Slow science and streamcraft

My recent post about natural history (“A paper you should all read …”) prompted a colleague to send me a link to an article on a related theme: “slow science”: a movement inspired by the thinking behind “slow food” that acts as an antidote to the pressures to publish and win grants and contract income that dominates Western universities. The outcome is, inevitably, over-specialisation at an early stage in a career, with an unhealthy focus on a few areas of science at the expense of others. The author uses the term “McUniversity” to encapsulate the over-managed institutions that subject their staff to constant appraisal. Having used the term “McEcology” myself to describe similar phenomena (see “Black Swan #2: McEcology and Steve Earle” and “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication: McEcology and the dangers of call centre ecology”), I have complete sympathy and was gratified to see others thinking along similar lines.

I had continued to think about the issues raised by the Bioscience article natural history after I wrote my post and it was the problem of over-specialisation that had particularly bothered me. I believe that a combination of the failings of most degree courses to give a thorough grounding in practical skills and the very narrow focus of most PhDs means that many of us are in danger of missing important signs about the ecosystems that we study. Casting around for a term to encapsulate what I was trying to convey, I settled on “streamcraft”, based on deeply-lodged memories of reading Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys when I was younger. He was very keen to promote “woodcraft” which he defined as “…the knowledge of animals and nature”. He went on: “Woodcraft includes, besides being able to see the tracks and other small signs, the power to read their meaning … It teaches … which are the best wild fruits and roots for his own food, or which are favourite food for animals, and therefore likely to attract them.”

Taking Baden-Powell’s idea of woodcraft as a starting point, “streamcraft” becomes the ability to “read” the messages in the stream that enable us to understand the processes that are taking place and, in turn, the extent to which man’s activities have altered these. The trend that I see is for everyone to spend less time beside streams, except to collect a sample which will be examined in detail back in the laboratory. However, I can show instances where a few observations made in the field can provide most of the information gained from detailed analysis of a single group of organisms back in the laboratory. The problem is that we are rapidly losing the ability to think across several groups of organisms because the structures of science push us towards specialism. Specialisms, obviously, have their place but they should not usurp a broad awareness of natural history.

There is, however, one final argument for “streamcraft”: any interpretation based on visually-obvious properties will, in turn, produce information that can be more readily shared with stakeholders than any number of reports filled with highly-analysed data. It is easy, when talking to fellow ecologists, to forget that we have to function in a democracy where stakeholders have a right to know what we are doing and why.