Creating an Academic Ecosystem

 

In the academic world, the end of summer marks the start of conference season. As a young scientist, conferences are a great opportunity to share your work with new audiences and to make connections, and I’m pretty excited to be attending two big meetings this year! That being said, hearing updates about environmental research can be downright upsetting sometimes – as I’m sure you can imagine – and part of me has been a bit worried that I’d walk away discouraged. You’ve heard it all before: biodiversity is declining, forests are being cleared at an alarming rate, and climate change is wreaking havoc on species across the globe… I won’t go on. However, while environmental issues still loom large, I’m happy to report from this year’s Ecological Society of America Meeting that I’m feeling extremely hopeful about the direction science is heading. While it’s the ecological doom and gloom that often makes it into the news, there are so many inspiring things happening behind the scenes! Most notably to me, ecologists are stepping beyond their comfort zones, and embracing interdisciplinary research like never before.

Ecologist Matt Mitchell (left, in grey) talks to a group of science writers about his research in Montreal

Ecologist Matt Mitchell (left, in grey) talks to a group of science writers about his research in Montreal

Conservation biologists and social scientists are working together to solve problems of conflict – like those recently discussed by Ria – in and around protected areas. Agroecologists and crop scientists are reaching out to local farmers and communities to work together towards building strong, resilient food systems. Forest ecologists are partnering with design schools to teach topics like biomimicry (for example, using ideas from natural systems to inspire greener, more efficient product design that will reduce waste and increase sustainability). And these are just a few examples from talks that I’ve seen so far! Perhaps most importantly, the previously-popular opinion that spending time on outreach and communication will hurt your scientific career seems to be waning – ecologists of all types are now coming down from the “ivory tower” of research and reaching out towards the broader community through avenues such as public speaking, blogging, and tweeting, and are finding this to be beneficial for research.

Now, it might seem obvious that of course we need to bridge disciplinary boundaries to solve environmental problems! After all, that’s why the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) focuses not just on research, but also on conservation and education, and partners with a diverse set of organizations. JGI’s education model supports students in understanding the social, economic, cultural and environmental implications of each issue they look at. Scientists, however, are trained to be experts in highly specific topics. It’s not unusual to spend several years (or even decades!) focused on a single organism or process, and despite entering the field with the best intentions to tackle pressing ecological issues, most scientists inevitably end up publishing very specific papers, in very specific journals, to be read almost exclusively by other scientists with similar interests. These publications are still important though! Science moves forward in tiny increments, after all. Scientists accumulate knowledge through many small studies, which taken as a whole, can help us to understand how the world works in a big way. However, scientists talking only amongst themselves will simply not be enough to solve global environmental issues, and we’re starting to become much more aware of this. To borrow an analogy from this year’s conference plenary speaker, Dr. Jon Foley: the academic community as a whole needs to act as an ecosystem, not a zoo. We all need to get out of our cages and talk to each other.

Fortunately, what I’ve been seeing at this conference is just that. Ecologists are broadening their horizons. They are emerging from their research-specific cages and forging the connections that will eventually build an interdisciplinary academic ecosystem. Now perhaps I have a biased perspective, but I think that this change has been driven in large part by the passion of youth (does this theme sound familiar?). There has been a recent influx of young ecologists who have grown up with the idea that solving the world’s problems rests squarely on their shoulders, and consequently have demanded that their science is applicable, integrative, and well communicated. They know that there is no time to waste in addressing pressing issues like climate change and food security, and that by combining a diverse set of perspectives and sharing their knowledge, they will together be able to come up with far better solutions to these “wicked problems” than individually. To borrow once more from the conference plenary, young people are seizing the moment, because they have to.

What do you think? Are scientists doing enough beyond the context of the “Ivory Tower”? Have you interacted with a scientist in your community?

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