Multiculturalism in the lab

23 02 2017

8294047fabf352ce46f4fd9a89d4a93dWith all the nasty nationalism and xenophobia gurgling nauseatingly to the surface of our political discoursethese days, it is probably worth some reflection regarding the role of multiculturalism in science. I’m therefore going to take a stab, despite being in most respects a ‘golden child’ in terms of privilege and opportunity (I am, after all, a middle-aged Caucasian male living in a wealthy country). My cards are on the table.

I know few overtly racist scientists, although I suspect that they do exist. In fact, most scientists are of a more liberal persuasion generally and tend to pride themselves on their objectivity in all aspects of being human, including the sociological ones. In other words, we tend to think of ourselves as dispassionate pluralists who only judge the empirical capabilities of our colleagues, with their races, genders, sexual persuasions and other physical attributes irrelevant to our assessment. We generally love to travel and interact with our peers from all nations and walks of life, and we regularly decorate our offices and with cultural paraphernalia different to our own.

But are we as unbiased and dispassionate as we think we are? Do we take that professed pluralism and cultural promiscuity with us to the lab each day? Perhaps we could, and should, do better. 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 »

Rise of the phycologists

22 09 2011

Dead man's fingers (Codium fragile) - © CJA Bradshaw

I’ve had an interesting week. First, it’s been about 6 years since I was last in Japan, and I love coming here; the food is exquisite, the people are fantastic (polite, happy, accommodating), everything works (trains, buses, etc.) and most importantly, it has an almost incredible proportion of its native forests intact.

But it wasn’t for forests that I travelled to Japan (nor the sumo currently showing on the guest-room telly where I’m staying – love the sumo): I was here for a calcareous macroalgae workshop.


First, what are ‘macroalgae’, and why are some ‘calcareous’? And why should anyone in their right mind care?

Good questions. Answers: 1. Seaweeds; 2. Many incorporate calcium carbonate into their structures as added structural support; 3. Read on.

Now, I’m no phycologist (seaweed scientist), but I’m fascinated by this particular taxon. I’ve written a few posts about their vital ecological roles (see here and here), but let me regale you with some other important facts about these amazing species.

Some Japanese macroalgae - © CJA Bradshaw

There are about 12,000 known species of macroalgae described by phycologists, but as I’ve learnt this week, this is obviously a vast underestimate. For most taxa that people are investigating now using molecular techniques, the genetic diversity is so high and so geographically structured that there are obviously a huge number of ‘cryptic’ species within our current taxonomic divisions. This could mean that we’re out by up to a factor of 2 in the number of species in the world.

Another amazing fact – about 50 % of all known seaweed species are found in just two countries – Japan and Australia (hence the workshop between Japanese and Australian phycologists). Southern Australia in particular is an endemism hotspot.

Ok. Cool. So far so good. But so what? Read the rest of this entry »