Open access: friend or foe?

Open access to scientific journals is a contentious issue in the sciences. A recent article in the (open-access) journal PLoS Biology makes the case that open access is the way of the future and is good for science, scientists and universities alike. In his essay, David Shulenburger of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities says that limiting access to scientific publications not only prevents the public from knowing what goes on at universities, but also impedes scientific research itself. Citing a 2007 AAAS survey of scientists, he says that 29 percent of science researchers have had their research affected by difficulty accessing literature. His bottom line? The only solution that gives science the maximum chance for advancement is one that ensures that all science findings are available to all researchers. Shulenberg conceded that the current model will not allow all scientific journals to instantly become free, since of course they have bills to pay. He proposes instead a transition period in which journals go “public access”: papers are embargoed for one year after their publication, during which access is restricted to subscribers only. Once that year is up, the paper then goes open-access. Shulenburger applauds the moves made by the NIH to mandate that all articles produced from NIH-funded research be deposited in the online archive PubMed Central. But he maintains that this is only half the battle: While deposit mandates should be universally adopted by funders, such agencies support only a fraction of the work that is published in scholarly journals. Large portions of important work in most fields originate beyond US borders. Most work outside the physical and biological sciences is not funded by grants external to the university and will not be touched by such mandates. Given that important problems are seldom bounded by a single discipline’s research, access to the non-science scholarly literature is potentially important to all researchers. What your (and your university’s) opinion about open access? Will open-access journals pave the way for more rigorous and transparent research practices? Or will open access simply put time-tested institutions out of business? And with those last words, I sign off as moderator of EcoTone. I have thoroughly enjoyed running this blog over the last year, and I thank all of our readers for your thoughtful e-mails, comments and feedback. The rest of the ESA Public Affairs Office will pick up where I have left off, so…don’t change that dial. Cheers! – Christine...

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Reduced predator populations lead to algal blooms

Algal blooms are a phenomenon in which algal populations in a marine area proliferate rapidly, creating a water-column shield that blocks sunlight and oxygen. These blooms are usually attributed to rises in nitrogen levels from human agriculture and industrial runoff, which fertilize the algae. But a study in the current issue of Ecological Applications shows that overfishing of top fish predators can also lead to algal blooms. Satellite image of a large algal bloom in the Bering Sea in 1998. After reviewing a year’s worth of data on the Baltic Sea, the authors found that areas with high algal concentrations also had large populations of small fish and small populations of large fish. Specifically, predatory perch and pike shortages resulted in a 50 percent chance of that area experiencing an algal bloom, compared to only a 10 percent chance in normal areas. Experimental studies in which the authors excluded top predators from marine areas corroborated the findings. Lead author Britas Klemens Eriksson of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands says this pattern suggests that the problem is a trophic one: when top predators are scarce, their smaller fish prey become more abundant and eat more invertebrates. These invertebrates feed primarily on algae, so when their numbers are reduced, algae can grow freely. Eriksson says that the key to controlling algal blooms may not be through simply controlling nitrogen, but also by controlling fishing. Said Eriksson in the Nature article: If we want to manage algal blooms effectively, we need to start by taking an ecosystem perspective … we have to restore depleted fish communities. Read the paper in Ecological Applications here (abstract; full-text by subscription), and rest of the Nature article here. Eriksson, B., Ljunggren, L., Sandström, A., Johansson, G., Mattila, J., Rubach, A., Råberg, S., & Snickars, M. (2009). Declines in predatory fish promote bloom-forming macroalgae Ecological Applications, 19 (8), 1975-1988 DOI:...

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Study shows bias against protecting coral reefs in fishing areas

A new study out in the December issue of the ESA journal Ecological Applications has shown that human interests are having a disproportionate impact on the selection of marine protected areas, or MPAs, which are meant to protect biodiversity in marine ecosystems. Their paper shows a consistent bias in Australian and Tasmanian MPAs toward areas with little commercial resource value. Volunteer diver undertaking fish transect in the Abrolhos Islands, Australia. Credit:  G. J. Edgar. The study, led by Graham Edgar of the University of Tasmania, compared long-term trends for so-called “no-take” marine protected areas, where fishing is off-limits, to nearby marine areas that were unprotected and subject to fishing.  The 14 reef communities spanned the southern coasts of Australia and its neighboring southern island, Tasmania. He and his team surveyed the areas – by diving to the reef and visually inspecting along transects — from 1992 to 2008, collecting data on the presence and abundance of predatory fish, medium-sized fish and invertebrates. As Edgar says, the declaration of the MPAs in 1992 provided a unique large-scale natural experiment. “Experiments of this kind are rarely undertaken at scales greater than a few square meters because of the difficulties in manipulating larger areas of seabed using scientific dive teams,” says Edgar. “The best opportunity to expand such experiments to regional scales is through monitoring changes that follow declaration of MPAs, because in each MPA we are effectively removing human predators from a patch of seabed.” At the outset of the experiment, Edgar and his colleagues found that the MPAs had lower fish biomass (total estimated mass of fish in the area) and density than other reef areas nearby. Although these MPA became more diverse than their unprotected counterparts over time, Edgar wonders why they had lower biodiversity in the first place. “When the boundaries of MPAs are drawn up, fishers and other stakeholders try to ensure that areas used by them are excluded from protected zones. This is often publicized as a ‘win-win’ situation because the MPA is declared with little impact on the activities of fishers, who continue fishing in their preferred areas,” Edgar says. “However, MPAs located in areas with little resource value also have relatively low value for biodiversity conservation because human activities continue largely unchanged and the community types most threatened by fishing remain unprotected. This bias seems to be widespread worldwide.” Edgar says that to safeguard the full range of marine community types, some sanctuary zones need to be located in areas that are heavily fished. “We cannot safeguard marine biodiversity by declaring sanctuary zones only at sites with little resource value,” he says. “Heavily-fished areas...

