Scientist citizens—biologists on Capitol Hill

By Terence Houston, ESA science policy analyst and Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs “The Congressman believes strongly in the value of fundamental research the National Science Foundation makes possible and will continue to support it.” “…the Senator is concerned that NSF funds some “silly research” such as a study on duck penises….” These are just a few examples of what various congressional staffers said to scientists participating in last week’s Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition Congressional Visits Day, co-organized by the Ecological Society of America and the American Institute of Biological Sciences.  For many scientists, it was their first time to step into the marble-floored congressional buildings on Capitol Hill.  Their goal: to meet with their congressional delegations, highlight the value of federally supported science, and, hopefully, begin to cultivate professional relationships with policymakers. Over 30 graduate students, field researchers and professors visited 55 congressional offices to highlight the contributions of federally supported biological research programs to their respective states and the nation.  It was an energetic group that found compelling ways to make their message resonate with policymakers. As evidenced by the quotes above, while congressional offices varied in how they viewed sustained funding for federal science programs, the scientists participating in the meetings used their local ties as well as areas of common interest to connect with policymakers. One of ESA’s Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA) recipients, Matthew Berg, for example, an eco-hydrology graduate student at Texas A&M University, has a folksy Texas charm.  Focusing on his state’s water limitations, he talked about the role federal agencies play there in enabling monitoring and research into water-related issues. But before he even got to those points, Matt had successfully established himself as a fellow Texan: he was wearing his “Aggie” ring—the massive Texas A&M ring widely known to all alums of that institution and instantly recognized from across the room.  Upon entering his Congressman’s office, Matthew’s ring was immediately spotted by a young, broad-shouldered man who was sporting the same ring and the two swapped stories about their alma mater while we waited.  And then the staffer with whom Matt was actually meeting appeared and he, too, was wearing the same ring.  This common denominator fostered an easy rapport between the grad student and the congressional staffer and a productive dialogue ensued. Scott Collins and Don Natvig, professors at the University of New Mexico, had the advantage of being able to offer congressional staff a tour of an especially alluring research area: the Sevilleta Long-term Ecological Research site. Collins is director of the Sevilleta LTER while Natvig is director of the Sevilleta Field Station.  The two invited...

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Ecology branches into the tree of life

An August 2012 supplementary issue of Ecology explores the interface of ecology and phylogenetics. By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer Lebensbaum (Tree of Life): Detail from Gustav Klimt’s 1910/11 drawing for the immense dining room frieze at Stoclet Palace, in Brussels. Watercolor and pencil. Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna. NATURALISTS of the late 19th century tended to holistic interpretations of the natural environment and its evolutionary history.  In the decades after Darwin, the new understanding of the relatedness of organisms to each other mixed indiscriminately with the study of relationships of organisms  to their living and physical environments. Theories of natural selection and inheritance sprang from observations of communities of animals, plants and microorganisms – and, in turn, informed ideas of how communities may have been shaped by the climate and landscapes of their earthly residence. “Ecology drives evolution, evolution drives ecology, that’s how Darwin saw the world,” said University of Minnesota ecologist Jeannine Cavender-Bares. But it is possible to zoom in on one viewpoint, to focus only on the interactions of living organisms and their environment, or only on the history of life, the derivation of species from common ancestors, and their adaptations to environmental pressures. That is what biological science did for much of the 20th century. “We partitioned the processes we were looking at into more tractable components. There are benefits to doing that, but at the expense of understanding how ecological and evolutionary processes reinforce each other.” Cavender-Bares is chief editor of a supplementary issue of ESA’s journal Ecology dedicated to bridging that gap in methodology and perspective. It showcases work at the interface of ecology and phylogenetics, a field of biology that works to infer the evolutionary history of relationships among organisms. “Integrating Ecology and Phylogenetics” went online in August, and is open access. “If you start with Darwin — always a good place to start! — natural selection is fundamentally an ecological process,” said David Ackerly, one of Cavender-Bares’ co-editors for the supplementary issue. “Chapter 3 of the On the Origin of Species [1859] is really a textbook in ecology.” “As ecology became a more quantitative science, it was just more tractable not to have to consider all of evolutionary history. But it’s become tractable again,” said Cavender-Bares. She and co-editors Ackerly and Kenneth Kozak pushed forward the supplementary issue not only to showcase available technology, but to make the case for incorporating phylogenetic research questions and concepts into ecological studies. “Ecologists are thinking about history more, thinking about contingency and context, and not seeing ecological systems so much as systems in equilibrium,” said Ackerly. He trained in ecology as a graduate...

