Showing posts with label China. Show all posts
Showing posts with label China. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

INTECOL 2017: Building the eco-civilisation


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The International Association for Ecology holds their global INTECOL conference every 4 years, and it was recently held in Beijing, China. Given the location of this meeting, the theme was exceptionally appropriate: Ecology and Civilisation in a Changing World. I say that it was appropriate because no place embodies change more than China’s recent history, and I would argue that China is a prime candidate to benefit from ecological science.
One thing that was clear from the outset of the meeting was that China (both the scientists attending the meeting and the policy apparatus writ large) was serious about the notion of producing an ecological civilisation, or eco-civilisation. In 2007, the Communist Party of China adopted the idea of turning China into an eco-civilisation by incorporating ecological well-being into its constitution. In 2013, the Chinese government started implementing reforms that politically prioritised ecology and the environment. Most prominent of these was that local government officials and administrators were directed to no longer ignore the environmental consequences of development.
China is globally unique in its ability to institute change, literally with the stroke of a pen. Well documented is the ability for the major cities in China to implement drastic change in transportation policy by restricting who can drive when, and building public transit infrastructure at a torrid pace (see a commentary about this). The latest examples of cities’ power over transportation include the fact that electric cars are eligible to receive license plates immediate, while owners of conventional cars are required to wait years or spend tens of thousands of dollars to get their plates. The other example is the flooding of the market with public bicycles that can be parked anywhere and that require a phone app to unlock, and they literally cost cents to use.

A market flooded with a public bike-sharing program in China. These are all shared bikes, available everywhere, and they tend to congregate around bus stops (Photo by M. Cadotte).

I found it to be an interesting juxtaposition to see the multitude of bikes everywhere with the polluted sky that was apparent for the first two days of the conference. This was the very appropriate context for our conference. From the get go the theme of using the science of ecology to improve environmental management and policy seemed to underlie most of the talks and organised sessions. For most Chinese scientists, this is the context in which they work. To them, there is no real separation between human activities and nature, and the two have been intimately linked for millennia. The opening address was by HRH Charles Prince of Wales. Prince Charles eloquently commented on the importance of ecology in the coming decades, as humanity is testing the ecological bounds of the planet, and he encouraged attendees to use their research to affect change.

HRH Charles, Prince of Wales giving the opening address (Photo by M. Cadotte).

Representing the hosting organisation, Shirong Liu outlined all the important ecological advances in Chinese ecology, especially the development of extensive ecological experiments and research networks examining issues like climate change and nutrient deposition. Echoing Prince Charles’ call, Prof. Liu commented on the importance of ecology for Chinese policy, and the many recent policy changes in China, including the establishment of national parks, habitat restoration, climate change mitigation, and the greening of cities.
Given that most of China has been modified by humans, Gretchen Daily’s keynote address seemed incredibly poignant, even though the focus was on Costa Rica. She said that we’ve pretty much protected all the places that are likely to be protected as big parks, and that adding more is increasingly infeasible (China is an outlier). Instead, we should be looking to country sides and other human-dominated landscapes as the places to implement ecological principles to better manage these systems to benefit biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. These systems are where our science needs to pay off.

Evidence of ecosystem services in the Beijing Botanical Garden (Photo by M. Cadotte).
The talks throughout the conference echoed the themes of an ecology on and for human systems. I saw numerous talks from Chinese authors on understanding and managing human impacts, in systems from grasslands to lakes to cities. I participated in a panel discussion on how ecology could be used to create an eco-civilisation, and it was clear that there was a lot of optimism that the next decades will see a renaissance of ecology in policy, I was probably the least optimistic. I am doubtful that, having seen the United States pull out of the Paris Climate Change agreement, the political will can always be relied upon and creating an eco-civilisation depends on China’s ability to increase the standard of living without taxing ecological capacity more than it has. That said, there is currently a global leadership vacuum on the environment, created by political instability in Europe and the United States, and this is the time for China to be an environmental leader. 
Regardless, I saw inspiring talks on restoring ecosystems severely modified by human activity and invasive species, from speakers like William Bond, Carla D’Antonio, and Tom Dudley. I also ran an organised session on the importance of biodiversity in human dominated landscapes which covered topics from habitat fragmentation, to the ecology of cities, to the value of sacred groves in India for biodiversity.
After listening to talks at INTECOL 2017, one cannot help but feel that this is ecology’s time. We are entering an ecological era, and if ever there was a time to use our science to affect change, it is now.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The vanishing pangolin: How do you change the value of an endangered species?

