2017 was filled with many adventures! I traveled to conduct field work, present at conferences, and facilitate workshops in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Boston, USA. Along the way, I visited protected areas, spotted amazing wildlife, took side trips during long layovers, and more. Explore the interactive map by clicking on the pins to view photos and stories from each site. View the legend by clicking the icon on the top-left-hand corner or, better yet, view as full screen.Have a happy holiday season!
In his 2016 book Half Earth, Dr. E. O. Wilson presents the global community with a challenge: set aside half of the Earth for nature. He articulates why this must be done – the ever-growing human population and its consumption have degraded natural ecosystems and created a crisis for Earth’s biodiversity. By working toward a goal of 50% protection, he argues, the conservation community can focus on a tangible number that can be tracked and communicated clearly. The Half Earth book presents protected areas – state-designated lands and waters – as the key to achieving this goal. It also briefly notes the important role of other area-based conservation strategies, including conservation easements and efforts by private individuals.
But many questions arise: Which half of the Earth? Which level of biodiversity do we prioritize to protect (genetic, species, ecosystem, or functional)? How do we include the high seas in this equation, which are outside of national jurisdictions? Do we focus first on biodiversity hotspots to save the most species? Mustn’t we also represent all of earth’s ecoregions, ensuring that the diversity of life forms are secure – including species-poor deserts and ice fields? And once protected areas are established, is that the end of the story? Are protected areas sustainable indefinitely? Does protection itself assure the persistence of biodiversity? And is it possible to achieve the Half Earth goal equitably for people?
To address these questions and hope to achieve the Half Earth goal, we need an interdisciplinary approach. We can start with biological sciences to map the distribution of species and ecosystems, for instance. Although we do not have nearly close to a census of all species on earth, nor a full understanding of genetic or functional diversity, published maps of species and ecosystems are likely sufficient to guide conservation efforts given the urgency of the biodiversity crisis. Next, we should consider the spatial distribution and status of protected areas – and other area-based conservation interventions – to track conservation progress. Accounting for the spatial and regulatory histories of protected areas and other conservation interventions is critical. By tracking past boundary changes, regulatory roll-backs, and upgrades to protected areas, we can more adequately understand the influence of political history, contextualize the economic demands and pressures on the area, and make more informed and sustainable decisions. The body of literature on protected area downgrading (regulatory weakening), downsizing, (reductions), and degazettement (elimination) or PADDD can help.
Notably, protected areas are not the only way forward. We must track and evaluate other conservation interventions, like indigenous lands, payments for ecosystem services, and market-based mechanisms. Syntheses of the effectiveness of all conservation interventions (via evidence maps, for instance) will be helpful to understand how far we have come and allow us to set future priorities.
Setting priority regions for conservation can be done in a variety of ways – based on biodiversity hotspots, gaps in protection (of species or ecoregions), or connecting existing protected areas by restoring corridors. Prioritization can be global, regional, national, or local; work at one level can also inform the others. An example of a spatial prioritization effort is the advent of Key Biodiversity Areas – regions representing a high diversity of species. The KBA framework also accounts for species endemism and vulnerability, as well as the “manageability” of territorial units, hence considering the current boundaries of protected areas. Notably, this does not consider the history of boundary changes nor loss of protected areas via downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD), so it may ignore important lands that were previously protected but dropped from the estate due to industrial or local-scale pressures. Although KBAs represent a useful and science-based framework to guide conservation directions, national and local governments – as well as private individuals – will likely draw on a variety of approaches to determine priorities for protection. These will include convenience (determining which lands and waters, if protected, will lead to the least conflict with local people or industry) and self-interest (considering financial incentives from eco-certification or REDD+ and carbon markets).
