December 29, 2010

Looking in a mirror: government funding of science

Science. Research and development. Call it what you will.

Scientific American is poised to publish an article outlining how the US government (that's us and our tax dollars!) prioritizes money for research and development. The graphic above is from the January 4, 2011 issue, summarized on-line now.

These are not the entire budgets of each agency....just what they budget for research and development. Science.

Of course, it's interesting to compare where our government (through pressures, real or perceived, from tax-payers to their legislators) prioritizes research funds. It's easy for a wildlife ecologist to get upset---"maybe I should go into defense research". Well, several of my colleagues do research on military bases for this reason....effects of military training on a species of conservation concern, etc. Eugene Odum and his brother, Howard (both founding ecologists), were renowned for figuring out how to tap into military and health budgets to fund ecology. A long term research site in the rainforests in Puerto Rico was established to determine the effects of low-level radiation (which everyone figured was safe) on the rainforest--during the Cold War years. The radiation emission device is gone, and the long term research site remains. Creative adaptation to funding sources.

Of course, the real reflection of this figure is of our society: what we think is important. In lean budget years, research and development (science) is always threatened. Research that provides results which keep people alive is most important. It's just a fact.

It's easy for a biologist who has studied species X for their entire life to begin to believe the world revolves around Species X and that specific research. But, really?! Of course not. If that scientist can't figure out a way to communicate the importance of their research, then they might as well pack their bags and head to the Defense Department.

One of my favorite quotes about research comes from Charles Darwin, who wrote in a letter to Fawcett, in 1861:

“About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the stones and describe the odd it is that anyone would not see that all observation must be for or against some view, if it is to be of any service.”
His point? If there isn't any application for your research, it's not worth much.

Now, does that mean that basic research is less important than applied research? Hardly. Basic research provides fundamental information that makes applied research possible, in many cases. But, I would argue that scientists doing basic research must come out of their labs and figure out how to communicate the importance of their research to the public, and policy makers---who develop funding priorities.

In 1998, Sydney Brenner wrote the following in the journal, Science:

"The history of the last 25 years teaches us the profound lesson that it is necessary for scientists to communicate to society at large not only the content, use, and misuse of scientific discoveries, but also what their work tells us about the intrinsic limitations of our bodies and minds. This is not an easy task, especially in a science whose content becomes more complicated every day."
I've blogged about the importance of communication to science before, and funding is where it all comes home--at least in terms of being able to do science. Dr. Brenner stated:

"Actually, the answer to the question of which type of science to fund is quite simple: Since all science is problem driven, it should be judged by the quality of the problems posed, and the quality of the solutions provided."
The last reflection of this depiction of our research spending is that the figure only shows OUR research spending (the USA). Dr. Brenner also talked about the paradox that exists when you start to think of research spending, world-wide, relative to our world's problems:

"In advanced societies an increasing proportion of national wealth is now spent on health and recreation and large sums of money are devoted to military enterprises, while in the underdeveloped world famine and pointless wars still exact a terrible toll of human lives, malnutrition and disease are still rife, and even the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter cannot be provided for all. There is no doubt that great advances could be made in the treatment of malaria and other parasitic diseases that afflict more than half of the world's population, but the people who have these diseases also have another called MDD—money deficiency disease."
Having spent a year in southern Africa, this notion really hits home to me. It makes my disdain for the disproportionate funding in the figure seem petty. My wish to receive a large grant to study species X's reaction to habitat transformation on the Great Plains doesn't stack up--in the broad scheme of things--to the economic and health needs of many people in many countries.

And so, the conundrum. Nebraskans pay my salary to solve problems in Nebraska (at least, under current legislative funding to the University of Nebraska, they do). And so, I search for research funds to do just that. Can Nebraskans also afford a little of my time to allow me to train scientists from other countries? Probably. Will I sleep better at night? Definitely.

December 27, 2010

TED talks: Namibia's conservancies

I was thrilled to find that a representative of World Wildlife Fund and the IRDNC (rural development) in Namibia was a featured speaker at this year's TED talks. These 18-minute presentations are a collection of cutting-edge thinkers on a broad range of topics.

