Thursday, December 3, 2020

Politics and the biodiversity crisis: a call for scientists to be politically engaged

I am a politics junkie. I am genuinely fascinated by politics and political systems, despite their irrational and often ineffective nature. Yet the world is awash with existential crises and solving them (or at least reducing the worst of their impacts) must come from the political systems that exist. So the question for biodiversity scientists is, how politically engaged do we need to be and how do we affect policy change regardless of the political party in power.There’s no doubt that science is more politicized, and polarizing, than ever, with general distrust in science and scientists increasing around the world (1). This declining trust comes from a combination of a lack of understanding of what science really is and the elevation and reinforcing of personal opinion from social media echo chambers, as evidenced by the rise of evidence-free conspiracy theories.


Past calls for scientists to become better communicators (2) has helped drive some scientists out of the ivory tower, but this increased visibility has minimally influenced public understanding, policy and discourse. Though there is an argument to be made that evidence-based policy and management in some sectors, like public health and ecosystem management, is undoubtedly better today than ten years ago. This lack of broad impact of scientists’ communicating is where we are at despite the many science communication courses now offered (3) and clearly better publicly engaged and more diverse scientists.


The core problem was never one of communication skills alone, rather, there has always been a political component that scientists need to engage with. We need to look no further than the disastrous COVID-19 response in countries like the United States or Brazil where highly respected infectious disease experts are thrown under the bus as soon as their advice deviates from political messaging. For example, a significant minority of Americans believes that Donald Trump knows more about viruses than Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has studied infectious diseases for decades with hundreds of papers published and which have been cited more than 200,000 times!

So, what should scientists do? Simply, they should be more politically engaged. Which sounds antithetical to our notions of objectivity and dispassionate advocacy. But I believe we can be politically engaged and retain this dispassionate objectivity.


But let me be clear, being politically engaged does not mean being political or a partisan. In fact, I champion being politically engaged while eschewing partisan politics -see my belief disclaimer[i]  and experience biases disclaimer[ii] at the end of this post.


Biodiversity scientists, who care about evidence-based public policy need to find ways to inform and influence political systems so that species extinctions and biodiversity loss are prevented, and ecosystem health improved. During my time as a professor, I’ve engaged with politicians and politics at all levels. It’s been rewarding, interesting and eye-opening, though debatably effective. From this experience, here are some suggestions about how to engage in political systems. 

1-Talk to politicians! You are an expert, and you were likely educated, employed and financed by public funds at some point in your career. You owe it to society and government to feedback into the system. I have met with politicians at all levels (municipal, provincial and federal) and from all the major parties that operate in Ontario, Canada. I have had some amazing experiences talking to interested and earnest politicians (I have had positive and unforgettable interactions with Kathleen Wynn [former Premier of Ontario] and Kirsty Duncan [former federal minister of science, and coincidentally a professor who taught me at the University of Windsor when I was an undergraduate]). I have also had some odd and frustrating conversations with other politicians. While I do talk all parties, I have found that representatives from the Conservative party here in Canada tend to have the strongest preconceived convictions without a firm understanding of science and fact, and they tend to be the most political; meaning that they are more likely to put their party or ideology over other concerns. Regardless of the specifics of any interaction, I believe that some of these conversations do have impact and at a minimum opens doors to more engagement.


2-Stay informed and share your thoughts. Being informed and knowledgeable allows you to speak to recent developments and make arguments germane in the current political landscape. This means being aware of legislative priorities and initiatives. Be aware of bills that are being proposed so you have time to talk to politicians and journalists. You should use different vehicles to discuss issues, whether that is with interviews or on social media. I have sat through legislative sessions in our provincial parliament in 2018, and the experience was mixed. On the one hand, I learned quite a bit about legislative processes and the priorities of the ruling party. On the other hand, I was very disappointed at the lack of serious thought and contemplation by members of the ruling party. It was all false praises of the Premier (I assume because their upward mobility depended on it) and a fundamental inability to provide meaningful answers or insights into decision-making. It reminded me of a bad movie about high school politics.


