On generality, centrism, and science blogging

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There has been much discussion in the last decade about how to better prepare graduate students for jobs outside the research-driven ivory tower, so called “alternative academic” or “altac” jobs, for example those in corporate, government, or NGO organizations to name just a few. And I think it’s generally recognized that not every graduate student defending their thesis or dissertation, and passing their oral exam or viva will end up a tenured research professor. Which is fine and good and a simple fact.

I’ve taken one such route. Not intentionally, but just because that’s where the opportunities lay. After my PhD, I did 2 postdocs in a government lab, then worked for a larger NGO, and now a museum. All involved research, writing papers, supervising staff, managing budgets, serving on committees, and just about everything a tenured professor does, aside from teaching, just in different proportions and with a different aim (usually to provide the science to inform the organization’s decisions, directions, and objectives).

I’m also a Canadian living in the UK. Yes, the US produces a large amount of science and research, and influences many aspects of the associated culture, but Canada and the UK also punch above their weight in terms of research output and initiatives.

Why then are so many blogs aimed at graduate students, researchers, and scientists written with only US (or North American) university academics in mind?

“Write what you know,” sure, and many of the most prolific and widely-read bloggers, at least in ecology, conservation, and general biology are US university faculty. But at the same time, occasionally the assumptions that go into that writing assume that the audience is the same, or at least striving to end up in the same place. I’m not going to name names, but simply look at your favourite blog author, and how they use these terms:

  • scientist
  • academic
  • researecher
  • scholar

Do they use them interchangeably? Do they use “researcher” when in reality they mean an “academic”? Do they write “scientist” when they mean “researcher”? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a terrible Venn diagram to try and draw, and there’s no giant all-encompassing circle into which those all fit. But I quite often get excited about a post by reading its title, for example, only to see that the information is directed exclusively (or very largely) at academics or those wanting to become academics. The same is particularly true when soliciting information from readers about jobs, working conditions, career stage, or questions that include those variables to illustrate the demographic make-up of the sample. And I readily admit that I have fallen into this habit.

To say nothing of non-US readers. It won’t be surprising to know that universities and degree programmes differ among countries, as do the norms, expectations, consequences, and even more fundamental things like how classes are taught, or even how long the degree programme is.

Yes, I understand that for many of these sites, that group of American university faculty (or those interested in the views of that group, or their trainees/staff) is a significant proportion of the readership, so why not write for that biggest group, which also happens to contain the author? In a sense, though, that’s a circular argument… that’s the biggest readership because that’s the content that’s being written about.

Now, this is by no means a criticism of any particular writer or site in particular, but a broader trend. Many of the issues that are regularly discussed (e.g., careers, mental health, reviewing papers, women in science, under-represented groups) are issues outside American universities and their associated people. But sometimes, the solutions proposed, or the angle taken betrays the writer’s narrow focus.

It’s difficult to try and include everyone that you think would fall into the four vague, nebulous, and highly overlapping categories in the list above. But simple things like word choice, and how some ideas or questions are framed would make them more relevant to those of us outside both the US, and its ivory tower. And if we want to ensure that students are prepared for as broad a selection of careers as is feasible, and that science blogging helps in that regard, we need to think much more widely.

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A new adventure

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When I first visited the American Museum of Natural History during my PhD, I was amazed at many things. The room of extinct specimens, the diversity of species represented, the wide array of collections (skins, skeletons, eggs, nests, fluid-preserved, mounts), and the fact that friendly curators basically let me loose in the rooms and I could explore. All for free. It was transformative.

Years later as a postdoc, I visited yet more large museums (the Royal Ontario Museum and Canadian Museum of Nature, to be precise), and found the same thing. And at smaller collections, too, like the New Brunswick Museum, or The Rooms Provincial Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador.

And then four years ago I found an excuse to visit THE Natural History Museum when I moved to the UK. The veritable Mecca of ornithological natural history and museum research. I managed to visit, for research or to drop off specimens collected from my various field travels, a couple of times a year.

Now, I’ll be visiting almost daily.

I’m absolutely thrilled to let you all know that I’ve been appointed the Senior Curator in Charge of the Bird Group at The Natural History Museum, starting this autumn.