I did not meet the speaker, John, while we were in Namibia last year. But, I conducted research on two of the conservancies that he speaks about. Our initial results suggest that when people become involved in ecotourism---benefiting economically from wildlife---the value of wildlife increases to individual people. I can't wait for our research to be published, to further support the claims made in this talk. Of course, the results speak for themselves...some great evidence toward the end of the talk, regarding the staggering increase in wildlife numbers where poachers once decimated populations.

I also enjoyed his suggestion that rural communities in the Great Plains can learn from Namibia. Exactly what I argued in my proposal for my Fulbright fellowship. It's good to see things coming full circle, and I hope our research group in Nebraska can be involved.

Take a look at the talk. It's entertaining and quite eye-opening.

December 24, 2010


Winter has come to the Plains, and the recent Winter Solstice coincided with a lunar eclipse. Many signs that winter is here. But, the real definition of the season may go beyond calendars...if you watch closely, the wildlife and people living on the Plains will tell you what season it is.

I've had the good fortune to escape city life for a few moments each fall to help my father with corn or bean harvest. Here are some thoughts about measuring the seasons on a farm.


Calendars define Winter by sun angles, latitudes, and solstices.
On his farm Winter always came at night
When he left the last field with the wagon half-full of corn.
He ushered in the new season when he snugged the gate’s wire over the post,
As the moon washed the field with a final blessing.
Ready for snow.

L. Powell
21 November 2010

November 25, 2010


It's the American holiday of Thanksgiving, and a good time to stop and reflect on the past year. Our family returned from a year in Namibia in January, and we are constantly thinking about things that contrast between Nebraska and Namibia.

Just two weeks ago, I took my son, Tristan, on his first deer hunt. We joined some colleagues from my department at the University, and hunted on some land owned by an NGO---it was during 'buck' deer season, but we were limited to antlerless deer by the NGO, to help with population control.

I'm thankful to live in a country where it is fairly easy for Joe Public to take his/her son/daughter hunting for a weekend. In Namibia, there were no public hunting areas, and we had to pay to access private hunting lands. Hunting in Namibia was a thrilling experience, but I can see that it would be very different to live there without the access to hunting lands. Just not the same.

Tristan and I had a great morning, watching the sun come up over the Platte River. We watched ducks and geese fly up and down the river. We were perched on a little hill, and we could see deer walking across the river and through a large meadow that surrounded us (most far out of range).

Tristan had a couple opportunities to learn how quickly deer can turn and run. I remember (not very many years ago) my first deer hunt, and it takes a while to learn the behavior of the species. During a mid-morning break, we were walking back to our truck to meet our companions. I told Tristan to freeze, as I saw a deer bounding through some tall grass in the distance. Soon, we realized it was a buck so we put our guns down (no bucks on this hunt). It kept coming closer and closer...until it jumped a fence and literally stood 20-25 feet in front of us, nosing the wind. What a great experience---both the thrill of being close to a wonderful creature, and a lesson that when you stand still, with the wind at your face, you're pretty much invisible to deer.

In the afternoon, Tristan finally got a shot at a nice doe. He had taken lots of shooting practice, and it paid off. His Dad's shot was not quite as perfect, but we ended up with a couple deer on the ground in a space of 15 yards.

Everyone's hunting experience is different, but I wanted to share my hunting tradition with Tristan, including the 'after shot' tradition. As we stood by our deer, next to the Platte River, we reflected on how thankful we were for the opportunity to hunt. Per my tradition, we also expressed our thanks for the life of the deer, the land that supported it, and the meat that it would provide us.

And then, we started the long process of field dressing and, eventually, butchering. At that point, it was nice to have friends. What a wonderful day, starting with a sunrise with stiff, cold wind in our face. The buck that taught good lessons. The whispers back and forth as we planned our strategy. And, eventual success in the hunt. And, friends to share it with.

Lots to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!

November 22, 2010

How do we show 'science' to the public?

Science, in general...but including wildlife science, is struggling to find a way to communicate important information to the public. Whether the topic is climate change or a state-wide issue, coming off as a 'white lab coat stiff' is not a good way to communicate.

