Ecology vs Math: do we need to pick sides?

Like many other young ecologists, I chose this career because I cared about the Earth and because I wanted a job that gave me the thrill of discovery every day. Whether it’s seeing a new ecosystem for the first time, sighting a wild plant or animal species I’ve never seen before, coming up with a novel theory, methodology, or sampling technique, or finally ‘getting’ the statistical analysis I’ve been struggling with for weeks – I get to play explorer every day, and I love it.

Sadly, in some countries, it is a field that struggles to convince a large number of graduates to stay in a research career. This is mostly because of funding issues, but can also come from confusion after 4-5 years of being pushed and pulled between too many stimulating sub-disciplines and inspiring mentors.

Many students are bombarded throughout their degree with promotion of multiple sub-disciplines of ecology as “the one that rules them all”. As a naive undergraduate with a lot to learn about the industry and the world in general, this can influence which career path they take.

So it’s heartening when the more experienced generation encourage aspiring scientists to follow their passion and intuition and stick with science (particularly ecology and the natural sciences), even if they don’t fit into the apparent intellectual “norms”. E.O. Wilson’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal is just that. Continue reading

Science is not a corporate ladder

Public conversations conducted in the peer-reviewed literature recently indicate that many of the eco/biological concepts and terminology developed over recent decades have become lost in a minefield of public misunderstanding and policy pandering – often to the detriment of the causes they were intended for.

Catchphrases or concepts developed specifically to raise awareness about a particular issue, such as the keystone, umbrella and flagship species concepts (see Barua 2011), have been overused or misused in the public domain for too long. Some scientists now believe these concepts and catchphrases, developed for beneficial environmental outcomes, have the potential to negatively affect their relevant causes.  For example, recent comments highlight the over-emphasis of the “biodiversity” agenda, at the expense of recognising nature as a whole-earth ecosystem (Woodwell 2010); the mixed messages provided by recent studies apparently endorsing the biodiversity value of logged “degraded lands” – landscapes that were previously identified as biologically inhospitable in the literature (Didham 2011); and the potential for terminology from the field of restoration ecology to “create unrealistic expectations and perverse policy outcomes” (Hobbs et al. 2011).

To be fair, the science community is not solely to blame. Public misinterpretation of scientific concepts is fuelled mainly by scientifically illiterate journalists and limited general science education among the non-scientific public. These problems can be solved through changes to education curricula and social constructs, all of which are often beyond the realm of the scientist.

However, these comments raise the question: “Is Science being corporatised?” The answer appears to be “Yes”, with evidence shown partly from our own actions and partly from issues that are sometimes out of our control. Continue reading