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  • Post date: 1 year 10 months ago
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    In 1994, Shahid Naeem, Lindsey Thompson, Sharon Lawler, John Lawton and Richard Woodfin published a in the journal Nature that inspired a large body of work on biodiversity-ecosystem functioning and went on to become a “citation classic”. On his recent visit to Bangalore, I spoke to about this paper, 22 years after its publication.

    Date of interview: 25th May 2016

    Place: Banganapalli (Teaching lab), , Bangalore.

    Hari Sridhar: I’d like to start by talking about the history of this project and your motivation for doing the work presented in this paper. What took you to Silwood Park?

    Shahid Naeem: Silwood Park - in Imperial College, London - was extremely well-known, what with people like , and .  As an American, I was quite influenced by the research that they were doing. And then they advertised for three post-doctoral positions, with a possibility for working with others on the , even though it was still being built. I was a postdoc. at the University of Michigan at that time, and when I saw this opportunity, I thought I would love to go to England and meet European scientists; till then I had met mostly American scientists. It was a great opportunity, and I applied and got it. But they didn’t know what they wanted to do with the Ecotron, and so they asked if I would be willing to take the lead on it, and come up with a project.

    The Ecotron was a series of growth chambers in which you could control all the parameters – light, temperature, rain - everything could be controlled. We naturally thought we will do a global warming experiment – setup some chambers at ambient temperature, some chambers a little bit warmer, some even warmer and measure the response of artificially created biological communities.  

    But you know, the Earth summit in Rio happened in 1992 – around the same time we were planning these experiments – and one of the things that had come out of that summit was that biological diversity was considered, sort of like - what did they call it - like the underlying foundation of sustainable development. Why that was I’m not sure, but they definitely felt that, if you didn’t have biological diversity you wouldn’t be able to get environmental sustainability, and without environmental sustainability you could not achieve sustainable development. There were a number of people who believed that, but there was no actual proof. If you think about ecology, most of what was done in ecology worked the other way around - why is it that if you change latitude biodiversity changes? Why is it that if precipitation changes biodiversity changes? Why is it that if temperature changes biodiversity changes? So biodiversity was always a response variable - a victim of whatever the physical environment was. But the public was focussing on the opposite - that without biodiversity we couldn’t achieve these environmental goals.

    Around this time, John Lawton - my post-doc. supervisor at Silwood Park - asked me to read his contribution to a symposium volume on the topic of whether biodiversity is important. And John was actually arguing that most species were redundant, and that if you lost them it probably doesn’t matter that much. And I read this and thought - I can’t believe people ask this question. My own feeling was - how could it not matter? I mean, if you lost biodiversity, surely an ecological system would just not work as well, right? And so there I was, with the Ecotron, and I suddenly thought - we could answer this question with the Ecotron. At our next weekly meeting, I got the people together, including John Lawton, and I said – instead of manipulating temperature, why don’t we manipulate biodiversity and see how that affects ecosystem function? We will set the temperature and other parameters identical for all the chambers, and then we will have one third of the chambers with high biodiversity, one third with medium biodiversity, and one third with low biodiversity. Then we will measure ecosystem function in these different levels of biodiversity. All of us post-docs got very excited about this, but John Lawton was not convinced. He said that what I was proposing was not something anybody does or thinks about, and that global warming was a big deal and very topical. He also said that, as postdocs, we needed to think about our careers and getting professorial positions. He just wanted to make sure that we had thought through this completely. And it was – who is now a professor at UC Davis - who said she liked “shooting from the hip”, and that my idea sounded more exciting. Lindsey Thompson – the other post-doc. – also agreed, after which John said we would have his full support. It was a very expensive project - it had three engineers, two technicians and the three of us as postdocs, who all had be paid. I forget how much it cost, but it was a vast amount of money to pay for running the project - getting all that soil, sterilizing it, buying a lot of equipment for the new idea - but John fully supported it.

    It is interesting the way this idea came up. It didn’t really come from the scientific community initially. It was because of the Rio summit sort of getting everybody to believe that conservation is an important part of sustainable development. Before that, if you looked at sustainable development, people were worried about things like housing, food, health, water etc. Biodiversity did figure, but it was seen as something to protect and save. The links between biodiversity and food, health, water etc. were not talked about at all. Also, the view from conservation biology was not very utilitarian. It was mostly about the moral and aesthetic and cultural reasons to conserve biodiversity. The typical ecologist’s way of thinking was that we have to change things to save biodiversity.  In contrast, we were thinking that we have to change biodiversity to save things that are important to us. That was the motivation for this project. It’s a long story, but you can see it was somewhat serendipitous.


    HS: You said there were three postdocs, including you, on this project, and John Lawton. Who is the fifth author on the paper?

    SN: Richard Woodfin was a research scientist. He had a master’s in ecology but he was an engineer by training. And we really needed an engineer, because this was mostly “mechanical ecology”. Working in growth chambers is much more difficult than working in the field. Three in the morning, something would breakdown and you have to run in there. The rain would go off at the wrong time and we had to figure out why. Or there would be a power surge and the lights would blow. I slept at the station many nights just nursing the thing through. We had set “the sun to go down” in the middle of the day, so if I wanted to get there at “sunrise” that would be two a.m. So, I just slept in the office most of the time.  Richard Woodfin, our go-to person for troubleshooting the system, was unique because he was both a biologist and an engineer. He was considered as much an author of the project as others.


    HS: You touched upon something I wanted to ask you next- what was a typical day like for you during this project?

    SN: It was a long experiment and it was intense every day. We met weekly, and we would write out all the duties we had to do in a very regular fashion on the wall. We were collecting soil, arthropod and vegetation data, and monitoring all those environmental parameters. We really couldn’t go away anytime, because the machine was running all the time. Back then, I had never done growth chamber research. I was a field ecologist, so, to me, the idea that we would have this experiment upstairs, right there, running all the time, was strange. There was lot of maintenance too - the earthworms would all crawl out, so we had one person whose job, every morning, was to put all the earthworms back in. Or, the snails would leave the chamber, or get under the railings, and you had to find them all and put them back. Things like that. It was a lot of maintenance.

    But this was England, where people don’t work on the weekends and have a tea break in the morning and in the afternoon, no matter what. When I complained to John Lawton that the libraries weren’t open during the weekend - we didn’t have the internet back then - he said nobody stays here late at night, or comes in on weekends, except the crazy Americans! I was one of those crazy Americans.


    HS: So you were in the lab most of the time, during this period?

    SN: Most of the time, yes. We did take time off. The engineers had those devices, what do you call them…


    HS: Pagers?

    SN: Pagers, they had pagers. And the Ecotron would actually automatically buzz them if there was a problem. The three engineers would be on call, in rotation. When they were on call, they were not allowed to drink. And to tell a British person that he can’t go to the pub is pretty hard on him. If the pager went off in the middle of the night, because the machine was overheating or something, whoever was on call would have to come in to trouble shoot. Some of it they could try to control remotely, or sometimes I would get a call - we have an alarm going off in chamber 6, could you just go and take a look to see if it’s a false alarm? If I was there I would run up and check, but if nobody was there they would have to come all the way in, sometimes only to find out it was a false alarm. But it could be quite serious – if the machine started to overheat, all of a sudden, 100 days into a 200-day experiment, you could lose the whole thing, because heat could over-stress the plants, insects, worms, snails, and all the other organisms in the chambers.