3-Don’t be partisan[iii]. Conveying science isn’t a partisan activity (even if some politicians attempt to make it so). Don’t use facts as a partisan attack, but do use facts to correct uniformed politicians or to criticize problematic legislation. For example, if a certain political party contains a substantial number of climate deniers or anti-vaxxers, don’t start your arguments by blasting their party. Rather, talk about the facts, and perhaps assume that there are other party members who are more open to facts and science and have good intentions. I realize that being non-partisan is more difficult in the United States where there are just two parties, but perhaps you should consider not registering yourself as a member of either party. Consider the fact that in the US, both parties have supported policies that favour economic growth over the environment and you should feel that either party has room to learn and grow. In Canada, avoiding party membership is much easier. I believe that a substantial proportion of Canadians will vote for different political parties in different elections (I have voted for three of our five main parties, plus small parties a couple of times). Under a million Canadians (out of 36 million) hold membership in a political party, so we are not an overly partisan country (and I hope it can stay that way, but the threat of right-wing populism is infecting our politics as it is elsewhere).


4-Run for office or support candidates. Ok, this one seemingly conflicts with #3, so we need to be careful here. There is something to be said for creating change from the inside. If you have the desire for public office, and being charismatic certainly helps, then pragmatism dictates you would need to run for a party. You shouldn’t say things you don’t believe, and you should be clear that you will prioritize science and evidence over party. And believe it or not, some parties would value this. Here in Toronto, since political parties are not permitted in our municipal elections, you can run or support candidates without any need to be a partisan. I canvassed for, and openly supported a friend who was elected as counsellor, Jennifer McKelvie. She holds a PhD in geochemistry and so brings not only a strong openness to science-informed policy, but has the credibility to lead on this front.


As I write this, the USA has a new President-elect who ostensibly supports science and evidence-based policies. Despite this, I argue that scientists should not rest on their laurels, but rather should engage with government. There are many many policy makers from your local ward all the way up to national levels and these people have a great diversity of viewpoints and understanding of science. Moreover, a more sympathetic administration does make it easier to engage and feel like your actions are having impact.


The final piece of advice is, and this is a very tough one for me personally, don’t get baited by the partisan trolls and nay-sayers. Some partisans don’t actually care about the truth or right and wrong, but rather view politics and policy making as a team sport, and any point they score is worth it. Rise above, state facts, point them to where they can learn more and offer advice on policy that makes sense.



1.         L. McIntyre, The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience.  (The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019).

2.         S. J. Hassol, Improving how scientists communicate about climate change. Eos 89, 106-107 (2008).

3.         L. M. Kuehne et al., Practical Science Communication Strategies for Graduate Students. Conservation Biology 28, 1225-1235 (2014).


[i] A disclaimer. My political beliefs undoubtedly colour my perspective. I fully acknowledge that I am a militant non-partisan! I believe that political parties, by both their objectives and methods, are inherently anti-democratic. The main goal for any political party is the permanent consolidation of power; and the more power they have the more they use the tools and instruments of government to ensure they retain power. The voting public doesn’t seem to be overly concerned when the political party in power changes voting processes or electoral precinct boundaries to bias voting outcomes, especially when its ‘their team’. If we asked what made logical sense for a democracy, then there would be easy pathways to increase the number of parties (not clog those pathways), all votes would be of equal weight (why the heck is there still an electoral college in the USA?), governing bodies would be truly representative (i.e., proportional representation -we get majority government in Canada when one part gets 33% of the popular vote because of our riding system) and voters shouldn’t be restricted to selecting a single option (ranked voting works, at least when you have more than two real options). In reality, political parties might have outlived their usefulness. In Toronto, where I live, municipal elections do not permit official political party involvement, so we often have a dozen people running for counsellor in each ward and for mayor. This is the closest to true democracy as I’ve experienced.