Extinction is forever. Extinction reduces the biological heritage of the Earth and is something that we cannot undo.

While living in China, and traveling around Asia, I have said something to my children I have never said before: “I want you to take a really good look, these animals will go extinct in your lifetime”.  I said this as we were watching 8 of the 60 remaining Hong Kong pink dolphins.

Hong Kong pink dolphin (photo by Shirley Lo-Cadotte)

Species become rare and endangered for many reasons, like habitat destruction, pollution, human facilitated spread of problematic species (rats for example), and direct harvesting. While all of these factors are subject to laws and regulations that attempt to control them, it is the last one, harvesting, that relies most on altering peoples' wants and desires. I don’t know why, but to me it is also the saddest cause, the idea that a species dies out because we desire it and kill it or chop it down, just doesn’t seem right.  

Walking through the market alley near my apartment in Guangzhou, China, I saw something that both intrigued and horrified me: a dead and quartered pangolin. You may not be familiar with pangolins –also called scaly anteaters; they are mammals about the size of a large cat or medium-small dog (like a cocker spaniel), with a very long and thick prehensile tail that they use in trees. Their most unique feature is that they are covered in large flat scales that are made of keratin –the same as your fingernails. 

A Chinese pangolin, Manis pentadactyla (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pangolin%27s_tail.jpgsted to Flickr by verdammelt cc-by-sa-2.0) 
Pangolins are critically endangered. They also have the distinction of being one of the most trafficked animals in the world. In China and Vietnam there is high demand for pangolins because they are considered a delicacy and more importantly their scales are used in traditional medicine. These scales are believed to provide a cure for a number of diseases, including cancer. The incidence of cancers in China is skyrocketing, which is not surprising given the level of pollution, and couple this with increasing affluence, the desire and ability to pay for pangolin parts has never been greater.

Obviously pangolin scales do not cure cancer. You might as well save your money and suck on your fingernails instead, but evidence and logic are not likely to sway mortal fear. There are groups in Asia dedicated to protecting endangered animals and educate citizens about wildlife. Such organizations have an opportunity to capitalize on recent attitude shifts in China and elsewhere, where animal wellbeing is increasingly seen as important. In China, pet ownership has increased dramatically over the past decade and pets are now seen as companions –which I suspect was partially a result of the one-child policy. But the demand for pangolins still exists. When we visited the Angkor Conservation Centre in Cambodia, which works tirelessly to rehabilitate animals and educate people, they were recovering from the theft of one of their pangolins from an enclosure, which they knew was transported to China.

The Chinese authorities are coming down hard on the illegal pangolin trade. They now routinely arrest individuals selling pangolins and seize large shipments. While such seizures and arrests show that the Chinese government is taking pangolin protection seriously, there is only so much they can do while demand is high.

Police confiscating a large illegal pangolin shipment bound for China (photo originally from news.163.com) 

My Mother-in-law, who is from southern China, said it best when I told her about the dead pangolin in the alley: “people just need to be educated”. That is really where the answer lies. Laws can only change peoples’ behaviour so much; education campaigns are desperately needed. Currently, there is an internationally funded billboard campaign in China to stop people from buying elephant ivory. Ivory demand is high in China. Despite the importance of reducing ivory purchases, I would argue that this type of education campaign needs to focus a little closer to home, and Pangolin conservation efforts are in desperate need of help. 

When we were visiting the conservation centre in Cambodia, I told my children that the Pangolin would go extinct in their lifetime. I really hope that I am wrong.




Saturday, February 6, 2016

Reining in traffic –looking to China for solutions?

Human impacts on landscapes are immense. Urban areas represent complete transformations of the geological, hydrological and ecological norms in landscapes. But while urban effects are concentrated to relatively small areas, the roads and rail lines feeding cities create a pervasive and diffuse network of negative impacts. Roads funnel rain runoff and can cause local flooding and this runoff also concentrates pollutants. Further, roads alter wildlife movement. For example, the fragmentation of formerly continuous forest in Florida is worsened by large busy roads, and black bears there are unable to move long distances to find mates. The result of this is that the Florida Black bear populations are getting smaller and more genetically inbreed.

Roads are created to meet traffic demands. The more people drive and the further they drive, the more roads we build. Cities around the world are growing, meaning that more cars are concentrated in small areas. The increase in automobile use also has direct environmental consequences. Cars, thanks to their internal combustion engines, add pollution to our local environments –carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and other toxins create smog, exacerbate respiratory ailments, and contribute to global warming.