    HS: How long did the experiments take?

    SN: I think it was about 210 days. There was no season - we basically had the same conditions every single day for 210 days; that’s two-thirds of a year. So, in a way, it was like a very long summer.


    HS: How did you decide on what species to use in the communities you constructed?

    SN: That’s a really difficult question. Anybody who sets up a microcosm or mesocosm experiment struggles with two things: one is this desire to mimic nature - in your chamber or in your bottle. To capture nature in miniature. But at the other end of that spectrum, you just want a biological analog to test an idea you have. If you think that biodiversity matters, for primary productivity or carbon sequestration, then you simply want to have biodiversity that varies from low to high, and not worry about species identities. Also, we needed to pick species that would survive in the Ecotron. In preparation for the experiment, for a couple of years, we tried out lots of candidate plants in a mock chamber, and picked the ones that survived best.  But then you will always get the people who say - why did you put that species with that species when they don’t co-occur in nature? So we did the best we could, given these constraints. We chose what John Lawton used to call, the “weedy meadow”, as the model for our communities. Apart from plants, we also wanted other trophic levels, to simulate a real biological community - decomposers, herbivores, predators of the herbivores, and a below-ground community including Collembola and mites and earthworms. We also wanted soil bacteria, for which we took soil from the meadow, shook it up in water and then filtered the water, so that the bacteria could go through, but all the little insects and other invertebrates get removed.  What we finally had was very simple – a patchwork community with all the ingredients. But it wasn’t nature in a bottle. Rather, it was all the processes of nature in a bottle.

    We had people coming to see the Ecotron all the time, and most of them were disappointed. Even said that he was really shocked when he saw the Ecotron; he expected something amazing and the Ecotron looked like a bunch of meat lockers. I think people expected to see some sort of miniature rainforest inside the Ecotron, with maybe parrots flying out! Once we had the local gardening club visit us, because John Lawton thought we should have good relations with our neighbours. I remember there was this group of gardening enthusiasts standing around, all eager to see what’s inside, and when I opened the door they were all shocked.  One elderly gentleman looked at it and said - “That’s a gardener’s nightmare!” I will never forget that. What he saw were weedy plants and slugs and aphids and white flies; all these pests. To us, thinking abstractly, it had all the essential ingredients to of an ecological community, and was beautiful. But to the visitors it was a nightmare.

    We also had to vary diversity within each of the trophic levels in different treatments. That presented a special challenge, because we had to be really careful about always going from low to medium to high diversity when working in the chambers. Because if you went from high to low, there was the risk of accidentally introducing a new species – some tiny aphid in your hair or on your clothes – into the low diversity treatments. So we wore these Hazmat suits and slippers whenever we were in the chambers.  

    The other thing was we couldn’t open a chamber after three o clock in the afternoon because the sun had set in our artificial communities. And it was a real sunset - we actually shifted the red to far-red, and dimmed the lights to get the right balance to mimic a sunset. So, if we opened a chamber door after the sunset, all this light would come in, and there were a lot of plants that would respond to that, and it could alter their flowering and growth patterns. So, at three pm every day, the buzzers would go off, warning us that the sun was setting, and we would always be behind, so we would have to rush to complete whatever we were doing and get out. The other thing was the rain – again we had buzzers warning us that the rain was about to start, and we had to get ourselves and all our equipment out quickly before they got drenched!


    HS: Sounds straight out of a sci-fi movie! Did the results of your experiments surprise you?

    SN: There was a British Ecological Society (BES) meeting happening around that time, for which abstracts were due eight months in advance. We were only maybe halfway through the experiment, and John Lawton was already convinced that biodiversity wouldn’t matter that much. He said, as long as you had plants and herbivores, why would it really matter if you had two species or 16. But I was convinced of the opposite. - it was more a gut sense that diversity must matter. Anyway, by the time the abstract was due, nothing that had been measured was showing differences across treatments - nutrient loss, soil chemistry, growth rate, the total amount of standing biomass. So we sent in an abstract to BES which actually said that biodiversity didn’t matter! But at the meeting, which was 8 months later, when we had completed the experiments, I delivered a talk which said biodiversity did matter. Nobody seemed to notice that the title of the abstract was the other way around! The room was packed and it was the biggest lecture hall in the conference. I had never given a talk with so many people. Once, I gave a talk on the reproductive biology of a histophagus protozoan, and I think there were six people in the room. And they were all my friends! But at this talk I had to actually step over people to get to the podium. Everybody wanted to find out what we had found out in the Ecotron. Because it was controversial. It was a very expensive experiment, at a time when funding for research in England was pretty tight -right after Margaret Thatcher’s reign. So, I gave the talk, and the controversy started right then. People said terrible things - about the quality of the research, that we were prejudiced by our fondness for biodiversity, that we were seeing results that weren’t really as clear as we felt they were, or that these experiments were too artificial and did not reflect what’s going on in nature

    Regarding your question whether the results were a surprise –I was surprised by how difficult it was to show. I obviously thought biodiversity mattered. And 22 years later, I am still surprised by how difficult it is to show. There are 8.7 million species on this planet, and they all play different kinds of roles - making nutrients cycle, energy flow, conditioning the atmosphere, conditioning the soil, conditioning the water - and they are all linked to one another. There have been numerous food web studies that have shown that biological communities are much more tightly linked than random. Yet, in spite of nature consisting of a tightly connected web of life, it was surprising how hard it was to demonstrate that if you dismantle it nature will behave differently.

    To illustrate the issue, I have actually done this in class – only a few times because it is difficult to arrange - I bring a computer into class, take the back off, take a pair of pliers, and say I am going to pull a part out. And the computer is running. I wear rubber gloves, so I don’t get a shock. I randomly pull a part out, and ask the students how much would you pay for this computer now. The computer is obviously still working fine, but because I ripped a part out, the students feel that it has dropped down in value, usually by about a quarter. Around the sixth or seventh part, they say they are not going to buy it, no matter what. Yet, when we do this to nature (allow species or the parts of ecological systems to be lost), people don’t seem so concerned. Now, of course, the argument is that the computer is designed by an engineer and nature is not. But my argument is that nature does have a design to it.  For example, you don’t have to believe in a creator or deity, but you could say that, after 3.5 billion years of evolution, a bird has a design. It is a remarkable flying machine, and it could do this long before we figured out how to fly. I feel that ecosystems, after 100s of millions of years of biological interactions, have a design. I feel that our knowledge of how ecosystems work is incredibly primitive. A computer engineer can look at a computer and tell you this is a bad design, or that part needs to be replaced, or I know why this is not working. We know next to nothing about how our trillion tonne biomass machine, made of 8.7 million different kinds of parts, and actually trillions and trillions of interconnected parts, functions. And yet we are allowing it to become dismantled. I feel that the public can kind of grasp the idea, but it’s been very difficult to show why biodiversity matters. So, that’s my surprise. I am never really surprised when I hear a more biodiverse system is more stable, or more efficient, or more productive, or more resistant to invasive species. Those things don’t surprise me. What surprises me is how difficult it is to prove that. No one has actually shown that more biodiversity is bad. That would be problematic for me. But it has been very hard to show that biodiversity is good. And that remains the case.