[ii] Also, a second disclaimer. My understanding and views about politics are greatly shaped by political systems and governance in North America.


[iii] There is an important caveat here. For scientists in some countries, like for example in China, being a member of a political party is necessary in order to hold certain positions in academic institutions or government agencies.  

Friday, May 29, 2020

Re-imagining the purpose of conferences in a time of isolation

It is now trite to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many aspects of routine life, from our personal to our professional realities. Every part of academic life has been touched by the pandemic, reducing all aspects of our research endeavours to virtual platforms, from coursework and student mentoring to faculty meetings and conferences.  Zooming in and out of meetings has become the norm for all of us. While there are obvious restrictions to life on an e-platform, I see an opportunity for us to use it to our advantage, to increase the impact and extent of how we communicate our science.  
The obligatory Zoom lab meeting screen capture.

I’ve been involved with a number of e-activities including giving departmental seminars, giving a conference talk and helping to organize a weekly on-line seminar series (Ecology Live). These experiences have led me to think quite a bit about new opportunities for giving talks and sharing ideas and findings.

One obvious casualty of COVID-19 restrictions has been conferences -large gatherings are simply untenable even if some regions are starting to reopen some activities. Some conferences were simply canceled outright early on while others have switched to online formats. These e-conferences seem like the best-case scenario allowing for scientists to share their findings while observing gathering and travel restrictions. I gave a talk in an organized oral session in an e-conference and have been contemplating signing up for another.  But I have mixed feelings. Let me be clear, the decision to move to e-format is the best decision for these conferences that have had to respond to these unprecedented changes, but moving forward are there other ways to facilitate interaction and communication? To me, the answer is yes.

The cons of the e-conference:

1. Spontaneous conversations

I don’t think fitting a traditional conference into an e-format works all that well. The point of a conference, to me, is more about the random meetings and discussions with friends and collaborators, rather than the extensive back-to-back talks, for which I have a rather low limit that I can actively listen to.  These sporadic encounters, which often amount to valuable research outputs and collaborations, are lost in the e-conference.

A mock debate at the last conference I attended before the pandemic

2. Child-care

Physical conferences have become better about providing childcare options for attendees. But, with e-conferences, the parents stuck at home with children might not have childcare options, making it difficult to attend whole sessions, and remain fully focused on the science. Added to this, is that the e-conference format with multiple concurrent sessions over the whole day is not that convenient for people at home, even without children.

3. Fees and funding

In my experience thus far, e-conferences appear to still be limiting attendance with still rather steep paywalls. The one I spoke in still had substantial fees to attend even though they were using what appeared to be university Zoom accounts. I totally understand that there are expenses, but the hefty fees limit an amazing opportunity to reach a broader audience.

Related to this, conferences traditionally are quite exclusive. Fees, travel, housing, visas and immigration all exclude people from different parts of the world, especially those who don’t have access to the same level of funding as researchers in North America and Europe. E-conferences can change this, but they have yet to. More than this, many of us are accustomed to being at institutions that bring in weekly seminar speakers, and again, people in other parts of the world have no opportunity to access these.

A route forward?

1. Seminars open for all

Working with the British Ecological Society to bring the weekly Ecology Live seminar series has been an incredible experience. Firstly, the BES has been amazingly supportive of this idea and helping to make it work. More than 3000 people have registered for this series, and from all over the world. The response from people has been phenomenal.

The lesson I take from this experience is that there is a demand for high-quality talks and that there are numerous colleagues from the global south who jump at the opportunity to hear from cutting-edge researchers. Many of these people are excluded from traditional, and likely online, conferences. If we are moving to an online format, accessibility and inclusion should be a motivating factor.

Obviously, there are expenses with delivering online content, but costs can be covered in other ways. Traditional conferences have sponsors and companies advertising their products in the main halls. These groups can still be engaged and in fact access to online audiences around the world and in permanent on-demand formats could be quite attractive to sponsors. We’ve now started including advertisements on the opening and closing slides of Ecology Live to keep the webinars free to watch.

