Thursday, June 30, 2011

Making science matter

Recently, I found myself eavesdropping on two elderly fellows debating an age-old question: does size matter? Yes! declared one. Small ones have never satisfied anyone. It needs to be big!

You’ve got it all wrong, countered the other. Proper use of a small one can be just as good as having a big one. And what good is a big one if you don’t use it properly?

In a nearby lecture theatre the Costa-Rican Mermaid was preaching the power of long distance swimming to promote big ones. Down the hall, Barack Obama and David Cameron’s big ones were applauded while Stephen Harper’s small one was jeered.

They were all speaking, of course, of marine protected areas (get your mind out of the gutter) at last month’s Second International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC2) in Victoria, BC. This year’s edition of IMCC was located rather conveniently near where I now live on Vancouver Island.

Like everyone else in attendance, the two old academics were attempting to communicate an idea, an opinion, orseemingly too often at this conferencea cry for political sanity. Whether it was an activist, government scientist, graduate student, or academic, all of the nearly 2000 conference participants all wrestled with the same issue—being able to make a compelling case that fellow scientists and the general public are willing to listen to. To make marine science matter (which incidentally, was the theme of IMCC2) … a surprisingly difficult task in in an age of information overload and distraction. Also, bad news in a time global marine decline.
And despite what I feel was a small piece of comic genius…

…my own presentation didn’t deviate from the standard presentation format. And for my first time ‘round, I’m perfectly fine with that. I now have an appreciation of variety of ways we can effectively engage each other and the public. And engage we must.

Luckily the folks from Google and NAMPAN were on hand with some neat tools that I think will help scientists and the public to interact in ways that are accessible, visually appealing and have the power to convey powerful messages and communicate the scale of current marine ecosystem decline.

-Google ran daily seminars on integrating marine research findings into the google earth/ocean platform to communicate marine issues. The seminars played to packed crowds. With marine spatial planning a key component of most presentations, I have a feeling that google earth might change the way marine spatial planners communicate with the public.

-NAMPAN (North American Marine Protected Areas Network - one of the products of NAFTA), also brought along some fantastic tools. In addition to having some of their own nifty maps and interactive tools, NAMPAN presented a process for creating easy to understand ecological report cards that are based on clearly defined criteria. The annual report card on the status of Chesapeake Bay has become such a success that it now runs on the front page of the Washington Post every New Year’s Day and has become a call to arms amongst the general public and local decision makers.

As visual creatures, these tools will allow NGOs, grad students, etc. to stand alongside the most seasoned academics and government scientists and tell compelling and visually appealing stories to not just the scientific community, but also to non-scientists. Making the science matter. When it comes to marine science, this move away from typical, jargon dense and technical presentations is an absolute necessity (the worst offender at IMCC2 used text dense slides to suggest “an adaptive multi-scalable interdisciplinary framework approach” which uses a new “knowledge system” and “theoretical construct” to create “resilience in place” and a “way to move forward”). Much of the work in the marine conservation field stretches far beyond that of the scientific community and often has both social and ecological consequences. Having the tools to start communicating findings to a diverse audience is a step in right direction. An informed public is more likely to demand more from decision makers and is likely to become involved in things like citizen science.

At IMCC2 I attended a day long pre-conference workshop on marine citizen science a powerful tool for not only engaging the public (school kids, fishermen, hikers, retirees, divers, etc.) but to also generate high volumes of low cost observational data. Despite some logistical challenges, the programs have been highly successful, creating long term, information rich datasets. In addition to the audience reached by typical scientific publications, the audience reached by of word of mouth from the citizen scientists who collected the data was vast and engaged communities… making marine science matter to non-scientists.

In a recent post, Karl wrote on the social benefits of conservation and the value of evaluating the successes and failures of conservation initiatives. One of the sources of failure cited in several conservation projects in Tallis et al. (2008) was a lack of communication infrastructure. Successful projects, on the other hand, informed the public of they were doing and why conservation mattered, backing it up with sound science.

During my time in the Cottenie Lab I spent a lot of time grappling with how scientists choose to communicate and engage with the public. As I move to the next stage in my post-undergrad career I have a feeling that this type of communication will become a central theme. Beginning this August I’ll be starting a seven month internship with the Coady Institute. I’m heading down to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to help facilitate the creation of a network of marine protected areas. I’ll be working with scientists, governments and communities to create a stable transition to alternative income sources and to track biological change in protected areas. A large part of the project will entail communicating that marine reserves are effective and the economic benefits of restoring ecosystem services are worth it. In other words, (you guessed it) making the science matter.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Connecting dots when running in the morning

The joy of running for me, in addition to spending quality time with the kids, is the idle time it offers me. My mind wonders off, and connects several dots that are floating around in my brain.