I've spent the better part of my career trying to explain research results of much smarter people (than me) to the public. Or, trying to train my colleagues to communicate better.

Here's a great example of a way to use modern technology (i.e., YouTube) to bring field research onto the public's IPAD. The host is funny, and the general point about monitoring black bears comes through.

November 20, 2010

State residents' rights: on the ballot

When Montanans voted Tuesday to abolish the outfitter set-aside big game licenses, they declared for all to see how seriously they take their hunting privileges.

--Great Falls Tribune, Nov. 4, 2010

Wildlife management is working through an interesting issue at the moment: how to 'value' wildlife. The history of wildlife management in North America includes a reaction to unregulated market hunting (i.e., bison, passenger pigeons, waterfowl, herons). This reaction led to a general doctrine of removing value from wildlife to protect them, which worked. Many species recovered.

The US gives 'ownership' of wildlife to the State, so that all residents of a state (quite literally) own all wildlife. And, the state government (usually through a wildlife management agency) is charged with managing wildlife in the state as a public the interest of the residents of the state.

Now, over 100 years later, a new paradigm has emerged---using direct value to manage wildlife. The idea is that private landowners often control much of the state's habitat, so the state can encourage management for wildlife if the landowner benefits from the wildlife. Texas, for example, has bitten on this idea and is chewing hard. Game farms, with fences that prohibit movements to neighboring lands, litter the landscape. Hunters with cash can find highly managed areas to have the hunt of a lifetime. The public resource is being used by private individuals---so, you can see why some don't like this trend.

Outfitters and guides fill a grey niche in the new paradigm. These entrepreneurs bring tourism to a state, and engage many out-of-state hunters. These hunters pay higher rates for hunting licenses, which benefits habitat conservation and research. Some outfitters/guides are landowners. Others operate with leases on private and public land. But, you can probably imagine the quandary of being an outfitter--your business only works if your hunters have licenses. For some species, especially big game like elk, bear, deer, or pronghorn antelope, licenses are limited...if the outfitter's clients miss the opportunity to grab a license, the outfitter can't sell a hunt.

So, to ensure that outfitters will be able to be viable businesses, some states have begun to provide outfitters with a guaranteed set of permits. This, of course, makes resident hunters scramble even harder for fewer permits that are left for them.

In the past election, a ballot initiative in Montana changed the way that permits are given out in that state. Now, outfitters and their clients are in the pool with everyone---no special treatment. As the above newspaper article notes: "This was another chapter in the continuing struggle over commercialization of a public resource."

What will change? Well, Montana residents have made their point pretty clear. They will be able to access their state's wildlife. But, this also means that many outfitters will probably go out of business. It also means lower incoming revenues for the state wildlife agency, which would make more money from out-of-state hunters than in-state hunters.

Stay tuned to this issue. It may be clear that Montanans do not want to be like Texans, but there is more of this story to play out, throughout the US. And, in Montana.

A parting note: the motto of the state of Montana is "Oro y plata". Translation: gold and silver. My bet is that gold and silver will have something to do with how this issue is resolved!

July 10, 2010

High intensity wildlife management: to the rescue of sea turtles

The first few lectures in my Wildlife Ecology and Management course always contain examples of 'indirect' and 'direct' wildlife management. Indirect management is defined as when a manager makes decisions that affect populations indirectly...such as changing water levels for fish or ducks, doing a prescribed burn for grassland birds, or providing winter food for elk. Direct management is when you literally change population sizes directly, and hunting and fishing are oft-used examples. Culling a population of deer is another. Translocating wolves to Yellowstone is an example of increasing population size directly.

It looks like I have another example for my 'direct' management lectures. In one of the largest wildlife management efforts, of which I am aware, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is translocating nests of sea turtles from the Gulf size of Florida to the Atlantic side. 100,000 eggs--from approximately 1,000 nests--will hatch in cooled containers, rather than in sand.

