Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More web 2.0 messing around

One of the amazing things about these social networking apps is that they all seem to work together - twitter links to facebook, blogger links to everything - I've added a couple of extra whacky gadgets to the blog - comments welcome or actually desired - does anyone see any value in the bells and whistles?

Thinking of cool networks - check out this map of science built using data on "clickstreams" - which links do people click on in what sequence as they search publishers websites and web portals such as ISI web of science. Pretty cool stuff - at least it looks cool. Nice to see that ecology fits in between social sciences and biology.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A how-to manual for transformative science

would be a great thing to have. According to the National Science Foundation:

"The term "transformative research" is being used to describe a range of endeavors which promise extraordinary outcomes, such as: revolutionizing entire disciplines; creating entirely new fields; or disrupting accepted theories and perspectives — in other words, those endeavors which have the potential to change the way we address challenges in science, engineering, and innovation. Supporting more transformative research is of critical importance in the fast-paced, science and technology-intensive world of the 21st Century. "

but ... that begs the question - how do you go about revolutionizing an entire discipline? Disrupt an accepted theory, OK, I can see how to propose that - attacking foundational assumptions. Create a new field? seems a tall order for one 3 year grant.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Shifting Baselines and why we train grad students

GuiltyPlanet posted some great fish pictures from an article "in press" at Conservation Biology by Loren McClenachan. The upshot - the Florida Keys are stuffed - sport fish are smaller and species composition has shifted since the 1950's. Surprise, suprise. I wonder why no one has tried something similar with game birds - plenty of historical pix from the 19th century and early 20th centuries of people with dozens of birds from a morning's hunting. I suppose the main quantifiable thing about the fish pictures is the size, and that doesn't shift with game birds (AFAIK). So ... relevance to AM ... hmmm. Well - just makes it clear that you can't rely on the experience of the local expert pool to set the objectives!

For a long time - since I started writing grants to fund myself as a PhD student and later as a postdoc - I've believed that the primary reason Universities push graduate education so hard is economic. Graduate students are cheap, highly motivated labor, both for teaching and research. Mark Taylor wrote a nice Op-Ed piece in the New York Times last week where he made exactly that point - from the perspective of a professor of religious studies. He also made some pretty radical suggestions for how to reform the University system. Now I don't necessarily agree with every point he made there, but the one about graduate training emphasizing "cloning" is highly relevant. One of the big struggles facing the implementation of AM is a lack of people that have the right kind of background. Training as a research ecologist does not prepare you to help managers do Adaptive Management. Training as a wildlife biologist does not prepare you to use AM in making decisions - in fact, we avoid teaching ecologists about decision making altogether. We (the denizens of the 4th floor of Hardin Hall) have put together a graduate specialization in AM, but this only solves half the problem.

The other half of the problem - well, maybe the other 90% of the problem - is that graduate education for wildlife biologists in North America is largely funded by RESEARCH grants. So - how do you write a grant to fund someone who is going to learn how to do AM? Sure, they can work on a project to develop an AM plan, but it is going to take alot longer to develop than say, counting birds on a bunch of conservation easements before and after woody veg removal. The latter is relatively easy for a state agency to fund ("relatively" is an important word here!), whereas the AM plan is much harder, because it looks expensive and there is a long lag time before a student can start to really get the work done. And where's the research component? If you want to do research on developing the tools of AM - quantitative methods, stakeholder interactions, etc - great, but then you really have alot of learning to do before you can be effective. Who pays for you to develop the skills needed to even begin doing that research?

Sorry, no answers on that front. I'm open to suggestions for how to pay for graduate education that is relevant to professionals in the field.

Resilience and AM

One of the interesting discussions that crops up on the 4th floor from time to time has to do with the relationship between Resilience (see Resilience Alliance for details) and Adaptive Management. This is somewhat of an intellectual debate, but it becomes highly relevant to practice when a legal document requires "Adaptive Management" be implemented by a federal agency. It becomes acutely relevant when someone says "you're doing it wrong".

My colleague and collaborator Jim Peterson describes the fundamental intellectual debate about AM as falling into two schools of thought: the North American and Australian Schools. The "North American school" developed directly from Buzz Holling's work, and evolved into it's current form through its application primarly to the Florida Everglades - Resilience Alliance is one great source of information on this perspective and the many places it has been deployed. The Collaborative Adaptive Management network is another.

