University of Calgary Study on Human Impacts on Ecosystems

An article from Bob Berwyn’s blog here.

‘Even in protected areas, the influence of humans might be greater than we previously thought … ‘

FRISCO — As much as we’d like to believe in nature unbound, a new Canadian study suggests that human impacts are more widespread than we realize, even extending well into protected areas.

The five-year study by University of Calgary ecologists, included monitoring wolves, elks, cattle and humans. The resarchers concluded that human activities dominate all other factors, even in protected areas.

“Our results contrast with research conducted in protected areas that suggested food chains are primarily regulated by predators. Rather, we found that humans influenced other species in the food chain in a number of direct and indirect ways, thus overshadowing top-down and bottom-up effects,” said lead author Dr. Tyler Muhly.

In one sense, the findings are a “well, duh”. As many have stated previously, air pollution, climate change, effects of neighbor’s fire policies, and invasive species aren’t limited by “protected area” designation. Here’s a link to the university press release.

I wish there were a rule that every time a press release says “different from what was previously thought” they refer to at least one publication that asserts what they are refuting.

When I went to a website to find this I also found this study
“New research challenges assumptions about effects of global warming on mountain tree line” here. Here’s my unrefutable science about treelines; we don’t know what the H. will happen because it’s too complex to predict. We can study it until the cows come home but no one knows. It makes me wonder if there mightn’t be something more useful to study.

But I guess utility is a bad word, to a fellow named Phil Plait from Boulder who wrote an op-ed here in the Denver Post critiquing Canada’s R&D policy.. (you and I both wonder if there isn’t something more relevant for the Post to publish than a critique of a neighboring country’s science policy). The title of the piece was simply “Canada Sells Out Science.”

And that’s OK, because it’s not like the money is wasted when invested in science. For one thing, the amount of money we’re talking about here is tiny compared to a national budget. For another, investment in science always pays off. Always, and at a very high rate. If you want to boost your economy in the middle and long run, one of the best ways to do it is invest in science.

But the Canadian government is doing the precise opposite. If proposed and immediate economic benefits are the prime factors in choosing what science to fund, then the freedom of this human endeavor will be critically curtailed. It’s draining the passion and heart out of one of the best things we humans do.

By doing this, the Canadian government and the NRC have literally sold out science.

I don’t mean to pick on the “tree line modelers” here, it’s a gig and we all need them. But it’s good to know that somehow that this and future investments in modeling will “pay off” because Phil Plait says so..

Here’s another quote:

John MacDougal, president of the NRC, said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.” Gary Goodyear, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, also stated “There is [sic] only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge … second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost.”

I had to read the Toronto Sun article two or three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something, because I was thinking that no one could possibly utter such colossally ignorant statements. These two men — leaders in the Canadian scientific research community — were saying, out loud and clearly, that the only science worth doing is what lines the pocket of business.

Really? Doing something to improve our society is doing something for “business”? I guess I am “colossally ignorant” too. I know there is a school of scientists who believe that research should be “of the scientists, by the scientists and for the scientists” but they’re usually not that vitriolic.

Whoops.. guess I wandered off the original topic.

5 thoughts on “University of Calgary Study on Human Impacts on Ecosystems”

    • cielsky: I think it would be disgraceful if science trumped economics, too. I’m pretty sure the “human influence” in even our most “pristine” and “natural” environments is a lot more significant than most people realize.

      Science and economics are artifical constructs invented by people. Same as religion, law and politics. It is up to people to decide how best to use these tools to achieve common goals and objectives. It looks like the Canadian Government has decided that a large portion of its existing bureaucracy needs to be reduced or eliminated. That is hardly a “war on science” — more like a regular budgetary process. How people respond to this budget will be interesting and likely lead to future adjustments.

      How much funding did any of these programs have 20 years ago? I think that might be an indicator as to why these programs are being eliminated or reduced at this time. Not just “economics” — and maybe a lot more “science” than you expect.

    • Aha.. Ciesky, it strikes me that many on our blog are not familiar with the old “basic science axiom.” This appears to be where Mr. Plait is coming from.

      Roger Pielke, Jr. had a fairly recent post about it.. It’s worth reading if you don’t follow this’s a good summary.

      Here’s the link.. and below an excerpt.

      Over time the phrase became part of the linear model of innovation, shown in the figure at the top of this post. The model is faith based, meaning that the relationship of basic research funding to societal benefits is taken as an “axiom” which often finds its expression in a misreading of economics. Scientists often demand a privileged place for science in government budgets based on claims that in “basic research” lies the key to growth and prosperity for all.

      Unfortunately, the relationship of so-called “basic research” and outcomes like economic growth and other societal benefits remains poorly understood. For instance, in 2007, Leo Sveikauskas of the Bureau of Economic Analysis surveyed the economy-wide returns on R&D (here in PDF) and found a complex picture at odds with the elegance of the linear model:

      Returns to many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero . . . Many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all, and do not belong in investment.

      The exceptions that he cites include federal R&D in health, agriculture and defense — all instances of mission-oriented applied research. The issue is further complicated by the fact that economists don’t really understand where economic growth comes from.

      There is of course a parochial political dimension at work here as well, which limits a broader discussion of how to better relate research with societal objectives. Benoît Godin, the innovation scholar at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal, explains (here in PDF):

      The problem is that the academic lobby has successfully claimed a monopoly on the creation of new knowledge, and that policy-makers have been persuaded to confuse the necessary with the sufficient condition that investment in basic research would by itself necessarily lead to successful applications.

      The politics help to explain why public debates over science policy tend to devolve into simplistic appeals for more “basic research” funding for scientists, rather than a more sophisticated discussion of trade-offs within science, or even how it is that we expect that R&D funding will contribute to the promised societal benefits. Once you take the importance of basic research as an axiom, the need for science policy research on the role of science in society disappears, except as handmaiden to the science lobby.

  1. So much “science” has a decided political slant that we must assume that most of today’s science is slanted but, not necessarily “biased”, in the scientific sense. Framing studies and excluding certain important aspects seems to be the way studies get done, to match desired conclusions. Let’s face it, both sides do it. Could it be time for “political neutrality peer review”?? We could have a board of respected non-political scientists who could be trusted to give unbiased judgements. Certainly, both sides’ political strategies would need to be re-vamped, methinks? They sure would fight such a proposal, tooth and nail. Some people seem to fear a compromise, most of all!

  2. Larry.. I do think that what you are describing is a sort of systematic bias. And a great deal of it is disguised within the scientific biz system.

    Just having an open peer review might help. Both open in the sense of it being clear who is reviewing, allowing others to review and placing the arguments in the full view of the public. And I don’t mean that you have to FOIA it to get it.


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