Sunday, September 29, 2013

Can't Escape Popular Thought: The Intersection of Science and Government

Day is new. All is possible.

Science, like all fields, is shaped by culture. Popular ideas may arise in political circles, through the writing of philosophers and academics, or elsewhere, to ultimately permeate many levels of society. The development of community ecology in The U.S.S.R. reflects the influence of social and political norms on the field. The modern trajectory of ecology is equally influenced by the times.

Douglas R. Weiner’s Community Ecology in Stalin’s Russia sheds light on the influence of popular thought (in this case political) on the development of a scientific field in the early 20th-century Soviet Union. Before 1928, ecology gained momentum and prominence in Russian academia, in part because the country’s Bolshevik leadership supported the development of natural science as a route to technological development and economic progress. However, political upheaval from 1928 to 1932 led to new political views on the role of science in society. Science became subordinate to technology, and questions that had once been the purview of natural science were now answered by Marxist dogma. The politically popular push toward economic development now stood in direct opposition to the ecologists’ goals (namely, preservation of natural community assembly). Political leaders saw opposition as a threat to their absolute authority, and labeled ecologists traitors to the country. Research was curtailed as these scientists were denounced and priorities shifted toward agricultural development. 

Because political leaders determine the role of science in government and often fund a large portion of a country’s research projects, they can determine what questions are worth asking, and sway the popular perception of a field. As evinced by the relatively sudden vilification of Russian ecologists, the perception of a scientific field can change with political upheaval. Science does not exist in a vacuum, and to be successful research must be funded. Whether funding comes from a public or private source, the research must be deemed interesting and worthwhile to receive any kind of monetary support.

Coffee shop kitty

 In the US today, that trend is embodied by the National Science Foundation (NSF). From the NSF website: 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…" With an annual budget of about $7.0 billion (FY 2012), we are the funding source for approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America's colleges and universities. (2013). 

 The National Science Foundation is a major source of funding for research in the US, and the work it prioritizes is research that promotes “national welfare”. However, the NSF also decides what “national welfare” means. Changes in the political and social climate can certainly influence the definition of that term. For instance, the current political administration is very interested in understanding anthropogenic influence on climate. As such, the NSF has interest in (and funding for) projects revolving around climate, but far less money for work in museum-based taxonomy. Some researchers would argue that building museum collections is equally important to understanding climate in our efforts to improve national welfare, but the popular trend in political discourse on the environment is climate-related.

Catskills (Round 2)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

On Wildness


Salamanders are everywhere. They materialize from the undergrowth like so many mushrooms, red, orange, and speckled. I press my knees into the damp earth, and hunch down to watch a tiny amphibian cross a few feet of mossy terrain. A fallen branch is a sizable hurdle when you're only four inches long.

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Deep breath. In, out, in again. The air is clean and cold, rippling into my lungs like a northern river. I am caught in its current, thinking of time and of change on the wind. But here with filthy knees and dry elbows, I remember the child I once was, and feel the heady promise of challenges yet to come.


School begins. Grad school begins. I'm en route to class on a campus at the heart of New York City, and amidst all the dissonance of urban life, I suddenly feel as I did in the forest. I'm new, with that same openness to the possibility in novelty. Perhaps it's the throngs of new faces or the anticipation of learning that incites this feeling; I'm not sure. But there is something common to the forest and to the city- something independent of the landscape, yet awakened by it.


In his essay, "Wilderness and the Multiple Layers of Environmental Thought", Yrjo Haila deconstructs the division of nature and culture. He argues that "the wild" as something separate from man cannot exist, because man has created the division. We have defined the borders of ourselves and our culture as distinct from the environment, while simultaneously constructing that culture and self-image through resources provided by the environment. Hell, we are the environment.


Seen through this lens, a city is no more "unnatural" than any forest, because a city is a product of human behavior and resource use. Whether humans choose to set aside large tracts of protected land (ie as national parks), or to build metropolises, those places will be under some form of human influence. Even very remote areas that aren't actively managed and have no indigenous population can't be considered "virgin" or "pristine" because they are indirectly affected by pollution, climate change, and anthropogenic modifications to biogeochemical cycling.

As an antidote to this false division of human society and nature at large, Haila presents an alternate definition of wildness, which Bennett [1994] argues is embodied by the work of Henry David Thoreau:
"Wildness is the remainder that always escapes taxonomies of flora and fauna or inventories of one's character or conscience; it is the difference of the woods that remains no matter how many times one walks in them."
Put succinctly, "Wildness is the..foreign dimension of anything."

And given that definition, it makes sense that the same fire could rise in me at the sight of a salamander in cool mountain air, and on a brisk morning in fall, at the start of a new journey in the heart of a very human city.