On May 7th, fellow UW grad student Halley Froelich and I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist and director of science for The Nature Conservancy for our inaugural installment of Diverse Introspectives: Interviews from Visiting Scholars and Seminar Speakers.
Dr. Kareiva joined The Nature Conservancy in 2002, where his projects focus on the interplay of human land-use and biodiversity, resilience in the face of global change, and marine conservation. His academic achievements include over 100 publications spanning a broad range of topics and membership to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is known for a willingness to challenge paradigms and encourages members of our field to think critically about the purpose of our science and how to communicate it to the public. These themes ran through our conversation as we discussed the pitfalls of a single-minded focus on biodiversity, his hopes for the future of our field, strategies for advocacy, and the promise of citizen science.
We thank Dr. Kareiva for taking the time to meet with us, and we hope you enjoy what he has to say as much as we did!
What is a foundational paper in biodiversity that influenced you in your early career?
One of the most interesting papers that I read in the biodiversity arena was a Dan Simberloff paper in a book that I edited. It was basically questioning what happens when you lose species. He singled out an example of the American chestnut, which once covered 40-50% of Eastern North America, and we couldn’t find measurable impacts of it’s disappearance. Just the way he probed–as Simberloff is so good at, at the question of what happens when we lose even a dominant species was revealing? I thought that chapter was fascinating.
What are your hopes for the next generation of scientists? What should we be focused on?
I have what some think is a heretical view of biodiversity. Look –I do want to prevent extinctions. But I think what should be a reasonable concern for biodiversity has turned into a numerological and narrow counting of species, and has led to an over-emphasis on research aimed at rationalizing why biodiversity should matter to the general public. Ecology matters to the general public because ecology is about water, pests and pestilence, recreation, food, resilience and so forth. Perturbations to ecosystems in the form of massive pollution, land conversion, harvest, species loss can all distort ecology. But focusing so narrowly on producing graphs that on the horizontal axis display number of species and on the vertical axis report some dependent ecological function (that is distantly related to human well-being) strikes me as not worth so much research. Let’s get back to ecology—understanding how systems work, what controls dynamics, the role of particular species as opposed to the number of species, to what extent do ecosystems compensate for species losses, what factors contribute to resilience, whether there really are thresholds—all those are terrific research questions. Counting species, and trying to produce what is, as far as I can tell, usually very weak evidence for the relationship between biodiversity perse and ecological function is off-track.
Early on in my job at TNC I presented to business leaders some of the empirical data plots from classic biodiversity and ecological function studies. These are studies we all interpret as strong evidence for the importance of biodiversity. I can tell you unequivocally when they saw the actual data they were totally unimpressed and unconvinced. It caused me to look more objectively at the data.
People of all kinds care about nature for a rich variety of reasons. It is our job as scientists to deliver an understanding of nature so that we can help inform those people of the consequences of public and private decision that impact nature. Our mistake has been to focus too much only on the one narrow dimension of nature that systematic biologists, natural historians, and a portion of ecologists care about: biodiversity. Understand nature in a way that serves the public, not yourself. And remember, biodiversity as a label didn’t come into fashion until the late 1980s. There was a tremendous amount of conservation ecology that produced a wealth of understanding and useful insight before the biodiversity meme. My prediction is that in 2030, we will not be talking about biodiversity anywhere near as much as we do now—instead we will be asking how nature can make humans more resilient to climate disruptions, and what are the limits we should avoid crossing if we want to maintain a reliable supply of food and water.
Do you think the framework of ecosystem services is more useful?
Yes, yes, far more useful than biodiversity—although we should stop using the phrase ecosystem services. Extensive public surveys have shown many people do not like the idea that nature serves humans. We would be much better off talking about nature’s benefits, or the benefit of nature –and then quickly going to specific aspects of nature that impact our quality of life. For me one of the most fascinating benefits of nature, and one I rarely see ecologists talking about, is nature’s role in human cognitive and mental health—how the surprise and beauty of nature can take us out of our self-absorption and turn a bad day or a bad week into a good day or a good week. And note I say “nature” not biodiversity.
Speaking of ecosystem services, can you tell us about InVEST? How is it being used?
InVEST is essentially a map-based tool that translates scenarios of different futures for our lands and waters (roads being built, development, forest cleared, mining, etc) into impacts on water supply, water quality, flood control, storm surge reduction, fish production, and sediment retention –those are the biggies. Those are the things that we have found governments, stakeholders, and businesses most often care about. It’s really a tool for comparing alternative scenarios for what we might do on the landscape or seascape. It does not give an answer—it shines a light on the consequences.
Is it really an MSE (Management Strategy Evaluation) approach?
It’s certainly a stakeholder engagement approach. In select settings, some of the models are sufficient to really make it quantitative enough to be more than a tool for stakeholder engagement. For example, there are a huge number of offset mitigation programs all over the world and InVEST can guide where you put that offset mitigation effort. Recently InVEST was used to identify coastal areas of the USA that should be a high priority for habitat protection (marshes, wetlands, oyster beds etc) as a natural defense against storm damage to vulnerable people and property. That is an ideal application of the tool.
How do you walk the line between advocacy and credibility? I know there is some concern among young scientists that if they get involved in trying to be influential early on, they will lose their credibility or won’t be taken seriously.
