Women in science

em-thumbby Encarni Montoya

First of all, I would like to clarify that the next post is just my personal opinion, not related to any institution or colleague involved in my research. Spoiler alert: there is nothing written here that I have not commented with any research colleague, don’t expect to find here any revelation. However, it is hard to believe the scarcity of notes published about this topic from the people who suffer it, making more difficult to find comprehension outside the scientific community, and even sometimes from inside.

This morning, a friend that works in the European Commission in Brussels has congratulated me because it seems that today (11th February) is the International Day of Women in Science. Well, it is a completely valid congratulation as I am a woman and I work in science. I am also aware that making an international day of pretty much anything is a very fashionable thing to do nowadays. However, besides honouring past figures, I am not really sure what this celebration is about and I would like to express my personal opinion on the subject. Moreover, this piece has a particular focus on my own experience of science in my country of origin, Spain.

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Teaching in the field: Foundations, feedback and fun

My final teaching job for The Open University was to help deliver the “Sedimentary Rocks & Fossils in the Field” section of the Level 2 Practical Science module (SXG288) offered by the Science Faculty. I have been involved in all three presentations of this section of the SXG288 module, which will now cease to be offered, and a number of other Earth and environmental science residential schools over the last 9 years.

Showing students the rocksHaving the opportunity to engage directly with students and enthuse them face-to-face about the subject I specialise in is a privilege I have gained a lot from. Furthermore, my over-riding impression from the students I have taught is that they feel they benefit greatly from the opportunity to explore first hand the concepts and subjects which they have previously studied in books and online. Based on my experiences on “Sedimentary Rocks and Fossils”, and other modules as both a tutor and a student, I am convinced that to effectively teach geological, geographical, environmental and ecological subjects effectively an element of field-based teaching is required.

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The geology of mankind

Adele Julier on:

Malm, A. & Hornborg, A. (2014) The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative. The Anthropocene Review, 1, 62-69.

Malm and Hornborg’s paper ‘The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative’ raises some important points about the terminology of climate science and how this not only affects perceptions of who or what is to blame, but also of what can be done to address  it and by who. The main thrust of their argument is that the use of the term Anthropocene distances people from the effects of man-made climate change through the argument that human nature inescapably led to large CO2 emissions and therefore the havoc being wreaked upon ecosystems is essentially inevitable. They go on to discuss that this ignores the fact that a tiny percentage of humanity actually set into motion the huge changes which we are only now beginning to address, that humanity as a whole at no point decided to take this path and that the use of the term Anthropocene is actually counter-productive, in that it removes the onus of solving environmental problems from the small group of humans that actually caused them, instead spreading it out so thinly that it loses its power.

The argument that Anthropocene is perhaps not the best term to use for the present situation is persuasive, but the idea that it apportions blame too widely does not take into consideration the fact that developing countries are now largely following in the footsteps of developed countries in terms of both habitat destruction and carbon emissions. Although all of humanity may not have started global change, the practices initiated by the few are now being endlessly replicated. The reasons behind this are economic; currently, and largely in the short term, it pays countries and large corporations to continue unsustainable practices. They ignore pressure to change if it undermines economic growth or affects profit margins, not because they do not think they are part of the problem. Academics could choose to call this the ‘Anthropocene’ the ‘OnePercentocene’ or the ‘ThisIsYourFault,Sir,Yes,YouInTheGreySuit,StopPlayingWithYour PhoneAndListen-ocene’, but it will not make the slightest difference until these basic problems are addressed.

Problem solving in the Anthropocene

DSCN3814William Gosling on:

Barnosky, A.D. & Hadly, E.A. (2014) Problem solving in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Review, 1, 76-77.

The short communication by Barnosky & Hadly examines the current fundamental environmental ‘problem’ for human populations  through the lens of the “Anthropocene” concept, i.e. will some human populations:

  1. continue to develop using a “business as usual” model that has been shown to elevate environmental risk to all human populations, or
  2. alter societal practice in an attempt to reduce the environmental risks now and for future generations.

Barnosky & Hadly straightforwardly and succinctly present the case that, based on the weight of evidence from the collective scientific endeavour of the global community, humans are now fundamental altering the functioning of planet Earth; a view further supported by the recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (IPCC, 2014).Throughout the period of anatomically modern human existence (Homo sapiens sapiens, the last c. 200,000 years) populations have experienced a variety of environmental changes. Exposure to environmental change has had both positive and negative impacts on societal development (e.g. Gosling & Williams, 2013; Hodell et al., 1995).

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Anthropogenic climate change and the nature of Earth System science

Core teddyFrazer Bird on:

Oldfield, F., Steffen, W. 2014. Anthropogenic climate change and the nature of Earth System Science. The Anthropocene Review,1, 70-75.