I’ve spent nearly four years at the RSPB, and in that time have learned a great deal, done some interesting work, and visited some fascinating places. But the opportunity to work at the NHM in this role was simply too good to pass up. I’ll continue to not be an academic.

The NHM houses 750,000 skins covering 95% of extant bird species, >200,000 egg sets, 17,000 fluid-preserved specimens, 16,000 skeletons, 6000 mounts, and 4000 nests. It also has one of the most extensive (and historically valuable) ornithological libraries in the world, and hosts >1000 visitor-days a year. And like my experiences in New York, Toronto, Gatineau, Saint John, and St. John’s, it has a dedicated team of five fantastic curators who have made my previous visits there welcoming, productive, and exciting.

The bird collection is based at Tring, in Hertfordshire, on an estate donated by Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild, in the 1930s, which is where I’ll be based, but with regular time spent at the NHM’s larger site at South Kensington in central London, which is where all the fantastic analytical equipment, and other taxonomic groups are based.

My role is a mix of curation and research, and will no doubt feature #OtherPeoplesData, and the challenges of museum documentation as well as my own collections-based and field research. I’ll also be promoting the use of the ornithological collections by other researchers at the museum and from outside, too.

So now begins the transition, the frantic packing as we relocate, and the impending excitement of the next adventure.

On the loss of a friend

Earlier this week, Terry Wheeler passed away. Terry taught at McGill, and was curator of the Lyman Entomological Museum. He was a fantastic naturalist, praised the role of museums and natural history in modern science, and was generally quite a lot of fun. About 10 months ago, he was diagnosed with fairly aggressive brain cancer, which eventually took him from us.

Terry was what I would call an Exceptionally Very Good Person. Over the years that we knew each other, he was championing those who needed a voice, promoting those who needed more volume, and often acting as a sounding board for those in need, myself included.

In particular, Terry and I often ended up discussing what role modern universities played in the nurturing of the whole person, rather than the provision of qualifications or job-relevant skills, which may not be that surprising given we were both strong advocated of the importance of natural history. We also both came from a strong liberal arts background, and this culminated in my take on pastoral care in science, which I wrote a year ago this week. Which now seems very fitting.

We shared a connection to Newfoundland (him by birth, me by long residence), and we would often banter about Jam Jams, Jigg’s Dinner, and our fondness for turr and single malt whisky. We often joked about meeting there, on George Street, or up in Twilingate.

I will, however, always regret never meeting him in person. We connected online (first via Twitter, then via email), and I can only imagine what it must have been like to spend time with him in the field, in the kitchen, by the fire.

So tonight I break out the Laphroaig, turn up the Shannygannock, and celebrate the life of someone genuinely loved by so many.

Long may your big jib draw, Terry.

So you want to “do something about/for diversity”

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In the last several months/years, I’ve seen an increasing number of “diversity initiatives”, and attention paid to issues of diversity in STEM fields. Which is, on the whole, good. But as a member of a minority community, these can often come across as botched jobs. Scientists are good at science, but not necessarily (or one might say not at all good) at sociology and psychology.

And it’s become tiring.

Here, dear reader, is a handy, easily digested checklist (because who in science doesn’t like checklists) for how not to completely miss the mark with whatever “diversity initiative” you might want to do. As you’ll see, these are all inter-related, and some/many of them aren’t easy or to be taken lightly.

