A recent interview with Peter Kareiva of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) spurred debate on this blog on whether to continue our focus on biodiversity and what aspects of it to study. No matter the side of the argument in the great discussion that followed, one theme was common to all – we need to make people care about biodiversity, or as Peter would probably word it: “nature, water, health, and wildlife.” Therefore science communication should be an integral part of our education as graduate students and early career ecologists.
But how many of us are really comfortable speaking to non-scientists about our work or writing an article in the popular media? I’d argue that not too many. Sure we can talk to our peers for hours and with great passion about a new modeling technique or a recently published study, as evident from the great entries in this blog, but can we talk about the same concepts to a group of stakeholders? Can we explain our science to the general public and convince them that they should care? After all, as much as we are focused on getting our degrees and publications to advance our careers, we are also interested in contributing knowledge to better manage a system, solve an ecological problem, and make the world a better place for nature and people. I’m sure we all wrote some version of the latter as justifications to our grant proposals, dissertation chapters, or later on, publications.
But how can we make the world a better place if our knowledge stays within our discipline? I’d argue that we need to engage the public, especially stakeholders, and that science communication is as important as publishing in high impact factors journals if we want to make a change on the ground. Don’t get me wrong I value both, and it doesn’t mean that one needs to overshadow the other. We each have to find a balance in our professional lives, but we’ve got to be proactive about opportunities. I was fortunate during my academic career to be challenged by my professors to think about these issues and later on to get training in science communications from great teachers such as Liz Neeley and Nancy Baron of COMPASS. Those skills were extremely valuable as I interacted with the general public, natural resource agencies, and municipal stakeholders during my PhD project on urban bear ecology. I continue to use these skills today as a researcher with the Development by Design science team at TNC.
To engage the shy readers to practice science communication I thought I’d share one of my first formal attempts which involved writing about biodiversity. It was a closed-book prelim exam question from my committee member Dr. Kevin Crooks, and the challenge was to write a 500 word essay for a newspaper or magazine about biodiversity and why it is important to conserve. The target audience was the general public and the goal was to be educational and convincing. Below is my unedited attempt, and to put things in context, I wrote it just after the financial collapse of Wall Street. I am not sharing this as a great journalistic piece, it can definitely be improved, but I’m sharing this to challenge you all to do the same and to not be afraid to put yourself and your science out there! Sure at first it might be rough (just read the piece below J) but overtime you will learn to polish your message, relate to your audience, find the right metaphors or the right jokes to make your science more engaging. So whether you study functional biodiversity, seed dispersal, marine pollution, or urban black bears, I challenge you to try and write a 500 word essay about your science for a popular media outlet and the general public. Try it. Maybe it will inspire the introduction of your next grant proposal, dissertation chapter, or your publication. Heck, maybe you will even publish it!
The following is an essay I wrote in response to my prelim exam question about biodiversity:
Biodiversity –earth’s biological portfolio
The mission of conservation biologists is to maintain biodiversity in the face of a human-altered natural world. But one might ask: what is biodiversity? Why is it so important to conserve? And why should I care? Well, if you enjoy the shade of a tree on a hot summer day, the song of a bird in your backyard, the taste of a freshly caught and cooked fish, or the vistas from a mountain top, then you like what earth has to offer and might want to read along because biodiversity is earth’s biological portfolio that yields those dividends.
Biodiversity is the variety of all living forms measured at multiple levels. At the base level is the diversity of genes, or the library of information that codes for specific traits. Genetic material is expressed and shaped by the environment to make all living things unique, and diversity is maintained by the existence of different forms of genes, or alleles. The second level of biodiversity relates to populations, which are groups of individuals that live and breed in the same area, and diversity can be measured by population age and gender ratios. The next level consist of communities which are the sum of all biological populations, and ecosystems which are the sum of all biological populations and the abiotic (non-living) factors in the environment such as nutrients. Diverse communities can be measured in terms of species richness, and ecosystem diversity can be measured by nutrient cycle dynamics. At the top of the biodiversity hierarchy are landscapes. Landscapes are patches of ecosystems arranged throughout large regions of earth, where configuration and connectivity are some of its diversity indicators. Therefore biodiversity IS the tree we sit by, the birds we listen to, the fish we eat, and the landscape vistas we see, and if you enjoy any of these earth dividends, then you care about protecting its biological diversity.
Earth’s biological portfolio has composition, structure, and function just like a financial portfolio. Composition means what is present, similar to the type of stocks composing a portfolio. Structure means how are things distributed, for example the percent of risky and safe stocks. Function means rates of change, or the yield and loss rates of a given stock. We wish to maintain all three component of biodiversity as they are all important for the functioning of earth, just like having a diverse portfolio of stocks with balanced risks and good yield is important. Consider the recent Wall Street market fall, which was an unexpected, or stochastic, event. Investment portfolios that consisted mostly of risky stocks lost most of their value, and even if they will recover, recovery will take longer compared to more diverse portfolios that included additional investments such as money bonds. In addition, the unexpected fall of Wall Street affected not just the local American markets, but markets all over the world. The same applies to the biodiversity of earth that is interconnected at all levels. The more diverse the allele frequency in the gene pool, the more even the species distribution in the community, or the more connected patches are in a landscape, the more likely it is that earth will continue to function properly and provide us with biological dividends even when faced with unexpected challenges.
And we certainly give earth many challenges to face. Human development and activities pose major threats to maintaining biodiversity including habitat degradation and loss, overexploitation, transmission of invasive species and diseases, and global climate change. Alone or via synergetic effects, these threats lead to species extinction, disruption of ecosystem functions, fragmentation of landscapes, and ultimately to loss of biodiversity. Examples include the extinction the passenger pigeon in the early 1900s following decades of uncontrolled harvest, the eutrophication (making nutrient-rich) of aquatic ecosystems by fertilizers that results in algal blooms, disruption of the oxygen cycles, and ultimately massive fish kills, and the reduction in area and increase in isolation of wildlife habitat due to urbanization and road development resulting in the reduced landscape connectivity for species like the Florida panther. But the most notable recent challenge that humanity imposed on earth is global climate change. Build up of atmospheric greenhouse gases is causing temperature increases and a rapid change in environmental conditions that is affecting biodiversity around the globe.
But change is also a driver of biological diversity as some species adapt to new environments and some go extinct. Therefore critics might argue that extinction is a natural process affecting earth’s biodiversity for billions of years since life first evolved, and that there is nothing wrong with the changes imposed by humans. It is true that change is a natural process leading to extinctions, but it usually operates at a very slow rate called “background extinction”. In contrast, modern extinctions are a cause for alarm because the loss of biodiversity is occurring at a much faster rate, large scales, and are the result of a single species, Homo sapiens, humans. Consequently there is not enough time or enough resources for species and systems to adapt. What is also alarming is that estimates suggest only 10% of biodiversity is known, so the full effects of modern extinctions can be even greater. Therefore in order to make sure that earth continues to yield its dividends, we must act to conserve biodiversity. Be it for the right of our future generations to enjoy earth’s dividends, or for the moral obligation of humanity to mother earth and all living things.