More cars also means more traffic congestion and greater difficulty in getting from A to B, meaning that we spend more time travelling to, instead of being, somewhere. Heavy reliance on automobiles directly affects our quality life in both positive and negative ways.

1950s traffic jam in Los Angeles (from Wikipedia)
Given the undesirable consequences of cars, many cities try to reduce car use. In North America, cities employ a number of strategies, including: minor improvements to public transit (while often passing on the costs to riders), creating car free zones (which have been very modest in North America, whereas European cities have been much more successful –Montpellier, France is a great example), introducing tolls, and limiting parking in the city core. It is safe to say that the North American approach to dealing with traffic has been less than spectacular –just drive through Toronto or Los Angeles during rush hour.

Living in China for the past several months, I have been intrigued by how Chinese jurisdictions have dealt with traffic. And traffic was something that needed dealing with here. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, thousands of new cars were added to roads every single day.  The air quality in China is abysmal and having hundreds of millions of cars driving at the same time only make things worse. So governments in China decided to experiment with ways to reduce automobile use.

In China, much of the power to control automobiles resides with municipalities –they are the ones who set local traffic laws and issue license plates. From conversations with scientists from different regions of China, I have compiled ways different municipalities deal with traffic and reduce automobile use. Here are some of the ways that municipalities try to reduce automobile traffic:

1) Massive investments in public transit

There can be no real traffic solutions without building fast, efficient and affordable public transit. China has been a world leader in public infrastructure development over the past ten years. For example, Shanghai has one of the largest metro systems in the world, and has opened a new line every other year since 1999! They are currently building two new lines, which will give Shanghai 18 metro lines and about 400 stations. In Guangzhou, where I currently live, they also have a very modern and rapidly expanding metro system. Guangzhou currently has 8 lines with 4 more under construction! In all the Chinese cities I’ve been in, the metro systems are modern, efficient, heavily used, and very affordable. In Guangzhou, a bus ride works out to be about 35 cents US and a metro trip to the airport (the longest trip you can take in Guangzhou I believe) is about $1.15 US.

In Toronto, where I normally live, and like most other large North American cities, subway construction has not been sufficient to keep up with population growth. Local politicians seem to be unable to make the tough decisions to get public transit infrastructure built. But this infrastructure is the linchpin for any successful reduction in automobile usage.

2) Driving days

During the 2008 summer Olympics, Beijing created a system where cars were allowed on the roads only on certain days. Which days people could drive their cars depended on the last number of their license plates. This scheme was successful in reducing traffic congestion and air pollution. Since then, they have periodically reinstated this policy, especially during extremely bad air pollution days. I was there in early December, and road sharing was in effect then.

3) Making license plates really, really expensive (or difficult to get).

In Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai, getting a car is easy, but getting a license plate, now there is the real hurdle. Since 2012, Guangzhou and other cities have severely limited the number of license plates issued, and now people can get a plate in one of two ways in these cities: by joining a lottery or going to an auction. In the lottery, a person submits an application and waits for the results. One person told me it took them three years to get their plate in the lottery. In the auction, the plates go to the highest bidder and the price for a license plate at auction has sky rocketed. A person told me that plates at auction now go for more than 60,000 RMB (about  $10,000 USD), which costs more than an economy car here! This person also quipped that the plates have become more of a status symbol than the actual car.

4) Your license plate will die

In Guangzhou and other cities, license plates expire. No, not like they expire in North America where you pay an annual license fee. They expire after 10 years and are no longer valid, and the driver must re-enter the lottery. 

5) Pay the toll

Many of the intercity highways have tolls here. While this is not a policy that affects travel behaviour within cities, it does influence driver choices traveling outside the city. Tolls only work when there are decent alternatives, and the rail system in China is excellent. There are frequent trains and many high speed lines in operation (where the trains go faster than 250 km/h). We don't have many toll roads in Ontario, but the one we have near Toronto, hwy 407, doesn't go into the city (so doesn't influence commuter decisions), and does not have viable options for alternative travel. This highway is an example of poor government policy and it was one of the worst policy decisions by a government who thought private companies should run public infrastructure. Its nothing more than a cash grab that doesn't serve the broader good. But I digress.

