I didn’t want to interfere with Peter Adler’s great guest post on Dynamic Ecology so I’ve combined my wrapup for the last two days into one post. Unfortunately, I’m going to miss Friday (and some good talks). I definitely hit conference fatigue and can’t claim to have been in talks 9-5 like I was the first two days, so apologies to all I missed.
For those not wanting to read one person’s attended talks, I do have some hopefully synthetic thoughts about citizen science and then comparing ESA with BES conferences both at the end of the post so feel free to scroll down.
Although there were some great sessions (including one on predictive ecology – a topic dear to my heart here through here) in the morning, I had to get some work done and missed them. My first event was the morning plenary by Georgina Mace, a leading conservation biologist. She did what all good plenaries do – put things in a grand sweeping perspective and then identified examples of the kind of work we need more of to fill in the holes. She started by posing the question “who is conservation for” and then showing how this has changed.She basically argued that conservation biology has gone through four stages.
- Nature for itself (beautiful species and landscapes) (matching science focuses on populations, species, habitats)
- Nature despite people (1980-1990s) (science on human threats to species and landscapes – i.e. extinction, landcover change, etc)
- Nature for people (2000s) (science on ecosystem services values, economics, water, away from species, focus on nature in human dominated landscapes)
- People & Nature (Now)(science focuses on resilience, vulnerability in coupled socio-ecological systems)
She cleverly used wordclouds from journal articles that rather convincingly proved her point. First watching the news in the 1970s I feel like I have seen all of these stages and they are pretty on target (although I confess I hadn’t really parsed out stage 4 as distinct from stage 3). Her main argument was that just because we now have conversation for both people and nature in a coupled fashion doesn’t mean science should stop paying attention to species and populations and gave a number of nice examples of how a species focus pays off in paradigms #2-#4 (e.g. focus on how a specific species responds to a specific threat, or the role of biodiversity in ecosystem services – a topic on which she says the results are mixed to date).
The afternoon featured a number of big-name speakers that interacted badly with the one major deficiency of this conference – too many small rooms. After trying to get in to hear Rob Whittaker’s keynote opening of the island biogeography symposium, and running into an absolute wall of people blocking the door, I changed my strategy and focused on claiming a seat and sat through the whole island biogeography session, with one exception. The exception was attending Xiao Xiao’s talk on testing Maximum Entropy theory with an astounding amount of data. Bottom line – half of the MaxEnt predictions hold up well (although one could quibble with whether a higher standard for prediction is appropriate for species abundance distributions since so many theories get them approximately right) and two predictions pretty much fail. The island biogeography session was great. Tim Blackburn looked at species area relationships for native vs alien and invasive species. All there is no a priori reason to expect it, aliens (& invasives, the two categories were both tested) also show a power law-like species area relationship on islands but with different intercepts (not surprising) and slopes (surprising) than native SAR. Tim suggested this was due to the fact that aliens were really driven by human population (leading to immigration events) which is strongly correlated with island area. Due to my decisions, I missed Bob May’s talk which was a highlight for many. Apparently one of his pieces of advice for young scientists was “be lucky a lot”.
The afternoon plenary was Bill Sutherland speaking on improving conservation practice. He posited an 8 step process of policy decision making and talked about emerging research on these steps. Much of his work seems inspired by the drive for improving medicine including a focus on evidence-based work and some well known medical practices such as requiring surgeons to use a checklist before starting (as airline pilots have done for decades). In fact he said if you are conservation practitioner and only have time to read one book this year read Better by Atul Gawande He made a rather compelling case that we DO have enough information to make strongly evidence-based recommendations in management but are failing to do so. Amongst his most surprising graphs was one showing that experts are very confident in their predictions but no more likely to be right than less-expert people and indeed less likely to change their opinion when shown contrasting evidence! Also perhaps not surprisingly people tend to rate old males as more likely to be an expert but the ones who make the best predictions are the ones who listen better and tend to be younger and female.
This was followed by an illustrious panel discussion on conservation. I thought the most interesting thing to emerge was that John Lawton and Bob May, who have both served in senior government official capacities, pointed out that: a) we shouldn’t demonize decision makers, some of whom are quite friendly to evidence-based decions, b) politicians have many more factors to weigh than scientific evidence, and c) it is all rather complex and depends a lot on relationships (see my post on this) and individual personalities. Personally, I think both Sutherland and Lawton/May are both right.
I missed the Thursday morning plenary by Bojie Fu but all said it was an impressive demonstration of the potential to achieve restoration of a severely degraded grassland and the benefits of doing so.