  1. What? What do you want to get out of this exercise, tangibly? Cut the vagueness. Make your objectives SMART. If you can’t articulate your goals in these terms, you’ll never achieve them (or be able to demonstrate beyond vague hand-waving that “things are better”). Are you trying to have better representation at conferences or on editorial boards? Or perhaps increased membership in your society by under-represented groups? The processes for achieving these will differ. See also: where?
  2. Who? “Diversity” as usually applied in STEM fields typically covers sex and ethnicity. There are many facets of diversity, some of which can’t be perceived without interaction. Gender, orientation, and ableness are just three others that quickly come to mind. Each brings a different viewpoint. Or rather, the same multitude of viewpoints found in any grouping of people. And each of these is just a conglomeration of different groups. Gay men aren’t representative of transfolk, who aren’t representative of bisexuals. Which of these groups do you want to reach? See also: why? Also see also: what?
  3. Where? The US isn’t the only place with issues around the over-representation of straight white cismen in STEM, and there are local (and regional) areas for improvement, laws, traditions, and solutions to the problems. Even though the pattern may be widespread, what works in one place may (or may not) work in another. Don’t parachute in. Work with someone on the ground (see also: who (part 2)).
  4. Who? (part 2). Nothing dooms these kinds of initiatives like the lack of involvement of the groups you’re trying to reach. They will know the language and issues better, and excluding them is patronizing, like saying “we know diversity is an issue, so we’ll fix it for you!” Without this involvement your initiative is almost certainly doomed to failure.
  5. Who? (part 3). If I had a dollar for every time I was asked to talk about “Diversity 101” I would have >$1. In this scenario, I should be broke. Do your research. Google is your friend. We’re (often) too busy trying to keep up with a systematically damaging professional culture to “point you in the right direction”. If you actually care about it, read about it or contact organizations who are explicitly designed to help, and then engage on specifics. See also: who (part 2). You might be getting the idea that people are rather important here. Good.
  6. What (next)? Don’t just gather information, or email blitz a vague surveymonkey link to your members. What will you do once you’ve identified the problem/need? If you don’t do anything, or don’t follow through (see also: what), think of the potentially hours of collectively wasted time. I’ve filled in enough “it will only take 20-30 minutes of your time” surveys to know this is often true. And it makes me less likely to help you out in the future. Failure to do anything is paying mere lip-service to the careers and lives of honest to goodness people.
  7. Danger, Will Robinson! Whatever you decide to do, think (and have others think) about how it will be perceived, especially by those in the group you’re trying to reach. Academic conferences get this one wrong rather often (I’m looking at you, ESA “Ally” ribbons!). Don’t roll something this important out without a thorough look-over. See also: who (part 2). Also see also: when?
  8. When? Don’t rush this. It’s important. If you can’t get something together for this year’s meeting, wait for next year. Something good, but delivered later is better than a hatchet-job thrown together to meet an arbitrary deadline. I mean, you should’ve been thinking about and actually DOING something about this ages ago anyway.
  9. Expect pushback. In all likelihood, if you get things (mostly) right, you will get pushback from the straight white cismen already entrenched in whatever group you’re trying to diversify. If you don’t, you might get pushback from the groups you’re trying to include. Listen to the second. See also: what (next).

Listing grants on one’s CV

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I was going through my semi-regular update of my CV because, frankly, if I don’t I won’t be able to keep track of everything! It’s as much for me as it is for others (and arguably more so these days).

Which got me thinking about grants, and how they’re recorded. On my CV, it’s a combination of year(s), project title, funding source, and grant amount. So far, all the grants that I’ve received have been one of two kinds:

  1. a grant / award for which I was the only applicant, like my two postdoc grants
  2. a grant where a small group (<5) of us wrote the application and got the funding

These have all been relatively small, bar our work on Northern Rockhopper Penguins, which was funded by the Darwin Initiative to the tune of £200,000, but where each of the five project partners is involved in just about everything. But as I progress, I expect more and more I’ll be just one part of a bigger piece of work. This inevitably leads to the question of how to list those grants.

I clearly didn’t have a hand in writing the whole grant, and would only be participating in a part of it (i.e., there will be funded activities and outcomes to which I know I won’t contribute, just because of the way the project was designed). So it seems disingenuous to list the full value of the grant (which, for these kinds of collaborative projects is likely to be in the £200,000-£1,000,000+ range). But equally, my specific part of the work package was part of the reason the project was funded.

So over to you, dear readers:

 

I’ll tally the results in a week or so.

 

The vast unread masses (or, tremendously unpopular posts)

So The Lab and Field turned 4 years old recently, and as someone not opposed to a little but of navel gazing, I thought it might be interesting to look at the least popular posts since 2013. This was also sort of prompted by a couple of folks who recently read older posts, and exclaimed (well, I imagine them exclaiming) that they’d missed it, or forgotten about it.

