The following letter was submitted on February 27th, 2018 to the Arctic Policy Framework Review, spearheaded by the Ministry of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.
Download the letter here.
by Jenny McCune
“What’s so special about this plant you’re looking for anyway… can you smoke it?”
I was asked this question by a farmer with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. I had stopped at his farm to ask whether we could do a plant survey in his woodlot – I’m searching southern Ontario’s privately-owned woodlands for some of Canada’s rarest plants. Many landowners I meet want to know what’s so special about rare plants. What would happen if this plant did go extinct from Canada? What interactions does it have with other species in the forest, and ultimately, with us?
The answers are not so simple. Some of our endangered plants have medicinal uses. For example, over-harvesting of wild ginseng and goldenseal for the herbal medicine market is part of the reason they are now so rare in Canada. Other plants, such as chestnut and butternut trees, support whole suites of insects, birds and mammals that live in, or feed on, them and their fruits. Some rare plants are loved for their beauty – like the carpets of stunning Virginia bluebells that pop up in the early spring.
But at the end of the day, for many of our rare plants, we don’t really know what the consequences of extinction would be for the ecosystem, or for us. In some cases, we likely wouldn’t even notice the effect. If spotted wintergreen, with only five known populations remaining in Canada, were to go extinct from our country tomorrow, chances are that our everyday lives would proceed as before. So why even worry about these things? What is so special about them?
I have to admit, I ask myself these questions sometimes as my field crew and I are struggling through thickets of Manitoba maple, trying to pick our way gingerly through huge swaths of stinging wood nettles, and getting scratched and grabbed by prickly roses and raspberries as we search for rare plants.
A voice from the past reminded me why I care so much. In 1919, an avid amateur orchid hunter named Herbert M. Denslow wrote an article about his love of orchids. He began his hobby in New York in the early 1900s, a time when Manhattan Island still supported significant populations of orchids.
Denslow’s old-fashioned prose sparkles with a pure love for the plants themselves. He writes:
“The diligent searcher for these alluring denizens of meadow, bog and forest enjoys the living plants, appreciates their oddities, is charmed by their almost bewildering variety of form and function, studies them in their homes, in their life.” 1
And he describes perfectly the mystery at the core of my research:
“It is impossible to predict that any species will be found in a certain locality or environment, however right and proper they may seem to be. Some lack or superfluity, in soil or surroundings, the crowding of some alien neighbors, the failure of a sheltering umbrage, the disappearance of some insect life may have caused extermination; or the species may never have found the apparently favorable habitat, where you seek for it in vain.”1
Our human memory is short, and we tend to forget how heavy an impact we have had on the landscape. The forest of southern Ontario is a shadow of its former self. A massive expanse of enormous trees chopped down and tamed to a collection of small fragments in a matter of a few decades after European settlement. The little islands of forest we have left in a sea of farm fields and suburbs are forever changed – fenced, grazed, criss-crossed by trails, and colonized by native and exotic plants that love this kind of disturbance. And yet – somehow – some of the rarest plants hang on. How do they do it? Why are they growing here, and not over there, where it seems perfectly suitable? Are they limited by lack of seed dispersal? Are they on their way out, or just quietly maintaining small populations as they have done for millennia?
It’s the mystery of these species, along with their oddities, that makes me admire them. They are not daffodils or tomatoes, nurtured and cared for by us. They don’t follow our rules. They are wild creatures. That alone is reason enough to try and understand what limits them, to try and help them survive despite our dominance of the forest.
Denslow evokes the pure joy of the orchid hunter – “Every step is an adventure, every moment pregnant with possibilities of delightful surprise.” These are the moments I hope for. The moments that make all the prickles, stinging nettles, and mosquitos worth it. The moment when I notice something altogether different growing among the garlic mustard, or poking up out of the leaf litter. And I shout to my field assistant, “I can’t believe it, it’s HERE!”
1Herbert M. Denslow. 1919. Reminiscences of orchid-hunting. Torreya 19(8): 152-156.
Two weeks ago I attended the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) in Toronto. As a conservation biologist with an interest in policy, I saw this as an opportunity to become more familiar with the policy world. What a complicated world it is.
The theme of the conference was “Incubating Innovation and Ingenuity,” and it touched upon topics that ranged from science journalism to industrial research and development. All attendees had an interest in evidence-based decision-making, but there were few ecologists or conservation biologists in the mix. From graduate students to CEO’s and Ministers of the crown, this was one of the most diverse conferences that I have attended.
I am still processing all the lessons I learned at this great conference (you can view many of the highlights at #cspc2013 on Twitter), but three lessons stood out as very important to people who do policy-relevant research in conservation biology.