The afternoon plenary was by David Tilman. I have to say this was by far my favorite presentation by Tilman as it was very big-picture. It started, no surprise, with consumer resource models and R* but within 5 minutes was on to a discussion of how this relates to biodiversity. He had a nice summary – species coexistence occurs when you have multiple limiting resources and/or spatial/temporal heterogeneity interacting with trade-offs among species. That pretty much accurately captures the main point of a couple of decades on research on species coexistence! He then made a bold hypothesis that species on all continents have the same trade-off line and rattled off an astounding (and I like to think I follow paleo literature more than most ecologists but these were almost all new to me) series of cases where massive biotic interchange between continents resulted in no extinctions for millions of years (even decreased extinction rates in one case). The middle third of his talk was summarizing his work at Cedar Creek on the effects of biodiversity. All of it had been published, but it was impressive to see it all pulled together. Increased species richness increases biomass, biomass stability, reduces invasions, increases insect herbivore diversity, decreases pathogen diversity, and the effect of biodiversity increases (on biomass) are larger than nitrogen additions, fire, drought or several other things. The final third was on agriculture. He pointed out that not only does agriculture consume 60% of usable land and increase nitrogen loads but it actually drives 30% of green house gases (transportation only drives 15%). We should all be more worried about what we eat than which car we drive. He also pointed out that in the wealthy world we cause to be produced 4x as many calories as poor countries which we promptly then waste (30%) or use inefficiently by feeding to animals that we eat. He suggested that the best things we could do in the developed world are eat less (he didn’t say no) meat and eliminate waste. He also said that transferring nitrogen fertilizer from developed to less developed countries would improve the lot of both groups.
Citizen Science thoughts
I sat for the afternoon mostly in the session on citizen science (also see a nice guest post on DE earlier by Margaret Kosmala). I’ve been a big user of the Breeding Bird Survey which is a form of citizen science (very sophisticated amateurs are involved) that has been around for a long time, but I’ve always been sort of on the fence about more broad-based citizen science (at least for doing science – they have obvious potential for outreach). Count me as off the fence. There were great talks by Jonathan Silvertown (iSpot), Rick Bonney (eBird) and Arnold Van Vliet (NatturKalendar for phenology – in Dutch – with specialized applications for Lyme disease ticks and hay fever). These impressive efforts were all driven in very fundamental ways by sophisticated IT efforts. The days of focusing on marshalling volunteers and giving them a cheesy app to type their data in are over. The discussion was about the importance of social media aspects (members connecting to each other, member reputation), the ability to spin off customized portals to the same database for different groups, advanced data mining etc. There was also a lot of focus on data quality. The two main advances here are the use of digital photos (which allows multiple people to verify IDs and in some cases to discuss them with each other and in some cases scored by their past accuracies) and for quick interactions via internet (e.g. ebird has 500 editors spread across the regions that quickly contact, discuss and weigh in on the validity of any reports that are off a preauthorized check list for each region). In general digital photos (and the iPhones to snap the pictures) are a transformative event in citizen science followed as second in importance by the internet. Finn Danielson also gave a nice talk on efforts using local peoples (I didn’t catch the country but it looked like Africa) to calculate carbon storage in their forests. He showed rather decisively that with just a couple of days training their results were as accurate (mean and variance) as professional foresters and much cheaper. Most importantly the number of management actions taking as a result of the data was something like 5x as much as when done by the experts.
So that wraps up INTECOL for me (I am missing the BES 100th birthday bash and flying out tomorrow morning).
A few brief thoughts on comparing with ESA. As best I can tell this is mostly comparing BES with ESA as INTECOL to some degree appears to morph to the format of whichever hosting conference it is partnered with. As I already noted, I really like the large number and the type of plenaries. The other obvious difference is size. This meeting was about 2000 and I am told BES is usually about 1000 (and meeting in Lille France in December 2014 paradoxically). You might think the difference between 2000 and the 4000-6000 of ESA wouldn’t make a big difference, but it did. I ran into people I wanted to see randomly at a much higher rate. I could actually circle one 15 minute talk and duck out of a symposium, make the talk and make it back. I don’t know if this is unique to BES or a point in time but the early career ecologists were very organized and active. Other “youth-driven” movements like open source, Twitter, and R all seemed stronger than I remember (although I did miss ESA 2013 for a direct comparison). Such a presence is always welcome. Finally, I have to say there was just a much higher frequency of things I wanted to see (meaning science that I found interesting). If I wanted I could have done all macroecology/biogeography all the time for 4.5 days. I of course didn’t but I couldn’t come anywhere close to that at ESA. There was less conservation/applied stuff than ESA but I generally found it of higher quality. Oh yeah, and BES is much more serious about their evening mixers (aka parties). I’m regretting not having got a ticket.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end if you made it this far! All in all one of the best large conferences I have been to.