  • One of these dots is this image I mentioned before. I mentioned that creating a process to move student from the first behaviour to the second was difficult.

  • Another dot is why I like Moksha yoga, but could not be bothered at all by Bikram yoga. Below is a picture of the two weekly schedules: Several different options for Moksha, always the same for Bikram.

  • The final dot is an chapter I have been reading with Ingrid out of the book "The educational imagination" by Elliot Eisner, called "Educational aims, objectives, and other aspirations. We summarized our discussion in the below diagram, with a student coming into a learning environment (the box), interacting there with peers and instructors, and at the end hopefully improving is some manner. We think that the chapter distinguishes two types of objectives: expressive objectives that observe student behavior in the learning environment, and "behavioural" objectives that observe and measure (the difficult part) the improvement.

So what is the connection? 
Teaching for me consists of instruction, correction, and inspiration.
Instruction is an important part of the "box" you create (see dot 3), while inspiration is why I gravitated towards moksha yoga (in this case variation, while somebody else might prefer the meditative aspect of bikram), and correction is my tool to convert "Fail" into "Learn", which I think is necessarily tied the measuring aspect of observing.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Brittany's first picture blog from the field

Sunset on the train

First day exploring Bluff A with Celia and Shelley.

Putting the finishing touches on Celia's mesocosms before we put them in the water.

The final product? Not quite...for some reason they keep sinking. Still troubleshooting.

First day on Bluff D.

Shelley learning how we sample rock pools.

...and of course my first polar bear sighting. Right outside the CNSC.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Link between improvement of the environment and society?

While I am aware of my tendency to discount anything older as 10 years as ancient in science terms, I do try to sketch a brief historical of each issue I discuss in (most of) my research articles. However, I am always surprised by the lack of "history" in quality reporting on scientific progress. A recent story in Nature, "Can conservation cut poverty", investigated the link between preserving biodiversity and positive influences this might have on the local inhabitants. The story points out the conflicting evidence, and seems to be a puff piece for the announcement of a new programme:
A UK-funded programme to catalogue and assess conservation and poverty reduction projects in Africa, South Asia, China and the Amazon should help unpick some of the confusion. The seven-year Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme, announced at the end of last year, is being funded with more than £40 million (US$62 million) from the UK government's Department for International Development, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. The first call for projects will come in the next few weeks.
Since I teach both Community Ecology and Biology of Polluted Waters, and since my father is director for COPROGRAM, the Flemish federation of NGOs for foreign aid, I scan the literature on this subject a little bit. And it seems that the Nature story missed a couple of "old" stories, articles, or even in-depth studies:

Especially the last one is really interesting, since it has an unbiased account of funded projects with both environmental and poverty alleviation outcomes, and uniform gains measurements.

As you can see above, only 5 out of 22 projects were in the 'win-win' situation. While this seems at a first glance to be painting a negative picture, the article goes into greater detail in investigating the characteristics of these win-win projects. This is the true value of these exercises, because this can result in increasing the development of projects that maximize the benefit for everybody, humans and other-than-humans.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Thou shalt dream a great dream and tell a story

It's been a long time since I posted something about the "Cottenie Commandments". Steve McCurry regular posts a series of his portraits, centered around a theme. One of these themes is "Lost in Thought" and pictures people hard at work by doing nothing.

Often, by juxtapositioning the caption with the picture, he also tells a very intriguing story, with only one word. Very powerful.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Natural history = basis of interest

Last year, I wrote a couple of posts about the importance of natural history in science:

I argued that natural history forms the basis of the scientific method, but I also acknowledged that the power of the scientific method came from the interaction between data and hypotheses, yadayada. 

However, one important thing that I forgot to add in that discussion is that natural history does not only form the basis of the scientific method, but also the basis of our interest in science. A recent blog post by Richard Connif, Learning to feel at home, drives provides some nice quotes by other ecologists. These quotes really express the personal connection these scientists have with their subject area, and goes beyond the view of scientists as cold, subjective, recording machines.

