You want personal? I give you personal. My year in California; it will be the year of many things, but it will definitely be the year of trying triathlon. Of tri-ing.
I started with an experience in the three sports amounting to only a poor 8 months of running. No swimming (ever, I didn’t even know how to). No biking (ever, I didn’t even have a bike). No idea whatsoever of what a transition is, or why three sports in a row is so much more difficult than the mere sum of the three.

That was a big challenge, but I was there for the challenge. Otherwise I wouldn’t have picked the university team that was (and remained) the USA champions (UCLA Triathlon). An amazing team that awed me and inspired me, but that also made me feel ridiculously slow, fat, old and generally unfit. Because triathlon is everything but easy. Oh, yes, I have sweated, I have bled, I have ached and moaned. I have discovered what it means to be so oxygen deprived that even clutching the pool side I couldn’t catch up my breath and was slowly drifting into both asphyxiation and panic. I have seen people faint and collapse around me during races and wondered whether I was next. I now know what it’s like to see white spots while swimming, to feel lost in the ocean, to feel unable to climb further up a slope, to run for hours on giant blisters, to keep going even as darkness pulls around, to puke on the side of the road or to stay awake all night long with a body full of hormones and pains after a race.

I have lost sleep; I have lost weight; I have lost toenails; I have lost pride; but I have never lost focus nor courage. I never gave up, even when the rest of the team was so effortlessly losing me in swims, in rides and in runs. Even when my highest achievements were dwarfed by the lowest of theirs. I have found determination, I have found strength in my microscopic progresses. I have found sound advice and kind encouragement. I have found a coach, and mentor and a team.

And I have found pleasure. I have found pleasure in progressively feeling stronger, faster, tougher, more enduring. And I have found pleasure in fighting my fears, in overcoming my limitations, in pushing my limits, in never, ever giving up. I found pleasure in stringing races, in running in Death Valley, in biking with Marines, in passing so many racers in the ocean. I come back to France having now run 7 half-marathons, three marathons and four triathlons, many in difficult conditions. I was pleased to finish within the first 20% racers at my last semi-marathon, which was one week after my last triathlon, itself 5 days after my last marathon. My overall feeling is that although I have never been skilled, I have pushed myself, and never failed.

So, this is supposed to be a blog somehow related to scientific research?! WTF? Ok, here’s the message. First, research is relatively easy; even a PhD is relatively easy. Believe me. There are much harder endeavors, stop complaining if you are. Second, whatever your goals, you can reach them if you put your mind into it. Nothing is out of your reach. If you don’t push away your limits, you’ll remain limited. Third, hard work, tenacity, courage and strength of will can go a long way towards compensating lack of skills or other disadvantages in our academic world (such as being young, being a woman or being a non-English speaker). Last, even difficult, painful, long endeavors can provide pleasure, sometimes just because you managed to overcome the obstacles you once believed to be insuperable.

Now, that’s done; Note to self: second step, give this text to my PhD just before I give them some additional, hard work.

funnyt_08

 

The Dunning–Kruger effect. No, it’s not yet another episode of the hilarious “Big Bang Theory” show. It’s a real, serious scientific thing.

As a kid, I’ve always wondered whether people who are really dumb have a way know that they are really dumb. If they lack the intellectual faculties to spot intellectual faculties, then they are stuck in a loophole that is way worst than anything the devious French administration could ever invent. No? Yes, the answer is yes.

According to the mighty Wikipedia, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby unskilled individuals mistakenly assess their ability to be much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude. Conversely, highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others. As David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conclude: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.” End quote.

Or, as Franck Courchamp of Paris Sud University concludes: “Geniuses are too aware of the possibilities not to focus on their own limitswhile dumbs are too dumb to get that they are dumb”. That’s quite related to the “impostor syndrome” that I discussed earlier here.

The good news is, if you thought you were not that smart, you are probably underestimating yourself, and are much smarter than you feel. The bad news is, now that you know you may be smart, you should start wondering whether you’re not “miscalibrating” a bit. You stupid.

Intelligence

Sometimes it comes at night. I lay awake in the middle of the night, and think, unbound and unbounded, and ideas come. And often, I eventually get back to sleep, right before I have to get up, and I lose it all. This time, I decided to get up and write them down. It is four in the morning, and because I’ve woken up at that approximate time the two nights before, unable to find sleep again, I decide this time that it’s not worth the wait of Morpheus, and the frustration of Massive Attack (my alarm clock song).

