To combat global change, scientists must prioritize community partnerships

Guest blog post by Kennedy “Ned” Rubert-Nason, Caitlin Mandeville and Kirsten Schwarz

Global change is an immediate, accelerating threat to humanity, and its impacts are perpetuated by human activities. Changes such as climate warming, landscape alteration, pollution, resource extraction and depletion, extreme events, biodiversity loss, and spreading of invasive species including diseases, threaten the natural environment and human society. The consequences of these changes are often disproportionately borne by people who have the least political representation. Despite tremendous investment in research aimed at understanding and developing technological solutions to global change threats, implementing effective science-based solutions remains a major challenge.

Undergraduate students at the University of Maine at Fort Kent learn to study how environmental change affects the growth and physiology of Populus. Photo by Kennedy “Ned” Rubert-Nason

An article just published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Rethinking Ecology explores how translational science, or the process of putting basic research and technological development into use, can bring about the changes in human behavior that are critical to guiding humanity toward a sustainable future. The engine that drives translational science is a theory of change, or strategic plan, which identifies a global change threat, ties it to a goal (usually eliminating or adapting to the threat), and lays out specific actions needed to achieve that goal along with indicators of success. A theory of change that aims to bring about social and structural changes, as required to address global change threats, must embrace relationship-building, collaboration, engagement, commitment, communication, trust, inclusion, equity, transparency, process, and decision framing.

Researchers at Ringve Botanical Garden in Trondheim, Norway, regularly involve the local community in research and stewardship related to urban biodiversity.” Photo by Ringve Botanical Garden, Norwegian University of Science and Technology University Museum

To overcome global change threats, ecologists and other scientists need to prioritize building partnerships with communities that help bring science into practice. These partnerships are critically needed to combat misinformation, build public trust in science, bring about equitable and evidence-informed policies that are accountable to communities’ priorities, and empower people to respond effectively to challenges posed by climate change, pollution, landscape change, extreme events and pandemics.

New Hampshire Sea Grant scientists lead a community outing to survey potential erosion impacts associated with coastal storms. Photo by Caitlin Mandeville

The authors of the paper identified four priority areas for ecologists to engage in translational science:

  • forging partnerships,
  • garnering public support,
  • building strong communities,
  • and protecting natural resources.

While fundamental research remains vital, there needs to be greater emphasis on the communication, policy, education, leadership and role modeling dimensions that help bring the findings from that research into practice. Interdisciplinary scientists like ecologists are particularly well-suited to this line of work, although they can face barriers such as inadequate training, time, funding and institutional support. Lowering these barriers, and creating a culture that values science-based solutions, must be key priorities in future measures aimed at combating global change threats. Many organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America, provide training and support for ecologists to engage more deeply in translational science.

Community science is a powerful tool researchers can use to partner with communities. Here, volunteers work with the New Hampshire Sea Grant Beach Profile Monitoring program to collect regular data on beach dynamics and erosion that can be used for managing the shoreline. Photo by Caitlin Mandeville

Original source:                                                                                                             

Rubert-Nason K, Casper AMA, Jurjonas M, Mandeville C, Potter R, Schwarz K (2021) Ecologist engagement in translational science is imperative for building resilience to global change threats. Rethinking Ecology 6: 65-92. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.6.64103

New commentary on the famous ‘Warning to Humanity’ paper brings up global inequalities

Dubbed as ‘the most talked about paper’, the cautionary publication is suggested to have omitted a non-western view on inequality that impedes global sustainability

By pointing out the western lifestyle is not “the norm and end goal of societal evolution”, the research team of Dr Mohsen Kayal (University of Perpignan, France) contributes to the debate on the urgency of achieving sustainability, as ignited by the largely publicised article “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” published in BioScience in 2017. Their Response paper in the open-access journal Rethinking Ecology emphasizes that societies in developing countries are often more dependent on natural resources, while least responsible for the ecological crisis.

While expressing explicit support and endorsement for the call made in the original paper, the team argue that several of its recommendations “address symptoms rather than root causes”, while steering away from historical patterns and underlying drivers of the global socio-economic system, namely those relating to wealth inequality, human demography, and food production.