As human pressures on the planet continue to accelerate and less arable land is available, for instance, the pressure for natural resources on the last wild places will continue to increase. The future of the siting of conservation interventions will likely be subject to negotiations and political bargaining. Striking a balance between the goal of half earth with the needs of local communities – for water, food, land, and energy – will take constant effort at all levels, from local management to international policy. Local communities can and should be empowered as stewards of the land to ensure that work toward half earth does not unjustly exclude or marginalize them. Without this critical piece, efforts to protect lands upon which people depend directly may backfire and become a source of resentment. Insights from anthropology can inform this dynamic. In the terrestrial sphere, in certain places, we may be reaching a point of saturation for strictly protected areas which exclude all human activities. In these cases, only by engaging with local communities – including indigenous and non-indigenous groups – can we hope to achieve large-scale conservation that is fostered and sustained for generations. Management of protected areas must also be prioritized to the utmost. In the marine realm, for instance, recent work shows that the most important determining factors of success in marine protected areas are adequate staff and capacity for management.
It is clear that “people power” to manage, monitor, evaluate, and steward protected lands and waters is now and will continue to be fundamental to achieving the goal of Half Earth. Continued investment in the social sciences in conservation and collaborations between natural and social scientists – economists, geographers, anthropologists, and even ethics scholars – can ensure that this goal is supported by a strong evidence base and can therefore be sustained.
Happy #HalfEarth Day! October 22nd, 2017 marks six months since the first-ever Earth Optimism event on Earth Day 2017. Earth Optimism emphasizes the importance of positivity in messaging and a focus on conservation solutions; only with this approach can the conservation community hope to engage and excite decision makers and the public to support and value conservation efforts.
On Half Earth Day, I was honored to share the stage with Dr. E. O. Wilson at an event at the Smithsonian Castle, discussing protected areas and the way forward for Half Earth.
The Department of the Interior is currently conducting a review of 27 National Monuments. This review may lead to recommendations to alter their status, size, or eliminate them entirely. In fact, the review of Bears Ears National Monument has already led Secretary Zinke to recommend a reduction in its size.
The public comment period is open until July 10th. Comments can be submitted online by clicking “Comment Now.”
Here is my comment.
National Monuments and other protected lands are part of our national heritage. The proud tradition of preserving these ecological and culturally important lands has made the United States a model nation for conservation around the world. From Giant Sequoia to Bears Ears, National Monuments not only preserve crucial ecological services, but also provide tangible economic and cultural benefits to neighboring communities. By setting aside National Monuments, the U.S. has used the precautionary principle appropriately to preserve our most precious and irreplaceable resources: biodiversity, healthy watersheds, gorgeous landscapes, and culturally significant treasures. National Monuments also serve as a boon for local economies, drawing tourists and generating revenues. By offering abundant opportunities for recreation, Americans and international tourists alike can refresh their minds and bodies in nature.
Modifying National Monuments to temper regulations, reduce their acreage, or eliminate them would jeopardize these benefits. Such changes could put these ecologically and culturally valuable lands at risk of development, disturbance or loss of wildlife, degradation of ecosystem services, and erosion of local tourism revenues. Boundary changes to protected lands in the United States and around the world have been studied as part of an effort to understand the legal changes that Downgrade (temper regulations), Downsize (reduce), and Degazette (eliminate) protected areas. Such legal changes are known as PADDD (Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement) events (Mascia and Pailler 2011). Research to date has shown that PADDD events are primarily driven by industrial scale-extraction and development (Mascia et al. 2014) and can lead to accelerated deforestation (Forrest et al. 2015).
Peer-reviewed research has demonstrated that reducing the size of protected areas can have tangible and long-lasting ecological consequences. A study analyzing the downsizing history of Yosemite National Park (Golden Kroner et al. 2016) demonstrates that forests which were removed from the National Park and transferred to private landowners (in 1905 and 1906) are now more highly fragmented by roads today than forests which remain protected – either within Yosemite National Park or as Wilderness Areas nearby. Forest fragmentation is a well-understood threat to global biodiversity, contributing, among other impacts, to population isolation, edge effects, and reduced diversity and abundance of sensitive species. Research on Yosemite National Park shows the legacy effect that the reduction of a protected area can have for ecological consequences. Notably, this work also demonstrates the benefits of federal-level protected areas and their potential to effectively preserve large tracts of land and watersheds for generations.
Given the importance of and benefits provided by National Monuments, coupled with the potential consequences of change, I urge the Department of Interior to preserve the 27 National Monuments that are under review and avoid tempering their regulations, reducing them in size, or eliminating them.