I have been struck by the variety of approaches and the experimental nature of policy making. What I mean by experimental, is that some policies seem to be ‘test run’ to see how people respond and if the policies result in the desired effects. China is able to institute creative and extreme measures because of the government’s unique ability to change policy without public debate. Often these policies are instituted overnight with little warning. In China, people seem to take government edicts with a “well, what can you do?” attitude. But if there is a country that can change the automobile culture, China is a good candidate. They did change what a family was with the one-child policy.

While most North Americans would certainly have a problem with the lack of transparency and seemingly impulsive nature of government decisions, China is providing the world with working examples of how to reduce the number of automobiles. It is clear to most, that without strong governmental leadership, a robust set of policies, and massive infrastructure investment, heavy automobile traffic will be unavoidable.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

The hurdles and hardships of science in China

In my last post on China I discussed why China is becoming a scientific juggernaut. I focussed on all the things that seem to be working in its favour (funding, high expectations on scientists, etc.). While I do think that science in China is good and getting better, it is also important to point out some of the hurdles and limitations that hold back some aspects of scientific advance here.

In my previous post I noted that the expectations placed on students and researchers (i.e., to produce a minimum number of papers in journals with high impact factors, IFs) provided motivation to do good science. This is undoubtedly true, however, these strict expectations also reinforce a strategy of ‘paper-chasing’ where students are encourage to figure out how to get a paper. This is because the reward structure is so quantitative. While this type of evaluation systems has pros and cons, it does create a different sense of urgency than I’ve experienced elsewhere.

Pragmatic factors
The Great Fire Wall of China from "Cracks appear in the Great Fire Wall of China" posted by the China Daily Mail, Sep. 25th 2013.
I have never yelled at my computer or cursed the internet as much as I have in China. In the west we often hear about the ‘Great Firewall of China’ and probably do not think much about what this actually means. It sucks. The internet barely functions for significant proportions of the working day. I thought that this might have to do with the number of people and lack of infrastructure, but I no longer believe this to be true. Other countries in the region have great internet, and China has very advanced infrastructure. I’m pretty sure that when there is high traffic, the national security protocols and activity monitoring servers are the bottleneck.

Because the government policy is to block certain websites, most of the scientific internet websites and data sharing portals are not accessible here, but this may change at any given time. For example: Google Drive, Dropbox, Facebook, Blog sites, Twitter, Google Maps, and Google Scholar are all services routinely used by scientists and which are blocked in China. The reason for these to be blocked, as far as I understand it, is that they do not share users’ activities and the government cannot monitor what individuals share and download (which reinforces the value of these services to me). I also suspect that they are blocked to give local companies a chance to succeed without competition from global corporations, or perhaps simply because of disagreements with the companies.

I have had immense trouble trying to share files with my lab back in Canada (and to post this blog entry –which is why I’m doing it from Cambodia!). I am not currently engaging in social media –something that I saw as a legitimate activity for communicating science. I am having a very hard time searching for articles without Google Scholar. I also have trouble with other websites that should not be blocked, but that use third party encryption. For example, I can’t log in to my University library in Toronto, and I couldn’t connect my Canadian grant application to the Canadian Common CV (which we are required to do in Canada) because the CCV web interface was blocked (I had to get my post doc in Canada to do it for me). I have tried to go to researchers’ websites to find that they are blocked because they use a blogging site (e.g., Wordpress). The amount of time I spend doing basic online professional activities has increased 3 to 4-fold.

This is important because Chinese scientists are at a disadvantage when it comes to international collaboration and participating in online initiatives. I would encourage scientists outside of China to consider these imposed limitations to ensure that information and collaboration is barrier-free. Here are some tips:

  1. Don’t link to your Google scholar publications on the publications page of your website
  2. Don’t use a blog site to host your website (e.g., Wordpress)
  3. Don’t use Dropbox or Google drive to collaborate on papers
  4. Don’t use gmail as your work e-mail, Air China, for example, won’t send e-mails to gmail.
  5. Social media has emerged as a great way to communicate with broader communities, it is important to recognize that these dialogues exclude Chinese scientists.
  6. Ironically, as I write in this blog, blogs are blocked and while blogs provide a great platform to discuss ideas and issues, they are not available to Chinese scientists. 

These last two are interesting as journals increasingly require or request tweets or blog posts to help maximize exposure, but these forms of communication are not on scientists’ radar here.

Chinese science has been increasing by leaps and bounds despite these limitations. This is a testament to the hard work and dedication by Chinese scientists. I have no doubts that basic scientific research in China will continue to increase its stature and impact.

