ESA 2013: Ditching the Doom and Gloom for Solutions

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Last year’s Ecological Society of America conference featured an onslaught of great but relentlessly depressing science. I couldn’t make it to this year’s meeting, which took place last week in Minneapolis, so I asked science journalist Virginia Gewin to report back. Virginia covers environmental issues — from food security to acidifying oceans to endangered species — from her perch in Portland, Oregon. Here’s her dispatch from ESA. (Thanks, Virginia!)

EJ-Day-3-bird-bones-at-cave-300x201Journalist Virginia Gewin on the job in Hawaii in 2011

 You may recall Hillary’s perilous summation of the 2012 Ecological Society of America conference. Dire, yet sadly dead on. The cataclysmic forecasts last year left a sense of dread and torpor in their wake.

Boarding the flight to Minneapolis for last week’s ESA conference, I prepared myself for more ominous news. But I am happy to report that there was a palpable energy and enthusiasm to this meeting that was a stark contrast to last year’s apocalyptic vibe. So, when Hillary asked for a guest post on the 2013 meeting, I happily agreed.

Perhaps the most striking theme of this meeting was encouraging ecologists to engage in problem-solving. No more sitting on the sidelines chronicling species declines and compromised ecosystem functions. The public needs to be educated. Policies need to be shaped.

To get researchers talking to one another — instead of at one another, as is often the case at scientific conferences — ESA organized “Ignite”-style sessions designed to stimulate idea exchange. Invited speakers had five minutes to make their point with only 20 slides, automatically advanced every 15 seconds. After the talks, the audience participated in an hour-long dialogue.

Topics were solutions-based, ranging from how to realize resilient food systems to how scientists can simultaneously advance ecology and solve environmental problems. I sat in on a few of these sessions and found participants engaged and invigorated as opposed to dismal and defeated.

As well, there was a clear focus on transforming ecologists from data hoarders into data sharers. (In their defense, field data is an ecologist’s livelihood and not to be trifled with.) But it’s fair to say that ESA got a good taste of the growing open access movement, promoting unrestricted access to peer-reviewed scholarly research. One group stood out: rOpenSci. With new funding in hand from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, rOpenSci — run by Karthik Ram, Carl Boettiger, Scott Chamberlain, and Ted Hart — is building open-source statistical computing and visualization software that will allow ecologists to access data locked in the literature and easily share data.

The team took ESA by storm. They had 3 workshops, an Ignite session, a special session and a drink up, all focused on their goal of making science more reproducible. They reason that if researchers can share data as well as the computer code used to conduct analyses on big data sets, the science will move much faster.

Finally, there was a noticeable trend toward identifying and fostering resilience in ecosystems rather than focusing solely on their fragility. For example, I wrote about a proposal to have botanical gardens “chaperone” assisted migration as a way to surmount the fears of unintended invasions or disease transmission that plague this controversial idea.

I was reeling from the innovative, forward-thinking on display in Minneapolis. But, as I’ve reflected on it over the past few days, it’s clear that ecologists have quite simply gotten real: forgoing their doom-and-gloom soothsayer status and embracing the need to prepare for what will undoubtedly be starkly different future climate and resource conditions.

This year’s bottom line: change is a-coming and ecologists are on the frontlines scouting out possible paths forward.

Photo credit: Jon Letman

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