2. Freed from time restrictions to conference length

Traditionally conferences are restricted to 3-5 days but switching to an online format means that societies are no longer subject to a conference structure. Without time limitations, e-conferences do not have to conform to sessions occurring simultaneously. By spreading talks over time, perhaps grouping by thematic topic areas, researchers would be able to attend far more talks than they would normally be able to in a traditional conference setting. I’d watch four 15-min talks on a specific area every couple of weeks.

3. A permanent record accessible by all, always

Many ecologists are quite overcome by a deluge of webinars, zoom meetings, etc. Taking the time to spend days in an e-conference is a daunting choice. Even if they are unable to watch talks live, conference organizers could make them permanent, searchable, and linkable. We post the Ecology Live talks to YouTube afterward and some of our earlier seminars have been viewed thousands of times. There is a general move towards open and transparent science, and free online talks that are permanently available is another step towards this. 

We live in a world where access to new ideas and hearing about cutting edge research is divided between the have and have-nots. Despite the limitations of COVID-19, given some planning, e-conferences can provide a powerful means to connecting the ecologists across the world, but there might be better ways forward to use these recent moves to on-line formats to better engage diverse audiences in a much more inclusive way.


Have you attended an e-conference recently, or plan on attending one soon? Let me know your thoughts and opinions down below.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Reclaiming contaminated land through manipulating biodiversity

Contents of this post originally appeared on the Applied Ecologist, but with expanded thoughts here.

Five years ago I spent my sabbatical in China and worked closely with a lab in Guangzhou. While there, I built meaningful collaborations and friendships that have continued to advance the science I'm involved with. While in China, I accompanied my friend, Jin-tian Li to a biodiversity field experiment on contaminated post-mining lands in Hunan province, and our discussions led to the just-published paper (please e-mail me if you want a copy) in the Journal of Applied Ecology, first-authored by a former PhD student in my lab, Pu Jia.

Why do we care about degraded lands?
According to the IPBES report on land degradation, the degradation of productive lands and intact habitats is a major threat to sustainability, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning globally, which reduces the resiliency of ecological and economic systems. In many emerging economy countries, environmentally harmful practices that result in contamination render lands and habitats seriously degraded. In many circumstances, the restoration of contaminated habitats to original conditions is not an option because the capacity for these habitats to harbor intact native ecosystems is greatly compromised. In these cases, we need management options that allow us to reclaim contaminated and degraded lands (Nathanail & Bardos 2005), and preferably ones that increase biodiversity and ecosystem function (Rohr et al. 2016).

The potential role of biodiversity in reclaiming contaminated lands
While the ecological literature on the linkages between biodiversity and ecosystem function is vast and rich (e.g., Tilman, Isbell & Cowles 2014), the application of this field of research to reclaiming contaminated lands has been strangely depauperate, and so there’s little guidance on whether we should be planting diverse plant assemblages on contaminated lands, or if we ought to simply plant the most productive species or those that provide efficient phyto-removal of contaminants. This question is of fundamental importance to places like China, where rapid development and industrialization through the 1970s-1990s resulted in severe contamination of lands near mining and mineral processing facilities (Li et al. 2019), and now with China’s commitment to improving it’s environmental health, biodiversity research has the ability to impact policy and management at a national scale.
Our paper
We evaluated whether more diverse plantings increased reclamation and ecosystem functioning of a mine wasteland in Hunan Province, China, which had been severely contaminated with cadmium and zinc over decades. We sowed plots with 1-16 species and these were selected from the herbaceous species that grew around contaminated sites in the region, and more diverse assemblages produced more biomass and were more stable over time. Further, there was less heavy metal contamination of leaf tissues in the more diverse plantings, which reduces the impact on herbivores.