• Golden Kroner, Rachel E., Roopa Krithivasan, and Michael B. Mascia. 2016. Effects of Protected Area Downsizing on Habitat Fragmentation in Yosemite National Park (USA), 1864 – 2014. Ecology and Society 21(3).
• Forrest, Jessica L., Michael B. Mascia, Sharon Pailler, et al. 2015. Tropical Deforestation and Carbon Emissions from Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD). Conservation Letters 8(3): 153–161.
• Mascia, Michael B., and Sharon Pailler. 2011. Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD) and Its Conservation Implications. Conservation Letters 4(1): 9–20.
• Mascia, Michael B., Sharon Pailler, Roopa Krithivasan, et al. 2014. Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD) in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, 1900–2010. Biological Conservation 169: 355–361.
In the current political climate, it can sometimes be disheartening to be a scientist or a scientist in training. The process of science and scientifically derived facts are too often devalued or denied, despite decades of painstaking, objective work produced by a community of scholars. Countering this “climate of denial” will take steady work by scientists and all those who value truth, reason, and societal progress. How can we get started to address this when the challenge seems so daunting? One productive approach: beginning early in one’s scientific career, scientists in training should get very comfortable with communicating their research! And not just in the traditional sense – as in peer-reviewed papers or conference presentations. We have to communicate our work In engaging ways for diverse audiences. Reaching outside of this echo chamber will be key to demonstrating the value of our science to society. This is especially true in fields like conservation, but also applies to nearly every area of research (e.g. health, engineering, political science, and more!).
Here are a few non-traditional outlets that graduate students can use to communicate their research and make their science matter. And remember to explain so that your grandmother can understand.
SciComm 101: What can you do yourself?
Share science on social media
Starting a twitter account is a great place to start to share your science (and the work of others), access the latest research, and exchange ideas. In my experience, social media brings everyone – from undergraduates to emeritus professors – to the same level because the currency of exchange is clear ideas.
Translate your research for non-specialist audiences
The combination of paywalls,and researchers’ hyperspecialization means that the vast majority of scientific papers are only read by a few specialists in the field. To make sure that your science is accessed by literally anyone else, you have to translate it! Translation in this case means making your research – especially the findings, conclusions, and societal implications – very easy to understand. The challenge with translation is balancing accuracy with clarity. You don’t need all of that jargon and those acronyms to explain your work clearly. Translation of research findings can take many forms, including blog posts, videos, an outreach event with a local school or senior center, or even a children’s book. Your outlet will depend on your goals – are you interested in educating the public? Targeting decision makers? Starting a conversation across disciplinary lines? The translation approach can be tailored accordingly.
Next level SciComm: what can you do with the help of others?
Involve non-traditional stakeholders in your research
As you develop your research questions and methods, partner with practitioners or knowledge users like non-governmental or governmental organizations. This relationship can be mutually beneficial; the partner can help provide a research direction while your analyses can provide information that the partner can use directly. In addition, such a partner may also help to share research findings within their community of practice.
Write and disseminate a press release
When you have a publication in the final stages of review and revision, work with your university public relations office to develop a press release. Their expertise will help you to hone the language and also pitch it to their journalist contacts. They may also help you to prepare for an interview.
Talk to journalists
If journalists contact you for an interview – great! Respond as soon as possible and respect their deadlines. You may ask for the questions beforehand, which they may or may not have time to provide. Prepare by writing down a few talking points, considering these questions about your research: What is new? Why do the findings matter? What should be done about it? Note that these are very applied questions; journalists will almost never ask about your methods or p-values but instead will focus on what the results mean and why people should care. During the interview, answer questions clearly and accurately. If the journalist asks a misleading question or tries to put words in your mouth (“Would you say that….the planet is dying and we are doomed?”), refocus the conversation by starting with a fresh sentence relevant to your work (“Our research shows that the application of [whatever] can be very harmful to [your target species]. By reducing our use of [whatever], we can ensure that [your target species] remains abundant and continues to provide important [food sources/recreation opportunities/tourism value/genetic diversity/etc]”).
Make #SciComm the norm
In the traditional graduate school curriculum, students do not receive training in any of these outreach and communication approaches. My advice is to try these approaches one at a time and remember that practice makes perfect. Although this may take you out of your comfort zone, it is so critical to share your science and demonstrate its value to society.
