The dangers of separating science and environment

Does the natural world have any relevance to modern science? Of course it does; but sometimes it seems like that’s not the case. This is a myth perpetuated directly and indirectly through media, policy decisions, academic disciplines, even some science engagement initiatives: that the natural world is somehow separate from science.

Read the rest of my piece published today in Ensia magazine.

© Manu Saunders 2015

On the importance of Observations to Ecology

We need rules and norms, but we also need records about apparently irrelevant things that, in non-linear systems like ecological ones, might become the drivers of change and, thus, the determinants of history. Ferdinando Boero (2013)

 

I’ve just had a personal career highlight…one that will most likely go unrecognised on my CV. Last month, I had an observational note published in the Victorian Naturalist, an excellent peer-reviewed natural history journal that has an impact factor of 0.00. As most academic career processes focus on quantifiable ‘impact’, it is pretty unlikely that this publication will be recognised in any of my future career or grant applications. So why did I bother?

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One cold weekend last July, I took a day trip with my partner to Lawrence’s Lookout in north-east Victoria – one of the best spots to view the snow across all the alpine ranges that straddle the NSW/VIC border. I wasn’t on work time, and it wasn’t an ecosystem I knew much about. But as an ecologist (a.k.a naturalist), I’m in ‘work’ mode 24/7. Continue reading

Humanities vs Science. 2. Rhetoric

Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.

Before you click away…rhetoric is not just a colloquial term for chicanery, hyperbole, and all the empty words that unscrupulous politicians and lawyers use to exaggerate claims and get their way. Rhetoric, the discipline, is the art of discourse – the art of speaking or writing eloquently and persuasively. Studying rhetoric teaches us how to put words together in a way that communicates our point well and builds a convincing argument – a skill that is very relevant to science.

Something happened on the way to the Agora

To understand the foundations of rhetoric, we need to spend a bit of time in ancient Greece, one of the earliest established democracies; here, public contribution to politics was considered really important. Each city-state (e.g. Athens) had a central meeting place, called the Agora. This is where intellectual, artistic and spiritual ideas were aired, shared and discussed so that anyone could contribute and participate in the dynamic process of political and cultural development. Continue reading

Yeasts, Neuroscience and the challenges of Interdisciplinary Research

Interdisciplinary research is critical to solving most of our current environmental crises and human problems. It is particularly relevant to ecology (e.g. landscape ecology, environmental humanities, and the ecosystem services (ES) concept). This volume of the journal Ecosystems from 1999 has some great articles on the issue.

One of the biggest challenges involved in interdisciplinary research is the influence of disciplinary silos on science research and communication.

…the public is interested in the big picture painted by science, and that picture is rarely painted by a single discipline. We find, therefore, that communicating interdisciplinary results to the public is generally easier than communicating disciplinary results.
– Daily & Ehrlich (1999)

To non-scientists, interdisciplinary research makes sense, because Life is interdisciplinary. But communicating interdisciplinary results within those disciplines can be a lot harder. Every scientific discipline has its own approach to concepts, methodology, analysis and research generally. That’s what maintains knowledge diversity within ‘science’. But it can cause misunderstanding between disciplines, when we forget that other kinds of scientists may do science slightly differently to what is the ‘norm’ in our own field. Continue reading

Bees: the triple threat of the insect world

Have you ever felt underappreciated? As if people assume you can only contribute one skill to the world, and not much else…?

Imagine how bees feel. Not only do 99.9% of bee species live in the shadow of the European honey bee, most of the time they only get credit for pollinating flowers. And a few make honey. That’s all they do, right?

Actually, no. Bees do a lot of other things in their ecosystems. They have a very active life outside their relationship with flowers.

The stingless bees (Tribe: Meliponini) are some of the most intriguing. There are about 500 species of stingless bee around the world, mostly in tropical and subtropical regions. Like honey bees, they also make honey; albeit in gourmet, rather than commercial, quantities. (Their honey also has a very different flavour to the honey you buy in the supermarket.)

Stingless bee honey pots. (Photo: Tobias Smith)
Stingless bee honey pots. (Photo: Tobias Smith)

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Why I Tweet

I’ve just hit a technological milestone. This month was my 1 year Twitter anniversary, which apparently equates to about 4.3 years in internet time. I can’t believe we’re still together.

I’m pretty old-fashioned when it comes to technological bandwagons. Having left Facebook years ago, swearing on my pencil case never to join social media again, I was a bit suspicious of Twitter. I finally signed up with the intention of trying it for a couple of months to see what I thought. Continue reading

Parliament Meets Science

We all get concerned when politicians don’t care about science or the environment. It affects every one of us.

There is no single ‘best’ way to lessen the gaps in the science-policy-public triangle. Most people think the onus is on scientists to communicate. Yes, scientists should engage outside their peers a bit more, that’s a given (and scientists doing great ‘scicomm’ is happening more than many realise!). But communication is a two-way relationship. To communicate science effectively, scientists need to be met halfway by an audience that understands and respects what they do and how they do it.

In Australia, scientists are being increasingly told that if their work is not commercially relevant, they are a burden on society. Encouraging scientists to find their commercial hidden story is all well and good, and some researchers may genuinely benefit from this. But it doesn’t benefit science overall.

Continue reading