We are all connected: Next generation ecology salvation

Onawe 2014 footprints
Card from a tracking tunnel showing mouse activity. Collaborating with experienced ecologists kick-starts your career. Image from Adrian Paterson.

We live in an era of changes, where it is easy to get caught up in the rapidly changing environments. Change is a natural process, and from the early stages of our life we encounter it. For example, communication technology, from pigeon post to the use of internet and social media currently. Today, social media is in our everyday life. Who hasn’t got a Facebook account today? A survey in 2014 by the University of Michigan showed that 62% of the entire adult population of America uses Facebook, and there is also a rapid increase of usage of other social media, such as Twitter and LinkedIn.

It is worth asking if we use this social and technological change to our advantage within the scientific community. In order to successfully address real-world environmental issues, international collaboration is vital and what better way to do so than using online communication tools, such as social media? Scientists have entered a new age of research which currently evolves alongside the social and technological advances. Major topics of research and principal methodologies are undergoing complete transformations (e.g., macro ecology, genomics), and entirely new fields of ecology are emerging (e.g. macrosystem ecology ).

Now is the moment to go beyond the boundaries of traditional academic research and promote innovation and international collaboration through open online infrastructure.  Online infrastructure could mitigate the difficulties inherent in connecting a growing global research community across geographical space, disciplines and research questions. The global community of ecological scientis stands to benefit from these growing interconnections as it is increasingly made up of researchers from diverse backgrounds.

A 2015 paper co-authored by the University of Lincoln’s Tim Curran “Connecting people and ideas from around the world”, presents a case for Global Community Innovation Platforms (GCIPs).  This case constitutes a way of improving innovation within scientific communities around the world through a mutual and open online infrastructure.

Defining GCIPs

GCIPs exhibit three main features. Their first feature is global reach and membership. GCIPs have a specific aim of a global constituency and inclusivity with global participation and interaction. The rise of social networks and free blogs (e.g. Dynamic Ecology) allow for a broad participation in science like never seen before. These online networks provide tools to synchronize and interlink across networks where scientists can rapidly generate, share and refine new ideas in a community of peers and public stakeholders.

The networks have helped to narrow under-representation of researchers and stakeholders from developing countries which have to face lots of challenges, such as lack of funding for research and development and limited access to costly scientific literature.

The second feature of GCIPs is innovation, including exploring and promoting new and emerging paradigms. It encourages the exploration of new approaches to existing challenges. Some notable examples of organisations supporting this approach are the British Ecological Society through its annual ecology-square symposium which every year explores an emerging topic in ecology, and the Open Knowledge Foundation which explicitly serves this role.

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Postgraduates from New Zealand, Germany, Cyprus, Sweden, Nepal and the USA on ECOL 608 field trip to Onawe. Building global networks of colleagues is vital in the 21st century! Image from Adrian Paterson.

The third feature is preserving and sharing information. Scientific data and results should be as widely disseminated and openly accessible as possible. Open science improves not only availability of data and publications but also the transparency of methods and analyses. It gives an opportunity to engage in more participation with limited financial restrictions of memberships.

International examples of data repositories are ILTER and Nut-Net (full list available at Registry of Research Data Repositories ). Such online data repositories can reinforce collaboration between ecology and other disciplines. This shift in availability of data and resources will revolutionize ecology.

In addition to the value of addressing these general needs, a GCIP in the ecological sciences could provide particular value to early career ecologists. Early-career scientists face increasing competition for jobs, due mainly to lack of funds and a growing mismatch between the supply of new scientists and the availability of jobs for which they have been trained. Through GCIPs, the dissemination of opportunities for funding and employment is supported.

Early-career scientists have been helped by PhD students and postdoctoral researchers from ecological societies around the world founding the International Network for Next-Generation Ecologists (INNGE) in 2010.

INNGE, with crucial support from the International Association for Ecology (INTECOL), connects 20 organizations from six continents. These include large societies as the British Ecological Society and the Ecological Society of Australia, which include thousands of early career scientists. INNGE has focused on creating opportunities for early career scientists to carry out collaborative and innovative activities through global communication and outreach. In addition, it promotes early career interdisciplinary research, to bridge traditional boundaries in order to create new knowledge and theory in pursuit of a common research goals.

In order to successfully address real-world environmental issues, collaboration across disciplines is vital. A key example of a relatively rare partnership crossing the natural and social sciences is the recent ecology and economics open online seminar series called the Young Scholars Initiative (INET-YSI). This is a joint initiative between INNGE and the  Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Working together, teaching each other skills! Field work in the Lewis Pass. Image from Adrian Paterson.

This example showcases the value of working with a diverse array of fields to affect real and sustained ecological change. In 2014 they co-organized the Future Earth young scientists networking conference of integrated science on the topic of “Ecosystems and human well-being in the green economy”. Future earth is an ambitious new 10-year research programme which will provide the knowledge we need to tackle the most urgent challenges of the 21st century related to global sustainability and that includes issues relating to transformations towards green economies.

The importance of GCIPs is to work as a knowledge hub that anyone can tap into for advice and information. Ecobloggers, launched by INNGEs, is a blog aggregation which gathers posts from more than 90 blogs (including EcoLincNZ) and blogging communities. In these way everyone can be heard, from thoughts of undergraduate students to posts by editors of highly regarded journals.

How do I get involved in a GCIP?

In the end there is hope for our and future generations. How do you get involved in a GCIP? First, find out what you really like doing! It could be writing a blog post, doing data analysis or even fundraising, whatever satisfies you the most. If you focus on something you are interested in, your effort would be more useful.

Second, show up and show yourself, participate in workshops, get in touch with the organization’s leaders or coordinators. They won’t bite, I promise! Also don’t be afraid to highlight what you can bring in the group. Finally, the key is to “stick around”! Be patient and you will see your work evolve and the results of your efforts make an impact.

Note that EcoLincNZ has a twitter presence: @ecolincnz.

The author Penelope Fialis is a postgraduate student in the Master of International Nature Conservation taught jointly at Lincoln University and University of Göttingen. She wrote this article as part of her assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.


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