Nature Publishes Top 100 List for Ecology Papers. Here’s Why It’s Wrong.

This morning, I sat down at my desk to clear out my morning emails, make my to-do list, and go about my day. Through several of these channels, I was pointed to a new article in Nature detailing the top 100 articles every ecologist should read. There were already critiques of it flowing through social media, mainly about the representativeness of the list. Depending on which kind of professional hat I’m wearing at the moment, I tend to agree with these assessments. While I recognize – and have read – most of the papers on the list in my early ecological education, I think it misses the mark on defining ecology. Read More

Measuring the Cultural Value of Oysters

Most people from oyster-producing regions like the Chesapeake can attest to the fact that oysters are important the the social fabric of the community. In many towns that date back to the colonial era, oyster shells literally line Main Street and form the foundation of the town. In others, they form the basis of a modern-day bar scene boasting of “merroir” of the oysters alongside terroir of the wine. When the ecosystem around these kinds of places changes (think warming waters, acidified waters, introduced species who also love oysters), the resource underpinning this aspect of culture and heritage can be threatened. What does that mean for the humans so connected to the briny bivalve?

Historic Baltimore Shucking House. Courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library

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What Google Searches Tell Us About The Ocean… and Us

I recently discovered that Google Trends is a thing. Specifically, that they aggregate their search data and make it publicly available. Which is awesome. People Google much more honestly than they interact with others in person, more honestly than they answer surveys, and more honestly than they behave in a world where politics is important. So what people Google is insight into what people are curious about, where online outreach can have the most potential impact, and what is on the top of people’s brains at particular times. It tells us something about regionalisms, and seasonality of thought. I encourage everyone to play around with their data, for work or for play.

Here’s a couple of examples of things you can learn. Let’s start with the basics. Which states, over the last 12 months, have searched for “ocean” the most?

 

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Reflections on the Boundary of Science and Policy

People have dedicated their careers and spilled much ink on bettering relations across the science – policy divide. In recent years, whole institutions have sprung up in order to better communicate and work across this boundary, the kind of institution formally called a boundary organization. In short, the people who work at such places must know the language and culture of both sides, be able to navigate around the sensitivities of each, and serve as a trusted person in moving a conversation along. These people are often called “honest brokers” because of the importance of the trust they must gain and hold. As someone who’s now working on the boundary for a number of years in the marine conservation world, I have some reflections of how exactly that role is not so simple. Hopefully my top 10 reflections will be helpful in building the next generation of boundary spanners. Read More

What is it about mercury? Thinking about chemicals in the public discourse

All of the revelations about the lead in the water system of Flint, Michigan have made residents and curious neighbors alike  wonder ‘haven’t we solved the lead problem’? There are thousands of well-established scientific studies; the sources and even many of the solutions are well-understood and frequently implemented. Not to say the problem’s gone, but we’ve wrapped are heads around it. So how is it possible that a new lead problem has surprisingly reared its ugly head? And more importantly, what does that mean for exposure to chemicals for which we’ve barely scratched the scientific surface?

The world of fisheries has its analog – mercury. We’ve all heard the recommendations for pregnant women and small children to avoid tilefish, swordfish, mackerel, and shark. We understand that it bioaccumulates in the food chain – and that as humans not exactly at the bottom, we’re susceptible. The dynamics of methylmercury (the poison variety) and elemental mercury are fairly well mapped out and we can identify areas of potential hazard where more methylmercury is likely to be naturally created. We’ve also stopped doing things like spraying mercury-based pesticides and covering our landscape and foodscape with the toxin. Kids have even stopped playing with ‘quicksilver’, it’s been removed from dental fillings and vaccines, and you should get rid of that mercury-based thermometer. Yet, if you scanned most people’s hair (the way we measure these things), there would be mercury present. And there’s still a host of ways they might have been exposed. But the better question is – if there’s still mercury in your body, what else is floating around in your system? And why do we focus on only the best-understood pathway of chemical exposure?

Modern Mercury Exposures Read More

Philantropy is our government, now: How to Fund Your Great Scientific Idea

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


Since Congress decided to cut science funding to all but matters of national security, many of us in the environmental field have existed in the new world of science funding–Foundations and Charitable Giving. While one might make the case that protecting the environment is in fact a matter of national security, our elected representatives disagree and sliced funding to climate change, political science, and education first. But they’ve also constructed a tax code favorable to private donors and foundations supporting science, sometimes because they really like the idea, they see future payoffs from their investment, or because they need the tax writeoff. The problem with these sources of private money is that they’re not as easy to discover as some of those public sources once were, and often require developing a personal relationship with the family owning the endowment. After polling the environmental science community, here’s some tips and tricks for finding and courting money that have set up some fantastic labs for others. Learn from their success.

Know the Next Big Thing

There are fads amongst the problems that need to be solved, and any successful research lab has at least one toe in the water of the subject at the top of the publicity agenda. For ocean topics, for a long while this was charismatic endangered species like whales and turtles. Once we realized we’d done as much as we could in this arena, other subjects started getting attention. For the foundations who take on these issues, they want to be seen at the forefront of an issue, not the tenth batter up, so the field is a constantly shifting landscape and the pace of that shifting hastens each year. Remember when citizen science was the next big promise for marine research? That it offered cheap, high quality data covering large spatial scales collected by the good graces of volunteers? People loved to suggest starting citizen science projects, and it solidified the institutional landscape we see today with professional associations and research institutions designed around maximizing the promise of citizen science. That all happened within the space of a few years and some large investments by the Packard and Bechtel foundations. But once something is institutionalized, it’s time for the foundations to move on to the Next Big Thing. Read More

What kind of scientist do you want to – and should you – be?

