Do field ecologists need field stations to do research?

One of the most limiting factors I have found so far as a field ecologist is getting access to land to collect data. Most of my research is on how insect communities influence ecosystem function. Although I collect a lot of my data on farms, I also work in natural systems.

Finding enough private properties is usually easy enough, depending on the study design. For our recent study of ecosystem services in apple orchards, for which we needed a certain number of specific types of orchard, it took me nearly 4 months of emails and phone calls to find enough suitable orchard growers who were happy for us to visit regularly.

Finding new field sites in natural areas can be a bit harder. In Australia, it can take up to 6 months to get a new research permit for a protected area. Sometimes, the permit is declined, or your application gets lost.

Getting permission is one thing, logistics are another. Balancing the ideal number of site replicates needed to answer the research question, with the funds you are allowed to spend on travel to get there, is one of the hardest tricks in the modern field ecologist’s book. Committing to regular long trips and nights away from home is even harder when you have a family life you want to be part of. Continue reading

Scicomm is not new

‘Scientists shouldn’t have to do scicomm’ is a thoroughly modern misperception.

Communicating science has been ‘normal’ for centuries, from painted messages on cave walls, to classical orators and beyond. From ancient times, scientists took their responsibility to share science with people very seriously.

Yet today, mastery of language and the art of non-scientific communication are rarely taught or encouraged in modern science degrees. History isn’t taught much either.

Instead, many science students and graduates train to be skilled data collectors and ‘facts’ wranglers. Scientists are consistently bombarded with rigid anti-eloquence ‘rules’ that only succeed in suppressing the power of language – never use passive voice, don’t use big words, shorten your sentences, simplify your message etc. etc. God forbid you should sound like you care about your subject matter. Continue reading

Conservation triage: clarity or confusion?

Triage_Wikipedia.jpeg

A guest post by Ian Lunt on the importance of clear communication for conservation science.

What do you see when we talk about triage? A spreadsheet or a corpse?

Triage is one of the most contentious topics in conservation science. It asks the questions: Which species should we save? Which species should we abandon?

Or maybe it doesn’t. That depends on who you talk to. When we talk about triage, we talk about different things. And our audience may hear different things again. Continue reading

Evaluating scientific evidence

In an era where PR rules the news and superlatives rule science, how can a reader really know what’s what?

Critical analysis skills are a key survival skill, but facts-on-demand has taken over in many modern educational structures. And despite the best intentions, the ‘openness’ of the internet has simply confused things. Opinions on scientific issues regularly rub shoulders with evidence and sometimes it can be hard to tell which is which (for scientists and non-scientists alike).

And what is ‘scientific evidence’ anyway? I wrote about this a few years ago, but it’s much more complex than I had room to explain.

I recently stumbled across this great series on how to evaluate scientific publications, from the German peer-reviewed medical magazine Deustches Ärtzeblatt. The papers are useful for teaching, for critical news audiences, and for practicing scientists. All articles are open access, translated from German. The series started in 2009 – I haven’t found a contents list or an apparent end-date for the series, so I will keep this updated as they get published. 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

Humanities vs Science. 1. Literature & Language

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.

How can literature benefit science?

Science needs to be written. It’s not science if it’s not shared, critiqued and built on over time. Science communication applies to everything from journal articles to popular science blogs. Ambiguous wording, too much jargon, or bad writing can turn off editors, reviewers and readers. Sadly, developing writing skills is not always a priority in modern science degrees. Graduates are being betrayed when they are packed off into the world of scientific research without a good command of written expression.

Including Literature subjects in science degrees is a good way to address this. Much of the ‘how to write’ advice that scientists can find online is not really useful if they don’t have a context to weigh it against. Top 10 lists of writing tips and ‘A vs B’ arguments are limiting, not enlightening. They teach a ‘one size fits all’ approach to communication. But effective communication is all about contexts and variable relationships, so teaching scientists how to identify, and work with, contexts is much more useful. Teach a man to fish…, as the saying goes. Continue reading

Shades of Open Access

Do you think that published science should be freely available to everyone? Of course you do. Most people do. But like every ‘ideal’ system, there are positives and negatives to OA publishing, some that outweigh others. While the overall benefit of OA (public access to scientific information) is a valid reason to advocate it, this single positive is also a huge generalisation encompassing lots of grey areas.

In general, the black-and-white ‘OA is essential’ opinions get the most exposure, with very little discussion of how to manage all the shades of grey. This can give an unbalanced view of the issue and also means that any valid ‘other sides’ to the OA ideal are rarely given credence.

The term ‘open access’ may mean different things to different people, and the cultural connotations of OA can differ significantly between disciplines and demographics. For example, humanities disciplines can be more cautious than science disciplines about jumping on the OA bandwagon. Is it because humanities researchers generally get less funding than scientists (so publishing fees lose priority)? Or is it because humanities-based research and investigations often create more books than journal articles, which aren’t as readily converted to OA?

I am not advocating either for or against OA. But I am suggesting that, while we strive for the OA ideal, we also consider contexts and accept that there are positives to supporting a combination of OA and non-OA publishing. Continue reading