15 August 2011

ESA 2011, Day 5

I hate the last days of meetings.

They’re usually half days that feel half-hearted with half the people. Long meetings are even worse for this, and the ESA 2011 meeting seemed particularly bad in this regard.

There was a full slate of talks at the ESA meeting on Friday morning, and the late-breaking poster session. Contrary to what you might expect, the late-breaking poster session was one of the largest sessions of the week.

But unlike the rest of the week, the talks and the poster sessions conflicted. There was no time to see the posters when there were not a bunch of talks going on. Plus, all the vendor booths had been torn down on Thursday night, so the room was twice as empty. We could argue as to whether “dead zone” or “ghost town” would be a more apt metaphor, but it was a discouraging sight.

We had a lot of students from my university who made the trip for the day. Alas, nobody warned them how ecologists dress. As reporter Lindsay Patterson wrote:

Most common footwear @ #ESA11? Tevas, Birkenstocks, Chacos & hiking boots. Ah, ecologists.

Some of the female students from my department were not only in killer heels, but I smelled perfume, too. (This may have made Sarcozona happy, as she had put an #ecologyinheels tag on one of her tweets.)

There was some closing plenary talks, but I couldn’t attend it because my hotel wouldn’t give me a late check-out time. Was there anyone there who can tell me about it?

The morning was not a total waste. Far from it.

I had a beautiful breakfast at Le Cafe Crepe. I’ve complained to people about how hard it is to find a good croissant in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but when I walked into this restaurant first thing, I could smell the fresh croissants. And I melted. I had a crepe and a croissant. They were the real deal, my friends.

While I was there enjoying my breakfast, I struck up a conversation with three other people attending the meeting. The conversation turned to a question that was a recurring theme throughout the week for me.

Whither professional ecology?

Ecology seems to be a field locked in heated argument about whether it is an academic research science, or a mix of science and political action group. The society, and its members, seem to be utterly conflicted, from the point of view of this onlooker.

For instance, the ESA had a whole session on interacting with religious communities. You don’t often see that at scientific conferences.

On the other hand, Sarcozona noted it would be great to see different kinds of talks at conferences, including more public talks. When I mentioned this on Twitter, several people thought it was a good idea.

Some people pointed out that there are academic conferences that give public talks. Some include Archeological Institute of America, the Canadian Society of Zoologists, Canadian Association of Physicists, the Ecological Society of Australia, and American Physicist Society do this, but in the last case, public attendance is poor.

The ESA responded that the opening plenary session was open to the public, and advertised through public service announcements. But if they meant Steve Pacala’s talk, I have to say that while it was excellent for a group of scientists, much of it would have been near impenetrable to someone outside of biology. And it’s not a good sign when the attendees themselves don’t know that talks are public, or recognize that there are members of the general public there.

For an organization that is talking so much about outreach, citizen science, and much more, the nature of the public talks at the ESA meeting seemed to be a missed opportunity.

But there was an even bigger question about how ecologists should be presenting themselves to the public.

As mentioned previously, the ESA conference got some coverage from local media on Thursday. This prompted Jacquelyn Gill to note:

KUT report on #ESA11 conflates ecology and environmentalism. Majority of talks aren’t on meeting's theme. Are there even talks on overpop(ulation)?


I’m glad #ESA11 is getting press attention, and global change is important, but ecology is cool for its own sake.

Several people replied that all the ecologists were environmentalists, and implied that was the way it should be. Steve Pacala’s keynote implied this, too, when he said ecologists should reserve part of their career for dealing with environmental crises.

That same day, an article came out about Paul Ehrlich, who spoke on Thursday. (Very disappointed to have missed this; see here.) Ehrlich takes a hardcore position that ecologists must become political advocates. If not, we’re all gonna die. And I don’t mean ecologists, I mean humanity.

My own take is closer to the other end of the spectrum, which I previously detailed here. Scientists run risk losing credibility by jumping into the political system whole hog.

Ehrlich also characterizes ecologists as doing the most important science in the world. If so, the attendance at this meeting – about 3,500, from gossip I heard – should give one pause, when compared to the 30,000 who go to Neuroscience.

I had discussions about this with other attendees over multiple meals, including my Friday breakfast with three other ecologists. One, Susan, worked for the Environmental Protection Agency. She described a lot of the difficulties in getting things done, particularly when some of the parties involved will outright lie. That said, she did point out a middle ground for ecologists between detached academics and political advocates: the role of advisor, someone who informs policy but does not set it.

We never have these kinds of debates in neuroscience, or animal behaviour, or almost any of the other disciplines that I belong. The evolution field gets a bit in a twist about K-12 teaching, but that is a very small and very narrow piece of policy that is widely supported across the field. There is much more angst about the role of the professional ecologist in society than any other scientific organization I’ve seen so far.

Coverage on other blogs

Ecotone: Psychologist, green building manager, religious leader urge ecologists to move beyond their own scientific community; So What Do You Do? On answering the big conference question

Additional: Coverage at the NEON blog, on the meeting via Twitter, and DCXL blog on using Excel in science.

1 comment:

Dr. Fox said...

Re: the "public plenary", the ESA is referring to the opening plenary (this year, a panel discussion of earth stewardship) held on Sunday night (5-6:30). Over on the Oikos blog (http://oikosjournal.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/the-esa-meeting-should-have-public-lectures/), I have an updated post explaining why the opening plenary is not filling the role of a lecture or event aimed at the general public.

Re: the debate within the ESA as to whether we are a "pure" scientific society or an advocacy group, this debate is decades old. IIRC, the Nature Conservancy was founded as a splinter group from ESA, by ESA members who felt the ESA was too scientifically-oriented, at the expense of advocacy.