Spencer (The Lonely Academic)

Written By Spencer McIntyre

My lab was meeting for our bi-weekly journal club recently, wrapping up a discussion about cognition in birds. One of the lab-mates selects a journal article of interest, we all read it, then we meet up and the selector presents the article and why they chose it. We then discuss the points in it, where we agree, disagree, gaps in the topic, normal journal club discussion. This particular discussion really brought to the fore and put in absolute terms an issue that has been growing on me for years now. Academia in its present state does not encourage conservation.

The article was fascinating, an introduction for me to animal behaviour in the lab setting, how you test specific abilities and which methods are capable of what, but I struggled to place the entire body of work supporting it into any useful conservation context. As we went around the table, a lot of the discussion was on the methods, the implications for human knowledge, and the pitfalls of the paper until it was my turn, when I brought up the conservation angle. “What does this tell us about how to manage populations? What does this tell us about bird conservation?”

The discussion circled the usual academic animal research avenues, “It tells us more background information that could be useful later. It helps people relate to animals more and want them conserved if they are found to be intelligent. It can help us to understand decision-making in this species.” It was an interesting discussion with great points brought up, but didn’t really address the question I had more broadly in terms of whether these studies are needed for conservation to move forward. None of those things are pragmatically useful to conservation as a whole, or even for the selected species. This doesn’t invalidate the points and it doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of study, but in the context placed, the study does not contribute to conservation in any meaningful manner and these explanations are very much post hoc or otherwise unrelated.

This conversation continued for a few more minutes, and as we were packing up, one of my lab-mates added, “I mean really it is just an interesting topic. It doesn’t really have to have real world implications for it to be worth studying, that’s why we’re all here,” saying this as though it was a given for all of us, and most lab-mates chimed in agreement. Meanwhile I was internally screaming.

In the roles I describe myself as, I am a “Conservationist” first, and maybe “Scientist” fifth, and I can completely sympathise with someone who has these reversed. The lab-mate isn’t wrong and their opinion isn’t invalid, I just imagine when asked they would place “Scientist” ahead of “Conservationist.” You can work in academia and solely study things of personal or scientific interest and have a completely valid avenue. I have fantastic lab-mates and would never disparage their goals, and there are some others in academia that I feel are fighting to make conservation a centre goal, but am rather speaking to the wider goals of academia and the preeminent views of many inside it where they do not align with a conservationist’s.

These interactions have come up time and again for me in academia. Undergraduate funnelled biology students to medical practice, even in animal courses. Masters’ coursework brought up issues of natural capital and how to work as an industry consultant. Masters’ research steered us towards questions of scientific interest, not necessarily of conservation interest.

This isn’t to say none of these are valuable ideas or common career paths. They are. But even in courses with conservation in the very name, conservation for its own sake was never the focus. The focus was more often on justifying the conservation interest, or genuine conservation work that already had an outside justification. Conservation had to contribute to natural capital, or the furthering of industrial interest and alumni earnings, or to high publication metrics. The nasty and under-discussed issue at hand is that these are actively competing interests.

While conservation can contribute to natural capital, via storm protection, erosion prevention, tourism, etc., not all conservation interests will do this. Many will not. Protection of one rare species on an offshore island will not meaningfully contribute anything to financial interests or natural capital. What about a natural capital assessment that finds little natural capital to exist in an ecosystem and cannot financially justify conservation action?

Industrial interest in environmental protection, even when genuine, must always be in the context of profit. They simply want to employ ecologists and other consultants to “tick the box” that the projects are environmentally sound. When at odds with conservation needs, the industry is not the one to step forward and champion the conservation cause.

High publication rates and Impact Factor are inherently at odds with the nature of conservation research, often being relatively slow and specific work with little statistical significance or Impact Factor, especially in studies working with rare and/or widely-ranging animal species.

All of this contributes to what I, at least in my own personal experience, see as an inherent mismatch between academia and conservation. The valuable metrics to a university do not include biodiversity, environmental restoration, or any other measure of conservation, unless it is tied to publication and alumni outcomes. The publication itself is the goal, not the conservation that comes along with it. Thus, inherently important conservation goals will not be pushed forward with precedence over easier or more numerous publication topics of lower or minimal conservation significance.

This is the dirty secret of academic conservation. All conservation goals have to be pushed forward in a Trojan Horse of publications, media metrics, and alumni earnings potential. It is not and cannot in its present model be a true avenue for conservation.

There have been attempts to change this model, namely attempts to change employment and publication metrics in universities to something more egalitarian and social impact-focused, but also in the application of UN Sustainable Development Goals to university performance. This would judge universities not just wholly on publication, Impact Factor, and alumni outcomes, but also on how university research and work contribute to SDGs, such as sustainability, health, equality, and justice.

While the recent publication of these rankings did attempt to contribute a more holistic approach to these issues, it also pointed out the flaws in this method and mismatch with traditional academia. Many of the highest ranked universities listed are not world leaders by traditional metrics and the Oxbridges and Harvards of the world ranked relatively poorly. Unless this is actually implemented in the considerations of academic ranking and other traditional metrics, is it not simply a tree falling in an empty forest?

So where do we move forward from this as conservationists? How do we move forward? As we are all on LC, we are all aware of the struggles of finding consistent, sustainable paid work in conservation. We know the high academic demands, placing those with Masters’ degrees in unpaid internships or short term contracts, so we also know that we can’t simply withdraw from academia. It is a brutal field to work in on the job market and we each need to be able to provide the qualifications and skills for the few positions available. In the near-term, we have to engage with this system, I suppose in hopes of changing it.

I had a sit-down with my adviser this week to discuss these topics. I laid out that I have no interest in publication itself as a metric of my personal success. I laid out that I joined this lab to contribute to solving a significant conservation problem, and I will not be making the Trojan Horse of industry indicators the centre of my study, but rather the conservation issues brought on by these topics. I’m not here to study birds to be used as an indicator useful to those harming them; I’m here to study birds and how this harm can be prevented, even where this implicates the industries involved.

That all sounds great and idealistic, but it remains one minuscule dent that many aren’t able to engage with. I struggled for months, debating whether to bring this up at all and if I’d be able to continue with the lab after saying it, having vehemently disagreed with the lab head. I’m sure many advisers would have said on the spot that this wouldn’t work, fundamentally changing the study direction and disagreeing with them, and would remove me from the lab. I’m only able to take this risk due to the safety nets I have. If I didn’t have these privileges that have been afforded me, I never would be able to put these thoughts out on my adviser. I could well have lost my source of income and route to a degree, and for many that risk just is not justifiable.

Thankfully, my adviser was receptive. They didn’t understand fully and didn’t relate to my concerns, but at least were receptive. The study is my study, and I can shape it how I will, just so long as publications come out. In short, none of the concerns are valid, the end goal must still be publications.

I remain highly concerned with the academic culture and goals as they pertain to conservation, but I know that at least in one case a small change can move forward. Is that a hopeful outlook? Not really? I feel in my own case that it will improve my next three years and the condition of the species I work with. Maybe that’s enough for me, for now.

For more on Spencer, follow @Intyrely_Eco on Instagram

Jessie Panazzolo

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Hi! I am the founder of Lonely Conservationists and have been lonely in conservation projects spanning seven equatorial countries. My brain is 99% random animal facts 🦕

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