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In science, small choices => big shifts

Mark Neff is a scientist who studies scientists, and he says #ESA2012 is his field season. He presented this morning in a session called “Translational Ecology: Forging Effective Links Between Knowledge and Action.” Neff, an assistant professor at Allegheny College, wants to understand how scientists make the choices to study what they study.

This may seem like an odd question to some: scientists study what they’re into, what they think is important, and what funders will pay for—right? Well, Neff says there’s a lot more to it than that. He says scientists make subtle choices all the time. Individuals make choices like the systems they study and the methods they use, the advisors they choose as students, the skills they focus on devleoping. Institutional choices also define science: publication policies and the length of funding cycles influence the kinds of research people can do, for example. And then there’s the scientific community itself, wherein personal values assert themselves through things like peer review, the way students are trained, and even subtle pressures exerted during conferences like this one.

These little choices all add up to big direction changes, ultimately defining what a science is, and they all tie back to personal values. Take ecology. At last year’s ESA meeting, he set up a booth in the exhibit hall and surveyed ecologists by asking them to evaluate 32 statements on research priorities, which he’d drawn from the scientific literature. He found four distinct camps among ecologists.

Group 1 saw ecology as about solving environmental problems. They didn’t want to draw lines around different kinds of science. They saw ecosystems as having implicit value, and believed the way for scientists to affect policy was to provide data–lots and lots and lots of data. And they strongly believed that scientists needed to be communicating science.

Group 2 saw humans as a part of ecosystems. They believed ecologists needed to be working on scales designed to be relevant to policy, and that sound ecological theory would lead to sound policy. Some of them thought scientists should be interacting with knowledge users from the outset.

Group 3 wanted to stick to the basics: scientists should do science, and affect policy by bettering theory. Engaging in communication, to these folks, detracts from a scientist’s sense of cultural authority. They felt that if scientists spend their time communicating, they won’t look like scientists.

Group 4 believed restoration should drive research priorities. They weren’t interested in assigning blame to the causes of ecological damage, but just in fixing it. They believed ecological knowledge should be useful for restoration and management.

Interestingly, members of all four camps believed they were representative of the field of ecology as a whole. It seems that though all four groups are present here at ESA, they’re largely unaware of each other, or of each other’s numbers.

Near the end of his talk, Neff told the audience that as you become a senior scientist, you become a science policy-maker, by the very nature of what you do—and whether you want to be or not. He urges scientists to be aware of these distinct sets of personal values, and the tensions among them, because they will drive what the field of ecology becomes.

Read Neff’s original paper on his research: Neff, M. W. (2011). What research should be done and why? Four competing visions among ecologists. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 9(8), 462–469. doi:10.1890/100035

I’m spending this week at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, USA. You can follow my tweets at @talksciencetome.

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