Postscript
One thing that is interesting to me is that many of the graduate students here use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to mask their IP addresses. They are able to access blogs, Google Scholar, etc. In conversations with people, VPN use is extremely widespread and successful at circumventing government filters, most of the time (there seems to be an arms race between the government and VPNs). It really makes me wonder how much longer these governmental controls can be realistically maintained.


Monday, September 30, 2013

Struggling (and sometimes cheating) to catch up

Scientific research is maturing in a number of developing nations, which are trying to join North American and European nations as recognized centres of research. As recent stories show, the pressure to fulfill this vision--and to publish in English-language, international journals--has led to some large-scale schemes to commit academic fraud, in addition to cases of run-of-the-mill academic dishonesty.

In China, a widely-discussed incident involved criminals with a sideline in the production of fake journal articles, and even fake versions of existing medical journals in which authors could buy slots for their articles. China has been criticized for widespread academic problems for some time, for example, 2010 the New York Times published a report suggesting academic fraud (plagiarism, falsification or fabrication) was rampant in China and would hold the country back in its goal to become an important scientific contributor. In the other recent incident, four Brazilian medical journals were caught “citation stacking”, where each journal cited the other three excessively, thus avoiding notice for obvious journal self-citation, while still increasing their journal’s impact factor. These four journals were among 14 having their impact factors suspended for a year, with other possible incidences that were flagged but could not be proven involved Italian, a Chinese, and a Swiss journal.

There are some important facts that might provide context to these outbreaks of cheating. Both Brazil and China are nations where to be a successful scientist in the national system, you need to prove that you are capable of success on the world stage. This is probably a tall order in countries where scientific research has not traditionally had an international profile and most researchers do not speak English as their first language. In particular it leads to focus on values which are comparable across the globe, such as journal impact factors, as measures of success. In China, there is great pressure to publish in journals included on the Science Citation Index (SCI), a list of leading international journals. When researcher, department, and university success is quantified with impact factors and SCI publications, it becomes a numbers game, a GDP of research. Further, bonuses for publications in high caliber journals can double a poorly-paid researcher’s salary: a 2004 survey found that for nearly half of Chinese researchers, performance based pay was 50+ percent of their income. In Brazil, the government similarly emphasizes publications in Western journals as evidence of researcher quality.

It’s easy to dismiss these problems as specific to China or Brazil, and there are some aspects of the issue that are naturally country-specific. On the other hand, if you peruse Ivan Oransky’s Retraction Watch website, you’ll notice that academic dishonesty leading to article retraction is hardly restricted to researchers from developing countries. At the moment, the leading four countries in retractions due to fraud are the US, Germany, Japan, and then China, suggesting that Western science isn’t free from guilt. But in developing nations the conditions are ripe to produce fraud. Nationalistic ambition is funnelled into pressure on national scientists to succeed on the international stage; disproportionate focus on metrics of international success; high monetary rewards to otherwise poorly paid individuals for achieving these measures of success; combined with the reality that it is particularly difficult for researchers who were educated in a less competitive scientific system and who may lack English language skills, to publish in top journals. The benefits of success for these researchers are large, but the obstacles preventing their success are also huge. Combine that with a measure of success (impact factor, h-index) that is open to being gamed, and essentially relies on honesty and shared scientific principles, and it is not surprising that system fails.

Medical research was at the heart of both of these scandals, probably because the stakes (money, prestige) are high. Fortunately (or not) for ecology and evolutionary biology, the financial incentives for fraud are rather smaller, and thus organized academic fraud is probably less common. But the ingredients that seem to lead to these issues – national pressures to succeed on the world stage and difficulty in obtaining such success; combined with reliance on susceptible metrics  – would threaten any field of science. And issues of language and culture are so rarely considered by English-language science (eg.), that it can be difficult for scientists from smaller countries to integrate into global academia. There are really two ways for the scientific community to respond to these issues of fraud and dishonesty – either treat these nations as second-class scientific citizens and assume their research may be unreliable, or else be available and willing to play an active role in their development. There are a number of ways the latter could happen. For example, some reputable national journals invite submissions from established international researchers to improve the visibility of their journals. In some nations (Portugal, Iceland, Czech Republic, etc), international scientists review funding proposals, so that an unbiased and external voice on the quality of work is provided. Indeed, the most hopeful fact is that top students from many developing nations attend graduate school in Europe and North America, and then return home with the knowledge and connections they gained. Obviously this is not a total solution, but we need to recognize fraud as problem affecting and interacting with all of academia, rather than solely an issue of a few problem nations.