Visions from nature

The Changing Face of Ecology: Part 2

By Sam Perrin

This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews with prominent ecologists, which you can find here.

Two weeks ago, I published Part One of our look into how ecology has changed over recent decades. My colleague Kate Layton-Matthews and I have put this question to a number of ecological researchers from all over the world. Here are some more responses on how our field has evolved, from the publishing of papers to land clearance to the job market.

Ecology is a discipline that is constantly evolving. I spoke to (from left to right) Ian Winfield, Cory Coldsworthy, Matt von Konrat and (not pictured) Don Schreiner and Sean Connolly about the biggest changes they've seen in their career
Ecology is a discipline that is constantly evolving. I spoke to (from left to right) Ian Winfield, Cory Coldsworthy, Matt von Konrat and (not pictured) Don Schreiner and Sean Connolly about the biggest changes they’ve seen in their careers (Image Credits: Ian Winfield; Cory Goldsworthy, Matt von Konrat)

Dr. Ian Winfield, Freshwater Ecologist, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, United Kingdom

Freshwater Ecology

I think the biggest change is that people are now working in larger and larger teams. When I did my PhD, a single author publication was not that unusual, if it was getting to 4 that was a big authorship. Now, I would rarely publish something as a single author. Very often in European projects I’m one of 20 co-authors. Collaboration has changed like no end. When I started doing research, I don’t think there were any fax machines, so your communication with other scientists was writing a letter, or the telephone, or you’d go and see them in person. That as changed tremendously.

The other thing that has happened is the erosion of thinking time, free time to just sit down and play with new ideas. We used to go into a physical library and flick through recent journals and such. Now researchers in institutes and universities, we’re so pressured that there’s very little time to just sit back and think things through. There’s still sabbaticals in the UK, but I don’t think they’re as easy to get as they used to be. And of course you are still contactable. You can go anywhere on the planet, and people can still get hold of you.

Cory Goldsworthy, Fisheries Supervisor, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Fisheries Management

One of the big things I see is a change in how people interpret their role in ecology or ecology in general. A lot of my work is focussed on younger generations, looking into the future of fishing licence buyers. And the more that you interact with younger anglers, the more that you gain their interest. One of the things that we’ve started doing now is using anglers to collect genetic samples for us. And we’re grabbing a portion of the population that we never would have talked to before. There’s younger anglers that are freshmen or sophomores in college that we never would have seen before, coming into our office, wanting to get involved in this project. This group is different. I grew up hunting and fishing with my grandfathers who were avid fishermen, but would spend 10 dollars on a used fishing rod at a garage sale rather than buy a new one. The younger anglers that we see coming out, they don’t spend much money on their personal things, but they’ll walk around with cutting edge gear. So I think we’re seeing changing demographics in how people are interacting and utilising resources.Within 20 years, we have seen the catch-and-release ethic for stream trout go from almost zero catch-and-release to now having about 50% of anglers fishing for stream trout practicing catch-and-release on the Minnesota’s North Shore tributaries to Lake Superior. And we, as managers, now have to change our attitudes to the resource too. I think a lot of it is changing how you communicate your message, and interact with the public.

Dr. Matt von Konrat, Head of Botanical Collections, Chicago Field Museum

Plant Systematics

Ecologically I’ve been really fortunate, in that I do a lot of field work, and some places unfortunately have seen a lot of habitat loss. We actually have permanent plots in some areas in the islands of the South Pacific, and there’s been definite habitat loss and forest disruption. It’s something to be really concerned about, because by keeping up with the literature and what environmental organisations are doing, you can see it’s still happening on a really large scale.

But on a positive note, there’s been a huge increase in public awareness. Look at climate change. In the 90s I was the president of our environmental group, we were doing little protests in the street, trying to cut CO2 and all that sort of carry-on. That was just the beginning of the debate back then, and the general public had a very poor understanding. Nowadays the majority of Americans believe that climate change is a problem. That’s a huge shift in public opinion. It certainly didn’t exist 20 years ago.