This effort is a good example of the process of assessing risks for a population. Although the translocation has risks (some eggs may not hatch, digging probably will destroy some eggs, etc.), the alternative is judged to be higher risk. That is, leaving the eggs presumably will result in extremely high mortality of hatchlings. However, that is not certain...there is no guarantee that all hatchlings will die if nothing is done. But, the most critical piece of information is that 90% of the sea turtles in the US nest on Florida if something bad does happen, it's going to happen to all of the turtles.

So, this is a gamble to save a year-class of hatchlings, who will have to survive until their 30's to come back to these beaches to contribute to the population. I'll be retired by the time we see if this gamble pays off!

May 7, 2010

The most important things

I hate to give tests. But, it is that time of year. So, for a portion of my Wildlife Ecology and Management course's final exam (take-home), I asked students to name something they learned this semester that they felt was critically important to wildlife management. And, they had to provide a citation to prove that it was important (a book, magazine article, journal article, or newspaper that had discussed the issue).

So, after 15 weeks of lectures, projects, a field trip (Chris Rank's photo above of our trip to the Platte River), and lots of discussions, it came down to the list below. Here is what my students felt were the most important topics we covered (numbers indicate how many students listed that topic):

Structured management decision-making and use of monitoring

to make decisions (7)

Farm Bill’s relevance to habitat management (6)
Invasive species management (4)
Importance of stakeholders to the decision-making process (3)
Harvest management is an important part of managing wildlife (3)
Economics affects wildlife management (2)
Damage management: over-populated species (2)
Assessing genetic diversity for threatened species (2)
When managing wildlife, you must also manage people (2)
Platte River/Sandhill crane habitat restoration and management (2)
Ecotourism may be a way to promotion conservation (2)
Wildlife need corridors for movement (1)
Politicians are critical to managing wildlife (1)
The complicated ethics of hunting (1)
Snow affects wildlife (1)
History is important to understanding our current management (1)
Species management usually means community management (1)

My course has gone through some fairly radical re-design in the past 5-6 years. So, I found the list to be interesting. I added a section on structured decision-making (including a discussion about stakeholders) to the course this year. That was the #1 response: glad that was successful.

I added a Farm Bill section to the course 4-5 years ago. That was #2...I think most students have not thought about the political process and how our federal programs influence state-wide habitat in states with lots of private land.

Some made me chuckle. Snow? I thought everyone was asleep when I covered that. And, I know that none of my lectures mentioned 'habitat corridors'. But, we had many student projects during the semester, and it is good to see that students picked up information on their own! A reminder that the professor is not the only source of information.

It is always good to be reminded that every student takes away something different from a course. Most of the students' comments and justifications reminded me why I enjoy teaching. It's always a rush for me when little nuggets of information take root and sprout as ideas in students.

May 1, 2010

Black swans, whooping cranes, and oil slicks

Today's newspaper and radio programs are filled with a big natural disaster in the making--the oil slick washing ashore in the Gulf of Mexico. There seems to be little doubt that the coastal wetlands are going to take a big hit.

It's hard to argue that certain areas of the earth are more important (ecologically) than others, but it is safe to say that the wetlands along the Louisiana and Texas coast would rank in the top portion of such a ranking. The wetlands are home to breeding birds, which have just arrived from southern latitudes. They are critical for the life history of shrimp, crabs, and fish that sustain regional economies and form the base for ecological food webs. And, the wetlands support a host of birds in the winter. I have not seen it mentioned in reports I've read, but those blue crabs in the coastal wetlands are the main food source for whooping cranes, an endangered bird (250+ individuals) that winters along the Texas coast.

Nebraskans (those fortunate enough to see the rare birds) have just enjoyed watching whooping cranes in April as they made their way north. Did we have any idea that an oil rig in the Gulf Coast might be connected to the bird that gives us pause each spring? It's a great example of how decisions made in one area of our world have more than just local effects.

A recent book, The Black Swan, touches on such events. No, the book is not about oil-drenched swans. It's about random events. The general idea of the metaphor in the book's title is that the hatch of a black-feathered swan in nature is such a rare, random event that no one can predict it. But, these rare events can really change history. The author suggests that we can actually make robust policies that account for the risk of Black Swan events.

