Academia should be more Skyrim and less Mario Kart to address lack of long-term diversity

Many friendships in the 90s were built or lost over who got to select their Mario Kart character first because character selection largely determined whether or not you would win.  SNES Mario Kart designers tried to correct this by crafting tracks that favored one character over others, guaranteeing a win on at least one race. Bowser’s fast top speed and drifting skills made them the best suited character for Bowser Castle’s sharp turns and straightaways.  The icy pools of Vanilla Lake smiled upon Koopa Troopa and Toad’s tight handling and minimal drift, but that was arguably the only track they could dominate.  

Now imagine another version of Mario Kart, but instead of a variety of different tracks that celebrate different strengths, every track was built by Mario.  With Mario as an architect, it’s highly likely that every track would favor his particular set of (minimal) strengths.  This would give the non-Mario players an unintended disadvantage since they would never get a chance to excel with their diverse skills, and the majority of races would consequently be won by Marios.  In many places, this is the current state of academia.  

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Emerging technologies for exploration and independent monitoring of seafloor extraction in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at the 2019 Minerals, Materials, and Society Symposium at the University of Delaware in August, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. I want to change tracks for a bit and scan the horizon to think about what the future of exploration and monitoring in the high seas might look like because ocean and conservation technology is in the midst of an evolutionary shift in who has access to the tools necessary to observe the deep ocean.

This is the Area. Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, International Waters, the High Seas, the Outlaw Ocean. It’s the portion of the ocean that falls outside of national EEZs and is held in trust by the UN under the Convention on the Law of the Sea as the Common Heritage of Humankind. It covers 64% of the ocean and nearly half of the total surface of the Earth. It’s also the region in which most major deep-sea mining ventures intend to operate.

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Egosystem management. Or how tantrums and unprofessional behavior are hindering conservation

In helping to organize several meetings and events for conservation groups, I’ve frequently encountered conservation professionals loudly declaiming “Don’t you know who I am!” and expecting special treatment. Recently I got an email from someone whose abstract was rejected by a conference committee I was assisting, in which they had quite a tantrum. There were lots of exclamation marks and capital letters saying that it was unfair they were rejected and they will never ever go again to any meetings by this professional society and will resign their membership. I was asked by someone outside the conservation field whether it was usual that we get such childish and temperamental responses to rejections. Sadly we often do – whether it be rejections for journals, jobs or conference presentations.

However, I also told that person that anyone who’s been an academic for a while gets used to being rejected. Few papers get accepted at first submission, for example. So most conservation professionals take it in their stride. Moreover, anyone who is in the conservation field should really get used to difficulties and failures, as these are all too frequently components of the job. A conservation biologist is not going to last long if they go berserk at the least slight or hard knock or have a fragile ego. Conservation is often about conflict, and trying to resolve this conflict through reasoned argument, understanding and diplomacy. You often get knocked down, but to quote Chumbawumba, you just have to “get up again”.

As a result, one could reach the conclusion that someone who is really childish, temperamental, rude etc. should not last long in real-world conservation. Sadly, such tantrum-throwing individuals may last longer, or even thrive, in academia, but that’s another story. However, that person will be a horror for colleagues in the field. So for the case above, resigning from a society or refusing to go to conservation meetings is like natural selection, weeding the weak and unfit from the gene pool. If they are going to ditch going to premiere meetings to learn the latest cutting-edge conservation and science over a run-of-the-mill abstract rejection, then it’s their loss and frankly our gain…

However, despite the potential forces of natural selection, inflated – yet fragile – egomaniacal bloviates are still all too common in the conservation world. There are several major marine conservation initiatives that foundered because, for example, coalitions would not let certain organizations have top billing in materials, and the thwarted organizations walked away, taking their essential funding with them. Others would not cooperate with conservation academics from a competing institution, and held back essential information and resources, causing the project to collapse. Frequently managing a conservation project is more about managing the egos of collaborators, or the egos of their organisations, rather than managing the actual project itself. This type of “human resources” management is, unfortunately, a skill in which few conservation professionals receive any training. Too frequently these days, in order to achieve conservation success, you have to first manage the ego-system, before finally getting down to efforts to restore the eco-system.

Bot meets Whale: making friends in the ocean; or how I learned to stop worrying and mitigate harmful interactions between recreational ROVs and marine mammals.

An example of a microROV system. From Thaler et al. (2019)

Today, there are more robots exploring the ocean than ever before. From autonomous ocean-crossing gliders to massive industrial remotely operated vehicles to new tools for science and exploration that open new windows into the abyss, underwater robots are giving people a change to experience the ocean like never before. The fastest growing sector of this new robotic frontier? Small, recreational, observation class ROVs.

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Best Practices for Mitigating Negative Interactions Between Marine Mammals and MicroROVs

Today, we published our guidelines on the responsible operation of small recreational ROVs around marine mammals.

You can read the full paper here: Thaler and friends (2019) Bot Meets Whale: Best Practices for Mitigating Negative Interactions Between Marine Mammals and MicroROVs. DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00506.

Reprinted below are the explicit guidelines proposed in the paper.

1. Education. Central to any mitigation strategy involving diverse stakeholders, ranging from professional to recreational, is user education. The following are critical to establishing a responsible user community: Ensuring all potential microROV users 1) not only understand the laws and regulations for wildlife viewing that apply to the jurisdiction in which they are operating, but understand why those regulations are in place; and, most importantly, 2) have internalized a stewardship ethic that motivates them to respect the rationale behind those regulations even when operating in regions where those regulations are not enforced. This is most effective when it occurs at point-of-sale or registration of the microROV. Thus, while the additional four guidelines relate to the user, this first one relates to the manufacturer. To most effectively convey the potential harm that microROVs could pose to marine mammals, the manufacturers are best positioned to educate their user base by providing informational material with each microROV sale. 

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Announcing the #BestShark contest for David’s birthday: make sandbar shark memes and art, win prizes!

My 35th birthday is next week, and I am calling upon the forces of the Internetz to help make it an amusing one. As you all know, sandbar shark is #BestShark. This spectacular shark is even the logo of my new consultancy!

David Shiffman Scientific and Environmental Consulting Logo: Original commissioned artwork by Ethan Kocak

I want you to help me celebrate my birthday by creating sandbar shark #BestShark memes and/or artwork! And my favorites will win prizes! Here’s how it works:

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