As all my students will tell you, I am the worst natural historian there is, given my self-identity as a computer ecologist. But I will be teaching a field course again this summer in Algonquin, and an important objective of the course is to instill in students the importance of natural history in ecology/science. So my personal aim this time is to lead by example, and work on my own natural history project this summer. I will use Drawing Nature as my guideline, because believe me, I need all the guidance I can get.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Soap box

Sometimes I like it when Margaret Wente gets on her soap box. She has a couple of recurring themes, and our university education system is one she uses every couple of months. Here is her latest, and I will have to do some counting on the issues she brings up, and comparing them to my own, personal, experiences:

  • " A large number of students learn little or nothing in university. More than a third show no improvement in their skills at all." I personally don't have taught a first-year class, but I for now believe these figures until I have read the book. One for Margaret (I will call her Margaret, because of that strange phenomenon where you think you know somebody personally after reading her opinion pieces for years, I really wonder if she is anything in real life as I envision her, probably not).
  • "For these students, university is primarily a social experience, not an academic one." She implies that acquiring social skills is not the primary objective of a university education, and only secondary to "real" academic skills. I think both can be of equal importance, so let's call this a draw.
  • "They’re not hitting the books" vs. "Even so, graduation rates are stagnant or decreasing. " This to me suggests that the system actually works, at a very basic level, to a certain degree. I don't see the inconsistency that Margaret claims in these statements, so one disagreement.
  • "A lot of students are very good at strategic management of work." Sure, I completely agree, but seeing this as a negative aspect of students/education/university is, well, lame. This is comparable to complain that professionals check their email.
  • “disengagement compact”. Up to a certain point, yes. The term is very harsh, and covers again a complex social compact, but I can see where she is coming from, and where she is going to.
  • "most professors would rather not teach". I had to think hard about this one, but I fundamentally disagree. Teaching is our job, and we teach our colleagues (with publications), we teach our grad students, and we also teach our undergrad students.
  • Universities are "institutions that don’t deliver what they promise to so many of the people they are supposed to serve?" Very broad strokes that rely on definitions of "deliver", "promise", "many", "serve", but I do think we can do a better job, so let's call this one also a draw.
  • The fiction that "education will automatically enhance cognitive competence." That is indeed fiction, this does not happen automatically and takes a lot of hard work, both from the student's and instructor's perspective.
  • The fiction that "that universities have long been impervious to scrutiny". I don't agree. Universities are accountable, but I agree that we have failed to measure the right thing. So another draw.
So what is the final score? Only two statements where I disagree with Margaret, three draws (where I agree up to a certain point, or certain aspects), and a whopping four statements where I actually agree with Margaret! Who would have thought this possible.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The scientific method and our health

There are several ways to define "science", but here is very basic one by Edzard Ernst, the first professor in  Alternative Medicine, in an interview in Science:
"I was also convinced that scientists need to be critical and sceptical, and that if you apply science to any field you don't want to prove that your ideas are correct, you want to test whether they are correct."
While I probably have to check his own summary of his scientific legacy ("I found that homeopathy is pretty useless. ... Acupuncture we have shown is useful to reduce pain for certain conditions, and that is generally accepted now. There are lots of herbal medicines that are backed by very good evidence."), his definition of science becomes a definition of "correct". Because approximately at the same time that the above article crossed my (virtual) desk, I came across these two articles related to the placebo effect.

"The report says placebos, from vitamin pills to homeopathic remedies or even sham surgery, can prove highly effective in various treatments. In Bavaria, it found, 88% of GPs have sent patients home with prescriptions for placebo drugs."

"In this paper, examples will be given where physiological or pathological conditions are altered following the administration of an inert substance or verbal instructions tailored to induce expectation of a change, and explanations will be offered with details on neurotransmitter changes and neural pathways activated."

Another well-written review of the placebo effect from Wired magazine connects these two dots, "test whether they are correct" and "placebo":
"What all of these disorders have in common, however, is that they engage the higher cortical centers that generate beliefs and expectations, interpret social cues, and anticipate rewards. So do chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, Parkinson's, and many other ailments that respond robustly to placebo treatment. To avoid investing in failure, researchers say, pharmaceutical companies will need to adopt new ways of vetting drugs that route around the brain's own centralized network for healing."
So in essence, what turned out to be a very theoretical discussion down the rabbit hole (switching from a definition from science to a definition to an explicit definition of the word "correct"), is of crucial importance to the pharmaceutical industry, and thus influences our every day life. The definition they use for "correct" when testing drugs or procedures is not "curing something", but is more precisely "curing something without your own knowledge". This, on the one hands, seems very reasonable, because you only want to pay for a very expensive medicine if it is effective. On the other hand, we, as potential users of these science results, only care about the "curing something" part ... 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


... or ecology meet TED.