There are two types of science, as far as Canadian government policy is concerned. First, there are scientists. These are the people who are given money to do research, without a mandate to create consumer products or services. When the government talks about supporting science, this type of thing isn’t really what they are referring to.
What they’re really talking about is the second type of research, called “innovation” – a major goal of government policy, roughly describing the process of turning knowledge into money. For example, a full third of NSERC’s ~$1 billion budget is assigned to innovation programs. The Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax credit, that supports research in private business, receives $3.6 billion in funding. There are industry-specific programs too. For example, the Automotive Innovation Fund is a $50 million-per-year grant to support R&D in the automotive industry.
The latest example of federal innovation policy is the restructuring of the National Research Council around the concept of acting as a “concierge” for small and medium business. The government has established a new website designed to connect businesses with grants, incentives, and programs that can help them with their “innovation needs.” In addition, Concierge Advisors are being hired to assist business with accessing these services.
Put simply, most everyone at the policy conference agreed that innovation was a good thing (by contrast, many delegates disagreed about the merits of policies to combat climate change, for example). I have personally never heard the word innovation at conservation conferences. Perhaps we need to find a way to frame our research in such a way that we can benefit from the existing infrastructure that has been established to promote this policy goal.
In one panel discussion that focused on Industrial Research and Development (IR&D) I noticed that to be considered an “innovator,” it seemed that one had to create commercializable products or services. During the question period, I asked a question of the panel – if we don’t commercialize our work, how can we take advantage of the support that exists for innovation in Canada? Can ecologists ever be respected as innovators?
While I was asking the question, someone from the audience shouted “Learn to create value!” At first I was taken aback at the implication that we don’t do that already. Upon reflection, I found this exchange to be insightful. As far as this audience member was concerned, my work is (at best) a cost, with no perceived benefit to himself or his industry.
I took two key lessons from this exchange. First, the very mention of conservation biology triggers a knee-jerk negative response in certain people – powerful people, who have access to a lot of resources. Is there a way we can re-brand or re-frame our work such that it doesn’t trigger this reaction? Better yet, can we find a common ground where both parties feel that conservation work is “creating value?”
Second, while conservation biologists debate about the merits of putting a price on ecosystem services, the rest of the world is charging ahead under this paradigm. Currently, people are putting a price on nature across the globe. Everyone is doing it, and if we aren’t at least aware of this reality, then other parties (who don’t understand the value of ecosystem services) will engage in this conversation on our behalf. We don’t have to like it, but we have to understand that it’s happening, and if we want to shift the conversation we need to come up with something better – and be vocal and evidence-based about it.
3. There is no silver bullet to getting science into policy – It’s just hard work
More than once I heard conference delegates lament that we live in a post-evidence world. These weren’t just people who work on environmental issues – across the board, people expressed frustration that policies that would be well-supported by evidence often fail to become law or regulation.
My lesson from CSPC (and again, this is just my personal opinion) was that no one really knows how to do this in a straightforward and consistent way. Rather, the best examples of evidence-based policy involve broad coalitions of multiple stakeholder groups that slog it out over the long term, and keep the pressure up until a change is made. Scientists can contribute to this, but never unilaterally.
That said, one observation really stood out to me on this issue. Kennedy Stewart (Member of Parliament for Burnaby-Douglas) commented in a panel discussion that professional lobbyists differ from scientists in their approach to contacting politicians. Lobbyists approach politicians immediately after elections and present well-formulated, unified requests. By contrast, scientists are less organized, and their requests will be less clear.
I don’t personally believe that it is possible or desirable for scientists to coordinate their opinions on all issues, but there are certainly cases (e.g. the de-funding of the Experimental Lakes Area) where speaking with a unified voice would be beneficial. It is on us to identify those cases, and work to generate unified positions where appropriate.
Minister Greg Rickford (Minister of State for Science and Technology) delivered a keynote address during the conference. He mentioned the word “innovation” 21 times in his speech. In addition, he said that the government supports basic research “that has application in the marketplace.”
It’s not controversial among scientists that there needs to be a strong foundation of basic research underpinning any national science policy. But in the meantime, as resources continue to shift to the types of research that can be commercialized, are there ways that we can frame conservation biology within this concept of innovation? Could we plug into the substantial framework that has been developed to support innovation research, and could it benefit conservation? Can we create for-profit entities that somehow create value out of protecting natural resources, rather than solely through harvesting them?
I would very much like to see the community’s thoughts and perspectives on these questions.
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by the graduate students, researchers, and students who have worked at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre