Have you heard the good news about shark populations? Shark population increases are cause for #OceanOptimism

Did you know that some shark populations have declined due to overfishing? Did you know that some once-declined shark populations have recovered? If you’re like my twitter followers, it’s likely that you’ve heard the bad news, but have not heard the good news.

Why does this matter?
It’s important to share bad news so that people know there’s a problem, and that we need to act to solve that problem. However, it’s also important to share good news so that people know that a problem is solvable! This idea was behind the birth of the #OceanOptimism online outreach campaign.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Life After Death

That ominous specter of death. The one certainty in life that we are all careening towards. But how much do we really understand about death? Medically death is defined as the moment the heart stops beating and cuts off blood to the brain. Within seconds after heart failure the brain’s cerebral cortex — the “thinking part” of the brain — slows down instantly and flatlines (meaning no brainwaves are visible on an electric monitor). This initiates a chain reaction of cellular processes that eventually results in the death of brain cells; as a result the brain’s functions also stop and can no longer keep the body alive. The big question is after the heart stops beating, and both heart and brain activity flatlines, how quickly does cognition or awareness fade? A relatively recent study  suggests that consciousness continues even after death.

(Photo credit: Getty)

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R1 research universities – is a biased, flawed ranking system crippling academia?

If you are at a university that has graduate students, you have probably heard about whether your university is an R1 or R2 or R-whatever research institution. Universities tout their position in this ranking system, awarded by the Carnegie Foundation, to denote how “prestigious” they are in terms of research. From 1994, the ranking used to be given according to how much federal research funding they were awarded.

Source: clipart panda

Because of this, all the ranking told you was how much federal money a particular university received. This system is incredibly flawed. For example, if you have faculty more dedicated to writing grants and less dedicated to teaching, mentoring graduate students, publishing articles or doing other activities that are supposed to be the mainstay of academia, then certainly you will get more money. However, this will be at the expense of teaching, mentoring, publishing, etc. Read More

Columbus doesn’t deserve a day ! (We should be giving credit to Cabot anyway)

Today is Columbus day in the US, and so I technically have a day off from teaching. However, despite a day of alleged freedom (I still have a stack of grading to do) the fact that we get a holiday to celebrate Columbus galls me. Firstly, because he was responsible for mass enslavement of indigenous people (over 1000 in just one round up, of which 550 were sent to Spain, with about 40% dying en route), sending an estimated 5000 Taino, Arawak and other indigenous peoples to Europe. His treatment of these enslaved people was barbaric – they were forced to bring him gold and failure to do so led to mass amputations and death. An estimated quarter of a million indigenous people died in Haiti alone due to resisting Columbus’ Governorship of Hispaniola, and many more died from diseases he and his crew introduced to the Caribbean.


However, secondly, he doesn’t deserve recognition for discovering North America. He never set foot on the North American continent*. If we should be recognizing someone from this era, it would be John Cabot.

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Time to release the Kraken ! Addressing controversial questions in marine conservation

A few years ago, we organized a group of marine conservation scientists to meet to discuss, and list,  the most urgent issues that need to be studied. The resulting paper  came up with 71 questions which urgently needed to be addressed, because a lack of an answer was severely impeding marine conservation. However, during this exercise we also came up with a list of other questions – these were issues that were controversial, that everyone  knew were important, but were unwilling to raise as being an issue. These were the Voldemorts of marine conservation questions (they that shall not be named), the elephant (or elephant seal) in the room questions …. or as we more aquatically termed them: “the kraken in the aquarium” questions.


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The Importance of Scientific Discovery and Communication for a General Science Audience

The impetus for this piece was an essay I wrote for iBiology a year or so ago discussing the importance of scientific discovery for a a general science audience (i.e., our science peers who are not in our respective field). I was excited to write the piece because a lot of the Science FRIEDay articles I write focus on relatively recent scientific discoveries, and this article is more of an opinion piece. So why is scientific discovery important for an audience of science peers who do not explicitly work in our specific field?

