How does a scientific society stay relevant in Canadian conservation?




No mud, no boots. Yet just like a field expedition, I’m primed for discovery, and I know my eyes will be opened by what I observe.

The sun is well up and it is much warmer than I expected. My gear is all loaded up in the cargo hold behind mesh, and a hot metal engine smell is still fresh in my nostrils as I take my seat. We are shaken and jostled as we jerk into motion, and I settle in for a long ride with my eyes fixed out the plastic window, hoping to sight a wild creature amidst the scenery.

This could be an account of my last trip into the field, when I buckled myself into the front seat of a not-so-gently used float plane to join my research companions on a trip from Nakina, Ontario. We were on our way to the most glorious piece of wilderness I’ve ever visited: a stunningly beautiful pair of lakes nestled into the flat bog and fen lands of the northern boreal, just on the edge of the famous Ring of Fire area.

But that was last August, almost 9 months ago. What I’ve actually just done is boarded a train in the spring heat of downtown Toronto, on my way to a conference in Montreal. Thanks to a quickly approaching maternity leave, this is as far as I’m going to get from the reality of day-to-day conservation research this year. The reality, of course, being months upon months of trying to turn our hard-won counts and observations into meaningful assessments, predictions, and recommendations - one mouse-click at a time.

Even though I’ll have to wait for the next round of remote lakeside camping and aquatic surveys for quite a while, and I’ll have to settle for the odd red-tailed hawk sighting during the ride to satisfy my thirst for wilderness, I’m excited for the trip. The conference is the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution (CSEE). A nostalgic one for me as it was the first academic conference I ever presented at as a graduate student, back in its inaugural year at the University of Toronto in 2007. I’ve been a society member ever since, and have attended the conference several times. It’s been great to watch the society and the meeting mature over the years, to become the most diverse and comprehensive hub for networking and information sharing among the ecologists and evolutionary biologists across the country. This year is particularly exciting for me because it is the first-ever joint meeting with the CSEE, the Canadian Society of Zoologists, and the Society for Canadian Limnologists, providing an even broader scope of research and a strong aquatic presence.

No mud, no boots. Yet just like a field expedition, I’m primed for discovery, and I know my eyes will be opened by what I observe. But this time I’m approaching the conference as I would a trip to my study sites – with a research question in mind. Or rather, a series of related questions I’ve never thought to ask, but questions I think need asking. I want to know whether conservation has found a home in the society. Whether the work we are doing as a prominent group of Canadian academics is being applied to situations that can improve the state of the wild, and benefit the ecosystems we all depend on. Whether conversations around coffee break tables, Q & A sessions, and evening mixers include asking colleagues how they hope their work will make a difference, and how they are moving their results beyond the pages of scientific journals and into the hands of the public and policy makers.

The sun is barely up when I enter the site – another parallel to a typical day in the field, only this time the research site is a towering, insect-free conference centre. Perusing through the program I receive at registration, I am immediately encouraged to see conservation-related words like ‘policy’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘communication’ and ‘outreach’ jumping off the pages. As the days unfold, I am not disappointed.

There were three plenary talks, one for each society, and all three presenters heavily emphasized their efforts in linking the work they do to real-world problems. Dr. Glen Van Der Kraak, invited by the Canadian Society of Zoologists, caught everyone up on the latest in endocrine regulation (hormonal control) of fish embryo development and reproduction. This topic might seem a little bland, but the majority of what he presented centred on the things he has learned through his very admirable and successful crusade to improve the way our society monitors and legislates endocrine-disrupting compounds (chemicals that interfere with the normal functioning of hormone systems and may cause defects during development or puberty, many of which are found in commonly-used products on the market such as lotions and shampoos[3]). This work has led to findings that will help protect fish populations but also other animals, including amphibians and humans.

The Society for Canadian Limnologists brought Dr. Daniel Schindler to the plenary stage, where he delivered a talk entitled ‘Prediction, Prescription, Precaution, and Management in a Rapidly Changing World’. Using case studies from his research on west-coast salmonid populations, Dr. Schindler proposed that in our current reliance on a ‘prediction and prescription’ format for conservation, we are over-promising what our science can do to prevent adverse outcomes because these depend on so many unknowns.

“What we do is harder than rocket science. We have to be pretty skeptical about our ability to predict [ecosystem dynamics] in the future.”

Dr. Schindler proposes that we change our approach in conservation to one that is precautionary and robust to the unknown. Rather than studying individual systems in excruciating detail and assuming we understand how they will operate in the future, he proposes that we use our knowledge of general ecological principles and put our resources into maintaining as much diversity as possible, from genes to habitats, to improve the potential for resilience under unforeseeable circumstances. Further, he contended that conservation research should focus on creating efficient monitoring and rapid assessment practices that maintain flexibility and responsive management as change plays out.