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National Lab Day: White House, science societies begin campaign for science education

This post was contributed by ESA’s Director of Education and Diversity Programs, Teresa Mourad. A new nationwide campaign was launched yesterday at the White House, designed to motivate and inspire America’s youth to excel in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Speaking about the “Educate to Innovate” campaign, President Obama reaffirmed the importance of science and mathematics education to drive America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and innovation. The President sees STEM education as vital in the development of a citizenry with the ability to solve problems, think critically and make informed decisions throughout their lives. A series of high-powered partnerships have come together to invest $260 million in the project. Among these is a coalition of science and engineering societies supporting National Lab Day, a grassroots effort to bring hands-on learning to 10 million students by upgrading science labs, supporting project-based learning and building communities of support for grades 6-12 STEM teachers. The coalition of more than 200 public and private sector organizations, including ESA, represents more than 2.5 million STEM professionals and almost 4 million educators, with strong financial support from the Hidary Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and industry partners, including Microsoft, AT&T and Texas Instruments. National Lab Day will facilitate inquiry-based hands-on STEM experiences in classrooms, learning labs and after-school programs throughout the year and culminate in special events each May.  “We wouldn’t teach football from a textbook,” said John Holdren, Science Adviser to President Obama. “It is even more important that America’s youth have the opportunity to learn math and science by doing.” What’s refreshing about National Lab Day is its grassroots approach, reflecting the community-building ethos in a digital age. It is a timely recognition that no one group can move students to the top in math and science achievement alone. The initiative will help to engage the scientific and educational community in this challenge.  National Lab Day will match teachers with scientists and technology professionals in a sort of “eHarmony” system, based on educational needs and rooted in local communities. With the pressing need for a world class STEM workforce, National Lab Day is the scientific community’s response to President Obama’s challenge issued at the National Academy of Sciences this spring to raise STEM education as a national priority. This initiative promises to help move the U.S. from a position of being 21st in the world in science achievement to being 1st.  As President Obama says, it will “expand opportunity for all Americans, including women and minorities” and “unlock a sense of promise”. To join in this important national campaign, please visit www.nationallabday.org. Other...

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ESA Policy News: Nov. 20

Here are some snippets from the latest ESA Policy News by ESA’s Policy Analyst, Piper Corp. Read the full policy news here. COPENHAGEN — At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore, top officials acknowledged that the United Nations (UN) climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month will not produce a final international deal to reduce emissions. Denmark Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who will host the December summit, proposed postponing binding emissions targets until the 2010 UN conference in Mexico City, calling instead for “precise language of a comprehensive political agreement covering all aspects of the Bali mandates: commitment of developed countries to reductions and of developing countries to actions; strong provisions on adaptation, finance and technology, including upfront finance for early action.” The “Bali mandates,” agreed upon at the 2007 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, provided a negotiation agenda and timetable for further international work on climate. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Copenhagen talks a “stepping stone” that would eventually lead to a legally binding international agreement. Clinton stressed the importance of moving forward even though no perfect solution exists. CLIMATE BILL — Following a contentious partisan debate in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW), a bipartisan group of lawmakers will attempt to craft a more moderate bill capable of garnering the support necessary for its passage. (For more information on the EPW vote, see the November 6 edition of the ESA Policy News at: www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2009/11062009.php). Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will spend the next few weeks writing a legislative outline for a compromise bill that combines cap-and-trade with provisions such as nuclear industry incentives and wider offshore drilling. Kerry and Graham recently teamed up to draft an op-ed supporting climate legislation, marking the first sign of bipartisan support for the Senate’s current climate effort. Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman are aiming to release the blueprint before the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, which will begin on December 7. Their target deadline of spring 2010 is also critical for Democrats facing re-election next year. As elections approach, lawmakers tend to shy away from controversial issues – many would prefer to complete a House-Senate climate conference bill before Memorial Day, meaning that the Senate would have to finish its work no later than March. But observers are now asking whether climate will come up at all before the November elections, since lawmakers will be under pressure to address voter concerns, most notably the economy and unemployment. Read the full Policy News on the ESA web...

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