Importantly though, plant diversity spurred plant-soil feedbacks (PSFs) that appeared to drive the increased ecosystem functioning. Higher plant diversity supported higher soil bacterial and fungal diversity. Importantly, higher plant diversity was accompanied with more soil cellulolytic bacteria that exude enzymes that degrade cellulose and so drive decomposition and nutrient cycling, which are essential components of a functioning ecosystem. 

Furthermore, the multi-species assemblages also performed better because these high diversity treatments harboured fewer soil fungal pathogens (and by extension more beneficial soil fungi). This appeared to be driven by the fact that high plant diversity supported a greater diversity of soil chitinolytic bacteria that produce anti-fungal enzymes that degrade the chitin in cell walls of soil-borne plant-pathogenic fungi.

In the search for efficient ways to reclaim contaminated lands, sowing high-diversity plant assemblages appear to be an effective tool. The key for reclamation is to ensure that soil processes like decomposition and nutrient cycling are able to support a self-sustaining ecosystem, and higher plant diversity can ensure this. The next steps will be to field test this in real reclamation projects and to see this research work its way into best practices.

Li, T., Liu, Y., Lin, S., Liu, Y. & Xie, Y. (2019) Soil pollution management in China: a brief introduction. Sustainability, 11, 556.
Nathanail, C.P. & Bardos, R.P. (2005) Reclamation of contaminated land. John Wiley & Sons.
Rohr, J.R., Farag, A.M., Cadotte, M.W., Clements, W.H., Smith, J.R., Ulrich, C.P. & Woods, R. (2016) Transforming ecosystems: when, where, and how to restore contaminated sites. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, 12, 273-283.
Tilman, D., Isbell, F. & Cowles, J.M. (2014) Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 45, 471-493.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Publication Partners: a COVID-19 publication assistance program in conservation science

Researchers around the world are trying to keep up on work duties and responsibilities while being required to stay at home. For some people this means caring for young children or other family members, devising homeschooling, switching courses to online delivery, scheduling meetings with team members, receiving new duties from superiors, and perhaps worrying about job security. It is natural that these people may feel overwhelmed and that routine tasks, like checking references or proofreading manuscripts, might seem insurmountable.

However, for others, COVID-19 lockdowns have resulted in more time to push projects to completion and clear out backlogs. There is then inequality in the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on individuals.

These COVID-19 impacts on individuals not only have these unequal impacts on mental wellbeing and career trajectories but are on top of the desperate necessity of conservation science to continue. We win by having a greater diversity of experts communicating with one another.

Publication Partners is an attempt to address some of this COVID-19 impact inequality and to ensure that conservation science is still being published by assisting people with their manuscript preparation. This is a match-making service of the conservation community to bring researchers struggling with their current working conditions together with those that feel that have extra capacity and are willing to help others in this difficult time. The partner might be asked for publication advice, to assist with manuscript editing, help sorting and checking references, organizing tasks for revisions or preparing figures.

The idea is that the Publication Partners would normally be contributing less than would be expected for authorship and thus will be listed in the acknowledgments of the resulting paper. Publication Partners will match volunteers with those requesting support.

To volunteer or request a partner, please see this document with contact instrucitons.

As a journal editor, I see this a valuable and much needed assistance strategy. And I’m not alone. Many of the most important conservation journals have signaled their support and welcome submissions using this service. The journals support Publication Partners includes (please note that the list of journals is being updated and so will change over time):

 *Thanks to Bill Sutherland for sharing his thoughts on this post.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Can skipping the peer-review process be a legitimate way to communicate science?

Science is an approach to inquiry and knowledge production that provides an unsubstitutable approach to evaluating empirical claims. And it is a specific and particular thing. Beyond the experiments and data collection, science must be communicated in order to impact knowledge and inform humanity’s understanding of the world around us and potential solutions to problems of our own making. The gold standard for communicating scientific findings is through peer-review. Peer review is the process by which research articles are assessed by other experts and these reviewers are the gatekeepers that determine if papers should be published and how much revision they require. These reviewers look for flaws in logic, methodology and inference, and ensure that findings are set in their proper context.