    HS: At the time when you did the experiments, did you have any inkling of how important the work and the paper might be?

    SN: Not at all. Like most post-docs., we thought if we could just get a Nature paper it would really help our careers. So, we were very excited about that. In hindsight, we can also say that we all did really well by this paper.

    But at that time, we did not expect that it would become so big, because the field was new, and nobody had thought about this. We didn’t think it would attract as much attention, say as a Nature paper on a well-studied subject, like climate change. Biodiversity-ecosystem functioning - even the term is so long and ugly that we call it BEF; we still don’t have a short term for it. But in a few years - I think two years later - it became the fifth most cited paper in global change research. Sharon Lawler and myself and Lindsey, we were really surprised, but even more so by the reasons for which it was getting cited. It was being cited so much because it was very controversial. There were many people who were pointing to it as misleading – overselling biodiversity. Or that it was badly designed. There were many critics of it. And in fact, a lot of the literature that then followed was addressing whether the results were being interpreted properly. Although, we ourselves had recognised, before the experiment was even done, that there were two ways in which biodiversity could improve ecosystem functioning; many assumed we were not aware of the two different ways to explain the results. One was that the high diversity plots simply had the key species in them, the ones which had the big impacts. Of course, it could work the other way too, i.e., high biodiversity plots could hold the species that had big negative impacts. The other possibility is that a more diverse community has more kinds of functions co-occurring. So you get more efficiency. In the chamber, if you have a tall plant, a short plant, a crawling plant, a plant that sort of grows on the side walls, and grasses that grow more centrally, it is going to be very hard for a photon to get to the ground, without being captured by a leaf. Instead, if you have a bunch of identically-structured plants, even if they have a decent amount of biomass, the light will go through and hit the ground. So, high biodiversity could have a positive impact on ecosystem function, either because it has the big impact species, or because it has a greater diversity of functional types. It did not occur to us, that people would feel, that if it is the former – the likelihood that you simply had big impact species in your high biodiversity – that that’s not a biodiversity effect; that it is simply a statistical effect. In fact, people who didn’t like our experiment called this the “hidden treatment”, implying that we had foolishly designed an experiment with a treatment we didn’t know existed and which sort of snuck up on us. It is no longer called that - it is now called the sampling effect or the selection effect. The functional diversity effect is now called complementarity. Like in the rhyme “The butcher, the baker the candlestick maker..”, a neighbourhood that has butchers, bakers and candlestick makers is better than a neighbourhood that has only butchers. A neighbourhood of people who complement one another, a diverse neighbourhood, is better than a homogeneous one. We recognised both these possibilities, but didn’t think it would become such a big deal. That’s why we didn’t even talk about it in our paper. I was actually surprised how more and more literature started to snowball on this.


    HS: Was the paper’s journey through review and publication smooth?

    SN: Yes. I think we were very moderate in the way we worded it. In fact, I think, in the end, I said something to the effect “to the extent that our results reflect what’s really going on in nature, they suggest that”. I think our closing paragraph was cautious. We recognised that it was a growth chamber experiment, and, therefore, inferences for the real-world need to be drawn cautiously. And Nature demands that.  When writing a Nature paper, you need to get as close to the edge of saying that you found something dramatic, but you can’t cross the line. It went through review quite smoothly. We did not have much resistance. Later on, partly because of the controversy created by our paper, and also because more people started working in this area, it became much more difficult to publish on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. And I think that’s pretty standard in science. Like, in molecular systematics, earlier you could use a single mitochondrial gene to do phylogenetic analysis, but these days that just won’t do. The demands for phylogenetic research have just gone up and up and up. Gone are the days of Linnaeus, when you could just simply write your dichotomous trees. A friend of mine – he was a fellow graduate student - who has been very successful doing molecular phylogenies throughout his career, freely admits that he would never accept a paper, today, which does a phylogenetic reconstruction on a single mitochondrial gene. And yet, that’s how his career started.

    Students don’t like to hear this, but I feel that we were very fortunate that when we started it was a brand new discipline. And we could get away with a lot. If we tried to submit this paper today I am sure it will be rejected, because it was not aware of the things that followed. So, I think it’s a universal thing about science that it progressively gets more and more complicated. So, if you get in in the early days, life is a little simpler.


    HS: It’s been 22 years since the paper was published. At any time during this period have you gone back to the paper - read it again - for any reason?

    SN: I use it in teaching. I am pleased that, now when I go to an ecology meeting, there is always a session or two or three on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. It’s become sort of a standard part of ecology, and there are a couple of textbooks as well, that mention our work. I never imagined that my work would appear in a textbook! So, it’s become kind of a standard way of thinking. If I were to ask a student why is biodiversity important, most of them today will talk about complementarity. So, when I teach, I very often say let’s take a look at the first experiment on this topic, because it was very simple  - we just had high, medium and low biodiversity, and we measured carbon dioxide sequestration, which back then was very difficult to measure, but now it’s much easier to measure because there is better technology. Our study is also one of the few to have multiple trophic levels. Most of the biodiversity experiments since then manipulate only one trophic level, usually plant diversity and nothing else.

    Thomas Kuhn says that a lot of the early experiments in science try to articulate an idea. I think ours is one such experiment – some people said biodiversity is related to the properties of ecosystems, so we said - okay, we will articulate that in the form of an experiment – manipulate biodiversity and measure the way the ecosystem functions. was the lead author – said that nature provides so much in the way of services that its monetary value would be twice the global GDP. That paper was also incredibly controversial. There are as many people who hated it as people who liked it. Bob Costanza said that the real value of that paper was not necessarily its content - there are much better data now, and we understand some of the mistakes we might have made - but that it provoked discussion. I often think of him saying that, and I feel that the great thing about the Ecotron paper also was that it provoked discussion. It’s funny - I am an ISI highly influential scientist, and I think it is primarily because of these two papers and a few others. But these are papers that don’t really need to be cited, except to say that these questions have been addressed for many years. I don’t think that many of the people who cite these papers today even read them – they cite them to put a date on the beginnings of the field.


    HS: Is that what this paper mostly gets cited for these days - as the first one to test the idea?

    SN: Yes, it mostly gets cited for being one of the first papers. At this point, there are so many more recent papers on the very same issue. For example, we now have papers that can actually statistically separate sampling effect from complementarity. Like I said earlier, while we were aware of these two effects, we didn’t discuss it at all in our paper, so there is no need to cite our paper when discussing sampling effect and complementarity. As an aside, we actually did a second experiment in the greenhouse, , to tease apart sampling or selection and complementarity, although we didn’t call it that.  It was done with the same species in the Ecotron but with only the plants. I don’t think it has been cited much. So, apart from saying that this question has been of interest for 22 years, there is not much reason to cite our 1994 paper. If you wanted to say that biodiversity effects consist of selection and complementarity you would probably go to , or something more recent. Because they are better examples. If you wanted to say biodiversity influences nitrogen cycling you would probably go to or , because they had much bigger experiments – hundreds of plots – and they were outdoors. So, our paper is mostly of historical interest.  If you look at the track record of most papers - I think about 99% of them are cited a very small number of times over the space of a few years - 3-4 years - and then they are hardly ever cited again. And then, there are a small number of papers which continue to be cited long after they were published. I was telling students about an old paper – -  HSS, as it is known – it is still cited today, but mostly to say that this idea, about why the world is green, is still around, and it’s been there for a long time. Papers like that are very few. I don’t think our paper had that kind of impact, because the idea was a very broad one, and there are better studies, much bigger studies now.