This is another one of those books that I need to actually read (!), and this oil spill provides more impetus for me to grab a copy. But, there is no doubt that wildlife managers (as well as those with influence on the world's economic markets) need to find ways to make plans resilient to such random events, which can even affect systems that we understand almost perfectly.

I would imagine that my colleagues who have had years of input into the recovery plans for whooping cranes are starting to sweat as this oil slick continues to grow. The oil slick is their Black Swan. Will these wetlands be ready for whooping cranes when they return this fall, or will they find a drastically changed habitat? We'll see. Years of habitat work to restore coastal wetlands, as well as research on reproduction, movement, and survival are about to be challenged.

Thanks to for the whooping crane photo

April 30, 2010

Reducing management to bullet points

Here's an interesting article from the NY Times about Powerpoint (Microsoft's wonderful/evil software program) and briefings in the US military.

Teachers have somehow joined the Powerpoint joy-ride, even though we know Powerpoint lectures, for the most part, are simply horrid. It's kind of like an artist who knows that paint-by-number is bad, but decides it's the easiest way to work. And, besides, all their friends are doing it. Funny thing is that we (teachers) complain about students' lack of creativity and critical thinking...but if you look back at our students' academic careers, they are mostly a 4-year set of powerpoints. Acckkk!

There is no doubt that Powerpoint stiffles discussion in class. If the "three effects of X on Z" are already typed out as bullet points on the screen, there's no need to ask students to generate those three effects during class. And, discussion takes too long, anyway...gotta get through lots of material, right?! I've tried reverting back to my days of teaching with 'overheads' by just using Powerpoint to display images (it is really good for that), while writing all lists/notes on the whiteboard while talking with students. My year in Namibia reminded me that I still knew how to teach without a Powerpoint presentation (photo below). A fun test for any teacher...pretend the projector bulb died! What would you do?!

In related news, instructors are increasingly becoming worried about students playing around on laptops in their classroom (after, of course, encouraging students to purchase laptops to bring to our classrooms!). Perhaps if we created lectures/discussions which 'made' them take notes, and didn't place all of our thoughts on bulleted lists, they would be writing (or even typing our notes) instead of emailing/Facebooking friends?!

Finally, it is interesting to think about wildlife management and Powerpoint. Perhaps the article about the Pentagon briefings has it dead-on...if we think an issue can be simplified to a linear set of bullet points, it's no wonder we can't get stakeholders to understand the complexities of ecological systems and management decisions. I think it's time to abandon the bullet points.

This isn't simply a matter of 'electronic' versus 'paper' or 'blackboards'. It is very possible to use computer software (including Powerpoint) to record discussions during a meeting or in class. But, you've got to get out of the "canned show" mode and interact.

April 24, 2010

Cross-property management: Nobel prize winner advice

I spent 2009 interviewing farmers and leaders of NGO's in Namibia about their efforts to set up 'conservancies'. These entities are groups of landowners who come together to manage their properties jointly. For some groups, it may simply be allowing hunters from one farm to hunt on another farm. For other groups, it may be conducting a joint marketing effort to bring hunters to their group.

But, many group members join a group to 'do management' for wildlife on a landscape scale beyond their individual property. Could be purchasing animals to stock for the benefit of the group. Could be an effort to bring various types of habitat together under one management scheme. Could be an effort to get rid of invasive plant species (doesn't do you any good to get rid of your thistles if your neighbor doesn't, right?!).

Namibia is ahead of the US in the country-wide implementation of conservancies...check out the Conservancy Association of Namibia to see a map.

But, many landowners in the US are starting to work on similar projects. The question to you set these things up? How do individuals successfully make decisions about resources that are held in common?

In Namibia, wildlife can be owned by individuals, but in the US, wildlife is 'common' property of all people in each state. And, even in Namibia, when you join together with your neighbor, you have just created a 'commons'. Commons are quite hard to manage (think: "Tragedy of the Commons" by Garrett Hardin; think: why most of our marine fisheries resources are a case study in failure of such attempts to manage common property). One conservancy president in Namibia told me, "This conservancy thing is hard work, because you are managing people."

