#INT13 day 3 – when the superstars of ecology came out

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In the final blog covering the ecological conference INTECOL, BMC Ecology looks back at a day of conservation, policy, and “ecological rockstars”

Yesterday’s post highlighted the problems of space in ecology, and via a rather tenuous link to Milton Mendonca’s (UFRGS) afternoon talk asking whether metapopulation theory can be be used to inform a new science of “astroecology”, today’s post is all about stars.

Kicking off with Georgina Mace’s centenary address as British Ecological Society (BES) president, this was the first of a number of talks throughout the day focusing on questions of conservation and policy, asking the rather thorny question: “who is conservation for?”

With a creative use of wordclouds to illustrate the changing face of conservation science since the 1960’s, Mace emphasized how focus has shifted from conservation for its own sake, through both positive and negative aspects (what she called “nature for people” vs “nature despite people”), and finally to where we currently are in our understanding of how resilience, adaptation and plasticity affect species’ responses to a changing world.

In spite of the problems facing vulnerable species in the future, there remained a celebratory mood to today’s proceedings. An unprecedented six national and international ecologists were decorated this year with the society’s highest award — honorary membership of the BES, recognizing outstanding contributions by a senior scientist to the field of ecological research.

Undoubtedly the most oversubscribed presentation of the congress was one former recipient, former BES president Bob May. His afternoon talk reflected on 50 years of change in the field of ecology, giving passing praise to the work of 18th Century clergyman Gilbert White, whose study of the natural history of Selborne in Hampshire (UK) is widely recognized as the birthplace of ecology as a science. Describing what he referred to as perhaps “the longest experiment in ecology”, May regaled a standing-room-only audience with the story of a visit to the village of Selborne to revisit data on the swift population that formed part of White’s original study, some 300 years after the first datum was collected.

Can you spot Bob May?

A last minute alteration to the schedule did not disappoint in the final Plenary of the day, as Bill Sutherland (Cambridge) stepped in for an absent Jane Lubchenco to ask “How can we improve decision making?”

His engaging discussion on how evidence, decision-making and policy don’t always make for a harmonious mix clearly struck a chord with the assembled crowd, provoking some of the liveliest discussion on the Twitter-based question time format used throughout the week. Drawing on the field of medical research to demonstrate that better evidence-based decision making can be achieved in conservation and ecology, he also presented cautionary data revealing that “experts” may not always make the best advisers, since they have a tendency to overestimate their own expertise. Perhaps most worryingly, he also cautioned that the decision-making of both conservation practitioners and medical practitioners alike may be being compromised through lack of access to the published literature.

It did not escape the notice of some that the views of the assembled “expert” panel for the Q&A session that followed might now have to be taken in a somewhat different light given the recent evidence…

INTECOL rockstarsDrawing on their collective careers advising governments and NGOs, the panel which included former british chief science adviser Bob May, former BES president John Lawton, and renowned US ecologist Stephen Hubbell, each gave a personal account of their experience working on both sides of the ecological/ political divide.

“Politics is a different type of intellectual activity to science…politicians have genuinely different things to consider”, was Lawton’s philosophical take, before conceding light-heartedly “it’s a bloody miracle any decisions are made at all!”.

Hubbell echoed the sentiment, cautioning that better engagement with the language of politics needs to be had before any meaningful progress can be made in policy decisions: “we are clueless as to how to communicate to people whose world views are different from our own”.

Better communication and better engagement was the message to future research ecologists with an interest in policy and decision-making. And perhaps the simplest advice of all was offered: continue to do excellent research.

On the strength of the week’s congress, this should be eminently achievable.

Read more:

#INT13 day 1 – In which ancient Greek philosophy meets “the other Darwin”

#INT13 day 2 – the problem with space and the problem with publishing in the developing world

simon.harold@biomedcentral.com