Happy Earth Month!
In the first four weeks of the Trump administration, headlines have been dominated by the most dramatic events: travel bans, border wall plans, coziness with Russia, claims of “fake news,” and record-breaking protests. While many Americans have been in a constant state of whiplash, a group of activists has focused proactively on addressing another possible threat: the security of federal data infrastructure. To address this, researchers at the UPenn program in the Environmental Humanities started Data Refuge – an initiative to archive at-risk federal data. This effort has quickly grown into a nation-wide network of librarians, scientists, programmers, and other concerned citizens. Many events have sprung up – including the Data Rescue DC event this President’s Day weekend at Georgetown University. Events provide participants with tools and collaborative space to archive government websites and effectively “bag and tag” data for repository into the Data Refuge archive. To date, events have focused on archiving the most critical websites and data at risk: environment and climate-relevant information from agencies like EPA and NOAA.
The Data Rescue DC event occurred within an urgent context; the appointment of a climate change denier to lead the EPA, the silencing of civil servants on certain topics, and attempts to restrict data collection on racial disparities in affordable housing, among other news, served as backdrop. For me, participation in Data Rescue DC felt like the most important near-term contribution that I could make as a scientist. Federal data writ large is absolutely critical – not only for climate science research, but also for countless local applications. As part of a panel on Saturday, Denise Ross of New America reminded participants about the importance of accurate housing data following Hurricane Katrina to inform response efforts and literally save lives. Reviewing and backing up countless EPA websites reminded me that the EPA collects and maintains decades of data on toxic wastes, pesticides, radiation, and lots of other critical information. These data were collected over many years using American taxpayer dollars. Federal data also has the advantage of being consistently collected and without biases inherent in private-sector data; for instance, Ms. Ross shared that Google Street View could not be used to assess certain low income neighborhoods in New Orleans as the camera-equipped cars had failed to include them.
So how does one save the data to save the world? At the event, participants divided into groups: seeders and sorters, researchers and harvesters, checkers and baggers, describers, and storytellers. Each group contributed to a piece of the data archiving process. I seeded and sorted for the day, clicking through and archiving EPA websites methodically and marking appropriate pages as uncrawlable (like databases or interactive maps). Researchers and harvesters dug deeper into the sites marked as uncrawlable and worked to capture these data. Checkers and baggers provided layers of quality control for the harvested data while describers wrote comprehensive metadata. Storytellers visited each group to capture participants’ stories and experiences – through tweets, videos, blogs, and other media. Organizers were attuned to the sensitive nature of the event; participants who wished to remain anonymous wore white name tags. Signs posted around the room reminded us not to share pictures of people on social media without permission.
— Denice W. Ross (@denicewross) February 19, 2017
In addition to technical data sets, I also discovered some fun things on the EPA website.
At Data Rescue DC, more than 200 participants sorted and seeded 4776 URLs, harvested 20 GB of data, bagged 15 datasets, and described 40 datasets. This contributed about 40% of the datasets that are currently in the Data Refuge archive! Data Rescue DC and similar efforts begin to address the issue of at-risk federal data infrastructure by archiving data. But of course, this is not enough. It may be impossible to archive all of the data that are at risk. And more challenging: there is no guarantee that these data will continue to be collected in the future. Quiet activism like data archiving in concert with continued vocal political pressure to support data collection efforts (e.g. maintain or increase agency funding) will be instrumental. As suggested by Bethany Wiggin of UPenn (one of Data Refuge’s founders), data users can play a role from the bottom up by talking about data that we use and amplifying its importance. This can help “humanize” these data and emphasize their value to society.
I hope that public access to federal data remains open. In the meantime, activists will continue archiving – just in case.
Interested in getting involved to rescue data? Learn more on the UPenn Program in the Environmental Humanities page here.