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Asian longhorned beetle poses threat to New England maples

Signs of fall are beginning to appear in the northeastern United States.  Glimpses of colorful leaves are showing and a crisp autumn smell hangs in the air.  Maple trees make up much of New England’s landscape and are integral to both thriving tourist and maple syrup industries.  Now, a new study just out in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research suggests that if left uncontrolled, the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB) can “readily disperse into natural forest landscapes and alter the makeup of North America’s hardwood forest region.” The study focuses on the ongoing ALB infestation in Worcester, Massachusetts, the only outbreak so far in which the beetles have invaded nearby closed-canopy forests.  ALB infestations have famously occurred in cities including New York, Boston and in Chicago. Native to eastern China, the ALB was first discovered in the U.S. in 1996, probably arriving in wood packaging material shipped from Asia.  As described on the Center for Invasive Species Research website, the wood-boring beetle often kills otherwise healthy trees by girdling them and creating holes in the bark, leaving the trees vulnerable to additional attacks by other insects or disease.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been working to control or eradicate ALB populations and raise public awareness and cooperation as seen in the agency’s public service announcement in the video below. In urban environments, the ALB invades a wide variety of hardwood trees but in forests it favors maple trees.  At one of the study’s research sites in a suburb of Worcester, nearly two-thirds of all maple trees were infested.  According to a National Science Foundation (NSF) press release about the recent study, the Worcester ALB outbreak is the largest so far in North America with more than 19,600 trees infested.  Eradication efforts involve harvesting affected trees and have led to shifts in forest composition from maple to oak. Says co-author David Orwig, a forest ecologist at NSF’s Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site in the NSF release: “If the ALB continues to spread outside Worcester, the abundance of red maples could provide a pathway for its dispersal throughout New England and other parts of eastern North America.”   Photo: NSF Harvard Forest LTER...

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A science poster session for Congress

Last week, several hundred congressional staff and several Members of Congress mingled with over 30 scientists during an evening reception on Capitol Hill. While nibbling on finger food and sipping libations, policymakers and researchers chatted about the wide range of research and education projects supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  The event was the 17th Annual Exhibition and Reception of the Coalition for National Science Funding, an alliance of over 120 organizations focused on the future of U.S. science, mathematics and engineering. Sharon Collinge, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder—sponsored by the Ecological Society of America—showcased her work on restoring vernal pool plant communities on California’s Travis Air Force Base. Collinge explained to interested visitors who stopped by her poster exhibit that her long-term ecological research demonstrates the difficulties in restoring a system, in this case imperiled plant communities.  She said that one problem is that invasive species can take root and may outcompete native vernal plant communities.  Collinge’s project is of interest to the Department of Defense (DOD) because DOD owns vast acreages of public land and is charged with managing its natural resources holistically through integrated natural resources management plans. Collinge involves 6th graders in her research project, something that delighted Representative Fattah’s (D-PA) Chief of Staff, Maisha Leek.   She enthusiastically recalled a time in elementary school in Philadelphia in which she too was involved in a captivating hands-on outdoor project.  Many other attendees stopped to talk with Collinge about her work, including NSF staff, other exhibitors and staff from the offices of Collinge’s Colorado senators. Collinge’s exhibit was one of 35 at the evening event and reflected the wide breadth of NSF support.  Among the many exhibit topics were: –          Innovations for future computers –          Weather research –          Deepwater Horizon oil spill –          Mathematics and the melting polar ice caps –          Engaging the public in science, technology, engineering and mathematics –          Conversion of biomass carbon to liquid fuel –          Mentoring the next generation of behavioral neuroscientists Collinge and other participants had preceded the exhibition with visits to their respective congressional delegations.  Visiting with the offices of her representative and senators, Collinge talked about the important role NSF plays in her state, where state support of research is fairly weak.   Colorado does very well competing for NSF grants, ranking 5th in the funds it receives from the agency. Well past the scheduled end of the reception, exhibitors and attendees were still talking.  It was only when the tablecloths were removed from exhibit tables and the candles blown out that folks took their cue that it was time to say goodnight. Photo credits: ESA...

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Human-ecosystem interactions: Perspectives from the LTER symposium

Human-ecosystem interactions are complex and ever changing, influenced by factors ranging from region to religion, family history to homeowner’s associations. And in many cases, global change is having, and will continue to have, a pronounced impact on these already dynamic relationships—not only on which ecosystem services people value, but also how they obtain, use, and protect them.

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