This paper is a very interesting read for anyone working in the field of palaeoecology. It briefly discusses some of the key criticism of earth systems science research and demonstrates how a good understanding of our past is critical to our future projections.

 “Nature of the Science”

Often Earth System Science is described as being “fuzzy”. It doesn’t always fit the model Popperian approach to science whereby refutable hypothesis are defined and tested. The authors point out however that this is somewhat an unfair criticism. The Earth system is complex, non-linear and often there are no cause-consequence relationships. The scientific method involved is much more complex and often we are trying to understand phenomena that occur over immense timescales. To demonstrate this a little further the authors use the example of freshwater acidification.

“By choosing a variety of field-based case studies with or without key characteristics, each of which was a putative cause of acidification, it proved possible to isolate past variables such as land-use change or catchment afforestation and thereby home in on the only remaining hypothesis not rejected by the evidence, namely the dissemination of industrially generated SO2.”

Rather than testing and refuting or accepting whether industrial generated S02 was causing acidification, cumulative research showed it to be the universal variable across multiple examples. Often when we make inferences about environmental change we have multiple working hypotheses which stand until more and more evidence arises to support one over the others.

 “Toward Projective science”

Projecting the future consequences of climate change is of vital importance for society and critical to policy and mitigation strategies. Climate models are really the only tools at our disposal in trying to understand future scenarios. However models alone cannot provide us with all the answers, the paper demonstrates that the only evidence we ever have is from the past.

“All the evidence we have regarding environmental change comes from the past, whether of the previous few seconds as changes are logged continuously, or of the more remote past revealed through the study of environmental archives.”

If we want to refine our models and have better projections in the future then these tools must have the ability to capture the empirical evidence we have from the past. Future projections are based on data-model comparisons; this is an interactive relationship that is ever refined as each side gains in knowledge and skills.


Population health in the Anthropocene

HumanHealthMcMichael, AJ. 2014. Population health in the Anthropocene: Gains, losses and emerging trends. The Anthropocene Review, vol. 1, 1: pp. 44-56.

Last week we changed our regular lab meeting, when we all normally discuss a particular paper, to each presenting a general view on the articles published in the first issue of the new journal The Anthopocene Review (SAGE publication). In this lab meeting each member presented and lead discussion of issues within a different paper.

In my case, I had a very interesting paper by Anthony J McMichael about changes in life expectancy (Human population health) related to the human impact caused at global scale during the Anthropocene (defined in the paper as the last 200 yr). Here is a brief summary of the main topics discussed in the paper:

The paper deals with life expectancy trends during the human history on Earth, understood not as the individual health care but as a population or community collective (the “herd” effect), being this two independent topics.

The first section is a nice trip for human evolution and its relationship with the environment, distinguishing three different phases of environment-climate-human relationship:

  1. The Pleistocene (c. 2.6 million – 11,000 years ago): characterised by environment-driven changes;
  2. The Holocene (c. 11,000 – 200 years ago): with cultural-driven changes promoted by the potential of farming. Survival, although relying in culture changes, was still dependent on climatic stability (survival changes caused or amplified by adverse conditions); and
  3. The Anthropocene (last 200 year, as defined in this paper): when humans have become a dominant force on the world stage, being nowadays the major contributor to climatic change.

Then, in the second part of the paper, McMichael explains through several examples how the longer (time) and larger (spatial) consequences of current anthropogenic climatic change are crucial for human survival. The discussion is driven through a wide range of topics, such as the epidemiological transition (or), the environmentalist’s paradox (or), the distributive justice (or), urban sustainability and ecological footprint, or the coming famine.

Finally, the author shows several direct and indirect pathways by which changes in climatic conditions will affect the human health, encouraging the urgent need of an environmentally sustainable way of living.

If you are interested to find out what your ecological footprint might be try these online tests:

The Anthropocene: A governance perspective

EarthSystemGovernanceNick Loughlin on:

Biermann, F. (2014) The Anthropocene: A governance perspective. The Anthropocene Review, 1, 57-61.

This comment piece looks at the Anthropocene as a political construct and a tool to constrain the concept of ‘Earth System Governance’ within the social sciences. To quote the author ‘the Anthropocene is political’ and this is indeed the case when attempting to organise disparate and often conflicting bodies into a global community that can guide society to a way of working within nature, but it is also a biological, ecological and geological term and as such a scientific rational to understanding our Anthropocene is required not just a political one.

The writer succinctly demonstrates the interdependence of countries, social groups and global organisations within the modern era along with the intergenerational aspect of a range of social and environmental issues. However it places the Anthropocene as a marketing tool targeted at a political audience rather than a scientific term that denotes a currently unverified chronostratigraphic unit.

It is in no doubt that humans are a significant driving force behind changes to the biosphere and the concept of ‘Earth System Governance’ as described within this paper demonstrates the wide ranging global issues that require consensus.