Future Tense

The Science Police

In highly controversial fields, researchers have to balance science and advocacy.

Habitat with a stream and a deer.
What happens when a scientific study’s results could be seen as undercutting the conservation cause?


A version of this piece originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology.

In 2013, Canadian ecologist Mark Vellend submitted a paper to the journal Nature that made the first peer reviewer uneasy. “I can appreciate counter-intuitive findings that are contrary to common assumption,” the comment began. But the “large policy implications” of the paper and how it might be interpreted in the media raised the bar for acceptance, the reviewer argued.

Vellend’s paper challenged a core tenet of conservation biology: that local and regional landscapes had become ecologically depleted, following an accelerated global rate of species extinctions known as the biodiversity crisis. This core tenet was reinforced by dozens of experimental studies that showed ecosystem function diminished when plant diversity declined. Thus a “common assumption” was baked into a larger, widely accepted conservation biology narrative: Urbanization and agriculture, among other aspects of modern society, severely fragmented wild habitats, which, in turn, reduced ecological diversity and eroded ecosystem health.

And it happens to be a true story—just not the whole story, according to the analysis Vellend and his collaborators submitted to Nature. They argued that plant diversity at localized levels had not declined. To be sure, in landscapes people had exploited (for example, for agriculture or logging), habitat became fragmented, and non-native species invaded. But there was no net loss of diversity in these habitats, according to the study. Why? Because as some native species dropped out, newer ones arrived. In fact, in many places, species richness had increased.

The peer reviewer did not hide his dismay:

Unfortunately, while the authors are careful to state that they are discussing biodiversity changes at local scales, and to explain why this is relevant to the scientific community, clearly media reporting on these results are going to skim right over that and report that biological diversity is not declining if this paper were to be published in Nature. I do not think this conclusion would be justified, and I think it is important not to pave the way for that conclusion to be reached by the public.

Nature rejected the paper.

Although it was published soon after by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—without triggering media fanfare, much less public confusion—the episode unsettled Vellend, who is an ecology professor at the University of Sherbrooke in Québec. Vellend’s uneasiness was reinforced when he presented the paper at an ecology conference and several colleagues voiced the same objections as the Nature reviewer, as he recounts in a collection of essays titled Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma, to be published by Oxford University Press in late 2017.

Vellend’s experiences have left him wondering if other ecology studies are being similarly judged on “how the results align with conventional wisdom or political priorities.”

The short answer appears to be yes.

In their introduction to the upcoming book, the ecologists Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier write: “Working as editors for some of the major journals in our field, we have seen first-hand reviewers worrying as much about the political fallout and potential misinterpretation by the public as they do about the validity and rigor of the science.”

The book tackles the philosophical and scientific issues that have divided the field of conservation biology in recent years. A major theme in the fractious debate is the underlying tension between science and advocacy, both of which are coded equally into the DNA of the field.

The rift is also a power struggle. The ecologists who founded conservation biology in the 1980s have served as influential advocates for the preservation of endangered species and biodiversity. They were instrumental in elevating the issue to the top of the global environmental agenda. These well-known scientists, such as E.O. Wilson, Michael Soulé, and Stuart Pimm, have strong feelings about the best way to achieve what they believe should be a nature-centric goal. They are protective of the successful cause they launched and, unsurprisingly, dubious of new “human-friendly” approaches to conservation that Kareiva and Marvier, among others, have proposed in recent years.

If conservation science is in service to an agenda, then it seems inevitable that research would at times be viewed through a political or ideological prism. The Nature reviewer’s politically minded comments provide a case in point. When I talked to Vellend about this, he shared a haunting concern. “The thing that’s worrisome to me, as a scientist, is that here’s one person [the reviewer] who actually, to their credit, wrote down exactly what they were thinking,” he said. “So how many times has someone spun their reviews a little to the negative, with those sentiments exactly in mind, without actually stating it?”

In 2012, the editor of the field’s flagship journal, Conservation Biology, was fired after she asked some authors to remove advocacy statements they had inserted into their papers. As Vellend told me: “People get into our field, in part, with a politically motivated goal in mind—to protect nature and a greater number of species.” That’s totally fine, even admirable, but it also goes to the heart of the conflict roiling conservation biology: how to reconcile its purpose-driven science with its values-driven mission.

Vellend’s article was caught in the crossfire. His paper revealed a nuanced, complex picture of biodiversity that some ecologists feared would undermine the conservation cause. In case Vellend didn’t get the message, a fellow scientist has gone even further and repeatedly harangued him by email. At one point, Vellend asked the individual to desist, unless his tone became more constructive. The answer was disconcerting and a little creepy: “You better get used to it, because you’re going to be hearing a lot more from me,” the person responded by email. “Consider me your personal scientific watchdog.”

In an article in the winter 2017 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, I reported on the different ways journalists and researchers working in the scientific arena are hounded and sometimes smeared by agenda-driven activists. A similar activity that is equally pernicious, if not much discussed, is the different ways scientists are sometimes aggressively policed by their peers. It’s the ugly side of science, where worldviews, politics, and personalities collide.

It seems that highly charged issues, such as climate change and genetically modified organisms, engender the most active policing in the scientific community. I’ve also observed another common strand: scientists who become preoccupied with the public interpretation or political implications of scientific findings tend to deputize themselves as sheriffs of scientific literature and public debate.

Although this appears to explain Vellend’s experience, he considers himself one of the lucky ones. “My story stops a few steps short of the horrors I’ve heard,” he says. Ecologists like Vellend who have been critical of traditional conservation approaches, such as the focus on large wilderness preserves or on the primacy of biodiversity, have faced blowback from their peers. You’re not helping, they are told.

In the introduction to Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma, Kareiva and Marvier write: “In a field that frequently relies upon fear appeals to motivate action, data that run counter to doom-and-gloom messages can be especially unwelcome.” In part, this stems from a long-standing reliance on crisis imagery and rhetoric to highlight environmental issues. In addition, as the ecologists Brian Silliman and Stephanie Wear write in their essay in the forthcoming book, “[M]any in the conservation community fear that admitting some key principle or strategy is wrong will embolden those in opposition to conservation.” This seems to explain the negative reaction to Vellend’s paradoxical study on biodiversity, which a number of his peers thought would undercut the conservation cause.

Never mind that such political reluctance to engage with provocative research and findings undercuts the very purpose of science.

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