How are we doing Ecology?


A couple of things have conspired to turn me away from a review and towards the reflection of a blog post! The first was the receipt of a potential review text titled “How to do Ecology” (Karban and Huntzinger, 2006); the rest comes from our BES Bulletin and following a few leads from the website.  For some reason, the text date didn’t become clear until I started because I normally only look at the most recent publications; the upside was it gave me a chance to think about how we develop careers (ecological, obviously!) especially in the wake of a recent Australian budget  which was less kind on science outside biomedical research areas.

The book itself is a more of a guide to university students about organising research. It looks at those perennial questions that plague all beginners – how do I find a question (or ask the right questions), how do I chose/test hypotheses an d finally how do I analyse and report back (and even work with others)? It’s a good start because it answers a few of the basic questions that we all have when faced for the first few times with research. Whilst it’s hardly comprehensive, that can be, and probably is, an advantage because it tells the reader just about enough to get going. OK, so we have a potential ecology students but where do they go from there?

Evidence suggests that when you go away from school and undergraduate ecology, the issues arise. A timely piece in the March 2014 Bulletin highlights the issues faced by certain groups.  Analysis of surveys suggested that although a gender imbalance still exists in ecology, the issues of ethnicity and low socio-economic status SES) were perhaps as troubling, if not more so. Whilst it is always possible that the gender percentages (56.4% of the respondents were female but only 39.9% of BES members are) reflect an interest in ecology research rather than organisations, the notions of low SES and ethnic minority groups strikes me as the more critical. The problem with under-representation in these areas is that it is likely to come from a lack of exposure and education rather than ability. It seems we are failing to tap every talent pool open to us. When I move to later in the Bulletin I see an early career meeting examining the issue of whether to study for a Ph.D. and when. If I link the two were compound issues because if you are low SES, you are less likely to have the resources to kick-start your research or have savings to live off.

All this is before you actually start a career! What you get when you do start depends on what field you’re in. Luckily with the BES there are a number of conference presentations given over to early career researchers (like this one) but you wonder what goes on beyond that. A brief search suggests that most learned societies have devoted time to early career people (see Canada, Australia). There’s an international group, and even a Facebook page, although the latter seems more like an information service.

Granted it is better than 20 years ago when advice was almost nil and ecologists (and other scientists – this is not biased towards one science!) had to fend for themselves but in an era where ecological and environmental knowledge is wanted alongside some communication skills surely it is time to re-evaluate what we are doing. Surely the future generations deserve better than a few webpages and a handful of conference spaces. Given the concern about fieldwork, perhaps we should start at school first!


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