Researcher

Should Ecology be More Like a Smartphone?

September 17, 2013

by KELLY HONDULA
Research Assistant

A recent article in Wired magazine about user interface design (“Why a New Golden Age for UI Design is Around the Corner”) captured my attention by describing the proliferation of smart technology and wearable computers, such as Google Glass, as an “ecosystem” of devices. As both an ecologist and a lover of words, I couldn’t help but dissect this metaphor—how could something so artificial be comparable to the natural world?

What makes this metaphor work is that it is about the interactions between each piece of technology—instead of species and energy or nutrients, computers are tracking data and sharing information. Primary producers “create” data by recording GPS signals, your voice or text messages, or information about the external world in your smartphone or other device. That data is recorded in a way that can then be shared with other devices across time and space, to the consumers of that information—your friends, a colleague, or you at some point in the future. The network even evolves over time when a new generation of products is released. Version 2.0 keeps and improves upon the best components of the previous product while adding new features.

I recently spent a week thinking about ecosystems—albeit of a very different nature—at the Ecological Society of America’s annual conference. Ecologists devote a lot of time to understanding the complexity and value of ecosystems by studying the way biological communities interact with each other and with their physical surroundings. Many of the motivations and procedures for research, however, are motivated and influenced by society. Therefore, it should be no surprise that one theme that emerged from the meeting was the need to study ecological systems from social perspectives—there was even an entire session devoted to the role of philosophy in ecology. How and why ecologists study natural systems have much to contribute to and gain from other disciplines, especially the social sciences. Ecology, therefore, is one component of an interacting community of disciplines—an academic ecosystem.

Whereas the ecosystem of devices that gather and share information about our lives is built for compatibility and interaction, the network of academic disciplines is rife with jargon, disciplinary silos, and irreconcilable assumptions. These disciplines should be “compatible” with each other so that they can share information and knowledge, and in the process add value to each other. After all, the “primary producer” of data in the technological system adds value when it shares information across platforms. It’s neat for a “smart” refrigerator to be able to count how many eggs you have and display that information on the door—it’s useful for the fridge to give you that information on your smartphone, while you’re at the grocery store.

The communication network between these devices requires them to share information, speak the same language, and perceive the same information from many different perspectives. These are the same challenges of compatibility facing discipline-bound academics. A “smart” academic ecosystem would be where developments, or primary production, in each discipline have the potential to be leveraged by consumers in other disciplines who study the same phenomenon. Each discipline would be like a new device that can communicate the data it senses or records across platforms: in other words, “smart.”

Photo: Dave Lawler, Creative Commons

Audience: 

Conservation Trade-offs: A Continued Conversation with SESYNC Scholars

September 16, 2013

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

The following is the second in a two-part conversation facilitated between leading scholars affiliated with the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). To read part one, click here.

Dr. Ray Hilborn: he’s kind of a big deal. People know him. So when we read his shrewdly-written opinion piece published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), we knew it would generate much interest amongst SESYNC scholars and those concerned with the complex interactions between humans and the ecosystems in which they live. (We were right.)

SESYNC-funded scientists Dr. Taylor Ricketts and Dr. Brendan Fisher recently offered a few responses to Dr. Hilborn’s insights into the “Environmental cost of conservation victories”—among them:

  • the notions that the implications of any conservation action are global, not just local, and that the linkages between terrestrial and marine systems in relation to food security aren’t often thought of in marine research are right on the ball; but
  • possible shocks to the world’s fisheries as a result of marine protected area (MPA) governance efforts are not actually as worrying as the opinion piece suggests.

I asked Dr. Hilborn for some closing thoughts on the global implications of MPAs, as well as on my dialogue with Drs. Ricketts and Fisher. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

Melissa: Dr. Hilborn, thanks so much for taking the time to read over and respond to Taylor and Brendan’s feedback. Do you have any general comments?

Dr. Hilborn: Well, we’re in basic agreement that the marine conservation realm needs to widen its scope when assessing MPAs. Historically, studies have evaluated impacts on purely ecological elements such as biodiversity. But the interaction between MPAs and impacts elsewhere is not considered when the benefits of large marine closures are praised. What I’m saying with this paper is that in addition to biodiversity, and protections for marine landscapes, there are other, equally significant issues at stake—among them, food production.

