Knowledge slavery

29 01 2012

manaclesAnother workshop; another productive week.

As many readers will know, I’ve spent the last week in the mountains north of Madrid working on a series of conservation ecology papers with host Miguel Araújo (of the Integrative Biology and Global Change Group at the Spanish National Museum of Natural Sciences), my lab colleagues, Barry Brook, Damien Fordham and Salvador Herrando-Pérez, and Miguel’s post-doc, Regan Early.

Let me tell you, staying in the craggy granite Sierra de Guadarrama mountains at a well-known health spa eating explosively flavourful Spanish food and drinking an immodest selection of the region’s delicious wines, is particularly conducive to scientific productivity (yes, I AM a jammy tart). Although unlikely to be followed by many (even if they have the means), I highly recommend the experience for those suffering from writer’s block.

But this post isn’t about the scenery, food, wine, hydrothermal treatment or even the content of the workshop at all (I just prefaced it as such to gloat); it’s about a particularly sore point for me and hundreds of thousands of other scientists the world over – our slavery to the scientific publishing industry.

And ‘slavery’ is definitely the most appropriate term here, for how else would you describe a business where the product is produced by others for free1 (scientific results), is assessed for quality by others for free (reviewing), is commissioned, overviewed and selected by yet others for free (editing), and then sold back to the very same scientists and the rest of the world’s consumers at exorbitant prices.

This isn’t just a whinge about a specialised and economically irrelevant sector of the economy, we’re talking about an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. In fact, Elsevier (agreed by many to be the leader in the greed-pack – see how some scientists are staging their protest; also here) made US$1.1 billion in 2010! Read the rest of this entry »

Give way to the invader

25 01 2012

By weird coincidence, Salvador Herrando-Pérez (student blogger extra-ordinaire – see his previous posts on evolution, pollination, bird losses, taxonomic inflation, niche conservatism, historical biogeography, ecological traps and ocean giants) has produced a post this week expanding on the problem of roads. Also weirdly coincidental is that both Salva and I are in his home country of Spain this week.

Australia’s > 800,000-km road network would go 60 times around the equator of our planet. Confined to the boundaries of any one country, roads are a conspicuous component of the landscape, and shape the dispersion, survival and reproduction of many plants and animals in urban and remote areas.

Those who drive (or are driven by) will be familiar with the image of a crushed kangaroo on the roadside (a hedgehog in Europe), or the sticky mosaic of insects smashed against the windscreen after a high-speed run. Mortality by collision is one of the many effects that roads can have on the demography of organisms – including humans. Those effects encompass

  • physical alteration of terrestrial and aquatic habitats,
  • chemical pollution leakage during road construction and maintenance, and from asphalt compounds during storms,
  • alteration of animal behaviour (e.g., change in home range, or in patterns of flight or vocalisation),
  • access to remote areas by hunters, fishermen and gatherers in general, and
  • intense habitat fragmentation1-3.

However, some species get around those negative impacts by using the roads as pathways to new territories, thereby eluding barriers like seas, mountains, rivers, dense vegetation, or competition for vital resources with other species. Read the rest of this entry »

The seeds of tropical forest destruction

22 01 2012

Bill Laurance asked me to reproduce his latest piece originally published at Yale University‘s Environment 360 website.

We live in an era of unprecedented road and highway expansion — an era in which many of the world’s last tropical wildernesses, from the Amazon to Borneo to the Congo Basin, have been penetrated by roads. This surge in road building is being driven not only by national plans for infrastructure expansion, but by industrial timber, oil, gas, and mineral projects in the tropics.

Few areas are unaffected. Brazil is currently building 7,500 km of new paved highways that crisscross the Amazon basin. Three major new highways are cutting across the towering Andes mountains, providing a direct link for timber and agricultural exports from the Amazon to resource-hungry Pacific Rim nations, such as China. And in the Congo basin, a recent satellite study found a burgeoning network of more than 50,000 km of new logging roads. These are but a small sample of the vast number of new tropical roads, which inevitably open up previously intact tropical forests to a host of extractive and economic activities.

“Roads,” said the eminent ecologist Thomas Lovejoy, “are the seeds of tropical forest destruction.”

Despite their environmental costs, the economic incentives to drive roads into tropical wilderness are strong. Governments view roads as a cost-effective means to promote economic development and access natural No other region can match the tropics for the sheer scale and pace of road expansion. resources. Local communities in remote areas often demand new roads to improve access to markets and medical services. And geopolitically, new roads can be used to help secure resource-rich frontier regions. India, for instance, is currently constructing and upgrading roads to tighten its hold on Arunachal Pradesh state, over which it and China formerly fought a war.

