Conversation biology: eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

In a recent email exchange with a journalist I greatly respect, I wrote:

I am personally ashamed at how little we (as scientists) have done to either study carefully or explain the issues or even share our experiences in the public domain. The op-ed was just my small attempt to get some of those thoughts out for public discussion and criticism.

The op-ed I referred to was titled The Culling Fields. In it, I wrote about the recent notifications issued by the Central government and some states in India to list certain wildlife species—nilgai antelope, wild pig, and rhesus macaque—as ‘Vermin’ under the Wildlife Protection Act. The notifications were spurred by a belief that populations of these animals had boomed and were responsible for serious damage to crops in rural areas, coupled with a perceived lack of better management options for what has been labeled ‘human – wildlife conflict’ involving these species.

Moving species that earlier received protection in the Wildlife Act into its Schedule V (V as in five, for V as in Vermin!) allows anyone to kill those species in the respective states. Already, hundreds of animals have been killed by shooters, often from other states, in a manner that has no scientific basis, design, or monitoring. Videos also suggest a distressing lack of attention to basic humane norms to prevent animal suffering (see this IndiaTV video episode around 0:55 – 0:60 and 1:30). This is no scientific ‘culling’ or research-based wildlife population management. This desperate measure unleashed on unsuspecting animals is simply slaughter.

As a debate on culling emerged, I wrote about why the ongoing killing may not just be the wrong answer to the conservation issue, but a consequence of framing the wrong question. I do not intend to repeat those arguments, or what Sindhu Radhakrishna and I wrote in another piece, here. Nor do I intend to respond here to other articles or the few thoughtful demurring responses I received from people who had written in support of culling. Nor is this the place to discuss why widespread killing of wildlife in other countries, such as coyotes in the US, for example, makes little sense and is evidently less effective than non-lethal methods.

What I would like to do here is talk about another concern: the silence of scientists. Why have scientists in India—particularly conservation biologists and social scientists—for whom human – wildlife conflict is today a major area of research, hardly joined in the discussion to support or rebut or provide nuanced perspectives on culling as a solution? Leave alone participating in the debate, scientists are hardly even part of the backdrop.

As expected, the space is then taken up by well-meaning animal welfare groups and activists, who adopt a more immediate task of resistance, alongside the task of questioning. When activists in India queried the states where culling was allowed under the Right to Information Act (RTI) on whether the culls were based on scientific research studies, they learned that the orders were not based on any scientific studies. When the central government was asked, under RTI, how culling could be permitted without scientific studies, the activists were informed that no new research was required on the issue of conflict. Even with culling underway, questions asked on whether there was any monitoring of number of animals being culled, elicited only this response from the central Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change:

No such information available in the Ministry.

All this should have a sobering effect on the dozens of scientists and students I know across the country (and possibly many more that I don’t) who have spent months and years in the field studying human – wildlife interactions including conflicts. Some of them have spent years engaged in scientific research and efforts to reduce conflicts, often successfully, by working with local people and forest departments. My own work in this field has been relatively minuscule, but I have tried to keep up with the research and approaches to conflict mitigation because they have a direct bearing on wildlife conservation and human welfare. And yet, many of us have hardly spoken up in public to share our learnings to inform or influence policy, practice, and public opinion. One environmental journalist went a step further in analyzing this and wrote that perhaps wildlife conservation scientists don’t really care:

…while the animal welfare lobby has been quick to cry foul, there has been an ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community. This is where the wildlife scientists must step up to the challenge. The truth is that most wildlife biologists would rather spend their time doing pure science, that is studying species deep in the forest and learning new aspects of their behaviour. There is no charm in ‘managing’ human-animal problems. It’s also true that since most of the animals listed are not endangered, most conservation biologists have little or no concern in saving them.

I disagree with much of what that says and the way it is said: the pigeonholing of people who may have real concerns on animal welfare into a “lobby”, the oversight that many wildlife scientists now work outside reserves and in human-use landscapes, and the failure to note a growing scientific concern over common species as much as the rare and endangered. But what I do agree with is what the writer calls the “ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community” (leaving aside my personal opinion that those concerned with animal welfare are part of the same community).

Why are the scientists silent? And why is it important to ask this question? Not because science and scientists are infallible or represent the sole arbiters of truth—or other absurd claims on those lines. Not because I believe that science should form the bedrock of policy and governance—there are other aspects of society, politics, and asymmetries of power at play that are probably equally or more relevant. It is because one can envision a supportive role for reasoning—public reasoning—within the framework of any democracy. For citizens of a democracy facing various complex and shared problems that have no single or simple cause or solution, an atmosphere of open reasoning presents various possibilities, ideas, and information, and has the potential to cultivate collective—yet diverse and evolving—consciousness, attitudes, and actions.

I believe this is a discussion worth having because this is not the only issue in which the silence of scientists, including myself, rings louder than the gunshots.

