Monthly Archives: January 2019

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread” – Why scientists need to learn to say “no” to themselves

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Earlier this week I had to write an email to some potential collaborators that I really wasn’t looking forward to sending.  I’ve been doing some hard thinking since Christmas and had decided not to go ahead with a grant submission for a project that was my idea, that I had initiated.  I was now pulling back from that and feeling as though I was letting people down.

The fundamental reason is lack of time, of being really over-stretched at the moment.  Just before the Christmas break I received word that two grants that I’m involved with, one funded by NERC, the other by the Australian Research Council (ARC), were both successful. This is on top of four existing projects, funded by NERC, BBSRC, Heritage Lottery Fund and Butterfly Conservation. Plus the non-funded work I’m doing.  One of my tasks this week was to add a Current Projects and Collaborations page to this blog, so I can keep track of what I’m doing as much as anything!  Although I’m a minor partner in many of these projects, it’s still a lot of work to keep on top of everything, plus teaching,  the Research Excellence Framework for which I’m departmental lead, etc.  I’m also trying to complete a book which I’ve promised to deliver to the publisher soon.  And blogging of course….

There’s a line in the Lord of Rings in which Bilbo tells Gandalf that “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” Intellectually that’s how I’m feeling at the moment.

It’s my own fault, I say “yes” to things too readily, something which a lot of academics do and which is being widely discussed on Twitter and in other blogs.  Most of this discussion focuses on saying “no” to other people, to manuscript and grant reviews, to offers of collaborations, and so forth.

But I think it’s just as important that we learn to say “no” to ourselves.  We need to realise that, however great an idea that we’ve had is or however enthusiastic we are about a project or a paper or a book or organising a conference, if we don’t have the time and energy to follow through and do it properly, we are selling ourselves and our collaborators short.

Of course this is easy to say but not so easy to put into practice.  There are a lot of external pressures on academics to write more grant proposals and papers, to do more work on the impact of their research, to take on tasks within and without their institutions, and thus spread themselves too thin.  Being a scientist and teacher in a university is a great job and I feel very fortunate to be doing what I do.  But in the long term we’re doing no one any favours, not least our employers and our families, if we burn out early.

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Filed under Biodiversity, University of Northampton

Tantalising evidence for a new type of pollination system in Madagascan Apocynaceae

cynanchum obovatum with wasp_madag -angavokely_meve 1

As I recounted in my post last summer, the plant family Apocynaceae contains species with a very wide diversity  of pollination systems – see:  The evolution of pollination systems in one of the largest plant families: a new study just published – download it for free.  Confirmed pollinators include bees, birds, moths, butterflies, flies, beetles, and wasps of a dizzying diversity.  So I was intrigued to receive an email earlier this week from my colleague Prof. Dr Ulrich “Ulli” Meve of the University of Bayreuth with the subject line “Wasp expert needed”.  Ulli is an authority on Apocynaceae taxonomy, also has an interest in their pollination biology, and is a co-author of the study last year.

Attached to the email were a couple of images showing a wasp visiting flowers of Cynanchum obovatum, an endemic species of Apocynaceae from northern and eastern Madagascar.  Ulli had taken the photographs during field work there in preparation for the Flora of Madagascar project.  Here’s the global distribution of the species according to GBIF records:

cynanchum obovatum from gbif

I was excited because Madagascar has a very rich diversity of Apocynaceae (between 500 and 1000 species).  However we have flower visitor observations for only a small fraction of them, fewer than 20 species, and good evidence that the visitors are pollinators for only a couple of those.

I didn’t immediately recognise the family to which the wasp belonged: it didn’t look like either Vespidae or Pompilidae, two groups that are known pollinators of Apocynaceae.  So I uploaded the shots to the Hymenopterists Forum on Facebook and within minutes had received an answer:  it was a species of Scoliidae, commonly referred to as scoliid wasps.  The distinctive wing corrugation found in this family is clearly visible on this image:

cynanchum obovatum with wasp_madag -angavokely_meve 2

Scoliids are parasitoids of beetles and are some of the world’s largest wasps, but it’s not a very diverse family, with only about 560 described species, and only a single species in the UK (on the Channel Islands).  Compare that with the Pompilidae and Vespidae, both of which contain c. 5,000 species worldwide.

Ulli tells me that when he saw the scoliid on C. obovatum “the wasp knew what to do with the flowers”, something I’ve experienced with vespid and pompilid wasp pollinated species in Africa: these wasps are really familiar with the flowers, they know how to work them to get a reward as they are regular and committed visitors.  We believe that this is likely to be the legitimate pollinator of the plant, in which case it’s one of the few records for Scoliidae pollinating Apocynaceae, and the first for Madagascar.  Other examples are mainly in South America, India and South Africa, and usually as one of a broad set of other wasps and/or bees visiting generalist flowers.

It’s interesting that this species of Cynanchum is one of the few in which the corona which covers the gynostegium (the fused sexual parts) is closed over:

cynanchum obovatum_madag - angavokely_meve

That means it requires quite a strong, large insect to get inside and access the nectar.  So the prediction is that the pollen masses (pollinaria) will be found on the mouthparts of these wasps.  Intriguingly, a very closely related species C. repandum has no such closed corona, begging the question of whether it might be pollinated by a different type of insect:

cynanchum repandum sl 2867_low

For now this record will go into the Pollinators of Apocynaceae database as pollinator unproven, but i would be great if someone working in Madagascar could confirm the status of this pollination system.