My colleagues and I just published a new study in Ecology and Society highlighting 150 years of history of Yosemite National Park. We documented seven legal changes that altered the boundaries of the park – both reductions and additions. We found that Yosemite lost 30% of its original area from when it was established in 1890. We also found that some lands which were removed from the park were subsequently re-protected as wilderness due to the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Forests which were downsized from Yosemite and remain unprotected are more highly fragmented by roads today. Higher road density indicates that the ecosystems are more degraded. Roads may also inhibit migration as species attempt to adapt to climate change.
This piece is part of a broader research effort on protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) which focuses on legal changes to protected areas around the world. Learn more at PADDDtracker.org and follow @PADDDtracker on twitter.
|Cornerstone of platform: “we remain committed to expanding trade opportunities and opening new markets for agriculture.”
“…ranching on public lands must be fostered, developed, and encouraged.”
|“we believe that in order to be effective in keeping our air and water clean and combating climate change, we must enlist farmers as partners in promoting conservation and stewardship.”|
|“Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue.”||
Cornerstone of platform: “Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.”
“The best science tells us that without ambitious, immediate action across our economy to cut carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases, all of these impacts will be far worse in the future.”
|“We oppose any carbon tax.”||
|“Democrats believe that carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases should be priced to reflect their negative externalities, and to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy and help meet our climate goals.”|
|“We will do away with it altogether.”||
Clean Power Plan
|“Democrats are committed to defending, implementing, and extending smart pollution and efficiency standards, including the Clean Power Plan, fuel 28 economy standards for automobiles and heavy-duty vehicles, building codes and appliance standards.”|
|No explicit mention||
|“All corporations owe it to their shareholders to fully analyze and disclose the risks they face, including climate risk. Democrats also respectfully request the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of corporate fraud on the part of fossil fuel companies accused of misleading shareholders and the public on the scientific reality of climate change.”|
|“The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution. Its unreliability is reflected in its intolerance toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy.”||
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
|No explicit mention|
|“We demand an immediate halt to U.S. funding for the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in accordance with the 1994 Foreign Relations Authorization Act.”||
United Nations Framework for the Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
|No explicit mention|
|“We reject the agendas of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, which represent only the personal commitments of their signatories; no such agreement can be binding upon the United States until it is submitted to and ratified by the Senate.”||
|“Democrats share a deep commitment to … meeting the pledge President Obama put forward in the landmark Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global temperature increases to “well below” two degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”|
|“We propose to shift responsibility for environmental regulation from the federal bureaucracy to the states and to transform the EPA into an independent bipartisan commission, similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with structural safeguards against politicized science.”||
|No explicit mention|
|“all-of-the-above energy strategy”
“We support the enactment of policies to increase domestic energy production, including production on public lands, to counter market manipulation by OPEC and other nationally owned oil companies.”
|“We believe America must be running entirely on clean energy by mid-century. We will take bold steps to slash carbon pollution and protect clean air at home, lead the fight against climate change around the world, ensure no Americans are left out or left behind as we accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy”|
|“We encourage the cost-effective development of renewable energy sources — wind, solar, biomass, biofuel, geothermal, and tidal energy — by private capital.”||
|“We will streamline federal permitting to accelerate the construction of new transmission lines to get low-cost renewable energy to market, and incentivize wind, solar, and other renewable energy over the development of new natural gas power plants.”|
|“we will end the Administration’s disregard of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act with respect to the long-term storage of nuclear waste”
“We support lifting restrictions to allow responsible development of nuclear energy, including research into alternative processes like thorium nuclear energy”
|No explicit mention|
|“We respect the states’ proven ability to regulate the use of hydraulic fracturing, methane emissions, and horizontal drilling..”||
|“Democrats are committed to closing the Halliburton loophole that stripped the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its ability to regulate hydraulic fracturing, and ensuring tough safeguards are in place, including Safe Drinking Water Act provisions, to protect local water supplies. We believe hydraulic fracturing should not take place where states and local communities oppose it.”|
|“We support expediting the permitting process for mineral production on public lands.”||