    HS: What would you say to a student reading your 1994 paper today? What should he or she take-away from it?

    SN: I would say, to notice that, compared to a lot of the literature that you read in ecology today, what we did was fairly simple. Also, that most of what you do in science consists of looking at stuff on bivariate plots. We tend to think X versus Y, and usually biodiversity is on the Y axis, and X is something like habitat fragmentation, ocean acidification, elevated CO2 etc. What was really bizarre about us was we had biodiversity on the x axis, and CO2 on the Y axis, and I think that is what really got people upset. To say that atmospheric CO2 was being driven by biodiversity seemed almost stupid – like we had got the R code backwards or something (you didn’t mean to plot it that way, right?). But, no, we did mean to plot it that way. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon at all to have number of species on the x axis. Nobody will get surprised by that at all. But then, it was a big deal.

    What I really liked about what we did was, not so much the actual ecological or environmental issue but, the fact that we thought differently, and that we were all excited about thinking differently.  Earlier, I told you something that nobody knows - that the experiment originally was, in fact, to have biodiversity on the y axis and temperature on the x axis. But then we had this idea, all by accident – John Lawton said take a look at this paper, proofread it, and that got me thinking – it came out of nowhere and we decided to pursue it.  It was risky, and John Lawton recognised that right away – he was going to support it, but he did recognise it was risky for our careers, and made sure we realised that.  

    These PhD interviews are going on right now in NCBS, all these professors are questioning them, and they know they have to master the state of current knowledge, but what will really advance their career is if they can actually breakaway from the current state and try to do something that will change that. There are three different qualities we value in research: one is to just do excellent work – this is the definitive study, it was beautifully done. The second is to do synthesis, where you say – well, somebody was thinking about this chemical phenomenon, and somebody was thinking about this biological phenomenon, and we put the two together. And the third is discovery. But it’s very hard to write a grant proposal and say - give me money for 5 years and, by accident, I will come up with (discover) something new. And yet, there are all these incredibly important discoveries - the idea of natural selection came to Wallace in a malarial fever dream, the fellow who discovered the structure of the benzene ring got it from a dream about monkeys, many discoveries in chemistry came from accidents in the lab - somebody tipped something and the colour changed and the whole colour industry in Germany was born. But we also know that “Chance favours the prepared mind”, so all these students need to prepare their minds, so that if something really interesting comes along, by accident, they seize the opportunity. It is very hard to design a research programme that optimises this. All you can do is be prepared to make use of unforeseen and unplanned opportunities.


    HS: Recently, I read somewhere about the importance of "limited sloppiness" in science. I have forgotten who coined the phrase - it was a famous chemist or biologist. 

    SN: I haven’t heard that one, that’s a great term.  ’s philosophical approach was completely different from Karl Popper’s. The Popperian method says - construct your null hypothesis, have an alternative, if you reject the null, favour the alternative. You never really wander very far, you just keep going through this chain of bifurcating hypotheses. Feyerabend, on the other hand, said - he didn’t use the term 'limited sloppiness' – it was important to be able to, first, recognise what constitutes a surprising event, and then capitalize on it. Don’t be constrained by orthodox methodology. I will give you an example. and had a bunch of data in which they were looking at marine species – marine biodiversity in the sediment. They had dropped cameras into the sediment and photographed invertebrates.  Martin said he had all this data and was interested in doing something on biodiversity-ecosystem functioning – sediment turnover was the function in this case.  So we got together – I was not on the paper, but I had a grant to bring people together to do this sort of stuff. So, what happened was Brad, who took the lead in analysing the data, got an asymptotic curve on the biodiversity ecosystem function graph. But he got two curves instead of one. He first thought that there was something wrong with the simulations, so he kept trying to rewrite the code, but he couldn’t get rid of the second curve. Finally he went to Martin, who is the marine biologist, who took a look at the data, and you know what they discovered? The difference between the two curves was a keystone species.  If the keystone species was present the whole system moves to another level, when it was absent it dropped! This turned out to be a really interesting finding, , and attracted quite a bit of attention. Just imagine if Brad had managed to “clean up the data”! .


    HS: One final question – maybe a difficult one- is this your favourite paper?

    SN: No, not really. It is probably the most important paper in my career, but it is not my favourite. You know, my most favourite paper was rejected so many times I gave up on it. It hasn’t been published. I had used a method called angular statistics, on predator-prey cycles, and was able to show that they really weren’t cycles. I thought it was neat, and nobody had ever done that before. But it’s been rejected and rejected and rejected. So my favourite paper is only mine!

    I think, what I didn’t like about the Ecotron experiment, was that it was indoors, in artificial conditions. I like being in the field. I have done a lot of laboratory research in my career, but I would say that my dissertation work, where I was in the rainforest of Costa Rica, working on 30-40 species of insects inside Heliconia flowers, that was when I really felt I was doing what motivates me – understanding how nature works.  And to me, to have worked in the middle of the jungle, collected all that data, and discovered a pattern that helped me understand this remarkable thing called  a tropical rainforest, was so much more rewarding than working with the “gardener’s nightmare”!





  • Post date: 1 year 10 months ago
    Citation for this post: BibTeX | RIS

    Soil Biodiversity Atlas

    What is soil biodiversity? How does it vary in space and time? What does it provide to society? What are the main threats to soil biodiversity? What can we do to preserve it? The first ever Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas uses informative texts, stunning photographs and striking maps to answer and explain these and other questions. - guest post via André Franco of the , an INNGE member organization 

    Soil is central to sustaining life on Earth.  Soils have an immense biodiversity that supports humans and terrestrial ecosystems and are directly related to environmental challenges including global climate change, food and fiber production, water pollution, and disease suppression. Soil organisms make up an estimated 25% of global biodiversity, yet most of them we cannot see on our own.

    The first Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas was released on May 25, 2016 at a side event of the United National Environment Assembly 2 in Nairobi, Kenya.  The Atlas is a remarkable international scientific effort between the and the , which brought together 121 experts in 29 countries.  The goal was to synthesize global scientific knowledge into an unprecedented collection of images, maps, and statistics for researchers and policy makers alike.

    The Atlas highlights the unseen majority of Earth's biodiversity and the critical role these organisms play in ecosystems: controlling the cycling nutrients and carbon, supporting plant growth and soil structure, filtering water, and decomposing organic material. It includes 8 chapters highlighting soil habitat, diversity of organisms, distribution of organisms, ecosystem function and services, threats to soil biodiversity, interventions, policy, education, and outreach.

    The atlas is available to download at no cost at the or the . It is also available for purchase for 25 Euros.

  • Post date: 2 years 1 month ago
    Citation for this post: BibTeX | RIS

    by Julia Clause and Rachel White

    On Sunday 13th December the BES, in collaboration with both INNGE and SFE, delivered a series of workshops targeted at students and early career researchers which was supported by additional events throughout the conference.

