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.

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