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
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
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.