One of the things I enjoy about blogging is the longer half-life compared to other online activities, like twitter or instagram (fun though those are).

So without further ado, here are the Bottom 10 from the last four years:

Friday scribbles: more abstract ideas

tl;dr – video abstracts are a nice idea, but do them well or not at all.

 

Taxonomic troubles

tl;dr – ornithologists need to agree a common taxonomy; the current system impedes communication & conservation.

 

Astrophotography as a gateway to science

tl;dr – taking grainy pics of planets & galaxies in high school was a major factor in getting me hooked on science. That and the US space program.

 

FAQ, and answers thereto (Christmas 2016 edition)

tl;dr – off-the-cuff answers to the frequently asked questions that people search, bringing them to The Lab and Field. The most recent instalment of this recurring feature.

 

Friday Scribbles: abstract ideas

tl;dr – suggestions for how to write an abstract, and a fun in-class exercise to practice!

 

The name game

tl;dr – Sign up for ORCID. Accommodate people with names that don’t conform to Latin alphabet first-name-middle-initial-last-name format. Science is international and multicultural.

 

Too many endangered tigers in Nepal?

tl;dr – human-wildlife conflict! Also, stop shooting carnivores.

 

The Brain Scoop

tl;dr – what can I say? I was an early adopter. Now a highly successful channel based at the Field Museum in Chicago. Yay Emily!

 

The science never says it all

tl;dr – this still breaks my heart. When your science goes pear-shaped, make what you can from the result. As John Cleese once opined during a lingerie shop robbery, “adopt, adapt, and improve”.

 

The Arctic Expert Test

tl;dr – 1970s scientists were sexist and culturally inappropriate. See also: Flow Clearwater.

 

So why have these posts garnered <100 visits each? Many are from 2013 and 2014, and from a time when I had more time to write (oh to be a weekly blog again!). Perhaps the subject matter is just too dull, or the titles too obscure. Perhaps my readership at the time was minute (indeed, it was). I think it’s fair to say that over the last four years, L&F has evolved a bit (fewer, but longer posts, and I think a trend towards more personal content). But whatever the reason, I’m still pleased with these posts, and I hope if you read them again, you will be as well.

In defence of gulls, skuas, and giant petrels

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I’m a lariphile. I love gulls, skuas, and their ilk. I think they’re gorgeous, intelligent, highly adaptable, and I will always have a soft spot for them in my heart. It will not likely come as a surprise to know that this is a minority view.

Gulls, skuas, giant petrels and other predatory seabirds (i.e., those that eat other birds) are often maligned, both in terms of management and in culture. They’re called flying rats, flying garburators, disgusting, and lacking in any redeeming qualities. So what? They can’t understand us, so presumably are immune to humanity’s slanders and insults. We, however, are not.

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A Brown Skua (Stercorarius antarcticus) on Gough Island

Gulls, skuas, and giant petrels are seen as horrendous things that eat cute fluffy things which we see as being “better” (in an anthropomorphic sense) than these cruel predators. Newsflash: all birds are predators. None of them can photosynthesize, so they gotta eat. Fish, krill, squid, berries, dead things… you name it. Why then do we cast aspersions upon these species, but not the puffin when it eats herring, or the albatross when it snares a flying fish? Because flying fish and herring are cute and fuzzy and easily portrayed as defenceless individuals by nature documentaries.

Take the BBC’s Planet Earth 2 series, wherein skuas are shown haranguing Chinstrap Penguins on Zavadovski Island. A friend, mostly tongue-in-cheek, asked if the skuas had any redeeming qualities. Why should their foraging mode impact our evaluation of their “worth”?

Lest we believe this is an issue for far-flung islands of the Southern Ocean, consider the plight of gulls in North America and Europe (particularly the UK). They’re seen as pests, a nuisance, and in many areas were historically subjected to extensive “control” (i.e., culling). The result? European Herring Gull is now listed as Red in the UK’s Birds of Conservation Concern. I helped co-edit a special issue of the journal Waterbirds focusing on gulls, and in paper after paper we see the same thing – precipitous declines in both American Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull over the last 30 years.

