A gender-diverse lab is a good lab

18 09 2017


Another little expurgated teaser from my upcoming book with Cambridge University Press.

My definition of a ‘lab’ is simply a group of people who do the science in question — and people are indeed a varied mob. I’d bet that most scientists do not necessarily give much thought to the diversity of the people in their lab, and instead probably focus more on obtaining the most qualified and cleverest people for the jobs that need doing. There are probably few of us who are overtly racist, sexist, or otherwise biased against or for certain types of people.

But the problem is not that scientists tend to exclude certain types of people deliberately based on negative stereotypes; rather, it concerns more the subconscious biases that might lurk within, and about which unfortunately most of us are blissfully unaware. But a scientist should be aware of, and seek to address, these hidden biases.

I acknowledge that as a man, I am stepping onto thin ice even to dare to discuss the thorny issue of gender inequality in science today, for it is a massive topic that many, far more qualified people are tackling. But being of the male flavour means that I have to, like an alcoholic, admit that I have a problem, and then take steps to resolve that problem.

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Less snow from climate change pushes evolution of browner birds

7 09 2017
© Bill Doherty

© Bill Doherty

Climate changes exert selective pressures on the reproduction and survival of species. A study of tawny owls from Finland finds that the proportion of two colour morphs varies in response to the gradual decline of snowfall occurring in the boreal region.

Someone born in the tropics who travels to the Antarctic or the Himalaya can, of course, stand the cold (with a little engineering help from clothing, however). The physiology of our body is flexible enough to tolerate temperatures alien to those of our home. We can acclimate and, if we are healthy, we can virtually reside anywhere in the world.

However, modern climate change is steadily altering the thermal conditions of the native habitats of many species. Like us, some can live up to as much heat or cold as their genetic heritage permits, because each species can express a range of morphological, physiological, and behavioural variation (plasticity). Others can modify their genetic make-up, giving way to novel species-specific features or genotypes (evolution).

When genetic changes are speedy, that is, within a few generations, we are witnessing ‘microevolution’ — in contrast to ‘macroevolution’ across geological time scales as originally reported by Darwin and Wallace (1). To date, the detection of microevolution in response to modern climate change remains elusive, and many studies claiming so seem to lack the appropriate data to differentiate microevolution from phenotypic plasticity (i.e., the capacity of a single genotype to exhibit variable phenotypes in different environments) (2, 3). Read the rest of this entry »

Which countries protect the most of their land?

1 09 2017

forestOne potentially useful metric to measure how different nations value their biodiversity is just how much of a country’s land its government sets aside to protect its natural heritage and resources. While this might not necessarily cover all the aspects of ‘environment’ we need to explore, we know from previous research that the more emphasis a country places on protecting its biodiversity, the more it actually achieves this goal. This might sound intuitive, but there is no shortage of what have become known as ‘paper parks’ around the world, which are essentially only protected in principle, but not in practice.

For example, if a national park or some other type of protected area is not respected by the locals (who might rightly or wrongly perceive them as a limitation of their ‘rights’ of exploitation), or is pilfered by corrupt government officials in cahoots with extractive industries like logging or mining, then the park does not do well in protecting the species it was designed to safeguard. So, even though the proportion of area protected within a country is not a perfect reflection of its environmental performance, it tends to indicate to what extent its government, and therefore, its people, are committed to saving its natural heritage.

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When to appeal a rejection

26 08 2017

BegA modified excerpt from my upcoming book for you to contemplate after your next rejection letter.

This is a delicate subject that requires some reflection. Early in my career, I believed the appeal process to be a waste of time. Having made one or two of them to no avail, and then having been on the receiving end of many appeals as a journal editor myself, I thought that it would be a rare occasion indeed when an appeal actually led to a reversal of the final decision.

It turns out that I was very wrong, but not in terms of simple functional probability that you might be thinking. Ironically, the harder it is to get a paper published in a journal, the higher the likelihood that an appeal following rejection will lead to a favourable outcome for the submitting authors. Let me explain. Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XLIII

12 08 2017

I’m travelling again, so here’s another set of fishy cartoons to appeal to your sense of morbid fascination with biodiversity loss in the sea. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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World of urban rangers

2 08 2017

Bridging the gap between an urban population and the wildlife we love.IOE_crowdfunding1_web_16-9-with-logo-C

The world continues to urbanise. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the developed nations of the world are 74% urban, and it is expected that by 2050, 70% of the entire world will be ‘urban’. Besides all the other consequences, people’s connection to nature will become more and more distant. With more people living in concrete jungles, a faster pace of life and a barrage of things competing for their attention, we cannot expect that nature, wildlife protection, ocean sustainability, et cetera will be high on the list of their priorities. Other than when the most sensational of news stories are released, how many of them will even think about wildlife, let alone take any personal steps that would make a difference to its survival?

If these are the people who define consumer behaviour and impact policy decisions, they are the ones who will also unwittingly drive the wildlife-conservation agenda. The conservation sector must therefore make a more concerted effort to connect with city dwellers and to do so, understand the motivations and desires of the greater public.

The good news is that despite the grander evidence against it, people do love animals. As children, we are surrounded by animals. Many of our favourite books, movies, clothes, and toys are associated with animals. Even as adults, 163 million of us have watched a video of a panda clinging to its caretaker, 100 million of us went to see Jungle Book, and 700 million more of us visited zoos last year. Marketers play into our love of animals and use the sympathetic or iconic nature of animals on a massive scale in advertising and branding.

If you threw practicality out the window, the most impactful thing you could do to convert that love of animals into a love of conservation would be to airlift those hundreds of millions of people into the Amazon, Serengeti, or Alaskan wilderness for a week. While the experience wouldn’t make all of them conservationists, it would certainly change the way they thought about the importance of nature.

Given this impossibility, the next best thing is to bring nature to them and entice them to explore more within their own means. Shows like BBC Planet Earth or Wild Kratts do a fantastic job of revealing the awesomeness of nature in a way that most everyone appreciates.

But TV shows are still a passive experience where the viewer takes in what he/she is being shown.

Our work at Internet of Elephants is to supplement this type of programming with games about wildlife that can actively be played every day. Our goal is to get people to think about wildlife for five minutes every day and convert the urban world into wildlife addicts. Read the rest of this entry »

Paying to stop degrading

28 07 2017

green baby bathwaterWe conservationists don’t get a lot of good news these days, and even when we do, I am reminded of the (slightly modified) expression: one step forward, but ten steps backward. It’s enough to lead to depression.

Still, we soldier on, and now there are more and more philosophically positive events and venues for ‘optimistic’ conservation stories. Indeed, some of them have even appeared here on ConservationBytes.com (mainly from Claire Wordley‘s excellent string of posts from Conservation Evidence — see here, here, here, here), as well as the much-publicised Conservation Optimism Summit and its American version, Earth Optimism.

A decade or so ago, payment for ecosystem services was all the rage. The idea was simple — pay people to conserve forests and other intact habitats instead of cutting them down for timber or to grow food. However, as the years passed, these types of programmes — which were often funded (or intended to be funded) through carbon-sequestration schemes) — showed little capacity to prevent deforestation at a landscape scale. Many people have therefore binned the entire idea as a result. Read the rest of this entry »