But before I silently get up and discreetly leave the bedroom, I think about another thing. That email I received yesterday that mildly annoyed me. It was about a questionnaire, that people working on the border of two disciplines should fill out, but I don’t remember to what endeavor. The point that bothered me was that they were requesting it from “scientists at the interface between life science and formal sciences”.

Right. In essence, life science is not a formal science. I know that what we do as ecologists is very formal in the sense that it is strict and rigorous and that I shouldn’t get touchy about this ‘informal’ adjective. Formal sciences really means sciences focused on formal systems, and formal systems are systems of abstract thoughts based on mathematics. Even if many ecologists use mathematics and statistics as a primary tool, we are focused on physical systems. Right ok. Pill swallowed. So how to define the idiosyncrasies of biology when you don’t want to give in into the stereotypes of the hierarchy of sciences? Because, yes, there is a strong hierarchy, at least in the mind of many people, scientists and laymen alike. Many think that hard science apply only to maths and physics. Same thing for the term exact science. Pure is usually used for a branch of maths only, so the rest must be quite impure. And because we biologists are not included in social and sciences either, we must be – since we are right between the world of hard/exact/formal sciences and social and human sciences – the only scientists busying our days doing science that is impure, inexact, informal, soft, asocial and inhuman. The best of all sciences. Thrilling.

Well, I prefer to think of biology as a science of complexity and variability. Because these are really the two entities we are working with and that really define the kind of struggle we face on an everyday basis. And ecology is probably the paramount of these two features. To the point that we embrace them totally. Complexity of uncountable species interacting with their environment in space and time is what attracts most of us to ecology. Variability, far from the interference it represents in physics, has become itself a major focus of interest in our discipline.

Now, it’d be good to end up on a clever conclusion, so I’ll go back to bed and hope ideas will come. By the way, getting up in the night to write down ideas in hopes of not forgetting them in the morning might work, provided you don’t start blogging. Damned, I don’t even remember what these ideas were about…

purity

Nuclear power recommended by environmental scientists? Probably sounds like a bomb, but read this.

As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).

Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources—including nuclear power—must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change. They provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling—as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency. This multi-pronged strategy for sustainable energy could also be more cost-effective and spare more land for biodiversity, as well as reduce non-carbon pollution (aerosols, heavy metals).

Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position. However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change (Caldeira et al. 2013), we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.

The list of signatories can be found here and here. Now, please, do read the article of Brook & Bradshaw before getting emotional and all. Now I’m waiting for the fallout…

nuclearprogramIllustration.sellingnukepower

 

It may seem odd that someone often known as a conservation biologist would promote and defend basic ecology. Yet, I do. I do because I feel basic ecology needs promoting and defending. In a time when environmental crises are so worrying (at least for those who are aware of them), it is normal that people, including scientists, would want to favour applied ecology. That is, after all, a science directly committed to solving environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradations, food security, emerging diseases, climate change and the likes.

As a result, the trend has been in the past decades to increasingly favour applied ecology; and because budgets are not extensible, that has been at the expense of basic ecology.

Yet, there are many reasons why basic ecology – or fundamental ecology – is important. I will not enumerate them all here, you’ll probably want to read the article I just wrote, with 4 other authors in the last issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, here if you subscribe, for for free here*. But I can still pick up a few, just to arouse your curiosity, because I’m sure you didn’t think of them all, and several might surprise you a bit.

And then not! Go read the paper, I’m feeling lazy today and I’ve been told to keep my posts shorts. But of course, you can use this blog to tell me why you disagree. Because, unlike applied ecology, debate is fundamental in science.

ThermodynamicsOfEcology
by Ari Weinkle

* you can download the paper from the link on this post or directly from my lab web page here. I shouldn’t offer it like that, but I am in the process to pay for the Open Access and I don’t want to wait until it is available for readers to access it easily.

In a very interesting Science article a few weeks ago, Georgina Mace highlighted how Conservation Biology has been going through phases in the way of seeing the conservation of nature. There are many interesting aspects to this paper, starting by the evolution of the place of people in conservation: nature for itself, nature despite people, nature for people and then nature and people. An aspect that interests me a lot and that has been the focus of much debate in the past is whether we should maintain theses species oriented conservation programmes, when what really matters is habitats, or ecosystems. True, conserving species is meaningless if they don’t have a habitat to live in. Also, conserving ecosystems allows to protect many, many species together, as well as the processes and interactions among them. Plus, money is a finite resource, so conserving species per species means choosing which ones are going to be the target of conservation programmes, and which ones are going to be let for extinction; a modern version of war-wounded triage.

