Posts tagged ‘TERC middlesex fells’

July 1, 2013

Citizen Science, Engagement & the Changing Fells: A Chat with Brian Drayton (Pt. 2)

Kacy Karlen for TERCtalks

In continuation from Part I of “Citizen Science, Engagement, & the Changing Fells”, TERC’s Brian Drayton shared his thoughts in response to Carolyn Johnson’s recent special interest piece for The Boston Globe (in which he was quoted). We talked about the changing local landscape of the Middlesex Fells, Drayton’s field-altering Master’s thesis, “Plant species lost in an isolated conservation area in Metropolitan Boston from 1894 to 1993”; the role of citizen science; the vanishing boundary between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ science; and bringing back the joy to science engagement.

Eupatorium perfoliatum, Asteraceae, Common Boneset, inflorescences. Boneset was a rediscovered plant in the Middlesex Fells. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eupatorium perfoliatum, Asteraceae, Common Boneset, inflorescences. Boneset was a rediscovered plant in the Middlesex Fells. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

TT: It sounds as though your reward is really in the evolution of the kind of research questions being asked—because that advances the field as a whole.

BD:  I certainly felt like “Oh darn, I got something wrong.” But I didn’t take it personally. And Bryan Hamlin didn’t take it personally either. He said, “Hey Brian, I think your data is off.”

An important thing to note in comparing the two studies is this—the respective questions we were trying to answer. My question was this: What’s the best way to preserve biological diversity? If the given method is setting aside land, how good is that in conservation and protecting biodiversity? It was an interesting question for me, as I was already starting to understand that there were no natural spaces immune to human influence—Bill McKibben’s book “The End of Nature” came around about the same time, and so the idea was proliferating. I had realized there were no pristine systems; we’re a species too; and human agency was becoming more and more important in preservation. In my study, I concluded that we had to become more intentional in preserving the flora and fauna of the Fells.

In terms of limitations—I had to determine how different the Fells was from 1893 to 1993, and I couldn’t do the whole thing. It was too big. I had to restrict. I ruled out certain species I couldn’t hope to identify—like grasses and sedges—knowing they were really important, as they are not highly mobile. The MDC didn’t allow me to take vouchers (a single sample of each plant I came across), so that was another limitation, as I didn’t have a catalogue. But truth be told, I never set out to do a comprehensive flora. I was really interested in trends. I knew my own limitations and the limitations of the study.

Hamlin and team—and he had a big team—set out to do a comprehensive flora. They spent 5 years on the study, got vouchers, deployed Boston expertise (one of the world’s experts on sedges lives in Boston), and made really great use of all their resources and collective knowledge, drawing on Harvard’s Gray Herbarium in addition to the New England Botanical Club’s herbarium. You can do a lot of research and homework before you head out. My study was conducted over 2 ½ field seasons—about 300 hours—and I was working full time.

TT: Your scopes of work were very different, topically—different in scale—but similar in that they shared an environment. Are there any other similarities between your respective studies?

BD: The findings that Hamlin and his team found were not irrelevant at all to mine as a commentary. In fact, they allowed us to refine our understanding. The trends we found in my paper are supported by Hamlin’s study—but what Hamlin’s study allows us to say is that the rate of change is different from what I found. His information is more accurate. We are submitting a piece to Rhodora discussing this commentary.

Another thing of interest is that in 1993-1996, the Fells seemed to be drying out. Species that occurred in moister areas seemed to be on decline. Even granting the weaknesses in my catalogue, that still seemed to be a trend of interest. Hamlin and his team reported that the Fells was getting wetter, which seems like an obvious contradiction. When I first read their paper, I figured they had just gotten it right and I had gotten it wrong, because they had put in so much more time. But after that study, I started a bunch of studies in the Fells creating plants and plant populations. This past year, I went out and tried to find some of my field sites. I had gone out informally over the years, but last year marked 15 years after the study had started. It seemed significant somehow. I had a sense that many of the populations I had started had died—and indeed, many of my field sites had been washed away, as we’ve had a lot of rain and flooding in the past few years. But what I saw last year was a change in precipitation that is happening due to climate change. Places like New England are having more varied precipitation tents. My sense is that the trend of the Fells becoming wetter is the result of an actual change happening over the past 25 years. So it was entirely possible that I was right in the 90s, and what Hamlin observed is right now, but the world has changed in between.

TT: How is citizen science crucial to your work at TERC, both past and present?

BD: People have said that the 21st century is the century of biology. The 20th century was the century of physics, and this century is the century of biology.  Whenever someone like Thomas Friedman says it—what they mean is biotechnology, molecular biology, nanobiology. And I think that this is wrong. My perception around this has very much shaped my work in evolving the life sciences programming at TERC. For the majority of the people around the globe, the biology that will be most important in the 21st century is ecology and evolutionary biology. Those are the sciences where understanding matters the most. I don’t want to take anything away from cures for malaria or science around the relief of misery, but more people could be affected positively by policy that’s based on a good understanding of ecology and evolution. Because of climate change, but also ocean acidification and habitat destruction and species loss.

People often forget that the loss of biodiversity—which would be happening without major climate change all by itself—is a dangerous trend, coupled with climate change. With the population rising and 40% of the world’s productivity being consumed by humans—the remaining 60% is divided among the biosphere with a net loss.  We’re just not 40% of the world.

And there is so much more to learn about critical interactions in biosystems and biology. Of the 1.7 million named species, the vast majority have only been named. We don’t know about their ecology or their biology in any great detail—even when it comes to really familiar organisms around here, like Monarch butterflies. This is where we need citizen science.

There are some kinds of science that couldn’t possibly be done without the citizen component. Universities simply can’t do it, as there isn’t enough money, freedom, and humanpower. We need more people becoming informed about the science and issues confronting us today, and offer them opportunities to get involved and do something about it. At TERC, we’re looking for ways to make active use of scientific learning. One is to participate in the creation of more knowledge. That’s where citizen science can be very powerful. You can contribute to a program dedicated to a better understanding of the world. There’s a real sense of being part of a movement, and you can keep continuously learning. And at a certain point, becoming an involved citizen scientist will shape the way you engage with the world. John Dewey’s definition of democracy is a collaborative, informed, intentional enterprise to make our society better for everybody. Citizen science fundamentally reinforces this notion of democracy in a deep way.

But more than that, participating in citizen science (and math) gives one a voice and a volition. You can take part in the process of authority in our society to some degree. But the best part is that if you find some science that matters to you, it increases your ability to live with joy. And that is the purpose of science education, I believe. We should encourage all of our students to participate in citizen science because they love something about the world; and that something inspires joy and wonder.

TT: Thank you, Brian. What a beautiful observation!

Stay tuned for more interviews with TERC staff, observations post-ISTE, and some feature articles on TERC project work.

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