The plenary for CSEE was given by the Society’s former president, and recent COSEWIC chair, Dr. Jeff Hutchings. Dr. Hutchings gave a very engrossing talk on the disconnect between conservation science and conservation policy outcomes, which he proposed is a result of broken communication lines between scientists, the public, and policy makers. Dr. Hutchings described his career-long mission to improve the process(es) through which conservation science and science advice is transmitted and taken up by government and the public. Despite, or perhaps because of early government responses to his efforts, such as, “This is not science, this is science fiction,” Dr. Hutchings has fought tirelessly for a better system. And he thinks it can be found in the COSEWIC model. COSEWIC, or the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, is a group of Canadian scientists that meets twice a year to discuss scientific evidence, to decide on how threatened specific species in Canada are, and to submit their recommendations for status designations to the Minister of Environment. Hutchings proposed that the way COSEWIC transforms science into policy advice meets a basic set of criteria for an effective process. Research must be peer-reviewed by a team of experts, outside of government, that can be objective and impartial. The consensus of this team must then be completely transparent, and delivered to the public and the government at the same time. For Dr. Hutchings, a system that allows the public to weigh the evidence, and to observe for themselves when policy decisions stray from the science-based recommendations, is a system worth fighting for.

“There are many things we [as academics] can advocate for, things like transparency, without compromising one’s academic integrity.”

The rest of the conference was packed with fantastic talks, among them a presentation by the society’s president-elect, macroecologist Dr. Jeremy Kerr. It was clear from his talk that Dr. Kerr is passionate about building a capacity for evidence-based responses to anthropogenic (human-caused) changes such as habitat destruction and climate change.

After the meeting, Dr. Kerr let me ask him about his sense of the status of conservation within the society and his personal vision for the society’s emphases and advocacy roles in the future. Before I fill you in on some of the highlights from our discussion, Dr. Kerr wanted to underscore that his thoughts are his alone, and do not in any way represent those of the CSEE. His general hope is for an increasingly engaged society and he intends to do what he can to build both the interest and the confidence of members to push further with their work.

“I am hoping to encourage more engagement for CSEE with conservation and advocacy issues. It's a delicate issue for us for many reasons. I think quite a lot of members, perhaps more among senior colleagues, feel very unsure of their footing when anyone mentions the word "advocacy". I think they assume this must mean that we will be chaining ourselves to something or holding a political sign. We have some work to do by way of demystifying what we mean. Certainly, there are going to be some forms of advocacy that are not appropriate for a scientific society.”

Despite his acknowledgement that the line between promoting science advice and being an advocate is fine and daunting to tread, he is certain that CSEE can and should strive to play a role in addressing the conservation outcomes of environmental and/or anthropogenic change.

“My feeling is that we need to do more, but that we cannot become an advocacy group. The fundamental strength of CSEE is that it is a scientific society and that provides us with a measure of a special kind of credibility. Once lost, it's hard to get that credibility back. We can be guardians of scientific evidence in the ecology/evolution/conservation realms and when policy appears to fail on the evidence, which is frankly routine these days, we probably ought to not merely sit on our hands and quietly fume about how no one talked to us to check if they'd got it right.”

He is reminded of a Lumineers song lyric, which he shares with me, "it's a long road to wisdom, but a short one to being ignored."

I finish my interview by asking if he has any advice for, or requests of, future generations of scientists who want to make a difference.

“Silence in the face of ideologically-based policies can make you complicit. Sometimes, you simply have to take a stand. Policies these days appear often to be ideologically motivated and to ignore simple, factual information. Ignoring evidence while making policy is going to lead to terrible policy. It IS reasonable for scientists and their societies to comment on scientific evidence, or its lack, in those policies. Everyone must make their own decisions about the kind of advocacy they may wish to undertake. I would encourage everyone to consider standing up to be counted on issues where scientific evidence is decisive or relevant. There's just no reason why we should allow people to get away with misrepresenting reality when making policy.”

By this time I was already feeling very positive about the Society’s sense of will to push our science onto the desks of policy-makers and into the eyes of the public. Then, as if to confirm my speculations, there were two fantastic presentations open to the public, including an absolutely compelling show-and-tell presentation to a packed auditorium by Paul Nicklen, an award-winning photo journalist for National Geographic. His riveting accounts of his ongoing mission to use photography to make the public fall in love with all things Arctic were paired with jaw-dropping photos and videos that he had collected along the way.

Nicklen has braved innumerable hours in icy seas with wild and often dangerous animals, risking life and limb in the most real sense possible, so that every day people can connect with polar conservation. An extreme example to be sure, but one that really drives home what can be achieved to bridge the gap between research and the public, if only the will is there.
Through this highlight reel of my notes from the “field”, I hope I’ve conveyed a sound, if qualitative assessment of the state of conservation at CSEE. If you appreciate a ‘weight of evidence’ approach, as was advocated again and again at the meeting, I don’t think anyone could come away feeling less than encouraged by where the Society is today, and the potential it has to make a contribution to the research and scientific advice so sorely needed by decision-makers moving forward.

At the end of my conversation with Dr. Kerr about the role of scientists in Canada, he closed with one of those statements that, for me at least, won’t soon be forgotten.

“Being a scientist is a privilege, not a right. We must continually re-earn that privilege through excellence and, at least sometimes, by being relevant to societal discussion.”

Based on what I saw at Canada’s largest ecology conference this year, there are many of us that are stepping up to the plate with research that is relevant to the conservation discussions that Canadians are having now, along with important advice for our policy-makers. Let’s hope that they take it.

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