This prompted a famous naturalist to call for the end of pandas, because we are wasting millions of conservation money on them, probably hopelessly, while those millions would better serve entire communities of (less charismatic) species. Dude, he even said that he would eat the last panda if he could have back the money spent on them, to use for more sensitive purposes. Despite the questionable culinary taste (the guy is British), he has a very valid point. The only reason the pandas are getting so much money for conservation, despite being probably doomed since decades, is that they are cute, large mammals. They rock, so we can’t really abandon them, can we? Or at least we can’t appear like we’ve not attempted everything, even if it means performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation attempts for thirty more years? Nah. Those millions could have already saved species that stand a chance, or protect entire biodiversity hotspots.

PandasRock

You can’t deny that pandas rock

 True. But there is another aspect to this problem, that I never see pointed out but that I consider essential emphasizing. Pandas rock. (yeah, I know I said it already). Therefore, people love them. They watch vines of them sneezing adorably on their babies or crashing stupidly from slides, they make funny commercial, video games and cartoons out of them or even disguise their dogs in panda-looking absurdities. And because of that, people don’t want to see them erased from the surface of the Earth. And I don’t blame them, even if pandas have become too lame to reproduce. People don’t want to give up this lost fight, because people care (a tiny bit) about Nature and biodiversity. And people care (a tiny bit) because they had a strong symbol in front of them. Had the WWF given them a slug or a spider as a symbol, I doubt it would have worked as well. Had they rather chosen as a symbol the beautiful hilly bamboo forests that are the habitat of pandas, people wouldn’t even have looked up from their smart phone for a second. The panda raises awareness. It plays a crucial role in conservation, and is it therefore justified to spend millions to save it. And to advertise this expenditure broadly.

So you see, it’s true that it’s unfair that charismatic species get most of the attention in Conservation Biology, but we still need to realise that if it weren’t for pandas, tigers, gorillas and dolphins, nobody would give a damn (even a tiny bit) about conserving nature. That’s life. Just like the pretty cheerleaders are the only reason Europeans could ever be interested in American Football. Unfair, but sheer reality.

Joy

 

Just a short note to inform you of the results of the BNP Paribas public vote: we won!
for those of you who followed the unbearable suspens of this sage, here are the figures:
FATES = 329
CPATEMP : 126
SOCLIM = 597
INVACOST = 4463
APT = 3361

So thank to you (yes, you), our research group is awarded an additional 50.000€ for communication purposes. We will use this money in two major ways. We will first buy the design and construction of an interactive web site to explain our results to the public, and allow them (yes, you again) to check that we are not just playing angrybirds all day long, ask questions and request all the analyses they want. We will also use this money to hire a communication officer that will be in charge of this web site, of dealing with emails from the public (i.e. replying to insulting ones and forwarding me the nice ones), of writting media memos and of many other things that we scientists are too clumsy to do ourselves.
Anyways, this is an opportunity to once more thank you all for your votes!
From the hysteria in France and the US to the delirium in Indonesia and Brazil and the frenzy in Australia and China, we now know we can count on hordes of devoted followers, ready to the craziest things for us, even sometimes read this blog.

 

 

The Fundation BNP Parisbas selected 5 scientific programmes on climate change and will give 50 000 € (that’s US$ 62,000) to one selected by the public, for a communication project on their scientific programme. This is why we need you to vote for our project: InvaCost.

InvaCost will look at the impact on invasive insects, when climate change allows them to invade regions that are now too cold for them, but that will warm up in the coming decades. These include the red imported fire ant, the predatory Asian wasp, the disease carrying tiger-mosquito, and many others that are among the worst invaders worldwide. InvaCost is described a bit in an earlier post, here.

Our communication project is really different from anything that has been done before, and very probably different from the four other projects. In addition to building an interactive website to communicate with the public, show and explain our results and answer your questions, we will inaugurate a new type of citizen science, or participatory science: the public will be able to select some of the 20 invasive species we will study in InvaCost, from a large list we will compile. You will also be able to ask us to do specific analyses, for example “will Argentine ants be able to invade the UK?” or “where will the Formosan termite invasion expand in the USA” or “Is the malaria mosquito likely to reach my city and when?”. We will then collect the data, build and run the mathematical models, analyse the outputs and show and explain the results.

In a word, you will chose the subject and the questions, and we will do science for you. The money will be used to design and run the web site and to hire staff to interact with the public and make specific analyses during the four years of InvaCost. The communication project is described here.

