Can collaboration help us tackle the big issues of ecology?

Ronja Wedegärtner, PhD student at NTNU in Norway and in The 3D Lab, takes you on a reflective tour of the key discussion point of last weeks’ meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland: how we as ecologists can take up our task to preserve our biodiversity in a rapidly changing world, and doing so before things get too far out of hand. More on Ronja’s work here!

During the last week I had the chance to attend OIKOS 2020 the fourth conference of the Nordic Society Oikos with the overarching topic “Ecology in the Anthropocene”. Attending the conference made me reflect not only about our research, but about our responsibility as ecologists and private people. How can we contribute solutions?

We are living in tumultuous times for ecology. Land-use change, and the climate crisis are changing and endangering nature as we know and love it. The issues seem so enormous, dark, and threatening that they can appear like a “black hole” as writer Andri Snær Magnason poignantly formulated in the wrap-up of the OIKOS conference in Reykjavik. And while a black hole cannot be seen directly, rather must be inferred from near surroundings we can observe its pull. Our “black hole”, our global threats to the environment are already pulling at our research, spinning and accelerating it.

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Seaside view of Reykjavik, pictures by Jonas Lembrechts

At the OIKOS conference over 300 participants joined to hear 4 great keynotes, more than 120 talks and speed-talks in parallel sessions and browsed a multitude of posters. Each of the contributions was shining its light into one corner of our ecological universe, providing some enlightenment on one issue or ecological sub-question. Together, we produce many blips in the darkness of the unknown, clustering around our galaxies of interest. But our blips are spread out far and wide.

The OIKOS conference brought together many great scientists, but also many great people. Kind and caring for ecology, the environment and their surroundings. We listened to many contributions, but one thing was lacking for me until the last day: an open discussion about the issues we face and what we can do.

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More than 300 ecologists gathered in the Harpa Concert Hall in beautiful Reykjavik

So, how do we look at the pressing issues of nature degradation and the climate crisis then? And how do we do so in a timely manner? As Vigdis Vandvik remarked in the final discussion: “Knowledge synthesis is the key to changing the world”. Examples such as The IPBES report show us, how much impact we as ecologists can have, if we join forces, coordinate well, and set ourselves tough deadlines. Therefore, I think that we, as ecologists, should take the challenge. We should identify the most pressing and relevant questions together with policy makers and the people who are impacted by the changes. And then we should follow the example of the physicists that produced the first image of a black hole: band together and collaborate.

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Vigdis Vandvik showing how nature-related risks like climate change and the global biodiversity crisis (in green) made it to the top of the list of risks to the global economy

We should come together, virtually or in real life, and discuss how we can solve those challenges as a group and at least approximate solutions. Ideally joining forces with social scientists, traditional knowledge holders … maybe even economists. I think at our conferences we need more time to discuss and exchange in larger groups, not only to present and take notes. And we need to follow up on these discussions with work.

Still, if we want to produce results in a timely manner, I am wondering if we can stick to the academic model as we know it to find and make available these results.

It may sound crazy, but this conference and the discussions after it have me thinking about abandoning the traditional publishing process for a while – of course preserving peer review as the pillar of our community.

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As a research community, we should make sure that the road to our ultimate goal does not get snowed under by a blind acceptance of ‘how we always did things’

I suggest that we as community, take our big challenges, divide it into smaller proportions, and in the end into bite-size peer reviewable work packages that we assign “merit points” to. Then we as the community who peer-reviews and contributes could still gain visibility and earn scientific merits even though we publish less or no journal articles for a while.

There will not be a perfect solution. But after the OIKOS conference I am more certain than ever: We must talk about the future. Because, as Magnason pointed out: Those who we love will be alive far beyond the horizon that we comfortably think in.

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