Do environmental worldviews and distrust in science affect those who care for our land?

Among other land types, our forests are important in supporting nature recovery and in helping society to respond to environmental change. When the majority of forests are owned by private individuals, their owners’ beliefs and actions can have a significant effect on the potential of these important benefits. Researchers from three different institutes worked together seeking to understand these factors and their results are published in a recent research paper in Small-scale Forestry.

It almost goes without saying that trees and their associated ecosystems are among the most important life forms on Earth. Readers may be surprised that in the UK only 13% of its landmass is covered by forests (making it one of the least-forested countries in Europe) and more than two-thirds of these forests are in private ownership.

© Gabriel Hemery

Each year, Brain Structure and Function presents an Editor’s Choice Award in conjunction with the Cajal Club. The winning papers are selected by the journal’s editorial team, with the prize aiming to celebrate early career researchers and recognize their achievements as they progress in the field of neuroscience.

Ordinarily, these awards are presented as part of a ceremony during the Cajal Club’s annual social at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, one of the largest scientific conferences in the world. Proceedings may have moved online this year, but the award was still an excellent opportunity to showcase authors’ valued contributions to the journal.

The selection process for the Editor’s Choice Award is extremely competitive, and consists of multiple stages. Of 222 eligible publications from across 2019, Brain Structure and Function’s Associate Editor team nominated a shortlist of 19 papers. 

From the shortlist, four panel members each voted on their top picks, from which the winner and runner up emerged.

This year’s winning papers

The winner of this year’s award is Hong-Hsi Lee, for his article “Along-axon diameter variation and axonal orientation dispersion revealed with 3D electron microscopy: implications for quantifying brain white matter microstructure with histology and diffusion MRI

[caption id="attachment_35384" align="alignleft" width="300"]Lee et al. figure - the semi-automatic segmentation process for the inside of axons, as depicted in the winning article. Lee et al. figure - the semi-automatic segmentation process for the inside of axons, as depicted in the winning article.[/caption]

In this article, electron microscopy images showing the brains of mice are reconstructed. Previous modeling of neuronal tissue has relied on several assumptions about structure, for example that axons (long projections of nerve cells, or neurons) are perfectly cylindrical and even in diameter, or that the bundles of fibers within the axons are oriented consistently.

However, here an algorithm was developed and applied in order to rapidly segment individual constituents of axons, allowing for the calculation of several size-related parameters. While it was found that the distribution of the orientation of fibers within these axons remains stable along their length, the diameter of the axons varies. This means that in tissue microstructure modeling scenarios, an active area of research bridging the gap between the structure and function of the brain, axons should not be modeled as perfectly cylindrical.

At the time of this research being carried out, Hong-Hsi Lee was undertaking his PhD studies at New York University School of Medicine, advised by Els Fieremans and Dmitry S Novikov. 

Now a Post-Doctoral Fellow at NYU, Hong-Hsi’s research projects continue to focus on the validation of biophysical models, analyzing numerical simulations in order to confirm or challenge various assumptions made in their design. Having developed a framework relevant to 3D cells organelles, he is now collaborating with Susie Y. Huang at Massachusetts General Hospital and Jeff W. Lichtman at Harvard University to extend this knowledge into human brain tissues, with promising preliminary results.

[caption id="attachment_35382" align="alignright" width="300"]2020 winner Hong-Hsi Lee 2020 winner Hong-Hsi Lee[/caption]

Additionally, drawing on his statistical modeling skills and further expertise having completed an MD with the National Taiwan University, Dr Lee has undertaken an additional research project this year, looking at the collateral effects of measures against COVID-19 on common infections. His analysis of Taiwan’s National Health Insurance database showed that following the implementation of measures such as mask wearing and regular hand washing, rates of hospitalization due to other infections have been significantly decreased.

This year’s runner up prize for the Editors’ Choice Award went to Habon Issa, for her work as first author on an article comparing the brain microstructure of bonobo and chimpanzees, revealing differences in socio-emotional circuits.

[caption id="attachment_35385" align="alignleft" width="300"]Issa et al. figure - a comparison of the proportion of neuropils (structural, connective elements of the brain) between Bonobos and Chimpanzees, alongside a microscopic image of the amygdala nuclei located in the brain) Issa et al. figure - a comparison of the proportion of neuropils (structural, connective elements of the brain) between Bonobos and Chimpanzees, alongside a microscopic image of the amygdala nuclei located in the brain)[/caption]

While humans’ closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, are also closely related to each other, they show several important differences in behavior. Bonobos’ social tolerance is high, while chimpanzees are indicated to be more aggressive and territorial. 

This study in the journal compared bonobo and chimpanzee brain microstructure, by looking at the ratio of tissue area occupied by structural elements like axons and synapses, against area occupied by cell bodies.