So if you want to see that happen, it’s quite simple, vote for our project, by going here. And forward the message around, we will likely need tens of thousands of votes to be selected. Thanks in advance, we look forward to working with you!

keep-calm-and-vote-for-me-158

I’m normally not a big fan of citizen sciences. Because as trained scientists we strive so carefully to achieve the upmost rigour, I always have this irrational uneasiness when it comes to handling data that have been collected by thousands of uncontrolled volunteers, good-willing but sometimes scientifically unqualified. Citizen science is a great idea though. In a nutshell, it is the fact of using the network of citizen to gather simple raw data and send them to a centralizing team that will assemble it into a giga-dataset that we scientists, with our slow performing slaves, sorry students, cannot even dream of achieving on our own. That way, we can learn about the changes in arrival dates of migrating birds all over Europe, we can more quickly identify star clusters and exoplanets, or reconstruct past climates from thousands of log books of old ships.

So citizen sciences means science made from data collected by citizen. It is nice because it gives enormous datasets to scientists, but also a nice feedback to citizen: in general those implied are interested in birds, or stars, or ships, and are happy to be involved in projects and know the results on programmes in which they have contributed.

It’s a win-win situation, but I thought there could be more to gain for the citizen. This is why, in the days to come, our group – Biodiversity Dynamics – will present a new project in which citizen can do more than collect data and find out the results. Way more.

We have been awarded a grant from the Fondation BNP-Paribas to study the effects of climate change on invasive insects. If you want to know more about why insects could very well invade our regions in the near future and how this is going to be bugging, read this post. If you want to know more about which species are likely to invade where, and when, than this is for you: we will propose in this project to involve citizen in a way they have never been so far. Citizen will not collect the data here, they will instead play (some of) the scientist role: they will ask questions. That’s right. You will start by choosing (some of) the insect species that we will work on. We will propose a list of interesting cases and you will be able to select one from them. We will set up an interactive website to post our results such as distribution maps and graphs and you will also be able to ask for more (e.g., “would it be possible to model the potential distribution of invasive fire ants in England in 2050?”). If the requests are reasonable and within our reach, we will do it and post the results (with the explanations). If they are not, we will explain why (so that you can stop taking us for scientists from the TV shows and ask us irrealistic things).

There is a catch though. This “novel citizen science” project will exist only if we win the vote of the public, which will select one project over 6. I will post soon the vote links so that you can unleash the mad clicking-beast that hides in you and thus allow us to serve you better. For, always remember that, as scientists, our ultimate goal is serving Humanity.

Abby

Of course Gibbs, every scientist is like me: an expert in all possible fields that will give you awesome results within the hour

I have been working for years on biological invasions. You know, the species that are put into regions in which they don’t belong and that just expend madly and outcompete everything, unchecked. A bit like Mcdonald’s in France. Because I’ve also started working on the impact of climate change on biodiversity, I’ve naturally wondered (like many) whether climate change would affect biological invasions.

My group – Biodiversity Dynamics – has produced already some awesome work on that. For example, see here, here or here. Or here and here. Or here. Ok, I stop. You see, they produce too much, I’m not the only one to say that.

Anyways, because climate change is likely to make winters milder and habitats climatically more suitable year-round for cold-blooded animals like insects, we have been wondering whether invasive insects would be able to invade other regions with climate change. There are many very nasty bugs out there.

For example, the Asian predatory wasp is an invasive hornet in Europe that butchers pollinating insects, especially bees, thereby affecting the production of many wild and cultivated plants. And we all remember what Einstein said about pollinators: « if bees were to disappear, humans will disappear within a few years » (we all remember that because it’s one of the few things he said that we understood). The highly invasive red imported fire ant is feared for its impacts on biodiversity, agriculture and cattle breeding, and the thousands of anaphylactic shocks inflicted to people by painful stings every year (with hundreds of deaths). Between the USA and Australia, over US$10 billion are spent yearly on the control of this insect alone. The tiger mosquitoes are vectors of pathogens that cause dengue fever, of the chikungunya virus and of about 30 other viruses. And I could go on.

Most of these nasty creatures are now unable to colonize northern regions of Europe or America, or southern regions of Australia, for example, because they cannot survive cold temperatures. But how will this change? Where and when which species will invade with rising temperatures? What will be the costs in terms of species loss? In terms of agricultural or forestry loss? In terms of diseases to cattle, domestic animals and humans? What will be the death toll if insects that are vectors of malaria can establish in new, highly populated areas?

All these questions, we’ve proposed to study them from a list of 20 of the worst invasive insect species worldwide. And we got selected (ie financed), so brace yourself, we are going to provide some answers. Soon. I just need to hire a couple of postdocs first to do all the work for me.

InsectInvasion

I don’t care; I don’t like popcorn anyway