Well, there is some guidance to how to think about proper management of commons (how to manage the people managing the commons). Thanks to my colleague Drew Tyre for finding this information. And, the advice comes from a Nobel Prize winner, Elinor Ostrom (2009 prize for Economics).

These suggestions certainly should be at the forefront of any conversation between a group of landowners considering the creating of a conservancy-type arrangement. During my stint in Namibia, I heard each idea mentioned at least once, but they are struggling with the 'dispute resolution' portions of this list. But, successful Namibian conservancies adhere to the majority of these suggestions:

Define clear group boundaries.

Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.

Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.

Make sure the rulemaking rights of community members are respected by outside

Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.

Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.

Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.

Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

Citation: This list was adapted for
America: The Remix, the Spring 2010 issue of YES! Magazine, from Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, edited by Elinor Ostrom, 1990.

April 23, 2010

Namibia photo show

It's been about 4 months since we returned from Namibia. We've given over 10 talks about our trip, and we still haven't run out of material. Several more are planned for next fall at UNL.

We have enjoyed sharing some of our photos in a show called "Beneath the Sand". The first show ran for a couple weeks in January in Hardin Hall (my office building). Now, the photos are in the East Campus Union in the Loft Gallery.

If you're not from Lincoln, and are interested in viewing the photos, we've put together a downloadable PDF file (click here). It includes the photos and the descriptions of the photos ("Stories Behind the Photos"). It's about 8 MB, so give it some time. Hope you enjoy (photo at right by Kelly).

March 2, 2010

A Namibian update: ABC video link

Just an update (or maybe just something to make me homesick) to our previous adventures in Namibia. While I was working there, I interacted quite often with the World Wildlife Fund-Namibia office, as I gathered information on conservation efforts in communal conservancies. There is a great video produced by ABC, which was shot while our family was in Namibia. It features the work that WWF is doing on communal conservancies. Good to see it on the air! Chris Weaver, interviewed on the film, was quite gracious to me when I needed information. He runs a great organization.

Check out the video here.

The conservancy featured in the film is just a little northwest of where I worked with my Polytechnic student research team, Uapii and Reinold.

Adventures in deer management

I'm not sure I could have planned a storyline any better for my Wildlife Ecology and Management course. But, the Nebraska legislature and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) have been very helpful, with regards to supplying teaching material!

In January, a Nebraska Senator surprised everyone by submitting a bill for consideration, which (had it been enacted) would have turned wildlife management on its head. The bill, among other things, would have allowed landowners to harvest unlimited numbers of deer at any time of year. It would have even allowed the use of spotlights at night.

Deer hunters were up in arms. The NGPC was taken by surprise (the Senator had not consulted them before submitting the bill). Some landowners were cheering. It may be interested for you to read the comments below this Lincoln Journal-Star story about the bill.

So, as things usually go, a compromise was reached. The bill is still 'active' in the legislature, but is not a priority bill for its creator. But, it now has NGPC support. It would allow lower fees for permits during special depredation seasons. Landowners would be able to obtain limitless antlerless permits during depredation seasons. Revenue from these permits would go towards deer damage management, working through NGPC.

Indeed, it may not matter what the NE legislature does. NGPC has announced a major shift in their deer harvest regulations for the 2010 hunting season. Traditionally, the early fall hunts were reserved for bow hunters, who have a strong lobby. But, bow hunters are not taking enough deer, and NGPC will institute (if approved) an October antlerless season (rifles will be allowed). Permits, normally costing $30, will cost $10. And, in two management units, hunters of bucks during the regular season will be required to 'earn-a-buck' by shooting a doe before they can shoot a buck.

All of these management tools are aimed at reducing the reproductive engines of the deer population...the does.

It's been a very instructive series of events for my students. NGPC biologists were pushed a bit faster (by public opinion surrounding the bill) to adopt some fairly liberal harvest regulations for deer, which many felt had been needed for a long time. At the core of the decisions are private land issues the always pervade these discussions...a public resource (deer) causing trouble on privately owned land. It won't be the last time that such an issue makes news in Nebraska!