BY 2.0)

Running EcoMass means we get to sit down with some exceptionally interesting ecologists, conservations, and in this post, even environmental politicians. Most of these individuals have been a part of the discipline for much longer than we have, so when we get the chance we pick their brains about how ecology has changed over the past decades. It’s always interesting to hear which aspects of ecological life we take for granted simply weren’t there 40, 30 or even 10 years ago.

You can also check out parts one (link), two (link) and three (link) of our Changing Face of Ecology specials, and click on the names below to read our full interviews with each of this issue’s respondents.

Tim Robertson, Head of Informatics, Global Biodiversity Information Facility

Biological Data Management

I would say that I see much more collaboration today across our community, and willingness to work together and share data than when I joined 12 years ago. I think there’s less competition and there’s more willingness to share content, software and expertise. That has been a very rewarding thing to be part of. I work at GBIF, which is really more of a community than an organisation, and as a product of that change the community has grown very healthily.

Dag Hessen, Professor, Section for Aquatic Biology and Toxicology, University of Oslo

Aquatic Biology, Ecological Author

I think ecology is probably one of the topics that have changed the least. We got the basic concepts like food webs, trophic cascades etc. decades ago. But since then I think ecology has evolved too little.

I think what has changed is the type of analysis that’s done. You used to be able to go to a conference and present data from “your lake”. Just one lake. And there was someone in the audience who might raise their hand afterwards and say, maybe that’s what happens in your lake, but not in my lake. It was a very phenomenological way of thinking, which isolated case studies didn’t help. So the advent of meta analysis, time series, large spatial studies, these things that were seen as pretty laborious before have now become hot stuff. And it’s helped improve our statistical analysis.

Erica McAlister, Senior Curator, Diptera, Natural History Museum, London

Entomology, Evolutionary Genetics

We’re becoming very difficult to understand to the layperson. If you’d walked into a genetics talk at a conference these days today with no understanding of molecular incrimination, you would have struggled. We have to think about how we can communicate better. When we communicate to a wider, maybe not scientific, audience, it would be better to focus on what we’ve understood from the data, not get tangled up in methodology and vernacular. I do think we’re becoming more and more exclusive within science and in disciplines – we’re having issues communicating amongst ourselves at times due to such much science speak.

On the plus side, we can ask so much now. I don’t have to be a specialist in one discipline anymore, I can facilitate and work alongside other people with other backgrounds, which is great. I’ve got sequencing projects, morphology projects and then biodiversity projects and food security projects. I get to do all of that. So in many ways it’s brilliant that we’ve got all this technology, we’ve just got to be careful how we use it and phrase it.

Carsten Rahbek, Professor, Natural History Museum of Denmark

Global Ecology, Evolution and Climate

When I was doing my PhD thesis at the Smithsonian, I could go down to the library and sit there, and go through all the relevant journals in my field, and get an overview. That’s impossible today. The success and the relevance of ecology has caused a massive explosion of data and knowledge. So the amount of scientists working with this is immense.

Now sometimes we have the view that the more information we get the better. But massive information can lead to us not being able to tell up from down. So now we have the challenge of figuring out how to deal with all this information, so we can still extract and deduct sensible things out of it. Because if we’re just taking the consensus or the average, it’s going to be very skewed. So how do we deal with that?

Prue Addison, Conservation Strategy Director at the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust

Conservation Ecology

I think the most relevant change for me is the emergence of the field of applied research and knowledge exchange, actually achieving research impacts. It’s a growing discipline, and more and more scientists are really jumping into it. They’re asking how do we make our research more relevant, and we do that by working with end users, decision makers, the people who use the science, in a far more collaborative way. Rather than “scientist does research, publishes paper, expects the world to read it”. This is far more about, “scientist produces science that will help influence real decisions”. We want to have environmental benefits, we want to go and work out who we can work with that has the power to make decisions. To change how the environment will actually be in the future.

Whilst it is definitely improving, it’s still quite slow. The talk is happening. We know that research needs to have real societal impact and become more relevant. But metrics aren’t in place yet to evaluate whether Universities are actually doing that.

Rasmus Hansson, former leader of the Norwegian Green Party

Environmental Politics

When I grew up there was no ministry of the environment. There were no environmental studies, there was no environmental law. There was no environmental technology. There was no sector of business that made jobs and profits out of environmental solutions.

I would argue that environmentalism and everything connected to it is the biggest political and social change that has happened in Western society in the last 50 years. It is the most important project in any society. Even Russia and China have now had to become environmentally conscious. The change is colossal. The first environmental minister in Norway, more or less the first environmental minister in the world only came along sometime in the 70s. If you go back to the 1960s and take away environmentalism the world would be hell today. It would be absolute mayhem. So that’s the difference. The problem is whether development has already gone too far. Are we too far gone in terms of carbon emissions, land use? But either way, we have slowed our planet’s descent down enormously compared to what would have happened if [the environmental] movement had not started in the 1970s.