     Session 1: Raising your profile:

    This session focused on how to raise your profile in the digital and real world. Particular emphasis was placed on the importance of having a Twitter account – a MUST HAVE on the international ecological scene! Plenary questions at some meetings like the BES are only asked via the account, and loads of information such as job offers or workshop proposals only circulate on Twitter. It is also a great way to quickly schedule a meeting with someone.

    Among all other profile tools available to us scientists, ResearchGate is one of the most useful. On ResearchGate, you can find almost any ecologist in your field, his/her publications, and his/her network. Useful when you need a last-minute speaker!

    Session 2: Unlocking your potential

    This session, a regular feature of the BES Annual Meeting due to its popularity, was organised as a panel discussion and provided an opportunity for attendees to question ecologists representing a breadth of careers and career stages. Speakers were: Chris Sandom (University of Sussex, UK), Juliette Young (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, UK), Camille Parmesan (Plymouth University, UK), and Bob O’Hara (Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F), Germany). See their key points below.

    Session 3: Meet the Plenaries

    This session aimed at helping students prepare and ask questions to three plenary speakers. It started off by having Camille Parmesan giving tips on “What would a good plenary question look like?”

    Starting the next day, coffee breaks became a special moment, almost intimate, between the plenary speaker of the day and the students attending.

    Luigi Boitani’s (University of Roma, Italy) talk on Large carnivores in Europe: science, ethics and politics, and the challenge of maintaining viable populations in human-dominated landscapes was inspiring for all students, and brought many questions linked with policies and the responses of society in the areas that he studied. Some questions were obviously on rewilding in the UK, and in Scotland in particular, where there is an on-going debate about it (especially with respect to wolf reintroduction). His opinion was that it will never be possible nor viable to rewild without having the necessary natural habitat first.

    Josephine Pemberton is Professor of Molecular Ecology at the University of Edinburgh, UK. She is known for her involvement in two long-term, individual-based studies of wild vertebrates: red deer on the Isle of Rum and Soay sheep on St Kilda, and for pioneering methods for estimating genetic relationships in natural populations, including genetic parentage analysis to recover pedigrees and more recently, genomic approaches. Students mostly asked questions on the difficulties and opportunities for long-term funding.

    Pat Monaghan (University of Glasgow, UK). She did her PhD at Durham University on the problems associated with urban gulls, which included studies at nesting colonies and of the transmission of disease. Questions to her included the position of women in science and at the science-politics interface.


    Workshop option 1: Public engagement                   

    A NERC funded workshop chaired by Jessica Bays (BES Engagement Officer), who highlighted that targeting a wide audience is what can really help ecology have a more central role in society.

     Vicky Brightman, the Head of Engagement and Interpretation at Kew Gardens provided some insights on what public engagement is and what is successful public engagement. She recommended a website that explains it very well: (NCCPE).

    The following pyramid of the typology of Public Engagement was also presented (Fig. 1).

    Fig. 1. How is successful Public Engagement achieved? (A) Pyramid of Public Engagement. At the tip: a public engagement that requires the least from the audience. It is, for example, museums. At the bottom: the public engagement requires people to be completely involved in the process. It is, for example, citizen science. It is much harder and requires more energy from everyone. (B) Main ingredients for successful public engagement.

    For successful public engagement, several points must be addressed (see Fig. 1B).

    It is important that everyone has fun and that everyone learns from each other. Vicky gave the example of , which addresses both health and wellbeing issues of all ages. The message of the “Healing Giant” was to learn what plants provide us, but also to learn gardening and other skills.

    The workshop also allowed participants to practice their public engagement skills using the resources the BES took on the road in 2015 (). Some current BES Roadies were present to talk about their own experiences with sharing ecology to people at festivals.

    Here are examples of their regular activities:


    Activity 1: the Poop game. Link the poop to its owner


    Activity 2: Smell the Fungus… and link it to the corresponding smell (garlic? soap?)


    Activity 3: How long can you go without drinking?


    Activity 4: Find the animal on the picture. What is its strategy?

     We ended the session with suggestions to improve the existing BES Roadies activities, and with some time to think about potential new activities. One such novel activity proposed was a “2-in-1” activity on plant and seed ecology, specifically:

    i) A “tray activity” with which people would match pictures of leaves, flowers, seeds, pollen and eventually habitats (or a choice of the above) of one plant species. This would then trigger some discussion on, for example, why they are shaped the way they are – linking to pollination mechanisms.

    ii) A tent activity would delve deeper into the pollination methods and shape of seeds. A suggestion was made to have a fan, which would blow different types of seeds from different species, thereby showing that seed traits and characteristics play a role in pollination and other functions.


    Workshop option 2: Data sharing archiving and more

    The data management session comprised a panel discussion from four expert speakers, Nat Cooper (Trinity College Dublin, Ireland), Bob OHara (BiK-F, Germany), Sandy Buchanan (Ohio Citizen Action, OH, USA) and Derek France (University of Chester, UK). They each spoke about the benefits of using different types of technology to manage, share and use data more effectively. Some top tips included using an app or even creating your own to help with data collection - check out for inspiration. The panel also spoke about the benefits of sharing data to help increase their citation count. Lastly, there are many different platforms and software available now, which can be overwhelming, so the important thing to remember is to find and use one that is relevant to you.

    Session 4: Managing an International Career

    The focus of this workshop was to answer any questions about managing a careers on the international stage. It was chaired by Iain Stott (Post doc; Chair of the BES’s Early Careers Committee). Speakers included Kyle Dexter (lecturer; University of Edinburgh, UK), Alexa Sutton (PhD student, Duke university, NC, USA, living in London, UK; representative of INNGE), Will Gosling (Associate Professor, University of Amsterdam, NL; chair of the BES’s Education, Training and Careers Committee), Sandra Varga (Post doc, Marie Curie Fellowship, University of Lincoln, UK), and Peter Baxter (Post doc, The University of Queensland, Australia).

    International careers

    Session 5: The breadth of ecological careers

    In this workshop, speakers came from various ecological backgrounds that led them to do a PhD and to use the skills they acquired throughout the years to pursue non-traditional/academic careers. Alistair Headley has eight years experience as an ecological consultant as well as over 23 years of experience of teaching in British universities; Catharine Bruce, who completed her PhD in 2013 is now the Director of NatureMetrics, a start-up company on the use of metabarcoding as a tool for informing environmental management; Regan Early is a researcher in a highly interdisciplinary environment, and has been involved in research synthesis working groups and writing large- scale grant proposals; Philippa Gullett is a project manager in conservation for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), her work revolving around testing management solutions to reverse the decline of breeding curlew populations across the UK (using a combination of habitat management and predator control).

    It is hard to succinctly summarise the speakers’ activities as their paths are divergent and diverse, but it was definitely inspiring to see where a career in ecology and the associated skills can bring you, sooner or later, and reassuring to know that PhD and early Post-Doctoral training can assist in building a considerable transferable skillset for any desired career pathway.