It was found that a higher proportion of axons, dendrites and synapses were found in specific regions of the bonobo brain when directly compared to those regions in the chimpanzee brain. This supports the hypothesis that comparatively increased presence of these connective elements may reflect variation in behavior between bonobos and chimpanzees. 

When the research for this article was undertaken, Habon Issa was an undergraduate student at the George Washington University, something senior author Chet Sherwood noted as being particularly impressive upon her nomination for the award. 

[caption id="attachment_35381" align="alignright" width="254"]2020 runner-up Habon Issa 2020 runner-up Habon Issa[/caption]

At the time of the article’s publication, Habon had moved on to become a research technician in Mark Wu’s lab at John Hopkins University, studying genes influencing sleep timing and drive. Following on from this, she moved to New York University to begin a PhD with Robert Froemke’s lab, identifying the neurons behind maternal motivation for interaction with young.

The key themes running through Habon’s experiences are her interest in the neuroanatomy, genes and molecular mechanisms relating to social and naturalistic behaviors.

Could you be a winner?

We’re delighted that Hong-Hsi and Habon both published their research with Brain Structure and Function, and wish them both the best for their future research careers. The Editors’ Choice Award runs annually - all submissions published in the previous year are eligible for nomination providing that they have a first author who is within the first ten years of their research career.

Want to be in with a chance to be considered for a future Editors’ Choice Award? Find out more about submitting to Brain Structure and Function

There is a commonly-held perception that these landowners are traditional in mindset, and reluctant to accept some implications for the impacts of environmental change or to adopt novel approaches in their land management. An example of a behavior to provide for environmental change is for forest owners to diversify the composition of tree species, whether at the genetic level (variation within species) or the species level by considering new species, including non-natives or less traditional choices.

We were interested in the worldviews of forest owners and managers, as measured by the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP). This is a concept which distinguishes between a pro-ecological worldview that recognizes anthropogenic impact on the environment, and a dominant social paradigm which is a worldview more anthropocentric and materialist with a utilitarian attitude to the environment. We wanted to explore how these worldviews interacted with a distrust in science or policy recommendations, something which we termed ‘discredence’.

We developed a conceptual framework (see Figure 1) to show the influence of worldview and discredence on awareness, aspiration, and action among woodland managers for adaptation measures that would support more resilient forests, woodlands and trees across the landscape, i.e. resilient treescapes.

Figure 1: Conceptual framework to show the influence of ecological worldview and discredence on awareness, aspiration and action among woodland managers for adaptation measures. (© Gabriel Hemery)

For our data, we drew upon the UK-wide British Woodlands Survey, administered by the Sylva Foundation, plus semi-structured interviews to gather qualitative information from some respondents.

We discovered that where owners and managers of the smallest woodlands (up to 5 ha) had a more utilitarian worldview, there was a greater chance of them actively putting in place adaptation measures such as diversifying tree species. Among managers of larger woodlands (greater than 50 ha), the interaction worked the other way around, i.e. a less utilitarian more ecological worldview, the greater the chance that changes in forestry practice were being made.

Risk and uncertainty are significant factors affecting decision making and practice

A distrust of science and policy appeared to influence what owners and managers of small- and medium-sized woodland (up to 50 ha) did. The greater the feeling that information, advice and support measures were representative of these managers’ beliefs and operating contexts, the greater the chance they were adapting through species diversification.

Risk and uncertainty emerged as significant additional factors affecting decision making and practice, as they have in similar studies. The apparent lack of diversity of the timber industry to modify processing, marketing, and end uses to accommodate changes in forest management practices, such as diversification to novel and alternative species, was noted as a significant barrier to change amongst owners and managers of larger and medium-sized woodlands, irrespective of owners’ and managers’ worldviews or acceptance of recommendations for adaptive practice. To support adaptation in these circumstances will require societal transformation.

© Gabriel Hemery

Our identification of representation in policy, practice and research being linked with discredence, was an important finding. We believe that providing information and knowledge through traditional models, e.g. print material or technical talks, are not a panacea that will help land owners move from awareness of what might be done, to actual adaptive actions.

In future, moving to participatory and flexible models of learning is likely to be effective, particularly for smaller-scale land owners and managers. In combination with strategic policy development and communication at the highest levels to influence societal beliefs, such ‘grass-roots’ and targeted approaches are likely to be the most effective in transforming our ability to nurture our forests and other land uses, in a way that will both help them adapt to environmental change and help protect us from ourselves.

Gabriel Hemery

Gabriel Hemery works as CEO of Sylva Foundation, an environmental charity working to bring people and trees together. He leads the British Woodlands Survey and a number of forestry and social science projects. He is also a published author and semi-professional photographer of trees:; @gabrielhemery
@SylvaFoundation @FR_SERG @UniofOxford
Gabriel Hemery

View the latest posts on the On Biology homepage