Last month, I had the great privilege of attending the 100th Ecological Society of America meeting. This meant there were many opportunities to reflect upon the last century of ecological science and think about what worked, what didn’t, and where we go from here. As with many of the sciences, this involved a lot of hypothesizing about what a future successful scientific career will look like. Almost unanimously agreed upon was the fact that the rigid and one-track paths of the past are crumbling around us as we speak. Ecology also has much to teach the world, in an age of trying to deal with global issues of climate change, food security, and ecosystem service conservation.

In one of these sessions, a number of the speakers pointed to a book written about 1990’s scientific practice by Donald Stokes called Pasteur’s Quadrant. While an old reference now, the speakers encouraged us that we haven’t truly taken the message to heart yet, and that the type of inward gaze on scientific culture is exactly what we need today. In short, Stokes classified scientists into four types, depending on whether their mission was to advance understanding of the universe, help solve real-life issues, both, or neither. He then aligned some well-known scientists with each category.pasteur_quadrant

 

In the ecological world and the talks at ESA, the lower right quadrant was occupied by natural historians – people with deep local knowledge but without much practical use. Each person who presented the quadrants included a different natural historian, which made the general point: no one remembers people who work in this quadrant, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important or that folks in other quadrants don’t rely on their work regularly.

More generally, the conversation of who goes where brings up an overlay of professional rewards. People who win Nobel prizes, or MacArthur awards in ecology, almost all fit in the Bohr quadrant. People remembered popularly by members of the public over centuries  almost all fit in the Edison quadrant. However, potentially the most impactful (if unappreciated) work falls within Pasteur’s quadrant, where it can meet the needs of both scientific and public audiences. Stokes went on to say that more people should be trained and rewarded for use-inspired research.

In the coming century of ecology, and all science, we are tasked with advancing our knowledge of the universe while also contributing to some very large global issues. Pasteur and others like him are living proof that achieving both goals simultaneously is possible. Not everyone can be Pasteur, as we rely on workers in all four quadrants to put together a complete scientific profile. But we could help out future generations by redefining one kind of success as use-inspired theory building. By cutting down the basic/applied divide and admitting that doing applied work does not make you a lesser scientist. And remember to give credit to your natural historians.

Is peer-review best left to academic journals?

If you have ever dealt with scientific data, you’ve probably encountered one of the shadier sides of science: academic publishing. While they’ve stood, in some cases, for centuries, as the official record of scientific advancement safeguarded under the watchful eye of peers, modern journals live in a modern world. Millions of words have already been spilled on the subject, so that’s not what this article is about. Instead, I’m left asking whether academic publishing is the only means of getting the stamp of peer-review these days?

The reasons leading me to ask this question are many, but primarily through working in a management arena lately. One example, in particular, highlighted many of the disconnects between the need for verified scientific data and the incentives of journals. This moment was at a Chesapeake Bay Program Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team meeting (for those of you not in the Chesapeake region, that’s a consortium of regional fisheries managers), where a room full of decision-makers needed a verified stock assessment of blue crabs to move forward with their management planning. Peer-review is the time-tested, well-understood, and arguably easiest means of verifying data. Read More

Did Wyoming really just outlaw citizen science?

I first heard about the new Wyoming law #SF0012 through the Slate article summarizing it as a criminalization of citizen science. There’s a real danger that it could be interpreted and implemented that way, but let’s try and give Wyoming the benefit of the doubt for a minute. The text of the law only requires that scientists (citizen or otherwise) acquire written or verbal permission from landowners for collecting data on their land. It goes on to define what “data” means, including photographs in a fairly wide definition, and “collecting” as taking data with the intention of turning it over to a state or federal agency. It also defines trespassing and outlines the consequences for those who fail to receive permission. In short: the data collector could go to jail and their data will not be admissible in legal or policy proceedings.

At the core, the law re-hashes a fairly common definition of trespassing. The key part of the law that’s new is that the data won’t be admissible in court and the act of turning them over to federal or state agencies will make you an outlaw. Part of me thinks that data collectors, including citizen science groups, should be asking permission to go on someone’s land. This is both to keep ethics at the forefront of our scientific endeavors and for the personal safety of scientists (ranchers are known to carry shotguns, after all). Read More

You say you need to incorporate the social sciences? Which kind?

This post in the second of a series entitled “The Basics of the Human Dimensions”, which gives the most basic tips for how to work with social scientists and social questions in marine conservation efforts. Whether you are the stakeholder, the collaborating natural scientist, or both, this series will hopefully make the journey into the human dimensions easier. 

A common adage in fisheries management is that “you’re managing the fishermen, not the fish” – and this is emblematic of many conservation issues. Conservation efforts rely upon good information (which also requires diverse inputs, but that’s a story for another day) but perhaps most importantly, understanding how decision-makers will use that information and how communities will integrate that information into their daily practices. Conservation is a lived experience, not theory in a textbook.

As a response to an awakening in the ecological sciences to this paradigm, there are frequent calls for integrating the social sciences into their analyses. A program within the National Science Foundation directs research dollars to “Coupled Human and Natural Systems”, the Resilience Alliance is pushing the theory of socioecological systems, and out of geologists comes the term “anthropocene” – all efforts to formally incorporate social scientists into traditionally natural science research efforts. But not all social sciences are created equal. Which one you need depends upon your subject matter, but also the kind of data that will mesh best with your natural science methods. Here’s a quick review of the disciplinary divides within the social scientist, so you have an idea of who best to reach out to in putting together your next proposal: Read More