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Why Genius in the Lab Needs Genius in the Field

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 18, 2015

Ceci n'est pas un joke.

Ceci n’est pas un joke.

We praise the almost mythical image of the lone genius.  But we cannot live without other people, and it is doubtful that such lone geniuses exist even in the ivoriest of ivory towers.

Heather Tallis, a lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy, has an engaging new essay about the need for the unacknowledged but at least equal genius required to make great scholarship yield great changes in the field.  The example she cites interests me because I have been writing here lately about how to fix the problem we face when a third of the seafood on our dinner plates is illegally caught. (See here, and here, and here.)

This is an excerpt from Tallis’s essay:

But the single-genius model is less helpful for fixing most environmental and social problems — the solutions to which often lie not in individual brilliance, but involve catalyzing and coordinating small innovative actions among thousands or even millions of people.

The light bulb was a great invention, but it didn’t change the world until there was a power grid providing electricity to every house. Both the bulb and the grid were brilliant inventions, but we hear a lot more about Thomas Edison (the bulb) than we do about whoever invented the grid (the person is so not-famous I can’t even figure out who it was).

Here’s an environmental example of the same situation from some of my colleagues. Fishery stock assessment and management is a classic realm of sophisticated, advanced science. Rigorous models have tens if not hundreds of parameters, and require Ph.D level scientists to run and interpret.

It’s costly, too: The collection of data on stocks to inform these assessments can run in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. The best assessments use large research vessels and whole teams of university professors and government scientists. These resource-heavy requirements are part of the reason that 95% of the world’s fisheries regularly go un-assessed.

For example, Atlantis is arguably the world’s best stock assessment model, and Beth Fulton, the CSIRO scientist in Australia who developed it, is truly brilliant. The model is a masterpiece of sophistication and complexity and it has had staggering success as far as these kinds of complex models go.

But it’s been applied in 20 marine fisheries globally….of the 15,000+ fisheries that need to be assessed.

To get all fisheries globally on stable footing, we need

an infusion of the applied kind of brilliance, too. Capacity limitations in many fisheries will mean they will crash before someone comes around who could apply a model like Atlantis to their management.

There’s a small group of scientists taking a very different approach, in another version of what I see as true brilliance. Jeremy Prince (an academic), Noah Ideching (a Pew Fellow) and Steven Victor (an NGO scientist) are starting in Palau: small, yes, but promising.

Instead of requiring complex, integrated foodweb ecosystem models and large research vessels, they are piloting a method that requires a knife, a ruler and some fishermen. You can also just walk into a fish market and use it.

The trick here is that the science builds on existing data — reams of it, on the life history traits of different species and size at reproductive maturity. So Prince, Ideching and Victor are relying on the brilliance of tens of point-of-light scientists who have come before and done the pure science to define how fish grow and when they become reproductively mature.

The equally brilliant and novel advance here is synthesizing that knowledge and applying it in an entirely different way that’s simple and effective.

Basically, you cut open a fish, and measure its gonads.

Doing this across a decent sample size reveals how many fish being caught are in their reproductive prime, and can help fishermen to adjust the size of the fish they are keeping to keep more baby-makers in the water.

This method is the “grid” for fishery stock assessment. It takes the discoveries of top-notch scientists and uses the brains of other top-notch scientists to put them in the hands of thousands of fishermen.

Now, this method is not going to get published in Nature. These scientists are unlikely to win a prize from a prestigious scientific society.

But I think they should. This is true brilliance. It’s just a different kind from that which we normally celebrate.

NGO scientists are often the first to call each other out as second-rate. And yes, crappy science happens at NGOs, but it also happens at universities. And yes, brilliant science is done at universities, but it’s also done at NGOs. We need to change the stereotypes in the natural sciences, which don’t match the facts.

Read Tallis’s complete essay here.

One Response to “Why Genius in the Lab Needs Genius in the Field”

  1. curi56 said

    Reblogged this on spiritandanimal.wordpress.com.

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