I don’t think that’s true. Take Jane Lubchenco – she is a member of the National Academy of Science, was the head of NOAA, and is widely respected as a leading ecologist. When Jane was in her late thirties or early forties – she personally pushed the Ecological Society of America to adopt the SBI or Sustainable Biosphere Initiative Her message was that relevance is not a four-letter word for ecologists in basic research and academia. I remember her giving a talk on SBI when I was a very young scientist myself, and reacting negatively—I wondered if the SBI would contaminate the purity of science. Now I cannot believe I once thought that way. But my point is not so much how foolish I was, but that Jane’s advocacy for the SBI is precisely what has earned her so many accolades.
All scientists have an ethical duty to be aware of pressing societal problems to which their science might be applied. Advocacy is one response—and when the person has the right personality and is a gifted communicator—it is a terrific avenue to pursue. I think it’s the tenor of one’s remarks that matters more than whether or not you engage in advocacy. Can you be an honest broker? Can you avoid being prescriptive or holier than thou? And most importantly can you use science to help find solutions? We as scientists do two things: we solve problems and we point out problems. In ecology, fisheries and conservation we have been really good at pointing out problems but not so good at solving problems. It’s easier to point out problems than to solve problems. You ask anybody– it’s easier to get a paper in Science or Nature by writing about doom and gloom, usually at the global level, than writing a paper that actually solves a problem. When you solve a problem it’s doesn’t make a tidy story, and it’s almost never global. Think of all those global doom and gloom papers in Nature and Science — global collapse of fisheries, global ocean health, global extinction crisis, global deforestation, etc. Sure those papers take the accumulation of data—but it is comparatively simple science. I think we should put more attention on solving problems. We have the science to do it.
How is The Nature Conservancy implementing this strategy (avoiding doom and gloom, solving problems)?
We consciously try to stay away from doom-and gloom because we know it does not inspire action. We have staff from business, and have many donors who make their living in business. Businesses would go bankrupt if all they did was bemoan the state of the world. They confront challenges and try to surmount those challenges. When I first went to work at TNC my boss was a woman who had been a CEO of a dot-com start-up and I was doing the typical science thing – being skeptical about everything, bringing up problems, telling doom and gloom stories. She scolded me and said: “it is fine to bring up problems, but from now on, please only bring up a problem if you can propose at least one practical solution—otherwise I do not want to hear about it”. At first I was taken back by that. I foresaw a life of silence. But then I realized she had a great point, and it is a point I have since adopted. If I went back to teaching grad school I would really push that point with grad students. It’s okay to bring up problems but if you just do that and leave it at that it gets so depressing to the public, and to yourself –so move beyond that stage.
How does citizen science fit into this picture? What do you think of it? Do you think it can contribute credible science?
Citizen science is terrific. I think it’s one of the ways to actually create social changes and it could probably do more for the planet than anything else. We see it all the time, if you get people to not just be passive recipients of information but instead to be part of the information gathering, it makes a huge difference.
Do you see more value in the social or scientific outcomes? Do you think it can do both?
I think it can do both. We have a great case using Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s E-bird data in a very practical way to predict migratory birds in California. We intend to use that information to setup a reverse auction to pay farmers money to manage their fields for migrating birds –for example to keep them flooded during certain times of the year. E-bird is a terrific database and Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology is a global pioneer in citizen science. Now it needs to spread to other institutions, other formats, other types of data. We can do so much more of that. Our idea of using E-Bird data to provide stop-over habitat for migrating birds is just scratching the surface of citizen science delivering real on the ground conservation.
What is the disconnect between the potential of citizen science and its prevalence in the scientific mainstream? Why aren’t we using it as much as we could?
Partly it’s a time lag. People have to see examples of it being used in cool ways. There’s also this distrust about the accuracy of the data. But come on now – I mean I’ve seen data from my grad students. There is always sampling error, and there are statistical approaches to addressing that error. I recently learned that E-bird did this really interesting test where they compared data from amateurs to the professional birders and found that the quality of data was the similar, but the amateurs were just much slower in gathering observations or records. But even if amateurs do have large errors—the data can still be profoundly useful to conservation and to science. As we put sensors in our smart phones or use our smart phones to collect observations, the opportunity will grow exponentially.
Any parting thoughts?
Biodiversity has become a religious term for many as opposed to a scientific term. I have tried to have fun being provocative about biodiversity in this interview. Debating science should be fun. Debating religion is rarely fun. Yet when I challenge our thinking about biodiversity I often get reactions that remind me of challenging a religion.
I realize this interview is for a biodiversity website—yes? I wish instead of biodiversity science, the website was dedicated to “understanding how nature works and benefits people”. TNC has as its mission the protection of nature and the full variety of life—and this certainly includes protecting what you would call “biodiversity”. We are very successful at gaining public support for land and water conservation. But when we do so, we never use the word biodiversity. We use the words: nature, water, health, wildlife.
Collectively we have an obligation to produce science that yields a basic understanding of what people care about in the realm of ecology and the environment. This does not mean everyone—I began as a theoretical ecologist, and there is a need for pure theory as well. But even for pure theory, I find biodiversity intellectually limiting. It should be one dimension and one framing of your study—not the whole thing. It would be like being a chef— only instead of being a specialist in Italian cuisine, you decided to be a carbohydrate chef, or a tomato chef, or an olive oil chef. I bet most of the students who regularly engage with this website do it because they want to make a difference in the world. Given that – broaden your framework beyond biodiversity science—make it “nature’s dynamics and benefits”.