I’ve just had a short ‘opinion’ paper published in the journal Ecological Indicators, with the title ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication: building capacity to meet the challenges of the Water Framework Directive’. One of my big concerns over recent years has been how we translate developments in science into advances in practice particularly when the government agencies that are responsible for our environment are under severe financial constraints.
My big concern is that an effective if rather labour-intensive approach to ecological assessment in the UK is currently being unpicked to accommodate new science (necessary as the Water Framework Directive makes new demands) but, at the same time, more efficient (i.e. ‘cheaper’) business models are also being imposed.
I use the term ‘McEcology’ to summarise what is going on. You might have heard the derogatory term ‘McJob’ used to describe a low-paid dead-end job with few career prospects so you might think I’m just riding a popular bandwagon here. But read on.
Just over ten years ago I was on my way to a meeting to develop some Europe-wide standards for ecological assessment. At Lille station I passed a McDonalds and remember thinking that it would be nice if we ecologists could get our methods to the point where the end-product was as consistent, across Europe, as a Big Mac.
I think we have made progress towards this goal over the past decade (see posts on intercalibration) but I’ve also watched some less attractive aspects of the fast food business model being imported. The essence to producing homogeneous food is often a tightly-controlled ‘production line’ and this approach is increasingly used in ecology, with different individuals responsible for sampling, sample preparation, sample analysis and data interpretation. In theory, this makes better use of the training of specialist ecologists, allowing them to focus on high-level skills such as data interpretation. In practice, I suspect that the time ecologists spend travelling around catchments collecting samples and, in the process, observing rivers in all their moods, gives them a level of insight that will soon be lost. The ‘fast food’ model may be acceptable if the ‘product’ is data but not if it is advice or guidance tailored to a particular water body or an explanation comprehensible to a stakeholder.
A second concern I addressed was whether advances in science were actually contributing to this slip towards McEcology, as innovations often lead to increased complexity which can push methods out of the capabilities of the “generalist” and limit their use to “specialists”. We get to the point where knowledge of a particular technique or group of organisms trumps knowledge of a geographic area in determining who is best suited to a task.
The risk is that the search for short-term economies undermines the professionalism of ecologists. The old UK model where a team of ecologists acted as a “family doctor” practice for a region, developing extensive local knowledge through close contact over a number of years is at risk of being replaced with a “call centre” model where ecologists become increasingly desk-bound, samples are collected by lower paid staff working to tight schedules and processed by technicians who may not work in the same part of the country, or even in the same country at all.
The title of my paper “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” comes from a quotation attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Innovation is all very well but if it breaks the links between biologists and the field, we risk losing accumulated wisdom resulting in poorer decision-making. On the other hand, if we have a good knowledge of the underlying ecological processes, we should be able to develop a set of much simpler methods that allow ‘generalist’ ecologists to collect information on many attributes of ecosystems. This encourages a more joined-up view of ecosystems and, ultimately, better decision making.
This is not just theory: we’re already making a few tentative steps towards this goal and the next post will talk about one of these in more detail.