According to the researchers, the desired universal sustainability cannot be achieved in a situation of inequitable wealth distribution. They highlight the link between the consumerism and neocolonialism in the western society and the environmental declines. Meanwhile, communities in the developing world are much more vulnerable to ecological disasters and their homelands are being overexploited and compromised for the production of a major part of the commodities sold around the world.

Inequitable distribution is also evident in the ecological footprint of the western world as opposed to poorer regions. The team of Dr Mohsen Kayal question the appeal made in the Warning to Humanity paper that restricting birth rates is of primary concern when it comes to mitigating the anthropogenic effect on the planet. Rather, they argue that it is the excessive resource consumption and ecosystem-destructive practices observed in the western lifestyle that need to be prioritized.

Citing the 2017 data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the authors note that there is indeed enough food being produced to meet the needs of even more people on Earth than there currently are. However, it is again the unequal distribution of resources that results in both hunger and obesity. In the meantime, the replacement of the current industrial model of agriculture with a suite of environmentally friendly practices (e.g. cover crops, diverse crop rotations), the adoption of ecologically-based farming and well-managed grazing could preserve soils and their properties, while also increasing yields, resilience to climate change and socio-economic development.

“Sustainability can only be achieved through prioritizing global ethics, including universal equality and respect for all forms of life,” conclude the authors of the Response paper. “Sustainable solutions to Earth’s socio-ecological crisis already exist, however humanity still needs to realize that pursuing the same practices that created these problems is not going to solve them.”

Global Resource Trade

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Original source:

Kayal M, Lewis H, Ballard J, Kayal E (2019) Humanity and the 21st century’s resource gauntlet: a commentary on Ripple et al.’s article “World scientists’ warning to humanity: a second notice”. Rethinking Ecology 4: 21-30. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.4.32116

‘Insectageddon’ is ‘alarmist by bad design’: Scientists point out the study’s major flaws

Many insects species require pristine environments, including old-growth forests. Photo by Atte Komonen.

Earlier this year, a research article triggered a media frenzy by predicting that as a result of an ongoing rapid decline, nearly half of the world’s insects will be no more pretty soon

Amidst worldwide publicity and talks about ‘Insectageddon’: the extinction of 40% of the world’s insects, as estimated in a recent scientific reviewa critical response was published in the open-access journal Rethinking Ecology.

Query- and geographically-biased summaries; mismatch between objectives and cited literature; and misuse of existing conservation data have all been identified in the alarming study, according to Drs Atte Komonen, Panu Halme and Janne Kotiaho of the University of Jyväskylä (Finland). Despite the claims of the review paper’s authors that their work serves as a wake-up call for the wider community, the Finnish team explain that it could rather compromise the credibility of conservation science.

The first problem about the paper, titled “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers” and published in the journal Biological Conservation, is that its authors have queried the Web of Science database specifically using the keywords “insect”, “decline” and “survey”.

“If you search for declines, you will find declines. We are not questioning the conclusion that insects are declining,” Komonen and his team point out, “but we do question the rate and extent of declines.”

Many butterflies have declined globally. Scolitantides orion, for example, is an endangered species in Finland. Photo by Atte Komonen.

The Finnish research team also note that there are mismatches between methods and literature, and misuse of IUCN Red List categories. The review is criticised for grouping together species, whose conservation status according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is Data Deficient with those deemed Vulnerable. By definition, there are no data for Data Deficient species to assess their declines.

In addition, the review paper is seen to use “unusually forceful terms for a peer-reviewed scientific paper,” as the Finnish researchers quote a recent news story published in The Guardian. Having given the words dramatic, compelling, extensive, shocking, drastic, dreadful, devastating as examples, they add that that such strong intensifiers “should not be acceptable” in research articles.

“As actively popularising conservation scientists, we are concerned that such development is eroding the importance of the biodiversity crisis, making the work of conservationists harder, and undermining the credibility of conservation science,” the researchers explain the motivation behind their response.

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Original source:

Komonen A, Halme P, Kotiaho JS (2019) Alarmist by bad design: Strongly popularized unsubstantiated claims undermine credibility of conservation science. Rethinking Ecology 4: 17-19. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.4.34440