Sunday, March 8, 2009

On the cutting edge!

One of the editorials in this weeks issue of Nature - Scientists should blog! I guess that's the web 2.0 version of "publish or perish". How do we put this in our "Annual Review of Faculty Accomplishments" Larkin?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Adaptive Co-management?

I'm continually amazed at how little I know. Really - almost every time I open a journal I find something relevant that I didn't know before. This is somewhat disturbing, especially in light of research that indicates that incompetent people are unable to recognize their own incompetence. I usually get around this discomfort by convincing myself that information is growing too fast for anyone to really keep up. Really.

Which brings me to Adaptive Co-management, beautifully outlined in a review article by Derek Armitage and several colleagues (Frontiers in Ecology and Environment 2009 7:95-102). I hadn't heard of Adaptive Co-management, but the title obviously struck me as directly relevant! The basic idea is that coupled social-ecological systems are complex systems, in the sense of complexity theory rather than having alot of parts, and thus traditional, centralized, command and control systems have difficulty managing them. In contrast, Co-management is a novel approach to governance that emphasises collaboration among multiple groups with diverse opinions, and emergent understanding instead of prescriptive knowledge. Adaptive co-management, if I understand correctly, is the merger of this social governance approach with Adaptive Management's emphasis on using management and models to reduce ecological uncertainties. I particularly liked their list of 10 conditions required for successful co-management. I believe that this kind of effort to generalize learning about AM in particular situations (Narwhal management for Armitage et al.) will bring great dividends when trying to apply these tools to new situations. Several of those conditions resonate directly with the conditions listed in the Department of Interior Technical Guide on AM, such as the need for long term committment to the process, and a well-defined resource system.

What Adaptive Co-management adds to AM is a sense of how the social governance components of the system should evolve. And while thinking about these new components, it occurred to me that DoI AM largely assumes that these social components already exist, and that management will take place within existing social structures. In fact, insofar as laws are expressions of social architecture, the DoI approach is explicit in articulating this - an adaptive management plan must comply with existing laws and regulations. One of the conditions outlined by Armitage et al. also points to this - that the "National and regional policy environment is explicitly supportive of collaborative management efforts". Efforts like this to incorporate the larger social-ecological system into AM will be useful, in my opinion.

The other possible link that struck me was the idea of functional diversity - in ecosystems increased functional diversity often leads to greater function - couldn't the same idea hold for social networks? It is not immediately clear to me what the social equivalent of relative abundance, body size, or specific leaf area is, but I'm not a social scientist. Surely there are ways to quantify the diversity of functional traits in a social network, and perhaps, increasing that diversity increases performance of those networks. Anyway, its an exciting time to be involved in AM!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Diversity and function

I had the great fortune yesterday to sit in on part of the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee's deliberations, and watch their reaction to the first presentation on Missouri River AM that I have been involved with. The overwhelming impression I had is one of amazing diversity - this is a group of 60+ people from all walks of life and levels of education - they share one thing only, an interest in the people and environments of the Missouri Basin. There are farmers and tug boat captains, scientists, lawyers, and who knows what else. Such a large and diverse group does nothing quickly, but it gives me great hope about the future of the basin and Adaptive Management that such a group now exists.

Not quite serendiptiously I came across a great article on the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning today - I was following up on a comment by my colleague Ann Bleed that ecologists fail to connect with people, especially when arguing for something vague like "ecosystem function". Patricia Balvanera and colleagues (2006; Ecology Letters 9:1146-1156) conducted a quantitative metaanalysis of studies that perturbed the diversity of a group and measured one or more ecosystem functons. Across a huge range of functions, higher diversity leads to higher function. More recently, Michael Scherer-Lorenzen (2008; Functional Ecology 22:547-555) reported on some elegant experiments demonstrating that functional diversity, rather than species diversity per se, affects decomposition rates. What I liked the most about that work was the use of a quantitative metric for functional diversity based on measurable, ecologically important traits such as specific leaf area and C:N ratios. If all species had the same values of these traits, or if there was a monoculture, then functional diversity is zero. And it worked! What makes this particularly exciting is that it provides a means to connect relative abundances of species, and measurable traits of those species, to variation in ecosystem function. We can use population models to predict changes in relative abundance, and this approach means that we can also show that the mixture of species present can matter.

I find it remarkable how completely random ideas can set up constructive harmonies of thought that lead to new places. As I was wondering about functional diversity in ecosystems, and how to use it as an objective in AM, I received an email from my Dad about David Snowden. Some of the material on that website looked interesting and relevant to my teaching, as well as my work with helping groups develop decision making in ecology. I find his ideas about how groups accrue knowledge and turn it into decisions very intriguing. In one article he describes the idea of scanning information to recognize weak signals, and then act on those signals. Where the resonance happened was when he described how diversity, yeah, diversity of individuals in a group leads to improved scanning of information. Which brought me back to MRRIC, a huge group of diverse individuals. Although that diversity may make life difficult for the scientists that must communicate with them, that same diversity is the groups strength in searching for weak signals, and acting on them.