|“We will also oppose threats to the public health of these communities from harmful and dangerous extraction practices, like mountaintop removal mining operations.”|
|“coal is an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource”||
|No explicit mention|
|“We intend to finish that pipeline and others as part of our commitment to North American energy security.”||
|“We support President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.”|
|No explicit mention||
|“we support efforts by the EPA under the Clean Water Act to establish proactively science-based restrictions on discharges of dredged or fill material associated with a potential Pebble mine and urge that such restrictions must apply to potential mines at other metallic sulfide deposits in those drainages.”|
|“support the opening of public lands and the outer continental shelf to exploration and responsible production”||
Arctic and Atlantic offshore drilling
|“We oppose drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic coast”|
|“That is why we support the opening of public lands and the outer continental shelf to exploration and responsible production, even if these resources will not be immediately developed. ”
“We support the enactment of policies to increase domestic energy production, including production on public lands”
Fossil fuel production on public lands
|“We will phase down extraction of fossil fuels from our public lands, 30 starting with the most polluting sources, while making our public lands and waters engines of the clean energy economy and creating jobs across the country. Democrats will work to expand the amount of renewable energy production on federal lands and waters, from wind in Wyoming to solar in Nevada.”|
|“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.”||
|“we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public”|
|“We believe in promoting active, sustainable management of our forests and that states can best manage our forests to improve forest health and keep communities safe.”||
Forest Service Lands
|No explicit mention|
|“We support amending the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish Congress’ right to approve the designation of national monuments and to further require the approval of the state where a national monument is designated or a national park is proposed.”||
|No explicit mention|
|“…the ESA has stunted economic development, halted the construction of projects, burdened landowners, and has been used to pursue policy goals inconsistent with the ESA — all with little to no success in the actual recovery of species. For example, we oppose the listing of the lesser prairie chicken and the potential listing of the sage grouse.”||
Endangered Species Act
|“Democrats oppose efforts to undermine the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act to protect threatened and endangered species.”|
|“We will enforce the original intent of the Clean Water Act, not it’s distortion by EPA regulations.”||
Clean Water Act
|No explicit mention|
|“We will…modernize the permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act so it can no longer invite frivolous lawsuits, thwart sorely needed projects, kill jobs, and strangle growth.”||
|No explicit mention|
|“We will likewise forbid the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, something never envisioned when Congress passed the Clean Air Act. We will restore to Congress the authority to set the National Ambient Air Quality Standards…”||
Clean Air Act
|No explicit mention|
|No explicit mention||
|“Democrats believe we must make it a national priority to eradicate lead poisoning, which disproportionately impacts low-income children and children of color and can lead to lifelong health and educational challenges.”|
|No explicit mention||
|“…as we saw in Flint, Michigan, low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately home to environmental justice “hot spots,” where air pollution, water pollution, and toxic hazards like lead increase health and economic hardship. The impacts of climate change will also disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities, tribal nations, and Alaska 29 Native villages—all of which suffer the worst losses during extreme weather and have the fewest resources to prepare. Simply put, this is environmental racism.”|
*This post does not constitute an endorsement of either party.
After attending part of this year’s NASA Land Cover and Land Use Change (LCLUC) meeting, I was struck by the synergies between the needs of that particular community and that of conservation scientists. Many of the same “big questions” and data needs that conservation researchers are currently grappling with emerged clearly from the dialogue. Here is a short synthesis of common themes between the current work of the LCLUC program and the work of conservation researchers and practitioners.
- Both conservation and LCLUC communities are exploring big questions: how effective are conservation interventions? In what contexts? What works, where, and why? To address this, researchers are examining a diverse suite of interventions, including eco-certifications (Forest Stewardship Council forests) and protected areas. Little rigorous evidence to answer these questions exist. The call to mainstream impact evaluation has emerged from conservation-focused economists and has been gaining traction among researchers from many disciplines including ecology, anthropology, and geography.
- There is a need to understand mechanisms (through what causal pathway does a treatment affect the outcome) and feedbacks (what influence does the state of the outcome have on selection of the treatment?) The world is a lot more complicated than a simple line from input to output. For instance, how would you parameterize this diagram?
Even thinking through the possible “boxes and arrows” to include can help conceptualize the problem and create valuable theory.
3. The conference revealed a clear embrace of a more holistic worldview, including interdisciplinarity and the integration of both local and global drivers that affect land use change (and also biodiversity and ecosystem services).
