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News Notes by Tom Gill


Ecological Research vis-à-vis Society Debated

In an article “Ecology and Social Responsibility: the Re-embodiment of Science” (Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16(8): 460-465, 2001), G.A. Bradshaw and Marc Bekoff describe increasing involvement of ecological scientists in social issues that arise from environmental problems. Part of what they say follows:

Ecologists are having an identity crisis. As concern for the environment heightens, ecologists are increasingly being called away from the more traditional life of academia and into policy and public consultation. Some ecologists support active participation in a new social contract of active engagement; others argue that such involvement is blatant advocacy and undermines the image of neutrality underlying the credibility and effectiveness of science. Ecology is wrestling between two models of science: a science apart from society and a science directly engaged with society. The twin missions of science, to pursue truth and to serve society, appear to be at odds.

The unprecedented impact of humans on the land and water worldwide will continue to involve ecologists in conservation, decision and policy-making. Furthermore, the fact that most environmental problems stimulating current research are products of science and the culture in which they developed, means that scientists are already deeply involved.

After centuries of teasing the world apart, there is now a concerted effort to develop integrated models that bridge disciplinary gaps and address whole ecosystems, including humans. The state of the environment and new socio-environmental models of reciprocity (e.g. adaptive management and civic science) have simulated vigorous interdisciplinary research between social and biophysical sciences and the greater public (Sustainable Biosphere Initiative: With the explicit consideration of humans in ecosystems, traditional disciplinary and organizational boundaries have lost much of their original utility.

The current move to include the human dimension in ecology implies a necessary reconciling, or at least, a re-examination of the fundamental assumptions that separate the two disciplinary branches. However, such reconciliation represents a significant challenge for both biophysical and social scientists. Integrating biophysical and social sciences means bringing back the very concepts and attributes (e.g. subjective experience) that, by their historic exclusion from science, defined science. By incorporating the human dimension, ecology has perhaps wittingly opened a Pandora’s Box but it has also opened a door for young ecologists who are
looking for ways to reconcile scientific and social integrity.

Posted 23 August 2002

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News Notes by Tom Gill

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