Read the rest of this entry »

More is better

18 01 2012

In one of those rare moments of perusing the latest ecological literature, I stumbled across an absolute gem, and one that has huge conservation implications. Now, I’m really no expert in this particular area of ecology, but I dare say the paper I’m about to introduce should have been published in Nature or Science (I suspect it was submitted to at least one of these journals first). It was still published in an extremely high-impact journal in ecology though – the Journal of Ecology produced by the British Ecological Society (and one in which I too have had the honour of publishing an article).

Before I get into specifics, I have to say that one thing we conservation biologists tend to bang on about is that MORE SPECIES = BETTER, regardless of the ecosystem in question. We tend to value species richness as the gold standard of ecosystem ‘health’ and ‘resilience’, whether or not there is strong empirical evidence in support. It’s as if the more-is-better mantra strikes an intuitive chord and must, by all that’s ecologically right in the world, be true.

Of course, measuring what is ‘better’ is a difficult task, especially when we are talking about complex ecosystems comprising thousands, if not millions, of species. Does ‘better’ refer to the most temporally stable, the most genetically diverse, the most resilient to perturbation, or the provider of the greatest number of functions and hence, ecosystem services?

It’s up to you, but all these things tend to be difficult to measure for a large number of species and over time scales of sufficient duration to measure change. So the default for plants (i.e., the structural framework of almost all ecosystems) I guess has come down to a simpler measure of success – ‘productivity’. This essentially means how much biomass is produced per unit area/volume per time step. It’s not a great metric, but it’s probably one of the more readily quantifiable indices.

Enter the so-called ‘diversity-productivity relationship’, or ‘DPR’, which predicts that higher plant species diversity should engender higher net productivity (otherwise known as the ‘net biodiversity effect’). Read the rest of this entry »

When did it go extinct?

11 01 2012

It was bound to happen. After years of successful avoidance I have finally succumbed to the dark side: palaeo-ecology.

I suppose the delve from historical/modern ecology into prehistory was inevitable given (a) my long-term association with brain-the-size-of-a-planet Barry Brook (who, incidentally, has reinvented his research career many times) and (b) there is no logic to contend that palaeo extinction patterns differ in any meaningful way from modern biodiversity extinctions (except, of course, that the latter are caused mainly by human endeavour).

So while the last, fleeting days of my holiday break accelerate worringly toward office-incarceration next week, I take this moment to present a brand-new paper of ours that has just come out online in (wait for it) Quaternary Science Reviews entitled Robust estimates of extinction time in the geological record.

Let me explain my reasons for this strange departure.

It all started after a few drinks (doesn’t it always) with Alan Cooper, Chris Turney and Barry Brook when we were discussing the uncertainties associated with the timing of megafauna extinctions – you might be aware that traditionally there have been two schools of thought on late-Pleistocene extinction pulses: (1) those who think there were mainly caused by massive climate shifts not to dissimilar to what we are experiencing now and (2) those who believe that the arrival of humans into naïve regions lead to a ‘blitzkrieg‘ of hunting and overkill. Rarely do adherents of each stance agree (and sometimes, the ‘debate’ can get ugly given the political incorrectness of inferring that prehistoric peoples were as destructive as we are today – cf. the concept of the ‘noble savage‘). Read the rest of this entry »

Does conservation biology need DNA barcoding?

5 01 2012

In November last year I was invited to participate in a panel discussion onthe role of DNA barcoding in conservation science. The discussion took place during the 4th International Barcode of Life Conference (which I didn’t actually attend) in Adelaide, and was hosted by that media-tart-and-now-director-of-the-Royal-Institution, Dr. Paul Willis.

Paul has recently blogged about the ‘species’ concept as it relates to DNA barcoding, which I highly recommend. It also prompted me to write this post because now the video of the discussion is available online (see below).

Now, the panel was a bit of a funny set-up in a way – I was really one of the only ‘conservation biologists’ represented (Patrick O’Connor and Andy Lowe perhaps excepted), with the rest mainly made up of molecular people (Pete Hollingsworth, Bob Hanner, Karen James) – and I was told prior to the ‘debate’ that I was meant to be the contrarian (i.e., that there is no role for DNA barcoding in conservation).

Fundamentally, I don’t actually embrace the contrarian view on this one given that I see no reason why DNA barcoding can’t enhance or refine our conservation knowledge and skills. But the ‘debate’ did raise some important issues about technological advancements in the application of conservation science to real conservation.

I suppose that prior to getting stuck into the polemic I should define DNA barcoding for the uninitiated; it’s a basic technique that analyses short sequences of DNA with the sole purposes of identifying from which species they come. Imagine walking through the bush with a barcode scanner and pointing at random species you see and getting an instant identification read-out without actually knowing the species beforehand. You can see why it’s called ‘barcoding’ because it is like running products through the check-out to get instant price details. Read the rest of this entry »


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