So here are my “eight reasons I am a silent scientist”. These are reasons I have said out loud, just given myself, or heard expressed by colleagues. Instead of expanding on each, I am just going to toss this list out there with a brief line each, hoping that it will provoke you to go right down to the comments box and

  • add your voice and thoughts in the comments to say yay or nay or go take a f.f.a.a.r.d. (Vonnegut 1969) OR
  • add other reasons in your comments that I’m sure I’ve missed in this post.

Eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

1. My research does not address the relevant issues and places

This could be read as a polite way of saying I don’t really care or This doesn’t concern me as it ain’t in my backyard. Still, I wonder, if we study or teach population theory or political ecology or ungulate habitat use somewhere else, say, is it really irrelevant to the issue?

2. I don’t have enough data—my study is not good enough—to say anything yet

Don’t we love this one? Read it as you will, as humblebrag or a noble call to arms issued to one’s peers. But how many of us have not slipped this in at the end of our papers: we need more research?

3. I cannot make statements given the scientific uncertainties

All research is beset with some level of uncertainty. But isn’t dealing with, and reducing, uncertainty integral to science? Climate scientists have led by example on how to acknowledge uncertainty while communicating scientific findings and advances. But are we as conservation scientists content, instead, to say we need even more research until the level of uncertainty becomes acceptably low before we speak up?

4. All I have to say, I say in my peer-reviewed papers and technical reports

In other words, I’d rather not write or speak in public. As something I am culpable of and sympathise with in others, this raises the issue of access to our scientific findings. What have we done to make our research findings, data, publications more openly and publicly accessible?

5. I have spoken up—in government committees that I am a member in

Why bother with the messy and contentious public domain, when I can pick up the phone and call an influential person, a politician or government officer perhaps, or sit on a powerful committee and tell them that this is what science says must be done? (Of course, I asked for the minutes of the meeting to be made public, its not my fault that they haven’t been transparent about it.)

6. It is time to hear other voices, other world views

This one has a lot going for it, if it means actually shutting up in order to listen to other voices, especially of people affected by wildlife. Yet, complete silence on our part could be a lost opportunity for a conversation, for a dialogue or discourse, to share what we have done, learned, and what science, warts-and-all, has to reveal. This could, however, simply degenerate into Let them vent their problems, although they really don’t know what they are talking about, better listen to me instead.

7. This is not about science, it is about politics

A dirty business plagued by environmental illiteracy, corruption, and cronyism, isn’t that what politics and politicians are all about? Heck, if it was about inter-departmental wrangling, squabbling for funds and tenure, or seeking credit over other scientists and institutions, I am an expert on politics. But this is  real world politics in India’s villages, towns, and cities. So let me not say anything to reveal any more of my ignorance.

8. I am a scientist, not an advocate or, heaven forbid, an activist

The tension between science and advocacy persists in conservation biology, with at least one case of an editor-in-chief of a leading conservation journal being ousted due to her position on “removing advocacy statements from research papers”. Yet, if one reads advocacy as giving voice to the voiceless aren’t conservation scientists committed to conservation by default? And if action and resistance can be achieved through non-violence, can inaction perpetrate violence or perpetuate oppression? I don’t want to be an activist, but what does that make me: an inactivist?

What Aldo Leopold wrote in the Round River is  probably as true of science as it is of the ‘harmony with the land’ he wrote about:

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.

 References Cited

Vonnegut, K. (1969). Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

17 thoughts on “Conversation biology: eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

  1. Shomita Mukherjee

    A point you missed- I am a coward. I fit into that. Too afraid to study or debate conflict since it makes me feel hopeless, helpless and gives me severe acidity! I recently argued with a forest officer on why culling is not a solution and he kept repeating “carrying capacity” and how poor people are affected. It was extremely difficult to argue rationally with him and he is an example of “the other side”. I know that deep inside I am biased too – towards animals and if I do find through my studies (this is hypothetical) that some animals may need to be exterminated (for whatever reason), I will not be able to admit it. That is my limit to being rational. Moreover if it involves a cat then …..

    1. T R Shankar Raman Post author

      Thanks Shomita, for those comments. I appreciate what you are saying but aren’t you being a little too critical of yourself? Dealing with wildlife ‘conflict’ is hard and dealing with people with deeply embedded and possibly outdated opinions (such as on “carrying capacity”)–whether they are forest officers, fellow conservationists, or ourselves–is harder still. Having working alternate models of conflict resolution to showcase helps to remove a sense of hopelessness, but even in their absence, I think they are worth ‘striving’ for. Also, the bias (or concern) towards animals–including individual animals, not just concepts such as populations–may provoke us to think of better, workable solutions (for wildlife and people), which we otherwise won’t really feel compelled to pursue. So it can have a positive effect. At least, it has had, for me.