  • Post date: 2 years 3 months ago
    Citation for this post: BibTeX | RIS

    has been a wildlife biologist with the US Geological Survey for more than 40 years and a long-time collaborator on conservation research projects in India. At the in September 2015, Dr. Nichols spoke about ways to integrate science into conservation decision-making, drawing upon his own experiences working with wildlife managers in North America.  Hari Sridhar spoke to Dr. Nichols after the talk, to find out more about his work.

    Hari: In your talk at SCCS-Bengaluru, you said that the way in which scientists usually engage with park managers and conservation decision-makers is inefficient. Why do you think so?

    Jim Nichols: I guess the first thing I should say is that inefficiency is not a horrible crime. It is just that, in the conservation world today, our dollars and efforts are so limited. If we can do better within our limited means, why not do so?

    I think the inefficiency comes via a lack of communication and a lack of a central programme within which everyone works. What often happens - or at least what I have seen in my world - is a group of scientists interested in a particular system will get money for studying that particular system, claiming that what they learn will be useful to conservation folks. They will then go out and perform the study, learn something and then give that information to the manager or conservation guy who is actually on the ground doing things. I don’t claim that what is learnt is never useful, but very frequently it doesn’t hit the mark. In other words, what scientists learn is not exactly what the decision maker needs to make a conservation decision. And that’s where the inefficiency is. So then you basically have two groups who are angry at each other – the scientist says, ‘oh this guy is not paying attention to my work’, or ‘he is not reading the right journal’ or something, and the conservationist guy says ‘well, the scientist is pursuing his own interests rather than thinking exactly about what I need to help me make my decision’. It is in this sense that I view what we do today as inefficient.


    H: Do you think part of the problem is that the scientist and decision-maker don’t work together right from the beginning?

    JN: Yes, one way that ought to hold promise for getting rid of this problem is having scientists and conservation folks working together from the beginning, and treating science basically as a useful piece of a much larger conservation programme. That way the science itself ends up being directed at things that are most useful to the conservation decision maker. What might these be? Mainly, trying to predict the effects of the usually pitifully small number of actions we can take on the system that we are working on. Once the scientists recognise exactly what the decision maker needs, you are ensuring that the kinds of hypotheses tested are directly relevant to the decision process.


    H: In your talk you called this process ‘Adaptive resource management’. Is this something that has been around for a while in a formal way?

    JN: Okay, that’s an interesting story. The fundamental idea of adaptive management is trying to manage in the face of uncertainty.  As a conservation guy, if you knew exactly what to do you don’t really need this. But we are involved in so many situations where there is a lot of uncertainty. In such situations there are two approaches one can take - the old approach would be to have scientists go out and study the problem for a long, long time – 5-10 years – and then provide results that hopefully reduce the uncertainty associated with the management problem - uncertainty associated with how actions translate into responses. The claim of adaptive management is that that’s foolish for a couple of reasons – first is time - bad things continue to happen when the scientist is off trying to learn stuff. The other problem is when the scientist comes back at the end of 10 years or so, almost invariably there is all kinds of uncertainty still left -you never just solve everything completely. And so a guy named ended up saying ‘why don’t we go ahead and begin management right away – let’s not delay, but what we will do is try to embed science within the management process so we learn while we are doing’. So, it’s a ‘learning by doing’ kind of an idea. 


    H: Can you give us an example?

    JN: The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has, for a long time, been responsible for hunting regulations for ducks in my country. In 1995, there was a political play on this whereby a state got hunting regulations tilted in its favour. They had gone around a process which had been in place for a good 30 years. When this happened, virtually one congressman from every state which had not benefited from this play wrote to the Secretary of Interior saying ‘boy, you really messed up’. People were really, really mad and brought all kinds of political pressure to bear.

    I’ll back up a tiny bit here - there was a visionary guy named who, in the early 1990s, realised that for this kind of duck harvest management, adaptive management will be a really smart thing to do. So he formed a working group, of which I and a small number of others were part. From 1991-95 we developed an adaptive management framework for duck hunting, basically saying that if ever the situation came up, this is how we would go about attacking the problem. So when this problem happened in 1995, we went before the USFWS director and made our case. At that time the director was looking for any process that she could claim was transparent and defensible. And so it was just the perfect time for us to march in and present our adaptive management plan, and she readily agreed. For the next six months, folks, where I work, had to drop everything else to take this forward.  All the modelling and optimisation stuff that had to be put in place was a huge effort -we called it our ‘Manhattan project’. Anyway we (led by Johnson) got the thing together and since 1995 this adaptive harvest management has been implemented for our biggest population of hunted ducks - mid-continental mallards. It has been a success story in the sense that it has reduced the contentiousness that accompanied the establishment of hunting regulations each year. It has reduced the uncertainty - to begin with we had four competing models - four different scenarios of how hunting regulations might affect populations – and now we have ended up having a pretty high degree of confidence in one model, a little confidence in another, while the other 2 are not good predictors at all. And so this adaptive management tenet, of learning while you are doing, has absolutely happened - we can show you how our formal degrees of confidence in different models have changed over time. The idea is that you don’t just learn, but while you are learning you use what you have learnt. Our idea of what is the optimal/smartest thing to do has changed – we are giving the two best models more and more influence - not in a folksy way but in mathematical way - in the optimisation process. We are not only learning by doing but we are using what we have learnt at each time step.


    H: This process requires the scientist and manager to work together, to collaborate right from the beginning. Does that mean that the managers need to have an appreciation and an understanding of the numbers that go into it?

    JN: I think it is important. However, there are degrees. I don’t think it is important necessarily that the manager know all the details of how we build our models, how we estimate things like survival rates, and certainly how we do the optimization - that stuff gets fairly ugly. But I do think it is important that the managers have at least a folksy understanding of how the process works. It is very important for those of us who do the more detailed mathematical stuff try to explain what we are doing to the managers, to the degree possible. A lot of interaction is needed.


    H: Is communicating the uncertainty and likelihood of error in science particularly difficult, especially since people usually think of science as ‘truth’ and ‘fact’?

    JN: Yes it is. Getting the ideas of uncertainty across, in terms of how we quantify it, how we can make statements about it, and I guess most importantly how we deal with it when we have to make decisions is difficult. But it shouldn’t be difficult - I mean think about your most important decisions – choosing somebody to marry, how many children to have, where to send your kids to school - every decision we make is characterised by uncertainty. Yet we find a way, through intuition most of the time, to make the ‘right’ decisions. All we are doing differently here is using a mathematical formalism in the place of intuition, not because formal is necessarily good, but because very often the optimal solutions are different from what we might have thought of intuitively. My intuition doesn’t work as well as I would like it to. The other reason to use formalism is transparency – we can show people exactly how we arrived at a decision step-by-step. Anyway, communicating the uncertainty is a big deal for sure.


    H: Especially because managers are likely to be making most others decisions based entirely on their intuition?

    JS: Sure, and I get that and maybe that is good a lot of the time. What’s most interesting is that the managers who are most interested in listening to our ideas are often the ones in the most contentious situations. Now if you are a manager and nobody is complaining to you about the decisions you are making, why bother with this tedious process? But the folks we see who are most interested in this stuff are like the USFWS in the duck case. THE USFWS was getting it from both sides - people suing them, taking them to court for allowing hunting and others being angry because they couldn’t shoot enough. Endangered species folks are very interested in this approach. Why? Because they are constantly getting thrown into court and need to defend the decisions they have taken in a detailed step-by-step fashion. 