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Four Great Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus) on Gull Island, Newfoundland

On Gull Island, Witless Bay, Newfoundland, for example, there were <30 pairs of Great Black-backed Gulls when I was there in 2011-12 (compared to 115 in 2000-01). In the last 15 years, the islands in Witless Bay have lost >50% of their breeding gulls (read our paper here).

So why aren’t we doing anything about it? Gull control still takes place (though now on a smaller scale than in the 80s and 90s), but if there was “control” of a rapidly-declining albatross, the conservation world would be up in arms. Because gulls are also seemingly ubiquitous in urban environments, they’re also seen as being common (so much so that multiple species are lumped into the highly inaccurate term “seagull”).

After a kerfuffle about a debate on gulls in Aberdeen that took place in the UK House of Commons, I suggested that the following question be a highly relevant one (for conservation and policy) for wildlife management/conservation students:

When it comes to gulls in the UK, it’s a question of how does one manage a threatened species that could easily get multiple ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders)?

And this is highly relevant today, right now, because what we’re doing at the moment clearly isn’t working for the conservation of these species, or the public’s perception of them.

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A Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) on Gough Island

Just another example of how species’ ecology and behaviour influences our perception of their conservation need.

Another year of male-dominated NSERC prizes

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Once again, NSERC (the national science and engineering funding council in Canada) has announced the winners of its prestigious prizes, which highlight the crème de la crème of Canadian science. And once again, the list of winners has an overabundance of Y chromosomes.

  • Herzberg Medal (“Canada’s top scientist”): man (only one woman has ever won this award, and it was last year)
  • Polyani Award: man
  • Brockhouse Canada Prize: 2 men
  • Synergy Award for Innovation: 4 men
  • E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships: 4 men, 2 women
  • Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research: 1 man, 1 woman

If you’re keeping score, that’s 3 women and 13 men, or 19% women awardees.

Sadly, this is an improvement (yes, you read that right) over previous years (17% in 2015, 13% in 2014, and an eye-rolling 0% in 2013).

This year brings the overall total to 42 women and 252 men, or a maddeningly low total of 14% women awardees.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different outcome. When will NSERC act to improve the gender representation of women in the highest accolades of Canadian science and engineering?

 

Update: here’s a great graphical representation courtesy of Jeff Clements.

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The locations of scientific meetings matter

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I think it’s fair to say that in the last week, there’s been quite a shift in the scientific community, or at least certain parts thereof, particularly in the United States. Yesterday’s Executive Orders restricting immigration, though temporarily stayed as of this writing, have rightly caused consternation among many. In research circles, this has meant difficulties for students, faculty, and staff who were travelling overseas, and restrictions on nationals of seven countries from entering the US. The growing anger within the US at this action has resulted in several scientists, many of whom I respect greatly, suggesting that professional scientific societies move their conferences and meetings to venues outside the US, or for non-US researchers to boycott meetings in the US. While these suggestions come from good intentions, it’s rather flawed and, if I might say, a tad hypocritical.

Regardless of where a meeting is held, there will be scientists who cannot or will not, for immigration reasons or reasons of conscience, attend. Hold meetings outside the US could mean some US-based researchers who are not US citizens might not feel safe or comfortable going, for fear of being denied re-entry upon their return. Hold it in the US, and scientists from those seven nations could be unable to attend. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But this is hardly something new.

I have a list of just under 80 countries where I will not travel, for work or pleasure. Places where being LGBTQ is illegal. Unlike nationality, though, an immigration officer can’t look at me or my paperwork and decide whether I’m queer or not. But the fact remains that, regardless of whether its enforced or not, it’s illegal for me to be me in a sizeable chunk of the world. So if your conference is in Indonesia, Kenya, or Barbados, it’s a non-starter: I’m not going.

Last summer, I wrote about how the Animal Behaviour Society passed a resolution to not hold meetings in North Carolina in response to that state’s anti-trans “bathroom bill”, but at the same time the world’s biggest marine science conference, the IMCC, announced that it’s 2018 meeting would be in Malaysia *, which is on that list of 80 or so countries. Yet where was the concern? The showing of solidarity with scientists who would be affected by holding a scientific conference in such a location?