It is easy to marvel at the wonders that exist on our planet and in the surrounding universe, the known discoveries. As a natural scientist, I also appreciate the beauty in the hidden mysteries of the natural world, those processes, behaviors, and functions that we have yet to elucidate. The notion and concept of scientific discovery is romanticized as a purist’s deed. Edwin Hubble said it best, “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls that adventure Science.” A scientist’s basal desire is to further the state of knowledge, but equally we crave information about the fields of knowledge that are expanding around us, of which we are not explicitly involved. We aspire to understand the “99%”, at the very least surficially. The importance of this desire explains why scientific conferences play a major role in our profession, and journals such as Science and Nature are so popular. Yes, we as scientist want to share our new discoveries, but we are also equally as intrigued about what others have accomplished; we want to know how science is progressing outside of our bubble, especially those really groundbreaking feats. These coupled characteristics are a necessary component of science. Hearing and learning about the work of others fuels one’s own scientific passions to go and do more, and can often challenge an individual to think more creatively about their own research ideas and approaches. To a general audience of our scientific peers, sharing scientific discovery temporarily satiates the yearning that scientists have about the progression of knowledge, but also can serve as motivation and inspiration.
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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

Connecting the Town and Gown: Cooperative Extension

Over the last few months, I’ve seen a few efforts proposed to better connect universities to local community research needs. While whole practices and skill sets around participatory action research, community-based research, etc., exist, these don’t quite meet the need these recent proposals attempt to address. These proposals are not talking one faculty research program implementing participatory methods, they want a fundamentally different relationship between researchers and the community surrounding them – which, in many ways, gets back to the roots of many universities in the United States: land-grant universities.

In 1862 and 1890, the Morrill Acts granted land to create universities to focus on practical education: agriculture, science, military, and engineering. Students and faculty research from these institutions, in return, would advance important industries and changing social class relations. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 later extended the mission of these schools to extend the research results to users – creating the cooperative extension system. In short, science in service of society. Read More

Pondering the disruption of crowdfunding: It’s not a panacea.

On my train to work, I routinely am requested to donate money multiple times (and not just by the homeless guy outside the station). One comes in the form of a new project with a homemade advertisement up in the train station – and in the corner is a ‘find us on Kickstarter!’ logo. I’m then asked by my regular podcast to support them through Maximum Fun through either a subscription or one-time support.  The author of the article I’m reading asks for support through Patreon. By the time I get to work, where I could potentially pull out my banking information and support any of these initiatives, I’m thinking less about actually doing so and more about the new phenomenon of crowdfunding, wondering how effective this new phenomenon is. Not to mention, there’s no way I can support all the wonderful creators that solicited me during my commute. Plus, I realize I’m beginning to tune out the requests.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a time and a place for crowdfunding. It can support a new business during its most vulnerable time and can provide small injections of funding when all you need is to test an idea. But it does best for people actually producing something and for ‘sexy’ topics of the day. Yet, indiscriminately choosing crowdfunding (or any other sort of funding) without consideration of which funding strategy is best can really hurt your cause, causing groups to shift their mission. So let’s think about the science of fundraising and how crowdfunding fits into a larger fundraising landscape. How is it changing the relationship between those who need support and the typical people who fund them? Read More

We need a different economic model for supporting conservation work. Here’s my story.

Many years ago, I was offered a job doing restoration work at a coal company while perusing festival booths in Fairbanks, Alaska. Still wearing my college-aged rose colored glasses, I was skeptical of working for conservation within industry, said thanks-but-no-thanks, and returned to upstate New York to finish my degree. Looking back, I honestly believe I could have enacted more positive change for the earth had I taken that job than I have in the almost decade since.

I recall this story because while at a recent all-volunteer biodiversity festival, a friend asked me ‘why can’t people do all this great work as their paid work?’ A group of us stood around silently for a few minutes, realizing that this question derived of innocent curiosity delved deep into issues of societal values, our current economic system, and conservation philosophy. In short, the answer is that because conservation brings in none of its own revenue, but depends on the tax money or philanthropy of others. When that dries up, no conservation careers are available. And even when they are, a high percentage of time on the job is spent looking for future funding through grants. Read More