My grateful thanks to Ulli for sharing his pictures and allowing me to tell the story of what may be a whole new Madagascan pollination system for our favourite family.  Apocynaceae is full of surprises!

cynanchum obovatum with wasp_madag -angavokely_meve 3

 

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Filed under Apocynaceae, Biodiversity, Pollination, Wasps

Should environmentalists be optimistic in a time of uncertainty?

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Over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog Joern Fischer posted a really interesting piece on 1st January called “A new kind of hope” about the current state of the world and whether, from an environmental perspective, there’s really anything to be optimistic about.  If environmental collapse via climate change and over-exploitation is inevitable, the collapse of civilization is not far behind.  Joern’s piece is well worth reading, lots to think about in there, and I highly recommend that you take a look.

I posted a comment there which I’m going to copy here and add to because I think it bears repeating.

Going back to at least my student days I always thought that there was only a slim chance of our civilization making it to the end of the 20th century without some kind of catastrophe wiping us out.   So it was a surprise to celebrate the millennium as December 1999 segued into January 2000. Since then, whilst I think there’s lots to be optimistic about such as the increase in renewable energy, large-scale habitat restoration in some regions, and a growing recognition of the environmental damage of biocides and plastics, there’s also the nagging fear that it’s too little, too late.

These days I alternate between wild optimism and deep depression over the fate of humanity and of the planet. It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex of negative environmental narratives and ignore the positive ones. Especially so if you actively use social media.  So I try hard to be optimistic and resist the urge to just give up, but the political situation across much of the world makes that difficult. As I learn more about the natural world through my own research and that of others’, and as world events such as Brexit and the rise of the Far Right unfold, I realise how little any of us really know about anything at all. Thus I have a deep suspicion of anyone who spouts certainties, whether they be moral, philosophical, religious, scientific, political, or artistic. All we can do is feel our way into the future, cautiously.

With respect to the question that Joern poses of “If we have to re-build something after some kind of collapse … do we have ideas for what that something will be?”, this is the rationale behind the Dark Mountain Project, a loose collaboration of writers, artists, thinkers, etc., who are trying to look for new narratives for humanity and the planet we depend upon. I’ve written a couple of pieces for their journal, most recently for issue 10 where I discussed the role of poetry in science.  And although I don’t buy into their certainty that there will be a collapse, I think it’s an important project for understanding where we are now, where we’ve been, and where we might be going to.  Here’s a link to the project’s website.

The discussion over whether we should be optimistic about the future of the planet that supports us, and how that optimism will play out, is important for scientists, and society at large, to be having.  By coincidence as I was writing this post the map above started circulating on Twitter.  It’s a Russian teaching aid from 1928 showing the different biomes of the USSR and can be downloaded from this site.

What really struck me about this graphic was the certainty with which it represents the natural world, as if all of this could never change. There are polar bears on ice flows and a frozen tundra in the far north; water still fills the Aral Sea, hyenas feast in the steppe, snow leopards haunt the mountains, Siberian tigers prowl the pine forests.  And an optimistic looking whale heads towards Japan.  Some of this is gone, some will almost certainly change, but a lot of it we could save, if we want to, saving ourselves in the process.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Climate change, Dark Mountain Project

When scientists get things wrong: is coffee the second most valuable global commodity?

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If this blog has a purpose beyond highlighting the importance of biodiversity, and recent developments in the field of pollination biology in particular, it’s to demystify science and the scientists who produce new knowledge.  Hopefully my posts over the past seven years have shown that scientists can have all kinds of backgrounds, even northern English working class, and need not have attended the most prestigious universities.  I’d also hope that what I write about my own research gives some insights into how new knowledge is generated and how it can be communicated to both specialist and non-specialist audiences.

Something should be clear from all of this: scientists are human just like everyone else, with the same foibles, foolish notions, prejudices, passions, and blind spots.  And they make errors.  Just like everyone else.

This is by way of an introduction to admitting that I made a mistake in one of my recent papers.  Not a massive mistake, and not one that requires me to retract the paper, but one which bugs me and which I need to correct for the sake of accuracy.  Hopefully it will stop others repeating the same error.

In “Pollinator Diversity: Distribution, Ecological Function and Conservation” (Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 2017) I stated that:

“Coffee…is second only to oil in terms of its value as a commodity”.

That’s a “fact” that I’ve heard repeated for years, in lots of different places, so I didn’t bother citing a source because, well, it’s just true, isn’t it?  Only trouble is, it’s not true.  It’s been debunked several times over the years, as discussed in this summary on the Politifact.com website:  No, coffee is not the second-most traded commodity after oil.

Mea culpa.  I should have done due diligence and checked my facts, especially as I’ve posted before about how many of the “facts” concerning bees as pollinators are incorrect – see Who is feeding the honey bee bullshit machine?   

But, we all get stuff wrong.  I’m sure I’ve made other errors in the past and not spotted them, and I bet there’s not a published scientist who hasn’t made some kind of mistake in their writing.  We may all be standing on the shoulders of giants, but even giants have their flaws….  That doesn’t make me feel any better though.

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