Tag Archives: Science funding

Should scientists accept funding from agro-chemical companies? The devil’s in the details

Oxalis fly P1030303.png

The relationship between use of pesticides (particularly neonicotinoids) and the decline of pollinators is one that I’ve touched on a few times in this blog – see for example:  Bees and pesticides – a major new study just publishedButterflies and pesticides – a new study and a smoking gun; and Pesticides and pollinators: some new studies and contrasting conclusions.  It’s an important and controversial topic that’s unlikely to go away any time soon.  In an article in the New York Times, journalist Danny Hakim has given that particular pot a further stir by discussing Scientists Loved and Loathed by an Agrochemical Giant.

Although it’s been online since New Year’s Eve, the first I heard about the article was when an American colleague sent me a link this morning (the day it appeared in the printed version) and asked me if I had any thoughts and comments about one of the scientists featured – James Cresswell of the University of Exeter.  I’ve known and respected James for over 20 years and I think his contribution to this article provides a brave and open answer to the question I pose in the title of this post: should scientists accept funding from agro-chemical companies?

Please do read that article, it’s fascinating, if not entirely objective in its own right.  The tone and focus of the piece is best summed up by the one-sentence summary at the start, which incorporates a quote from Dave Goulson (University of Sussex):  “With corporate funding of research, “there’s no scientist who comes out of this unscathed””.  In fact that quote is taken rather out of context because Dave’s point was about perceptions of motives and biases, rather than actual corruption of the science and scientists concerned.

Having said that, the article does present a prima facie case that some scientists (though I emphasise not James himself) are playing fast-and-loose with the evidence related to pesticides and GM crops.

Back to perceptions.  Industry funding of university-led scientific research is incredibly common, far more common than the public probably realises.  There are three reasons for that.  First of all, universities are where many subject experts are based, of course.  Secondly, scientific research is expensive: it requires staff, facilities, equipment, funding for overheads, etc.  University researchers are therefore always hunting for money to enable them to carry out research (which in turn is linked to promotion success, career development, and so forth).  Thirdly, external income is an important performance indicator for universities and their constituent departments: James himself is quoted as saying “I was pressured enormously by my university to take that money”, a sentence that will resonate with many UK researchers.

In general the public’s perception (as far as I can tell) is that most of that research is not being corrupted by the industry funding that is attached to it.  In my own faculty at the University of Northampton, for instance, my colleagues have obtained industry funding for research and consultancy work in areas such as product design, lift engineering, materials science, leather processing, computer networks, app development, and so forth.  All controversy-free.

In much of the environmental sector that’s also the case: we’ve had funding from a large water utilities company to write a report on habitat management strategies for reducing rabbit densities close to water bodies, and one of my current research students is being funded by a solar farm company.  Likewise colleagues have been funded by wastes management companies to advise and research in that field.  None of this has generated any negative perceptions, with the possible exception of some aspects of wastes management where issues such as “waste-to-energy” remain controversial.

In other areas of environmental research, however, there have always been accusations of bias levelled at university researchers who are perceived to be industry shills, especially if they are not seen to be toeing a particular line.  I’m deliberately using that word – shill – because it’s something I was accused of being during a heated social media discussion of causes of pollinator declines.  A commenter claimed that I was an “industry shill” for daring to suggest that this was a complex topic, and that there were no easy answers to why (some) pollinators are declining, but that neonicotinoid pesticides were not the only cause.  “Which chemical company is funding your research?” she aggressively demanded to know.  I think I convinced her that I was not (and never have been) funded by chemical companies.  But it raised an interesting question: would I ever accept funding from such companies, if it was offered?

