What is a research discipline? We need collaboration, not segregation

I’ve read two new papers this week that got me thinking about how and why we define ourselves as researchers.

One was this excellent paper led by Brian McGill on why macroecology and macroevolution, once essentially part of a single discipline, need to reconverge as they both have complementary goals. As the authors note, macroecology tends to focus on spatial processes, while macroevolution tends to focus on temporal processes. In reality, both types of processes are linked across scales and influence each other. To address fundamental questions about biodiversity and ecosystem function, we need to consider both together.

This segregation across related disciplines is a real problem that we need to address – we’ve seen it with agricultural science and ecology, freshwater & terrestrial ecology and more… Continue reading

Notre Dame vs. Nature: on why valuing nature is a challenge we need to face

The recent Notre Dame fire grabbed global headlines. The morning I woke to see it on the news, I felt sad. I’m not a Christian and I’ve never been to Paris. But my mother is an artist and I studied French and ancient history for years. I recognise the intrinsic cultural value of Notre Dame and everything within it. The iconic cathedral has value, not only for Parisians, but for many parts of global society: art, religion, history, architecture, popular culture…

As concern over the fire grew, I was surprised at the response from some people online, including scientists, who began criticising support for the burning cathedral. They compared the cultural losses of Notre Dame with nature conservation and species extinction. What about forests? What about species extinction? What about the Great Barrier Reef? The implication was that if you cared about the Notre Dame fire, then you didn’t care about Nature (see these great blogs by Sam Perrin and Jeff Ollerton, including the comments from readers).

I felt confused, because I cared about both! Continue reading

Ecosystem Services vs. Conservation: a storm in a teacup

Every so often, another opinion piece claims that ecosystem services approaches hinder nature conservation. A couple of recent examples: a Monbiot column rehashing his views against the natural capital approach (which is an economic tool for applying the ecosystem services concept), and this opinion piece in Biological Conservation by Bekessy et al. arguing that ecosystem services is not a useful communication strategy for conservation advocacy.

Two key arguments recur in these opinions, both based on conflated issues:

  • practical applications of the ecosystem services concept (e.g. economic valuation) are conflated with the concept itself
  • ecosystem services are equated with instrumental values, which are conflated with economic values, and portrayed in opposition to intrinsic values (stay with me here)

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Pollinators and Agroecology: new research directions for 2014

A lot of great research on wild pollinators and agroecosystems has been published this year. In particular, the pollinator conservation literature seems to be moving on from simple abundance/richness comparisons to other ecological contexts that are potentially more relevant to policy and management decisions, such as nutritional and commercial qualities of insect-pollinated fruits.

Below is nice round list of four articles published this year that got me excited. All four are ‘firsts’ for their particular topics and use great study design and insight to lead current knowledge on the subject matter gently in a new direction. They are also pertinent reading as we balance on the cusp of the UN’s international years of Family Farming and Soils.

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Foundation stones: connecting cultural heritage and wildlife conservation

Stone walls are central to the rich cultural heritage of human history. Some of the oldest stone walls in the world still stand in ancient Mediterranean lands, and also provide the foundations for Incan architecture (think Macchu Picchu) and the castles and ramparts of feudal Japan. In the UK, Ireland and Europe, stone walls are key elements of pastoral landscapes from a thousand postcards, and numerous regional specialities maintain their own unique cultural and ecological foundations. This colonial heritage is also preserved in the new world, particularly North America’s New England region and Australia’s southern states.

Stone walling is more than simply stacking rocks. A harmonious balance of art and science are needed to keep the wall standing. Each stone is fitted into the negative space around its neighbouring stones, like a jigsaw, so that the final wall holds itself against the pull of gravity. Continue reading