4. Both communities have expressed the need for a better understanding of land cover and biodiversity data over time. Many land cover maps are static and categorical, with the exception of some newer datasets showing annual forest cover change. Without repeated observations of land cover and other conservation-relevant landscape features, there will be no way to detect to what extent landscapes are changing and measure the effect of human actions (e.g. conservation and development policies) on land cover or ecosystem services.
6. Science should be made as relevant as possible for decision-makers. Scientists are not funded to advocate directly, but data should be ready to solve complex problems about food security, poverty, and biodiversity loss. This priority is reflected by research groups, including SESYNC , which encourages “actionable” science catered to solving real problems.
7. There is a clear orientation of the research community toward global goals and priorities including the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. It is likely that these global agreements will drive priorities in the next 10 or 20 years to come.
I expect that many of these data needs, questions, and priorities are reflected across disciplines in the natural and social sciences. Have you noticed similar trends in your discipline? Comment below!
Photo: BOSTON ATLANTIC PHOTOGRAPHY
How does the communication of science to the mainstream public work today? First, scientists do their science and then (eventually) publish a paper featuring new results in a scientific journal. If the paper is published in a top-tier journal and/or has broad implications for the public, it may receive some press coverage and reach the eyes of non-scientists. The results will have been translated by the journalist writing the piece in an attempt to make the jargon more accessible. As Abumrad nicely stated, journalists writing about science have to “hop” between “islands” or various linguistic spheres. Each scientific field and subfield has its own island featuring unique terminology. The ability to “island hop,” Abumrad argues, should not be restricted to journalists. Each scientist should be to talk “across the table” and explain his or her research to any non-expert. Metaphors, anthropomorphism, and relatable terminology are the most helpful tools here. For instance, Abumrad featured research describing different genes which regulate processes in the cell. Instead of using the technical acronyms for the genes, Abumrad gave them whimsical names (the “grim reaper” and “fountain of youth” genes) based on their functions. He also paired these names with memorable gene “voices” to anthropomorphize them and make them relatable for the audience. Any scientist can use this example and work to “island hop” – translating the results of their own research in a creative way.
After describing “island hopping,” Abumrad offered a provocative suggestion to scientists: instead of emphasizing results and “what we know,” focus on the unknown. This way, the public will become more interested in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and science as a process of discovery. This emphasis may also drive the public to support funding for science and the consideration of science in policy. However, there are several challenges inherent in this suggestion. First of all, it is the antithesis of the status quo. Scientists publish a paper presenting new results and focus on “what is known” now as a result of the research. This process occurs within a context of the scientific culture; competition for publications in top journals, large federal grants, and other milestones incentivize scientists to attempt to stand out from the crowd. How to stand out? By presenting the newest and most cutting edge results in academic journals which speak primarily to scientific peers. News coverage and outreach to the public is often seen as secondary (read: less important) communication. The system incentives a results-driven approach. Abumrad’s suggestion that scientists emphasize more of the questions and unknowns directly challenges this model.
Although the suggestion to emphasize unknowns may draw in new and curious audiences, there are several possible drawbacks. First, a shift in this direction may provide an unfortunate inlay for science deniers and skeptics to intervene in the discourse. We already see this today: as climate scientists rightfully communicate that models contain elements of uncertainty (which more precisely means that there are large confidence intervals in the results rather than blatant unknowns), deniers snatch this up and argue that the models and science are useless. The over-emphasis of questions and gaps in science (on climate change, evolution, or any controversial topic) allows a clear opportunity for deniers to reach a broader audience and incite doubt. In addition, a focus on unknowns may leave the public feeling unsatisfied by the lack of clear and packaged results, ultimately eroding the public’s excitement for science. Finally, an effort to emphasize questions and unknowns would be especially challenging for younger and less established scientists. Thriving in the competitive scientific environment requires that young scientists abide by the established conventions as they compete in the job market.
Given the challenges inherent in altering the status quo model of science communication, I would suggest that a healthy balance between the presentation of scientific results and the questions that these results generate offers the best way forward. It is up to both journalists and scientists to ask the right questions and provide a fair proportion of both novel results and exciting questions. This way, science may be appreciated for what it is – a process of discovery – rather than simply a large body of facts.