The simple answer is that I don’t know.  It depends what the money was for and what strings were attached in terms of non-disclosure, ownership of data, etc.  As the title of this post states, the devil’s in the details.  I know quite a number of researchers in my field who have had funding from Syngenta, Bayer, and other agro-chemical companies.  Some of these are colleagues with whom I have published research papers.  In general I have no reason to believe that the research conducted by any of these colleagues has been corrupted by their association with the funders.  However in one instance I had a disagreement with a colleague who was not (in my opinion) objective in how they wished to frame part of a paper’s discussion and who may (in my opinion) have been influenced by their association with a particular funder.  In the end this didn’t change the conclusions of the research (which was not itself industry funded) but it did make me pause to consider these subtle biases, which I’m sure could affect anyone*.  Again, perceptions are key here.

Money for the kind of research that’s done by colleagues and myself is always, always going to be in short supply and competitively pursued, and failure to obtain it will always be much more common than success.  Unless funding to address important ecological research questions from government (i.e. taxpayer money) and charities vastly increases, industry will be there to fund research in its own interests, and the perception of scientific bias will remain, whether or not it actually exists.

 

*I’m not prepared to say more about this particular example so please don’t ask.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Honey bees, Neonicotinoids, University of Northampton

Rewilding reconsidered: academic disagreements, big science, and beavers.

P1110320Rewilding has been the topic of a couple of blog posts over the last few years  (for example here, in relation to the George Monbiot-narrated video about the wolves of Yellowstone Park; and also here, about the notion that perhaps we should also think about rewilding the human digestive ecosystem).

Since then there’s been a lot of activity with respect to rewilding, some of it practical and adding to the evidence base, some of it conceptual and controversial.  So I thought I’d do a quick round up of rewilding-related items I’d seen recently: feel free to suggest others.

In an open-access paper in Current Biology, entitled “Rewilding is the new Pandora’s box in conservation” David Nogués-Bravo and colleagues ask “what exactly is rewilding, and is it based on sound ecological understanding?”  Their conclusion is that “there is a worrying lack of consensus about what rewilding is and what it isn’t” and that “scientific support for the main ecological assumptions behind rewilding, such as top-down control of ecosystems, is limited”.  They go on to discuss the potential dangers of (re)introducing species into existing ecosystems, including both ecological and economic concerns.

Meanwhile Jens-Christian Svenning and colleagues have an open access paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of the USA about “Science for a wilder Anthropocene: Synthesis and future directions for trophic rewilding research” which takes a much more positive view of the potential benefits of rewilding, though still urges caution and further research, pointing out that “empirical research on trophic rewilding is still rare, fragmented, and geographically biased, with the literature dominated by essays and opinion pieces.”  Science writer John Carey provides some useful wider context to this discussion in a companion piece.

Subsequently Dustin and Daniel Rubenstein critiqued the Svenning et al. paper with an opinion piece called “From Pleistocene to trophic rewilding: A wolf in sheep’s clothing“, to which Svenning and colleagues replied: “Time to move on from ideological debates on rewilding“.

Svenning et al.‘s request for more empirical data on the effects of rewilding has been heeded this month by a study in Freshwater Biology from Alan Law and colleagues on “Habitat engineering by beaver benefits aquatic biodiversity and ecosystem processes in agricultural streams“.  Focusing on the recent reintroduction of beaver to Scotland, these researchers documented positive effects of the beaver on removal of inorganic nutrients from streams, and overall freshwater invertebrate diversity.

I find it really exciting that so much interesting debate and data are now being generated on the topic of rewilding: it’s fascinating and important science with a clear practical component that could leave the planet richer and in better condition for future generations.  It certainly deserves to be better funded, perhaps taking a slice of the “big science” pie from physics and astronomy, an argument that has been raised several times by Charley Krebs on his Ecological Rants blog.

As a researcher I don’t have a horse in this race (or even a Konick pony, such as are being used in a small-scale rewilding project at Wicken Fen). However I do wonder what a “rewilded” landscape would look like for pollinators in Britain, given that most of their diversity and abundance is associated with open grassland and heathland habitats, which were rare in these islands prior to human deforestation.  Having said that, a greater density of large mammalian herbivores can certainly open up woodland – see Bakker et al.‘s paper on “Combining paleo-data and modern exclosure experiments to assess the impact of megafauna extinctions on woody vegetation“.