So, peer-review is not perfect, but it is necessary and can always be improved. However, there is another question: is it always needed? Are there legitimate reasons for a scientist to skip the peer-review process?

To me, there could be reasons to skip the peer-review process, but the goals should be clear and we need to acknowledge that conclusions and inferences will always be in doubt. Yet, impacting the scientific understanding of some phenomenon and communicating it to other experts might not be the goal. Like this blog post, for example. There can be other communication objectives that do not necessarily require peer-review.

Here are three non-peer reviewed communication pathways that I’ve personally pursued, and I’m not including blogs and other social media here, because I think they differ in their goals and objectives, but these are communication approaches you might want to consider:

1-    You might want to capture a broader public readership, to tell a story in a way that captures a non-specialist audience. For example, you might want to extend your science to a call for policy or societal change or to draw attention of the public and policymakers to a critical issue. I was recently a co-author on several papers that attempted to do this, for example, one on the need to protect the Tibetan Plateau, and another on the globally uneven distribution of the readership and submissions of applied ecology papers.
2-    You might want to target a specific audience that does not need to access peer-reviewed literature. Especially for agencies and NGOs that need specific guidance and summary of best practice. The grey literature is a rich and diverse set of communication pathways, which is not well captured in journals nor permanently available (something with the British Ecological Society that we’ve been trying to overcome!).
3-    You may desire to publish information or findings that are desperately needed and extremely time-sensitive. I recently decided to skip the typical peer review pipeline to get out analyses showing that governmental responses to COVID19 quickly resulted in significant drops in air pollution, across six different air pollutants for those cities impacted in February. I published the findings in this blog and posted the manuscript to EarthRQiv.

Why would I do this, especially when I am reporting the outcomes of hypothesis tests and data analysis? I did submit the manuscript to Science and it was quickly rejected, and I’m sure legitimate biogeochemists and atmospheric chemists are already submitting better analyses. However, I told myself before submission that if it was rejected, I would immediately go to plan B, which I did. I felt that the need to engage in this conversation and to shine the light on policy decisions that would lead to reduced pollution were too important for me to pursue the lengthy peer-review process, especially one that is not in my area of research. So, my plan B was to post to a preprint server and blog it. My hope is that it will spur more discussion and further analyses.

In some ways, these alternative vehicles for communicating science have been an experiment for me, but I have the luxury to do this given that I now have a mature research program and rather large group. Its is important to evaluate how we value non-peer reviewed material, or more importantly, how you use these to tell the story about your contributions to society and your impact. While we clearly need to distinguish peer-reviewed and non-reviewed material, and that there is no replacing the impact of peer-review, we should view non-peer-reviewed material more positively and as a way for knowledge mobilization and engage other communities in discussion. As scientists, we need to think carefully about when and how to communicate and the value of this communication to both society and to our careers. But certainly, these alternative forms of scientific communication can help make the broader impact statements on grant and tenure applications more compelling.

We are ultimately evaluated primarily on our peer-reviewed science, as it should be, we can better tell our story about our contribution with a complementing minority of other communication types. I would go so far as to say that a scientist who only publishes peer-reviewed articles might be missing important opportunities to share their knowledge and have an impact on societally important issues.

Excluding blog posts and tweets, about 30% of my contributions are not peer-reviewed. If I include blog posts, then I’d guess I’m at about a 1:1 ratio, peer-reviewed to not. But I am at the stage in my career where this is less risky to do. Pursuing alternative communication forms needs to be non-linear, you need more peer-reviewed articles upfront to establish your credibility which then frees you to pursue other intellectual endeavours and modes of communication. But perhaps more importantly, you’ve established that you are knowledgeable and a trusted authority, meaning that your non-peer-reviewed writings have greater impact.

Regardless, many of us got into this business to expand our collective understanding of the world around us or to make the world a better place. Neither of these goals is achievable if we are not communicating to non-scientists.