Melissa: Taylor and Brendan raise two major questions in response to your opinion piece: one of them is spillover, or the capability of a community to “make up” for lost fishery yield by harvesting from the boundaries of an MPA. Would you say this is a fair point?

Dr. Hilborn: I’ll agree that the occurrence of MPA spillover does allow for stability in some local seafood production. But I’m talking specifically about large marine closures, and the concept of viable spillover is effectively limited to MPAs that are comparatively small, or to communities located on the perimeter of those regions. What about MPAs that are 2–8 times the size of California? My paper mentions Australia’s no-take area of 3.1 million square kilometers in the Coral Sea—that size is significant. That size does not lend itself to convenient mediation by boundary fishing for all affected communities. That’s the size that is most likely to result in the issues of alternative food production I’m describing.

The other important issue here is that many of these large MPAs are obviously in parts of the world where fisheries are well managed. When we do see a resultant reliance on surrogate sources of fish, those sources will almost always be from parts of the world where fisheries are poorly managed, such as Thailand, China, and Vietnam, and from aquaculture. It’s sort of a contagion effect: efforts to provide ecological protection in one area may actually give rise to intensified ecological degradation elsewhere.

Melissa: The other question Taylor and Brendan raise is related to social cost-benefit: that when we evaluate MPAs, we have to look at the “big picture,” not just one qualifier—in the case of your opinion piece, food production.

Dr. Hilborn: Again, the assertion here is quite reasonable and not dissimilar from what I’m saying in my paper. I’d emphasize that one piece of the puzzle, and a hugely important one, is an assessment of an MPA’s implications for food supplies. As I’ve written, the information on trade and environmental consequences of alternative food production is now available to calculate these trade-offs, but it’s just not currently being done. We can’t argue that comprehensive cost-benefit analyses are being conducted if we’re not taking a close look at the effect closing large portions of the ocean has on actions such as forest clear-cutting, pesticide application, water scarcity as a result of increased irrigation, and other agriculturally-related practices. We cannot afford to ignore the consequences of MPAs on our food production activities.

Melissa: For those interested in this subject, where should they go to learn more?

Dr. Hilborn: The new book The Perfect Protein gets into some of this conversation. They could also look into some of my lectures on YouTube. (Editor's note: One example is embedded below.)

That said, due to a lack of research on the subject, I’d encourage scholars to look at centers like SESYNC and NCEAS for opportunities to pursue this type of transdisciplinary synthesis study on marine conservation and food-based systems. These are questions worth answering.

Dr. Ray Hilborn is a former member of SESYNC’s External Advisory Board and a Professor of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington.

Top photo: Brian Hoffman, Flickr/Creative Commons

Seminar: The Human Ecology of Infectious Disease

Dr. James Holland Jones is a biological anthropologist with interests in biodemography, life history theory, and the human ecology of infectious disease. Biological anthropology is the study of the origins and maintenance of human diversity; the axis of diversity that defines his research interests is the stunning variation across populations and through time in the fundamental quantities of demography: age-specific mortality and fertility rates.

Seminar: Land Use, Population, & Environment

This talk will report on on-going studies at three sites in the Brazilian Amazon where the speaker has been working on the three dimensions of land use, population, and environment for the past 16 years. Migration flows have been a powerful force over this time, as well as the internal dynamics of household decision-making interacting with the macro-economy. There is evident transformation of landscapes, strong urbanization development, and a move towards land consolidation.

Seminar: Collaborative Science: Designing the Future

Dr. Susan Winter is a Lecturer and Assistant Program Director of the Master of Information Management (MIM) program at the iSchool, University of Maryland (UMD). Before joining the faculty at UMD, Susan was Program Director of Cyberinfrastructure at the National Science Foundation. She received her PhD from the University of Arizona, her MA from the Claremont Graduate University, and her BA from the University of California, Berkeley. She has more than 20 years of international managerial and consulting experience.

Seminar: A Minimal Model for Human & Nature Interaction

There are widespread concerns that current trends in population and resource-use are unsustainable, but the possibilities of an overshoot and collapse remain unclear and controversial. Collapses have occurred frequently in the past five thousand years, and are often followed by centuries of economic, intellectual, and population decline. Many different natural and social phenomena have been invoked to explain specic collapses, but a general explanation remains elusive.

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