As a teacher these discussions provide a lot of scope for interesting class exercises and seminars on the topic, which I’ll certainly be developing more next year.  Expect this to be an ongoing topic on the blog.

 

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Rewilding

Should biodiversity scientists be campaigners and polemicists?

NPS workshop

Earlier this week I attended a two day research funding workshop intended to develop initial project ideas to address evidence gaps in the recent National Pollinator Strategy.  It was a productive meeting from which will hopefully emerge some important, focused science.  As is so often the case at scientific meetings, many of the most interesting conversations occurred after the end of the day’s formal work, in the pub.  There was a little bar stool criticism of some of the recent published work on the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinator health, and specifically whether or not researchers engaged in this kind of controversial science should be polemicists, stirring up controversy, or even activists with particular agendas that they wish to promote.

Whilst I agree that there is a difficult line to walk between scientist as campaigner and scientist as neutral presenter of facts, I also think that polemicist/activist is quite an admirable position for a scientist to take in many ways, as long as the rhetoric is backed up by sound science. It’s also brave given that perceptions of scientists can change the likelihood of their research being funded or even published – reviews and reviewers are rarely as objective as we would like to believe.

So should scientists, and specifically those, like myself, who are engaged with biodiversity science in all its myriad forms, be also engaged in campaigns and polemics?  Is this what wider society wants from its scientists?  How do other scientists feel about this?  I’d really be interested in your views.

In this blog I’ve made no secret of the fact that I take certain positions on subjects such as the impact of poorly conceived development on nature reserves, the fallacies of political spin, and future developments in UK nature conservation.  Those are positions that are predicated as much by my personal motivations as an “environmentalist” (a term I don’t like but which is widely understood and will do for now) as they are by my professional role as a university scientist who does research and teaches.  I am not a neutral observer, though I hope that I’m an objective one.

There’s a lot of questions that can spin off from reflecting on the role of biodiversity science and scientists in the modern age, which I don’t have time to properly explore but which I hope will emerge in the comments.  I was prompted to write this by a really interesting post by Joern Fischer over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog entitled “Losing humanity and other questions science doesn’t ask“.  In it Joern develops some ideas about the kind of science that we should be doing “for it to be of use in the sense of creating a better, more sustainable world”.  I’d add that what is important is not just the science that we do, it’s how we present that science (the passion and the story telling) to a range of audiences, and also the personal positions we take on the issues that the science illuminates.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Pollination

Something for the weekend #4

The latest in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week:

 

  • It’s been a good week for birds: Jerdon’s babbler, a species thought to have been extinct for over 70 years, has been rediscovered in Myanmar, whilst the Blue-bearded helmetcrest, a hummingbird not seen for 69 years, has recently been photographed in Colombia.

 

 

  • Related to this, prominent ecologist Charley Krebs asks why physical sciences take the largest share of science budgets, given the importance (and urgency) of global environmental problems.  Charley’s text books have long been required reading on our undergraduate degrees, including his latest The Ecological World View.

 

 

 

 

  • Finally and close to home, the Northampton Greyfriars Bus Station, widely regarded as one of the ugliest buildings in Britain, was demolished with a set of controlled explosions.  What’s that got to do with biodiversity, I hear you ask?  Well the area of green space visible as a still before the video starts, and shown later at 0:45 and 1:15, was one of the field sites used by my PhD student Muzafar Hussain during his surveys of urban solitary bees, which I’ve talked about previously, e.g. here and here.   That patch of green, a rather neglected area of urban grassland with some scattered trees, was home to at least 17 species of bees.  Will they survive the demolition?  Hopefully, though the future redevelopment of the area may result in their loss.  But that’s been happening to urban bee populations for centuries, and they are adaptable and mobile.  I’ll talk more about Muzafar’s work in a post in the near future as the first manuscript from his PhD research has been accepted for publication.

 

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related links.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Ecosystem services, Urban biodiversity