    H: You speak about court cases.  At least in working with the manager you might have the luxury of time - you can sit with him or her for a few days/weeks and explain all this stuff.  When you have to make a case using numbers in a short period of time in front of a judge, is that a lot more difficult, to get them to appreciate the nuances of numerical arguments?

    JN: It’s difficult for sure. The only court case I was in happened before we adopted this adaptive management sort of approach. It had to do with setting of hunting regulations for one species of duck.  The law stated that the regulations had to be set in a manner that was not ‘arbitrary and capricious’. So all we had to do was bring in all the computer print outs and convince the judge that we were trying really hard to figure out how this population was doing and what regulations made most sense. That basically won the day in that case. But I would approach it differently if I find myself in court again in the future – I would actually try to lay out the details of how we come up with a particular decision.

    Your question brings to mind a famous murder case in our country – the OJ Simpson case. In that case, one very important consideration was how likely it was that the blood at the crime site - which was a very close match to OJ Simpson’s – how likely was it that it came from someone else.  The probability turned out to be very small. Unfortunately, the guy who came up with the probability made a mistake initially and then revised it. Now, the mistake was ridiculously small – the number was different only after 10 decimal places so it did not change the inference in any way.  But yet it allowed the defence to say ‘hey wait, this guy messed up. He gives us one number one day and another number the next day. Why should we to listen to him?”  Just an illustration of the danger and difficulty of presenting and defending numbers in a court case.


    H: Do you think this process of adaptive management you describe is suitable for certain kinds of systems more than others – e.g. simpler ecological systems where one or two factors are dominant; systems where management interventions are simpler?  Or do you think it is useful no matter what the complexity? What if your interest was in a community of organisms and if there were multiple problems that interact?

    JN: I think there are two situations where it is not useful.   If you really have certainty - if you know, for example, that villagers inside a protected area are 100% the reason for the problem with tiger prey numbers and you know that you can somehow find them a better livelihood outside the protected area, then your problem is solved - there is no need for adaptive management. Adaptive management is designed for situations where there is uncertainty. It is also setup as a recurrent management decision process. In other words, if you are making a one-time decision, and you are never ever going to revisit that decision, and you are not going to make similar decisions in similar situations elsewhere, then there is no need for adaptive management, because there is no need for learning. But given there is uncertainty and a need for recurrent decisions it is useful no matter what the complexity of the situation. It is useful but more difficult.

    Some people use that to say that’s way too complicated and that we can’t possibly go through all these steps and get agreement. But my claim there is that there is no alternative. What’s the alternative? I guess you just do whatever you feel like and hope it works, but there is no alternative that I would know how to defend.


    H: You spoke about how environmental variation can influence all of this and therefore needs to be incorporated. But what about externalities that influence the management decision itself, e.g.  factors outside a park that influence a manager’s decision? Is this process insulated from all of that and are you working with the assumption that the manager has full control over decision making and implementation? Or are you moving to a process that also incorporates externalities - political pressures, changing societal values etc.?

    JN: Okay, I guess there are two things I want to say in response. So far we have been lucky that the USFWS, has always accepted and implemented what we come up with every year. But the USFWS director has the power to override what we recommend and say ‘you know, I am going to try something different this year’. I don’t think anybody would ever do it because they would have to defend it, and it would not be possible to defend it. Basically you have to answer the question - ‘why is it that you are doing something other than what’s been shown to be the smartest thing you can do given your objectives’. That’s a hard thing to answer. But you are right, in many cases the ultimate decision maker could override you. In the case of the red knots and horse shoe crabs the decision maker is the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission – so the first thing we made sure was that the main decision maker is at the table when you are going through all this stuff. You don’t just do it in a vacuum and say – ‘hey, I came up with a smart way to make decisions for you guys’. So we had them in from the very beginning and they have now formally accepted our process, although they always have the power to override. The second point I want to make is about other externalities – if it turns out, as you say, that political support or societal values are changing. We try very hard to ensure that all relevant stakeholders, all people who even think they are stakeholders or should be stakeholders are included in the first part of this setup phase when we are coming up with the objectives. The ‘kiss of death’ for one of these projects would be to have one group that thinks it should be part of this process but is not included. Then, even if you come up with suggestions that are consistent with that group’s point, they might not support you because they are mad at not being included. So, it is crucial that politicians, members of civil society, different groups – conservation groups, hunter groups, etc. - whoever thinks they have something to say about this, is brought to the table when the objectives are being discussed.


    H: In terms of the kinds of interventions possible – is this process more useful in the case of interventions that have a very direct bearing on the problem e.g. allowing or not allowing hunting of a species, as against interventions that might only have an indirect impact, e.g. controlling tourists in an area that houses an important species?

    JN: Yes, it is easier to think of it in the former, but I almost think that adaptive management may even be more important in the latter, because there is probably greater uncertainty. For example, I am involved in a re-introduction programme for this duck species called Steller’s eider in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta in Alaska. And there one of the things we talk about is public education. We debate about the importance an education programme that might help reduce hunting by local indigenous people. That’s a potential action in which there is a great deal of uncertainty about whether or not it will be useful to the project.  But I think the less certain we are about its influence the more important it is to use a process like this to help you learn how relevant the action might be.


    H: Is this process used widely now?

    JN: No, not at all. I am not even sure of a number. I am involved in I guess five different formal programmes right now. As I said earlier, the difficulty is you can’t just convince people by giving a talk or making a presentation. There’s a long way between that and getting it done. In each one of the five programmes I am involved in I have had to spend a lot of time and effort and basically be a part of that programme for a number of years. Obviously, I am not the only guy - I have got a small number of colleagues who have done exactly the same thing. But what that has resulted in is a relatively small number of places where this form of programme has been carried out. In the duck world for example, it has been extended now to a number of different species and populations. My vision for the future, for conservation biology, is that this will be something much more common place, that it will be the norm, but it’s nowhere close to that right now, either in the US or anywhere else in the world. That vision maybe way further off than I would like it to be. But I think the more case studies we present that show that this thing works – that it is transparent and gives defensible results  - my hope is, the more widely it would be adopted.


     H: The dynamic - between manager and scientist – seems crucial for this process to work. Does the fact that you work for a government agency make for an easier, more equal, working relationship with managers, as compared to, for example, if you were from a university?

    JN: I don’t know. I would like to think that a university person could do it. We have this umbrella agency called the Department of the Interior and the USFWS is part of that Dept. I happen to work for the US Geological Survey- it seems strange but they do have a biology group. The idea is that all the science folks work in this Geological Survey and the folks concerned with on- ground management are in places like USFWS or the National Park Service. So even in my case we do have this separation - yes, I work for a government agency but I am identified as a science guy. And a lot of the time I think the successes that we have had have been in spite of, rather than because of, our organisational structure. In other words, because we think it is very important to interact with managers, if I was developing big organisations I wouldn’t separate managers and scientists organizationally). So even though I am in the government, there is still this big distinction made – maybe not quite as much as between university and managers. Even the mechanics of promotion are different – we are evaluated on scientific stuff, managers are evaluated for different things.


