Where have the big ideas gone?

By Joern Fischer

In the 1960s, island biogeography changed the way ecologists think about species distribution. In the 1970s, the first ideas for reserve design were beginning to take shape. In the 1990s, we learnt about fragmentation and edge effects. In the late 1990s, the idea of ecosystem services transformed the way we thought about conservation.

What are our big ideas today? My (controversial and perhaps mistaken) impression is that we are too often replacing the generation of new ideas with higher levels of technical sophistication when implementing the old ones. Climate change predictions are getting ever more accurate, but that hasn’t changed climate change per se. Planetary boundaries have been defined and recently refined, but that we’re beyond the limits was well known for decades before that. Technologies to refine agricultural yields are becoming more and more refined, but food distribution remains inequitable. In short: much of the highest impact science seems to just add higher levels of technical sophistication to what is already well known, but does little to address the foundational issues arguably most in need to being tackled.

This is of course, just an opinion of mine, and it may (1) be wrong, and (2) be seen as arrogant, or (3) be just plain unhelpful. As in: if I don’t like what is being researched, what then do I propose scientists ought to do more of? This is tricky, and if there was a simple answer, perhaps everyone would be doing just that. I guess I’d just like more signs from the scientific community that “we care”, that we realize that just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic will not be helpful, and that we know that simply refining our estimates and tools – within existing conceptual boundaries – won’t ultimately lead to sustainability. Not knowing the solution doesn’t mean one shouldn’t at least try to find it, beyond the space that is already well explored.

And last but not least: along with a loss of genuinely new ideas, I feel we are also increasingly losing scientists who are willing to express their vision for real, substantial changes in how humans interact with one another and with the planet. When talking in the pub, many sustainability or conservation scientists will still frankly speak about the need for major changes. But in papers … it’s just not neat and tidy enough, I guess.


7 thoughts on “Where have the big ideas gone?

  1. Agreed. However, what you (and many of us) would like to see expressed in the peer-reviewed published lit is considered subjective and outside the framework of objective science. It might appear in editorial, opinion and letters content, but not in published research studies. This is one reason why associated sociological and psychological studies are helpful, even adding credence and authority to some views expressed by those in the biological sciences.
    I also posit that science blog networks with post-publish peer reviews might serve useful. I like what I am seeing in several of the collaborative ecology blogs.

    • Thanks for the comment. I think you’re right that such commentary would be seen as “subjective”. However, is it really subjective, or does it just seem that way? Cold, hard analysis shows that we are failing with the tools we are using. Doesn’t that mean that it’s quite objective to state that fundamental changes are needed? In terms of how those come about, I agree that social sciences, psychological sciences, and the humanities will be important. Cheers — J.

  2. Thanks for this reflective post!
    I would not exclude completely the new genuine ideas, its just that it seems that big ideas come when the intellectual environment is matured to produce them. This maturation process is about combining disciplines, frameworks and theories to find new patterns. ‘laws’. I feel that this is happening currently. For example I feel that combining network theory with the social-ecological system framework may bring new and interesting knowledge.

    The second issue: yes, the society need to catch up with academia. Here we need to work more not only on putting sexy and iportant terms and concepts in papers but also in communicating these to huge amounts of people to shape that societal basin (or intellectual capital of the society) we want, to prepare the society for these ideas. The maturation process at societal level is on-going now, I can see it already in RO. Several initiatives emerge which all reflects spreadin new value systems in the society (so here is where the network theory would be important).

    In other cases academia need to catch up with the society (its a different issue).

    Regarding re-arranging things: its part of the process of maturation. Sometimes someone will see a bg pattern in these:)

    As you noticed, there is a lot of care in the scientific community towards our values, and life. This care is maniphested in informal circles (i.e. in a pub) more than in papers. This is not worrying to me, rather, makes me happy!!! It would be sad to be other way round. Ultimately the reality matters more than the papers, I guess.

    All in all, I see your post with lots of positivism!

    Nice greetings from Transylvania!