Some have argued that since these laws aren’t (apparently) enforced, or often aren’t (apparently) applied to foreigners that it would be ok for queer folk to go to conferences in some of these places. F&$# off. Unless you’ve ever had to hide who you were for fear of detention or physical & mental harm – often for years or decades – you have no idea how idiotic that sounds, and how unhealthy it is. Everyone makes their own decisions affecting their personal safety and based on their personal values, and I’ve made mine.

Rather than relocate meetings, societies need to ensure that all of their members can participate. Why, for example, is it still so difficult to allow members to participate by video-conference? It’s 2017 for goodness sake.

No matter where scientific societies hold their meetings, there will be scientists who will not or cannot attend. The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can work towards a more equitable culture, in science and beyond.

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*The folks at IMCC have engaged on this issue, indeed far more than any other conference I’ve heard from, but the fact remains: being gay is illegal in Malaysia.

In praise of researching (and publishing) “local” conservation science

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If you’ve published a scientific paper in a journal, you’ll know that part of the challenge is making it relevant to a broad audience. Why should a conservationist in Outer Mongolia, Zambia, Murmansk, or Baton Rouge care about your study? Chances are they study )or are concerned with/interested in) different species in different places. The pressure, therefore is to wrap much of our conservation science in global policy and priority frameworks: the Aichi Targets, multilateral environmental agreements, globally threatened species, or highly imperilled habitats. Which is good and fine and has resulted in lots of policy relevant science and conservation action.

But conservation also operates on a much smaller, more local scale, and with individuals on the ground in communities who can influence local, regional, and national policies and conservation actions. And this requires the science underpinning these actions to be, at least in part, local in nature. Sure, we all know that global warming is driving our planet further down the 6th Great Extinction, but most people will only take action when they see this manifest in their own backyards. Why have the doves returned a month early? Where did all the swifts go? Weren’t there fish in this lake?

And this is where “local” conservation science comes in. And it’s some of the most rewarding science with which I’ve been involved, even though it can be some of the most difficult science to publish. Providing the evidence base for local problems gives scientists and conservationists a better bargaining chip when holding governments to account, to speaking with the public and with media. A local story is usually more relatable than one from a seemingly abstract land far away.

Local conservation needn’t be novel, ground-breaking, cutting-edge, or revolutionary. It’s purpose is rather different, though from an implementation perspective just as important (if not more so). But this very nature makes it a more difficult problem for academic researchers to tackle as it’s unlikely to be of global significance, gain copious citations, or end up in a journal with an impact factor >4. It therefore often falls to scientists in government agencies, independent researchers, and non-governmental organizations to contribute to this science.

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a couple of these kinds of studies, and have a few more in the pipeline. We showed migratory patterns and geographic distribution of a Flesh-footed Shearwaters in the northeast Pacific Ocean (Bond & Lavers 2015), and described the current status & threats facing Streaked Shearwaters in the Korean peninsula (Hart et al. 2015). In these papers, we learned a heck of a lot about the species involved, and hope that these will become go-to papers when someone compiles details into whole-species assessments of status, distribution, and threats.

Overall, the key to success with local conservation science is the involvement of local people. The paper on shearwaters in Korea was only possible because of people in Korea. The same is true of the other (as yet unpublished) bits of work I’m involved with. These local connections make the work more likely to be well received (if received at all) by the people who matter (those who will enact policy or implement conservation interventions on the ground). The days of colonial science, where outsiders (often from the UK, US, or other countries with an advanced state of scientific inquiry) come in, do something, leave, and then issue what amount to scientific edicts (which are often promptly ignored) are over (or at least should be).

But, for me, the bottom line is that I find this kind of science fun. It’s adding a piece to a puzzle, and I find it very rewarding, especially when it’s highly driven by local collaborators (I usually just provide some stats, and editing… they do the real work of data collecting, and then working with the community to influence change). And at the end of the day, I like to think that it has some benefit for the species and sites we’re trying to look after.