    H: You mentioned earlier in the conversation and in your talk that while science can aid conservation decision-making, the choices we make and the values underlying them need to come from society. Therefore, do you also feel that scientists should have limited, clearly-defined roles – restricted to their research - in conservation?

    JN: That’s a good question. I hadn’t thought about it exactly that way so my top of the head thought is: the role of the scientist is very clear in the process I laid out. In coming up with objectives scientists should have no more say than anybody else in the public. They do they have a place at the table, but it absolutely is not any more important than that of anybody else. Like I said earlier, you want to make sure that all the stakeholders are there and the scientist is just one stakeholder at best. Now with regard to the second step - coming up with management alternatives – there scientists have a somewhat bigger role, but again, the manager is most important here, because he or she knows what’s feasible much better than a scientist. The steps where the scientist has the most important role is in the development of models, development and implementation of the monitoring programme and the implementation of the decision analysis. That’s interesting - the way I see adaptive management it seems like there are very clear roles for people.

    I’ll also add that I see a very important role for social science within conservation science. In the process I envision, social science is extremely important in setting objectives. In the cases I have been involved in -  I was never trained in that social science stuff – but yet I was sitting there in the front of the room trying to get people who hate each other – or rather hate each other’s ideas  - to come up with a compromise set of objectives. I am guessing a social scientist or somebody who is trained to do that will probably have done that a lot more effectively than I was able to. So there is a role for social scientists in this, not necessarily in the development of models or monitoring, but there is a clear role.


    H: But you often find scientists going beyond their science and becoming advocates for particular causes. Often, they weigh in on conservation issues that they might not have researched themselves. Do you think that part of the problem is a mixing of personal values and professional responsibilities, i.e. that many scientists in conservation get into the field because of their interest in protecting wild species and places?

    JN: I have no problem in a scientist expressing to people what his or her values are – that doesn’t bother me at all.  Any stake holder should be able to do that. But that my values should be privileged over yours because I am a science guy and I know more than you – that I disagree with. The reason why I value a species might be because it plays an important ecological role. Someone might value it because he or she like’s going to bed somehow knowing that it’s out and would feel poorer if it wasn’t. Other people might have other - economic - priorities in mind. So there is no reason why scientists’ opinions should be taken any more importantly than anyone else’s, with respect to objectives.


  • Post date: 2 years 6 months ago
    Citation for this post: BibTeX | RIS

    is Richard Clark Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. On 6th October, 2015 she gave a talk at National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru based on her book , co-authored with . Blindspot discusses ‘hidden biases’ that all of us carry as a result of our social experiences - biases related to gender, ethnicity, religion, social class, physical traits of people, etc. After the talk, I emailed Mahzarin a few questions about the implications of her findings for the way we run academia.

    (Questions emailed on 8th October 2015; responses received on 11th October 2015)


    Hari: In your talk at NIAS, you said that interviews are the wrong way to compare candidates when hiring for a job (or a PhD programme). Can you tell us why you think so?

    Mahzarin Banaji: No doubt, interviews provide unique and even valuable information. But interviews also provide a great deal of irrelevant and even biasing information. Without knowledge, the interviewer is unable to separate the information that is actually a predictor of success versus information that is irrelevant and even pernicious. For example, preferences for those who are like us or share our beliefs is a powerful bias. In addition, stereotypes based on physical appearance, the degree of slickness of presentation, and categories of gender, ethnicity, community, caste, religion, social class, age, and language are given weight even when they may not be good predictors of performance.   


    H: Do you suggest that we do away with face-to-face interviews altogether? Or, are there ways in which interviews can be modified to reduce/eliminate bias?

    MB: There may well be ways of getting rid of interviews altogether, but in many instances, a candidate’s ability to speak and communicate is part of the hiring decision.  In this case, how might we get such information?  One possibility is that a face-to-face interview is conducted by a non-decision maker whose job is to pose a specific set of questions and simply pay attention to the skill of communication.  That information may be added to other data contained in the resume. It may be possible in such a case to not have the decision-maker meet with the candidate at all, but to use the communication score as input along with the resume.  This is not fool-proof of course, because the person testing communication skills will also be influenced by physical beauty, etc.  But if they are trained only to attend to one feature (i.e., communication skill) it may be possible to get an assessment that is lower in bias.  

    I am not saying that resumes contain all the relevant information at all, or that they alone should be trusted.  In fact, I would be in favour of doing away with resumes submitted by candidates and for these to be replaced by a form that all applicants complete. That way, the university or company gets to decide which variables are important for selection rather than candidates making that assessment. If one's family has been in the ‘business’ of crafting and submitting resumes for a few generations such a person will naturally have tacit knowledge about how to produce an effective resume.  If you want to create an equal playing field, all candidates should have to provide only the information required on a form.  That way I don’t need to know your marital status or what you do in your spare time, items that often appear on a resume.  Application forms should also be designed in such a way that more precise information is elicited about what exactly a person did to acquire the experience they say they have.  For example, a candidate notes on her resume:

    • Responsible for development & maintenance of an integrated digital strategy with objectives of Lead generation, Service Visibility, Brand Building and Thought Leadership. Oversee campaign management, Adwords, SEM and content strategy.  
    • Identified market opportunities, analyse customer needs and turn these into product requirements.

    How is a decision-maker to know from this what exactly the person has done, how deep their role was, and how effective they were? We need to move to a process where the resume is replaced by an application form that seeks information in depth about actual work done, and for us not to be satisfied with such general and even vacuous statements.  


    H: Do you think these blindspots also affect other aspects of academia, e.g. peer-review of papers and grant proposals?

     MB: Whenever biasing information is present, and especially if it is not acknowledged as being biasing, we must remain open to the possibility that it may play a role in our decision making.  

     It is often difficult to keep peer-reviewed papers and grant proposals fully blind, but to the extent they can be, it is a reasonable strategy.


    H: Do you think academia is doing enough to tackle bias and prejudice?

     MB:Those who belong to institutions of higher learning tend to think of themselves as unmotivated by concerns other than the pursuit of truth. They are indeed people who care less about making money, because many academics could indeed be employed in ways that would allow them to make substantially more money. For these reasons, perhaps, and because we do not have good measures or regular analysis of where our decisions were right or wrong, members of  academia can hold on to the myth that they are not biased.  In my experience, although universities and research institutions have come to see that their own decision making needs to be examined, it is those in the private sector who are the most aware — because they can see how biases based on group membership can cost them their bottom line and with immediate impact.


    H: Psychologists, as a community, are probably much more aware of these issues. Does that also make them less prone to these biases?

    MB: I don’t think so.   showed that citation bias (in this case, the extent to which authors cite members of their own ethnic/religious community) exists even in a secular country like the United States. And such bias was greater among those who studied the topic of prejudice! That’s maybe because of a lack of awareness of bias, and those who study it feeling that they are outside the fray of bias. 


    H: How should an academician deal with his or her biases, so that they don't affect the professional decisions he or she makes? 

     MB: Awareness is the first step. Identifying the points in the decision making stream where bias can operate is a worthy endeavour. Constant vigilance is a must. And finding ways to have public discourse about the possible solutions that will work for a given community is the hard and final step. 




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