Wednesday, April 24, 2013

SER AWARE workshop: Is resilience useful in fen restoration and should scientists explain things to idiots?

Between the 21: st and 23: rd of April the Conservation and Restoration research group at the department of Plant Ecology at Warsaw University hosted the Society for Ecological Restorations workshop on fen restoration. Many prominent experts on peatland vegetation and peatland restoration were key-note speakers at the work-shop.
There were many interesting talks, but I am here going to focus on two debates that occurred:
·         Does resilience have any value for peatland restoration?
·         Should scientists actively engage in influencing policy, or just present the facts?

Resilience thinking has had a profound influence on ecology during the last years. For restoration, restoring for resilience would mean that we perform a restoration action that creates a resilient system that does not need any further funding in terms of maintenance. For fen restoration the problem is that the restored system is in most cases not resilient, but in a state that is somewhere between the degraded state and the natural state. Left alone it will often revert back to a more degraded state.
On the contrary a heavily degraded fen is often very resilient (which is the very reason why fen restoration is so hard).

Richard Hobbs has stated that resilience brings ”conceptual muddling”. Personally I am not sure it is so unclear what is referred to, but it´s questionable how useful resilience is in terms of fen restoration. There are definitely natural peatlands that are resilient. Bogs are resilient, whereas a fen can easily switch into a bog once Sphagnum starts to drive the rich fen-poor fen-bog transformation. If a resilient system was the aim, you may very well end up arguing that a species poor bog is better than a rich fen.

The debate about whether or not scientists should use their knowledge to influence policy even if it means compromising surprised me. For me it is very clear that scientists have a moral duty to the tax payers who fund them, and to future generations, to make the scientific knowledge clear to policy makers, and yes we will have to accept that sometimes compromises are necessary. One speaker at the work-shop was however very much against this idea and stated ”Our job as scientist is to tell the truth, not to explain things to idiots”.  There are indeed plenty of stupid politicians, and it is understandable that some scientists would rather do research and teach students than engage in year-long struggles to make the scientific knowledge useful for the society at large.
Where would we be if it wasn´t for scientists who never gave up “explaining things to idiots”?
If it wasn´t for James Hansen´s long work with making the scientific findings of climate-science reach further than the readers of a journal, we would still be at the state were knowledge about global warming would be very limited among the public.
If it wasn´t for peatland scientists in Poland and other Europeans nations who fought for more than 10 years to save the Rospuda valley, many of them spending nights sleeping in the trees to prevent the destruction, the Rospuda valleys fens would not have been saved. Instead of a large fen in a natural state, there would be a highway cutting through the fen, with pillars driven through the several meter thick waterlogged peat, running the risk of severe drainage with subsequent biodiversity loss and massive release of stored carbon.

These two examples illustrate painful struggles that in the end have reached important victories, giving tax payers the best value for the research that they have funded. In the real world, the rule “no pain – no gain” is often a rule we have to accept.