    • Thanks Tibi! I think your observations are useful on both accounts: (1) that the merging of disciplines is what is currently happening (and that’s what’s “new”), and (2) that passion in the pub is not to be under-valued! Hope life treats you well in Transylvania! — J.

  3. I agree with Macrobe – there are other venues for expressing our concerns. It is not wrong for a scientist to advocate policy or express an opinion concerning what others might or should do. But this sort of communication should be broached in an appropriate space. A pub is closer to the right environment in my opinion than on the non-editorial pages of a peer reviewed ‘science’ journal. But dissemination of ideas from the corner booth in the pub isn’t so quick and world wide either. If blogging served beer we’d really have a step forward 🙂

    I also see some insight in Tibor’s reply here. Getting society to catch up with science seems a very worthwhile effort. If we only talk among ourselves in peer reviewed literature we create an echo chamber. And the metric ‘high impact science’ is merely a measure of what we scientists are concerned about – measuring how often we cite other’s work. Real societal impact is a far trickier beast to measure.

    Let us also not forget that science is done in more places than academia. Private sector R&D follows completely different systems for reward, assessment of impact, and dissemination of results. The market for different tools, technologies, foods, fibers, etc. can be an ugly place where real innovation is often smothered with glitzy promotion… but in the end it is a market and in a pluralistic sense – everyone who can participate in the market gets to vote with their individual priorities. Not everyone gets to vote about what goes on within the ivory tower. And academic freedom is not free.

    Surveying the lay of the land and talking to the native peoples of a distant geography are important, and very worthwhile analyses can be made. Once data is collected there may be many ways to interpret the same. When value judgments are brought to bear for interpreting these data the niceties of ‘science’ fade and cultural realities increase. How often have you seen difficulties arise for indigenous folk when a foreign value system is projected upon them?

    We do have many significant and serious issues standing between us and a beautifully sustainable future. And scientists rightfully have much to offer in getting to such a future. But mingling our opinions with our science seems to me a poor bargain. It can draw into question our objectivity, and leave us potentially open to accusation of bias. I think it better we make it clear when the thoughts on offer are for the general public debate and when they are data and analysis that meet the standards of the scientific enterprise.

    Lastly it’s been my observation that change is occurring at a faster pace then we’re historically used to. And for this reason some might get spoiled on the possibilities of rates of change and lose patience for what is ultimately hoped. The approach of dangerous futures on the horizon as seen through the lens of newer instrumentation and more sophisticated science may distract us from the parallel opportunities afforded by newer technologies and more sophisticated science. Will we as a species be capable of culturally making the political and social change to find sustainable ways? Maybe the social sciences need to step up (akin to another of Macrobe’s points above).

  4. While reading a post by an environmental scholar the other day, my thoughts returned to this post.
    “Apparently we have a tendency to temper the truth for fear that we will lose the audience – a large portion of which does not want to hear the truth.”

    And presenting the truth in science is can be a perilous walk on a high fence.

    Again was that deja vu after reading an article yesterday in a recent issue (July 11, 2015, p.28-33) of ‘New Scientist’ magazine, “The road to climate hell.” Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist at University of Victoria, Canada, lists and summarizes the 33 ‘dragons’ why people fail to act on climate change. Probably the most concise and articulated summary on influences that shape human behavior.

    Readers here might find it of interest, shedding light on the psychologies at play. Science and scientists play a role, but a very tentative role. One profound role is trust, and mistrust.
    “Trust is essential for healthy relationships. When it is absent between citizens and scientists or government officials, resistance in one form or another follows. There is ample evidence that many people mistrust messages that come from scientists or government officials. When trust sours, the probability of positive behaviour change diminishes.”

    Perhaps educating citizens in the scientific method might be one positive influence. Especially the nature of uncertainty that is often inherent in science despite its low acceptance by both scientists, citizens and policy makers. Although this may not be directly expressing our opinions, such participation in the overall dialogue and contributing to the knowledge base of non-scientists may increase the trust in the science, and those who do the science. There lies a way to establish trust between all the sectors.

    As Firesign Theatre quipped decades ago, “We’re all bozos on this bus!”

  5. Pingback: Friday links: high enthusiasm + low R-squared = :-(, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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