Goals of science vs Goals of scientists (& a love letter to PLOS One)


Fantastic insights–ones that seem to me to be underappreciated or even actively avoided by too many scientists (academics).

Originally posted on social bat .org -- Gerald Carter:

This monster post has been sitting on my computer hard-drive for a few months (seriously). For awhile, I was too scared to publish it. What I’ve written below is based on a (very) informal talk I gave at a graduate student seminar series at University of Maryland. To get the gist, the slides for that talk are below (all the way down) or here.

It’s also based on my stewing thoughts in response to dozens of conversations I’ve had about science and academia over the last year or so. My question is: does being a “good academic” and being a “good scientist” ever conflict? And if so, how often? And more importantly, can we fix academia (or science) to eliminate this conflict?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but I’m going to start with a related discussion of the journal PLOS One. If you are thinking…

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How to just effing write the thing.


Spot-on advice for early–and established–writers out there.

Originally posted on This Liminal Space:

I started this blog several months ago with a goal: I wanted to improve my writing through the simple act of practising. I hoped that, by stringing enough words into sentences, I would become a ‘good’ writer. I’m still working on it. I’m no expert, so it seems presumptuous to give advice, but a few people have asked me how I continue to churn out weekly posts.

In fact, I write in much higher volume than what appears on this blog. In addition to my weekly posts here, I am often working on a piece of fiction for a book I hope to publish sometime in the next few years. I have recently begun contributing pieces to HippoReads, and that takes time and effort, especially since I am given topics and must write with prescribed themes in mind, something I haven’t done since undergrad. I spend a lot of…

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Paper recommendation: Claire Kremen on land sparing and sharing


I share Joern’s admiration for this excellent recent paper. Though it does leave room for further and deeper engagement on policy issues and political science, it is an amazing synthesis covering numerous issues in the “spare/share” debate and deserves to be widely read.

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

By Joern Fischer

Finally: an authoritative must-read paper that provides an in-depth critique on the framework of land sparing versus land sharing. I highly recommend this new paper by Claire Kremen, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (and freely available here).

The paper is an impressive synthesis of a vast amount of literature on land sparing and land sharing. While it takes a critical perspective of the framework, it also acknowledges some of the key strengths of the work by the original proponents – including density-based field sampling, and a field design that allows the careful assessment of yield-density relationships.

The paper also addresses numerous other issues that have caused controversy and confusion in the past, including inconsistent terminology, and whether higher-yielding farming will actually spare land for nature. It synthesizes nicely up-to-date insights from a governance perspective, too – showing that without effective…

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Not even an “oldie”: Why Don’t We Have Sustainable Agriculture Now?

Just came across this piece by UMN Professor Emeritus Richard A. Levins (not to be confused with the recently-honored Harvard Professor Dick Levins), “Why don’t we have sustainable agriculture now?” His answers to the question are unsurprising, to those who have paid attention, but it is obliging to see him spell out the facts at hand–that most of the power in our food systems is not held by farmers, nor consumers, and thus if we want changes, we have to think beyond simply acting as members of one of those groups, but rather, act to support and generate more power for those groups. In other words, more power for people–for citizens–and less for corporations.

I don’t know the copyright status of Levins’s piece, so here’s an excerpt. Read the rest here.

Why has it been so difficult to bring about sustainable agriculture on a large scale in the United States?  Or, for that matter, why don’t we already have an agricultural system that would better fit most definitions of sustainable? Judging by our university efforts, we would have to answer both questions with something like “We don’t yet know how to do sustainable agriculture”. From this, we assume that if we did, agriculture would then become more sustainable.

In response, my friends in agronomy, animal science, and related fields busy themselves developing non‐chemical weed controls, cover crops, rotation schemes, and hoop houses. A person visiting our universities might also conclude that we have made relatively little progress in sustainable agriculture because farmers don’t know enough about sustainable practices.  In response, we have education and outreach programs to show conventional farmers the errors in their ways.  There is an implicit assumption that once farmers know more about sustainable practices, they will adopt those practices…

I think we would be closer to answering these questions if we face the fact that farmers no longer sit in the driver’s seat of our contemporary food system.   We are entirely too quick to say, for example, that we have problems with farm chemicals because farmers use them, not because farm chemical companies develop, manufacture, and promote them.  Clearly, farmers are not the decision makers in poultry production and much of hog production due to contracting.  Beyond that, the economic environment in which farmers work is increasingly established by agribusiness and retailers, not by farmers…

Let me put it even more bluntly.  Which do you think was larger in 2006, net farm income, or the cost for food packaging materials?  The materials in which farm products were packaged were valued at over $10 billion more than the income of the farmers that produced those products. So we want to change the direction of an $881 billion dollar food system, and we look to a $59 billion component of that system to make the change.  This flies in the face of the principal lesson I tried to get across when I was teaching ECON 101—“money talks.”

