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MSPnet Blog: “Both important and urgent: educating naturalists”

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posted May 29, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

You are no doubt familiar with the grid classifying tasks or decisions on two dimensions: urgent or not, and important or not.  Things that feel urgent tend to receive more attention, regardless of their importance.  As a result some important things which don’t feel like “hair on fire” priorities get neglected for too long.

On my list of things whose importance is being ignored at our peril is the education and encouragement of naturalists.  This neglect tells us something about values getting overlooked by educational policy — from “workforce development” to the development of standards and broadening participation. I will argue that this issue is not a matter of taste (noting for the sake of full disclosure that I am in a humble degree a naturalist), but rather a matter of critical concern in connection with current and future well-being on a global, regional, and local scale.

A “naturalist”  is a practitioner of natural history, which for many years now has been treated as a minor, not to say quaint kind of STEM.  It tends to connote hobbyists and amateurs, collecting and cataloguing — 19th century science, small science as opposed to Big Science.  It doesn’t pay — a leading conservation biologist wrote:

We cannot get big grants to do field work anymore. Computer modeling produces publishable results much quicker, anyway. We can have much more influence and prestige spending our time supervising research projects, writing, speaking, and attending important meetings rather than tromping around in the woods recording data. The mosquitoes, chiggers, and cold wet feet are unbearable.

But as Tewskbury et al wrote in BioScience, in 2014:

natural history is the observation and description of the natural world, with the study of organisms and their linkages to the environment being central. This broad definition is inherently cross-disciplinary and multiscaled, which reflects the span and potential of natural history activity.

There is, right now, no more important kind of knowledge. It can be called conservation biology, or the study of emergent diseases, or food security, or species invasions…In a changing climate, and with human pressure on ecosystems growing rapidly in other ways as well, it is frankly terrifying to realize how little we know about the world we live in.  Tewksbury et al again (references elided):

This knowledge may become even more vital as the rate and extent of global change increase. Integration of this knowledge is also increasingly important for translating results obtained in cellular, molec- ular, and genomic studies; for understanding and optimizing complex human–environment interactions ; for advancing human health; and for expanding technology and design from biomimicry to biology-inspired design. The benefits of careful observation of organisms in their environment and the costs of pursuing environmental poli- cies in which this critical component of science is ignored can be seen in human health, food security, conservation, and management.

I could cite a lot of evidence that suggests that our knowledge of how living systems are changing, with complex and unpredictably large  consequences for the planet’s habitability by Homo sapiens.  I’ll ignore the bad news from the oceans and coastlines, the dramatic loss of mammalian abundance, and increasing threats to plant biodiversity.  Let’s just look at the bugs.

A study published a few months ago, and discussed recently in a New York Times op-ed,  provided fresh documentation of the dramatic decline in insect abundance.  This study was conducted in protected natural areas in Germany.  The data collection required field work: time consuming, exacting, and sometimes tedious;  the data analysis, far from being totals and sums, employed complex mathematical modeling — meaningless, however, without those totals and sums from many sampling sites, compared with data from across 3 decades.  The conclusion is stark:

Our analysis estimates a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study. We show that this decline is apparent regardless of habitat type, while changes in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics cannot explain this overall decline.

This is a massive decline, and the range of conditions under which it is taking place, and the diversity of species that are affected,  suggests that there are multiple, probably interacting, causal factors. It is a kind of news that is becoming more and more frequent, with declines documented in birds, mammals, fish, krill, and more — up and down food chains, and including important guilds of organisms like pollinators (both insect and mammalian) and detritivores.

Though one can make such a catalogue, however, it is based on such incomplete information that, though the trends are undeniable, the processes, causes, and implications are far from being well understood, and there are large regions of the globe  — even in Europe and North America — for which the data are sparse at best.

And there are too few people doing the work, even as the need for people wise and knowledgeable about natural systems — in their organismal particularities — is rising fast.    The warnings about this ecological mismatch have been coming for some time (we can reach back to Aldo Leopold, of course, but the voices are multiplying):  Where have all the naturalists gone?  Natural history is dying, and we are all the losers!

As Curt Slager wrote in the New York Times article cited above,

we are beginning to realize how lucky we are that dedicated expert and amateur naturalists remain to observe and record the distinctive flash of a firefly or the soft clatter of dragonfly wings. But we need more of them, and soon.

Educators and policy makers can help — by making sure that every student has some opportunity for natural history experience — every year;  by making sure that students meet and engage with natural historians working near them — and they can be found in cities as well as remote field stations!  We can enrich our picture of what natural history is all about — it ranges from close study of organisms in the field (the foundation of it all) to molecular systematics and bioinformatics,  to scientific art and communication.  It can be basic, applied, or mission-driven, centered in agencies, universities, and communities rural, urban, or otherwise.  I have always suspected that, if given a chance, far more kids would feel drawn to natural history of some variety that is the case now. Although, alas, one thing remains true: given how policy follows short-term economism, natural history is not much of a job market.

Citizen science is gaining a foothold in more and more educational settings (see here and here for wide-ranging videos from the STEM for All video showcases of the past two years),  but too few educators — and even fewer policy makers— understand how important — and how urgent! — natural history is.   For evidence, just look at serious policy documents, from Standards to Workforce Projections and visions for the Jobs of Tomorrow, and at priorities for scientific research. NSF’s 10 Big Ideas are a fair sample, in which the key life-science challenge, entitled “Understanding the rules of life,” is focused on the very fascinating puzzle of the phenotype.  Totally cool and important — but urgent?

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