Rallies in defense of climate change are a new phenomena, and a promising sign (Image Credit: John Englart, CC AS A 2.0)

Don Schreiner, Fisheries Specialist, Minnesota Sea Grant

Fisheries Management

The professionals coming into the fishery sector now, the new employees are much more ecologically oriented than they used to be. A lot of our older staff got into because they like to hunt and fish. I’m somewhat in that mold, but I also really like the ecology and community dynamics and those sorts of things. But not everybody in the DNR is that way. You’ll have people coming in that don’t hunt or fish at all, but still want to manage fisheries.

Another big change I’ve seen, especially out on Lake Superior but somewhat inland as well, is that people seem to really value native species much more than they did when I started 30 years ago. We can still stock these fish, crank up a hatchery to create recreation. But people seem more interested now in catching a wild fish, something thats been there. I think that there’s a lot more people who are interested just to know it’s there and that the habitat can support it. And they may not even fish for it. There’s people interested in Lake Trout who never go Lake Trout fishing. And because it’s a native it’s a part of the culture here.

Professor Sean Connolly, James Cook University

Reef Ecology

There’s a lot more emphasis now on being able to communicate your research findings to the public. The idea of needing an elevator pitch is new, and there’s the proliferation of 3-minute seminars– this idea of being able to communicate with the public. We run workshops at the [ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies] where we train people to interact effectively with the media. There’s a much greater idea that scientists’ research is funded by taxpayers, so we have a moral obligation to communicate knowledge that might be of interest to the public– ecologists in particular, because of the climate change issue and the need to push back against the denialist industry.

The flipside of it is that we’re in an era of tight budgets, so it is important to make the public aware that the research they fund through organisations like the Australian Research Council does actually lead to new knowledge that is directly relevant to the public. Consequently, funding agencies have started to place a lot of value on that kind of outreach.

The second change has to do with the way we do science. The Ecological Detective by Ray Hilborn and Marc Mangel was published around 1998. That book had a transformative effect on my generation of people doing theoretical ecology. Up until that time, the idea of combining theory and data was about making qualitative predictions about gradients or differences by analysing a deterministic theoretical model and then testing those qualitative predictions using classical statistical methods in the field. The Ecological Detective was the first ecological book that was accessible to people who were just starting a career that introduced the idea of fitting bespoke ecological models to data. I think that book really influenced people in my generation, and I think it had a substantial effect on people like me deciding to go and learn about likelihood estimation and Monte Carlo simulation and so on. Prior to that time, I thought of theoretical ecology as basically analysing deterministic differential equations and matrix models. Whereas now, almost everybody who does some sort of theoretical ecology works at some level with trying to evaluate theoretical models by making quantitative predictions about data. The extent to which this approach has permeated the field is quite remarkable, when you think about what theoretical ecology was doing from the 1970s to the 1990s.

The third thing that I would say is that, when I was on the job market, it was before the dot com recession and the financial crisis. Since then, permanent academic jobs have gotten a lot more scarce. I was never that worried about being able to have some sort of an academic career. Now I suspect less than half of people who do postgraduate degrees will end up in an academic career. Academic jobs have become more stressful over time, as well, due to cutbacks in higher education, so there’s been a lot more attention to the well-being of academics. That goes for everything, from work-life balance and the stresses of academic positions to issues like discrimination, harassment and bullying. Bullying in academia has been around for ages. We’ve always had high-performing academics who have been basically assholes, and we tolerated that for a long time, but that’s starting to change.

I think pursuing a career outside of a standard academic job isn’t seen as failure anymore (at least not to the extent that it used to be), which is a positive thing. Some of these cultural changes that are taking place are going to develop some of their own internal momentum and will be harder to stop. There may more organized or forceful pushback against decreasing working conditions in the academy. The way that #MeToo has manifested itself in the university context is a part of that: it fits in with the realization that an academic life should no longer be considered something that’s a sacrifice, where abuse and mistreatment have to be endured in order to have a shot at some career goal far in the future. For many people, a PhD or a PhD plus a postdoc will be the extent of their academic careers, so it is important for those years to be rewarding and fulfilling in their own right.

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