The "Australian School" developed in parallel, inspired by the ideas of Buzz Holling and collaborators, but with a much greater emphasis on using quantative tools from Decision Theory. This approach is currently the focus of vigourous development by Prof. Hugh Possingham and the research facility for Applied Environmental Decision Analysis as well as many scientists at the USGS. The USGS folks have also one of the best examples of an "Australian School" AM in the North American Waterfowl Harvest Management plan.

So - what, if anything, is the difference between the two schools of thought? I believe that the differences are rather small, but those small differences may have significant consequences. First, the North American school requires (insists? believes?) that Adaptive Management uses management actions as experiments, and that building resilience is the goal. This is certainly Holling's intent in his original writing, and thus these two components of experimentation and resilience echo strongly in projects like the Florida Everglades and Glen Canyon. The Platte River Recovery Implementation Project is also focused on experimentation and resilience building. To put one's finger right on the difference - the Australian school does not require these two things, although they are certainly allowed. Otherwise I think they're pretty much the same.

I plan to write a bunch more about these differences and their consequences, but I wanted to get my views up now for a variety of reasons.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Its sunday

And, well, not much to say. Plenty of things to worry about - T-storm watches, swine flu spreading around the globe, global warming, pirates, how to write an exam that will measure my students learning. Some of my past students are writing good stories about endangered species that could use some explicit adaptive management. Otherwise seems like a good day to sit and sip coffee.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Calling the corner pocket

Sometimes it takes a good analogy to help someone understand what AM is about. One that I thought of this morning is Pool. Now, I don't play pool alot, and the one rule that always made my life miserable was the need to call which pocket the 8-ball was going in. But that's the essence of AM - calling the pocket. Then checking to see which pocket the ball went in, if any, is critical to determining whether one's inner physics model is accurate (or maybe I always needed my eyeglass prescription tweaked ... yeah, that sounds good). Making management decisions without monitoring is akin to taking a shot and the 8-ball and then walking away from the table assuming you've won. You just don't do it. And not calling the pocket in the first place - Scratch! So, please, specify your objectives - just call the pocket.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Population Viability Management

One of the most difficult things to agree on is what the goal of management ought to be - and the more controversial the species the harder this is! Maybe its not controversy, but rather what we ("we" meaning society as a whole) have to give up as a tradeoff to meet perceived goals. For harvested species there are an increasing number of examples in both marine and aquatic systems of coupling population models with management to help resolve uncertainties - the North American waterfowl harvest management plan is the best terrestrial example. In those cases, there is a clear and desirable goal - to be able to continue harvest into the future. Similarly, it is pretty straightforward to work out the ideal goal for an invasive species - zero. Species in need of conservation are trickier - more of them isn't obviously better for society (as food or recreation) even if having none of them is clearly bad. This sets the stage for scientific uncertainty about a species to take on political dimensions - even if everyone agrees we don't want a species to go extinct, ones willingness to accept new management prescriptions is negatively related to how much you personally will have to change behavior as a result. In the most recent issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Victoria Bakker and Dan Doak argue that using population models to predict relative extinction risk can help make these tradeoffs - they call it "Population Viability Management" - but their diagrams and arguments are pure Department of Interior Adaptive Management. They give an extended and detailed example using Channel Island Foxes of how PVA models can improve monitoring, guide management actions, and generally make the world a better place. It is a really great review of the recent literature on how population models can be integrated with management decision making.

The only thing I was a bit disappointed by was the way Bakker and Doak skirt past the issue of tradeoffs - although they mention that cost-viability tradeoffs occur, in their example they have chosen not to evaluate them. Any actions that exceed the current available budget are not evaluated. In that sense, the tradeoff IS made, and at a rather extreme level. I agree with their assertion that conducting a full analysis of the ecological risks makes the economic assessment more meaningful - and thus all the more surprising that such ecological assessments are not conducted more often.

They conclude with a reference that I'll have to pursue - about how iterative cycles of explanation and improvement ultimately led to uptake of the recommendations of the model by managers - what they call the "handshake approach".

Bakker, Victoria J. and Daniel F. Doak. 2009. Population viability management: ecological standards to guide adaptive management for rare species. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 7:158-165. doi:10.1890/070220

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Funding Transformative Science

If you ever have the pleasure (?!) to sit on a grant review panel at a federal agency, you'll get to hear "the talk". "The talk" is given by a senior administrator of the agency, and is designed to let panel members know that it is OK to fund transformative science - that is, research that will change the way we think about a discipline. Why do we have to listen to the talk? Well, because it is hard to get peer reviewers to recognize something as useful that is going to make them change the way they think! Change is hard. In addition, it is very hard to do preliminary work on something that will change the way you think - because once you've done enough preliminary work to demonstrate that its possible, it isn't transformative anymore. So, hard to get past reviewers and hard to recognize in advance. Hence the talk.