Nancy Knowlton: The Importance of Earth Optimism

Whilst it might seem like little guys like this don’t have much to smile about these days, being optimistic about the state of the environment is more important than ever, according to Nancy Knowlton (Image Credit: Rosalyn Davis, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)

At the very beginning of my PhD, I was in the audience at the STARMUS Festival when American reef biologist Nancy Knowlton gave a talk about Earth Optimism. It came just after the American President had withdrawn his support for the Paris climate agreement, and smiles regarding the state of the planet were hard to come by. So seeing an esteemed member of the scientific community give a reminder that there was hope for one of the earth’s most vulnerable ecosystem was inspiring.

At this year’s International Barcode of Life Conference in Trondheim, I had the chance to sit down with Nancy and talk about why optimism is so important in the face of the many ongoing problems that the planet faces.

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Donald Hobern: Cataloguing the Planet’s DNA

I spoke with GBIF’s executive secretary and amateur lepidopterist Donald Hobern about how DNA barcoding fits into modern conservation and ecology (Image Credit: Donald Hobern, CC BY-2.0, Image Cropped)

DNA barcoding has revolutionised science. Ask anyone working in evolution or taxonomy these days what the biggest changes are the they’ve seen in their discipline, chances are it’ll be to do with gene sequencing and DNA processing. So when the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) Conference came to Trondheim last week, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the behind the scenes work that goes into cataloguing the DNA barcodes of life on earth.

I sat down with 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). Donald joined iBOL just as they launched BIOSCAN, a $180 million dollar program which aims to accelerate the cataloguing of the world’s biodiversity in DNA form. We spoke about BIOSCAN, the technology behind bringing occurrence and genetic data together, and how the work iBOL and GBIF do ties into the bigger picture of global conservation and sustainability.

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Tim Robertson: The World of Ecological Data

When I was a child, I’d often study books of Australian birds and mammals, rifling through the pages to see which species lived nearby. My source of information were the maps printed next to photos of the species, distribution maps showing the extent of the species range. These days, many of these species ranges are declining. Or at least, many ecologists believe they are. One of the problems with knowing exactly where species exist or how they are faring is a lack of data. The more data we have, the more precise an idea we get of the future of the species. Some data is difficult to collect, but yet more data has been collected, and is simply inaccessible.

At the Living Norway seminar earlier this month I sat down with Tim Robertson, Head of Informatics and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. GBIF is an international network that works to solve this data problem worldwide, both by making collected data accessible and by helping everyday people to collect scientific data. I spoke with Tim about the journey from a species observation to a species distribution map, the role of GBIF, and the future of data collection.

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Shelley Adamo: The State of Support for Mothers in Science

Having kids and maintaining a career in science can be hard. So what are some practical solutions that universities and other research institutes can implement? (Image Credit: Maj. Michael Garcia, DIMOC, Image Cropped)

During her recent visit to the University of Arkansas (you can read our first interview here), I took the time to sit down with Dr. Shelley Adamo and talk about the state of support for women in science with children. Shelley has spoken about this issue before, and you can see notes from her previous talk in the link at the end of the article.

In this interview, we discuss practical solutions to the family/career conundrum in science, how to trigger prompt action, and whether it’s possible to have a family and be a highly successful scientist.

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Dag Hessen: Advancing the Teaching of Ecology

Dag Hessen (second from right) believes that the teaching of ecology needs to move forward, better integrating our impact on the planet (Image Credit: paal @flickr, Image cropped, CC BY 2.0)

Teaching ecology has taken up a large chunk of my year. I love doing it, and I thoroughly enjoy seeing students becoming engaged in new concepts. But the way we teach ecology can often be quite static, with too little emphasis on how our ecosystems are changing, and how we can communicate this to a world thoroughly in need of more scientific understanding.

One person working to change how we teach ecology is Dag Hessen. I spoke to Dag earlier this year about communicating science to children through literature, which you can read more on here. But during the discussion we got sidetracked and went in-depth on how the teaching of ecology needs to change.

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Shelley Adamo: Consider the Invertebrate

Shelley Adamo was recently asked to testify before the Canadian senate as to whether or not lobsters felt pain (Image Credit: Marco Verch, CC BY 2.0)

Dr. Shelley Adamo is a full professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. An internationally recognized expert in the field of ecoimmunology and comparative psychoneuroimmunology, Dr. Adamo has an enormous amount of scientific experience in both the lab and field. In addition to her stellar career in academia, she has also brought her expertise and knowledge to the public, as she was recently asked to testify before a Canadian senate committee to discuss whether or not insects feel pain.

During Shelley’s recent visit to my university, I took the opportunity to sit down and talk to her about appearing before the senate, the concept of pain in invertebrates, and the plight of the insect world in general.

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