The Royal Society’s geoengineering report

Here’s another one of those examples where the link between scientists and the public can break down, leading to conflicting or erroneous reports. As reported by the Nature blog The Great Beyond, when the Royal Society released a report on climate geoengineering earlier this week, reporters were scratching their heads about the take-home message from the report.  The British coverage was across the map, ranging from Boffins: Give up on CO2 cuts, only geoengineering can work (The Register) to Hopes dashed for geo-engineering solutions (The Financial Times). The bottom line of the report is really nothing new: we should do everything possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we should also know the consequences of geoengineering schemes as a last resort. These differing views raise the question: Is it useful when a scientific body goes on record as saying something middle-of-the-road? If it’s not advancing the science, is it just going to confuse people? Read Nature’s coverage of the report here. Also read about a recent paper by Ken Caldeira, a coauthor on the report,...

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Farewell, ESA Meeting 2009

As ESA’s Annual Meeting drew to a close today and the city of Albuquerque breathed a sigh of relief — now there might be places for locals to sit in a restaurant! — the echoes of the meeting were just beginning.  Scientific meetings are a place to bring together scientists from myriad subfields: in the case of ecology, from biogeochemistry to microbial ecology to agroforestry to physiological ecology…and the list goes on. When they all get together, magic often happens. This meeting was no exception, with large-scale issues such as invasive species, climate change and even — here’s a new one — warfare ecology on the bill. Ecologists aren’t the only ones who think their work is important, either.  Reports have emerged from Nature magazine, the Albuquerque Journal, Scientific American and others.  (The Nature folks also blogged like crazy about the meeting.)  Watch for other stories that will come out within the next week in places like Land Letter and National Geographic News. Either way you slice it, communication is key.  Ecologists communicating with each other = good. Ecologists communicating with the public = also good.  Ecologists doing both = slowly and steadily changing the world. From the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel, goodbye, ESA meeting...

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Why to talk to the media: Turtle edition

Academics are like turtles, pulling their heads in when reporters come knocking. An article in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education has the best metaphor for this syndrome that I’ve heard: Scientists become turtles. They’re discouraged from media relations, and thus never get better at it, and they don’t think it’s their job.  As author Michael Munger, professor of political science at Duke University, puts it: “So whether it’s ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not paid enough,’ faculty members turn into turtles. They draw their heads and limbs inside a protective shell and won’t come out. If they do poke their heads out briefly, they embarrass themselves because they have no mental framework for media relations. It is not hard, really, compared with teaching. It is just different, different enough that turning into a turtle becomes a natural, permanent response.” Munger makes the interesting case that even though reporters sometimes ask bad questions, use quotes that you don’t want them to use, and get the crux of the story wrong, we shouldn’t blame them or question their motives. Instead, we should remember that they are professionals who know their jobs and know what people will find most interesting.  So if a reporter uses your flip comment about stem cells instead of the meaty bit about your research, Munger suggests that you turn the blame on yourself. Ask yourself, he says, “How did I allow the producers to make that choice? Why did they not use what I thought was the best part of the interview?” Obviously this blogger thinks that science communication is a public duty that scientists should engage in. And, as Munger points out, the better you become at it the more fun it will be. What do you think about scientists engaging in media outreach? Is it a worthwhile endeavor that can reach out to the under-informed public, or is it a bother that takes time away from the important things, like research? Read Munger’s five tips for doing press interviews in the Chronicle...

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Evolution at its finest: Plant roots in snow

Ecologists have discovered yet another astonishing way that plants defy all manner of physical obstacles to get what they need. Researchers have discovered alpine plant roots that grow upwards, against gravity, and out of the soil…into the snow. A group of researchers centered at VU University in Amsterdam discovered the plant roots high in the mountains of southern Russia. The plant, Corydalis conorhiza, is in what’s sometimes referred to as the fumewort family, and has relatives around the globe. This particular species, however, has a tough time finding the nutrients it needs because of a thick ice layer that covers the ground well into the summer, preventing nutrients from leaching into the soil from aboveground organic matter. Publishing online last week in the journal Ecology Letters, the scientists say that C. conorhiza has evolved specialized roots that grow up through the soil, penetrate the ice layer and branch out in to the snow layer above. The roots then were thought to take up essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, directly from the snow.  To confirm their hypothesis, the researchers added an isotope of nitrogen to the snow surrounding the plants; sure enough, days later, they discovered high signatures of that nitrogen isotope in C. conorhiza, but not in other nearby plant species. Said corresponding author Hans Cornelissen in a statement: “These roots help the plant to feed on nutrients in snow before the plant shoots appear above the surface in the growing season. This gives the plant an advance on other plant species, which can only take up nutrients through roots in the soil during the very short growing season.” Read more in the New Scientist...

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As science reporting falls, scientists must rise

I attended a panel last week, titled “The Future of Science and Environmental Journalism,” that included Peter Dykstra, former executive producer for CNN’s Science, Technology and Weather unit. Peter and his entire science team were cut from CNN in December, marking one of the largest blows for science reporting in the mainstream media. The panel discussed the abysmal state of affairs for science journalism, especially when menacing global issues like climate change and invasive species pose such a threat to society at large. As the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin pointed out in his blog, it’s easy to blame waist-tightening business managers for the lack of competent news coverage of science. But in fact, it may have to do with the way we teach science and engineering, both in and out of the classroom. At a session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this weekend, the perilous state of science news coverage was debated in the session “Hot and Hotter: Media Coverage of Climate-Change Impacts, Policies, and Politics.” Stephen Schneider, a climatologist and contributing author to the 2007 IPCC report, gave an outspoken rebuke to both business managers and his scientific colleagues. “Business managers of media organizations, you are screwing up your responsibility by firing science and environment reporters who are frankly the only ones competent to do this,” he said in a news release from Stanford’s news office. And he didn’t stop there. Schneider pointed out that many scientists find it irresponsible to spend a lot of time talking with the media when they only get “5 seconds on the evening news, a couple of quotes in the New York Times, or five minutes in front of Congress.” “Well, you know what guys [sic], that’s just how it is,” he said. “And if you think that you have a higher calling and you’re not going to play the game because they don’t give you the time to tell the whole story, then all it means is that you’ve passed the buck to others who know the topic less well.” In a time when educated, knowledgeable science reporters are being let go left and right, the duty of communication falls ever more strongly to scientists.  Otherwise, we risk misinformed science news coverage – like this infamous FOX News story about using water as fuel – with no background check for credibility. Read more about Stephen Schneider’s excellent advice for scientists communicating with the media on his “Mediarology” web page. Photo:  Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Elie Dolgin interviews ecologist Edward Levri of Penn State Altoona during the 2008 ESA annual...

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Announcing the First Annual Blogger Bioblitz

Throughout National Wildlife Week (April 21 – 29), which intersects Earth Day, about 30 bloggers (signed up in a mere three days since the announcement) will be spending the week conducting bioblitzes across the world – the US, Panama, Canada, etc. – compiling the information gained into tallies and grand totals of species, then georeferencing the whole bit on an interactive world map, showing our results spatially.

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Embracing blogs and other tools of the information age

I was struck between the parity between the ongoing discussion on this blog about the usage of blogs in academia and Sunday’s New York Times article on how the intelligence community is using blogs and wikis for information synthesis, and a recent post at evolgen asking if there were any ecologists in the blogosphere.

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