From Why Don’t We Have Sustainable Agriculture Now? by Richard A. Levins

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Megacities: Environmental Friend or Foe?

Originally posted on Mark Bessoudo:


Note: This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of Sustainable Building & Design magazine.

As of last year, more than half the world’s population was living in cities. By the end of this decade, it’s estimated that three out of five people will live not only in cities, but in megacities.

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The Anthropocene debate: Why is such a useful concept starting to fall apart?

Originally posted on ENTITLE blog:

by Aaron Vansintjan*

Like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘natural’, or ‘green’, the term is so vague that it can be used by anyone, whether they want to challenge the powers that be, just want to make a quick buck, or score a research grant. While the term can be used to support arguments for action on climate change, it can just as well be used to support digging more oil wells (“oh what the heck, we live in the age of human superiority anyway!”).

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Political ecology gone wrong

Originally posted on ENTITLE blog:

 By Giorgos Kallis*

Against pro-nuclear ‘ecomodernism’, we should reaffirm the fundamental incompatibility between ecologism and modernization.

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GM Foods: A Moment of Honesty

Originally posted on fieldquestions:

Note: the FieldQuestions blog has been dormant for several months due to some academic writing projects and fieldwork. But with a new debate raging on GMO labeling, it’s time to get back to it.

As the latest controversy over GMO’s unfolds – this time it’s about a House Bill that would ban labeling laws – it’s time for a moment of honesty about science and safety. Of course safety is hardly the only bone of contention in GMO debates, but safety is the issue that’s most hotly contested and that’s most central to the labeling bill.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, the sponsor of the bill, writes that activists are misleading consumers with false claims about unsafe food.  Actually, “more than 100 research projects over 25 years” have “affirmed and reaffirmed the safety” of GM foods.

I must point out to my GMO-doubting friends that Pompeo’s statement about the research is accurate…

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A Sustainability Scientist’s Perspective on the ‘Refugee Crisis’

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

Today, I was motivated to focus on a more social manifestation of our lack of sustainability: the refugee crisis. In my research I tend to focus on the environmental expressions of sustainability problems. But sustainability is also about social sustainability. My perspectives on the refugee crisis are therefore based on some of the framings I have developed while studying the local and global connections in environmental problems.

**Note: This blog post has been written in anger and disgust, and therefore may not be as articulate as I would like.**

I’m distressed by state of humanity in Western Europe.

  • PEOPLE are ‘living’ in appalling camps around Calais, waiting to enter Britain.
  • PEOPLE are ‘living’ in over-crowded refugee centres with little sanitation and facilities.
  • PEOPLE are suffering danger and exploitation, and arduous journeys to arrive in these camps.
  • PEOPLE are drowning as they try to cross the Mediterranean on rubber dinghies.


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The New Science of Sustainable Food Systems: Overcoming Barriers to Food Systems Reform


From one of our own AgroEcoPeople, Amber Heckelman!

Originally posted on mestizarise:

“The challenge is for science-policy initiatives to resist the narrowing of the analytical lens, and to overcome the fragmentation of food governance spaces. The approach of such initiatives should be systemic, and it should include an analysis of power relations and the political economy of food systems. In order to contribute to food systems reform, a critical mass of evidence must be gathered and transposed into policy recommendations. The voices of academic experts and social innovators will be all the more powerful for their ability to talk the same language, and to anchor themselves to common reference points and analytical toolkits. Furthermore, this emerging science of sustainable food systems must be informed by the knowledge of practitioners, and appropriated by those to whom it seeks to be useful.” Click here for the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems’ (IPES Food) executive summary and here for the full report.

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