Maybe there's another way. What if agencies simply gave all scientists (and I include social scientists here) some baseline funding? Sounds expensive, but think of how much effort it costs society to review all those grants. Check out this review of several relevant articles and discussion at the link, it's thought provoking.

Corn! and NEPA

While browsing other science blogs I came across a great one about insects and ... well, insects. And one of Bug_girl's reviews was of a recent article predicting impacts of corn for biofuel on ecosystem services - my only thought was "Wow - did congress have to do an EIS before they passed that law?" - they should have! When does a law become a "federal action" that requires compliance with NEPA?

One of the conclusions of that article is that decreasing diversity decreases ecosystem function. I came across another article on the diversity-function debate in last week's Nature. The authors set up > 1000 microbial communities, each with the same suite of 18 taxa of denitrifying bacteria. The key was that the communities varied in "evenness" - the extent to which the community is dominated by one or a few species. They then challenged each micro-community with a dose of nitrite, and then measured how much of the nitrite was removed 20 hours later. Communities with greater evenness performed better - and more importantly, maintained that improved performance to a greater extent when the microcosm was simulataneously challenged with increased salinity.

So, is this resilience sensu Holling and Gunderson? I think not, for a couple of reasons. First, although the functional rate decreases with decreasing evenness, all the microcosms still function to some extent; there is no "flip" to an alternative non-functioning state. The appearance of a non-linear threshold would be the ultimate cool result, but they found only smooth changes. Second, they did not examine the structure of the microbial community AFTER the perturbation. Resilience posits that resilient systems will maintain their structure during and after a perturbation - structure in this case would refer to the relative abundance of the 18 microbial taxa. It is possible that even the control communities that were not challenged would have shifted in relative abundance just because of normal competition between the microbes.

Regardless, it is a really cool experiment!

Full citations:

Douglas A. Landis, Mary M. Gardiner, Wopke van der Werf and Scott M. Swinton. 2008. Increasing corn for biofuel production reduces biocontrol services in agricultural landscapes. PNAS 105(51) 20552-20557

Lieven Wittebolle, Massimo Marzorati, Lieven Clement, Annalisa Balloi, Daniele Daffonchio, Kim Heylen, Paul De Vos, Willy Verstraete & Nico Boon. 2009. Initial community evenness favours functionality under selective stress. Nature 458:623-627. doi:10.1038/nature07840

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Learning about AM

It seems like there's been an explosion of interest in AM in the past few years. Although the original work by Buzz Holling and colleagues focused on really large projects, like the Florida Everglades and Glen Canyon dam. However, since the Department of Interior has made AM the default choice for implementing management, it is being considered for decisions at many different scales.

One neat intro is a series of webcasts put together by trainers at the Bureau of Land Managment. There are 3 seperate 2 hour webcasts, which have a presentation and panel format. They were originally webcast live, so the expert panel also fields questions from viewers. I particularly found the segment on the legal implications of Adaptive Management very interesting - and a little frightening!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Coming back to life ...

The past month has seen little activity by me in the blogosphere. As a colleague and friend Craig Fleming from the USACE says, "Life happens, sometimes!". I've only experienced a few periods in my life as intense as the last month. Conferences, various illnesses by kids, spouses and self, giving seminars, winning grants, wow - it's all happened, more than once, in the last month! It's all come good in the end, and reinforced some thoughts and ideals along the way.

The centerpiece, AM-wise, was the Missouri River Natural Resources Conference in Billings, Montana. My colleague Sarah Michaels, from UNL's Political Science department, was one of the Plenary speakers, and gave us (scientists & engineers, that is) a real prodding to wake up and recognize our differences so we can get on with the business of saving the planet. Or at least the Missouri River, in the first instance! The other plenary speakers were on fire too - Jim Martin, formerly from Oregon's state agency and now director of conservation at Berkley Conservation Institute gave a great presentation pointing out how we (scientists primarily) need to look up now and then - and in particular think about how increasing demand for water will affect conservation efforts. The rest of the conference was in the usual vein - plenty of presentations about how fish species A is growing in life stage B in habitat C, or Bird X is or is not eating Y. So much knowledge, in so many people, and so hard to track how its all relevant. Independently I've run into alot of stuff about Knowledge Management which suddenly seemed horribly relevant (pun intended) - more on that in a future blog post, although I've touched on it before.

So, many apologies for the long lag in thinking, but I've been much too busy DOING it to think about it! Not what I signed up for when I set out to become an academic ...