    2. vidya

      Sorry for my cycnicism but I think we are one comfortable lot, we really do not need to do work on the ground to earn our bread and butter (while most of us actually eat cakes). Since these are socio, cultural, political issues it implies we have to engage with a lot of “other” people which we are not trained to do so nor are we really required to do so. Not sure where the solutions lie… You do not get funded for trying to affect change on the ground – you either get if you are doing research, the more pure it is the better or if you are an animal welfare person. For people in between it is hard because results are not guaranteed. What woud you recommend is the way we can change this?

      1. T R Shankar Raman Post author

        Thanks Vidya for those comments. I do agree that we are poorly trained to relate with empathy, interact with and involve people, particularly local communities, in our work. And that finding funding for such work remains difficult. I don’t have prescriptions for change but one of the things I have wondered about is whether broadening our training, say in our Masters courses in ecology/wildlife science, could begin to help. Also, as this post tries to suggest, conveying such concerns often in public may help stimulate new thinking and positive change.

        1. Aasheesh Pittie

          In a bizarre sort of way this reminds me of doctors who are trained in medicine but not in the art of interacting with people, on whom they practice their trade. So yes, I do wonder whether part of a scientist’s curriculum could comprise ways to reach out to administrators and the lay public.

    3. Devayani Khare

      I’m not a pure scientist – but I’ve had to interact often with India’s ecology community over public domain data. To add my two bits:
      1) Scientists’ affiliations with government / international bodies
      I feel scientists’ affiliations with their institutions are often the reason they are reticent on many subjects. As they represent these bodies, their personal views are sometimes misconstrued as the voice of the organization (as was the case with a WCS – India conservationist).
      2) Less exposure or participation on public communication channels
      India’s scientific community is less active on social media, and few of them write for non-scientific media to popularize issues – could this be a reason why their views do not find their way into the public discussions?

      1. T R Shankar Raman Post author

        Good points! And yes, scientists are reticent for the reasons you mention, plus lack of clarity/policies on public engagement by individual employees, even fear (as someone mentioned on Twitter). Your second point echoes a recent article titled ‘The silence of science’ (http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/isro-indian-space-research-organization-insat-3dr-tifr-the-silence-of-science-3035056/). Clearly, these are widespread problems, although they don’t seem insurmountable.

  2. Shomita Mukherjee

    I do not mean being a coward in not being able to speak out, I mean not being able to handle really strong emotions. I had begun to hate some local people and forest guys during my field days in Sariska. If I see someone clubbing an animal to death I seriously wish to do the same to that person and the crowd watching. These emotions do not help if I am actively involved in a conservation project. If people like me speak out, I think it will cause more damage than good since the balance is lost. There are many like me, on both sides. I do involve myself peripherally though by supporting people (through discussions, reviews, a few ideas). Animal or human rights activists have a straight clear agenda and I suppose it makes it easier for them to state their views overtly. I believe conservation is a delicate and complex field and ideologies clash and if one is not “balanced” in their articulation, it can cause more damage by creating fault lines within the group itself.

  3. Shomita Mukherjee

    Sorry am posting the same stuff too many times! Should remember to fill details of name etc. before typing the response.

  4. Kulbhushansingh

    I want to highlight that collectively scientists lack the capacity to inform many of these decisions: A google scholar search on ‘Nilgai’ returns more scientific papers from ranches in Texas than from its Native range in the Sub-continent. Many Indian herbivore species are hardly studied; except as food for tigers. So there might be legitimate deficiency of information that holds scientists back. Simple measures of fecundity, young and adult survival are not available for most species. How is a scientist then expected to contribute in an evidence based manner? Without evidence to back their arguments a Conservation Biologist is not a Scientist.

    1. T R Shankar Raman Post author

      I partly agree with what you say about the research. But I would not say ‘lack’… its more in the nature of limitations. There are a number of studies on nilgai population structure, social organisation, radio telemetry studies and crop damage studies from India. Some are in grey literature, but others are in peer-reviewed publications. See also the interesting body of recent work by Bayani and Watve and others on crop damage (including by nilgai). Just their work alone suggests many findings of wide applied interest: that measurement and compensation methods need modification (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0153854), that culling can be counterproductive under some conditions (http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/111/05/0861.pdf), that females may be more in the crop fields (http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0266467416000420) whereas it is big males that are being targeted by these shooters who claim they are “conservationists” doing this “scientifically” (http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/111/05/0861.pdf). So there is science to consider here–without using #2 and #3 as excuses, we can still begin to move ahead to more informed approaches.

    1. T R Shankar Raman Post author

      Certainly more scientifically than it is being done now, if it needs to be done at all. A reasoned approach would consider all options, including social, economic, and political, before deciding to cull. That decision clearly cannot be based on science alone, but it could definitely benefit from the best possible scientific input. One could also envisage a role for science in multiple aspects of culling (the design, the process, the outcome, adaptive management). But again, as I have said in my op-ed, the question is: is this really the best way to resolve the problem? (You can see I have evaded trying to define “scientific”.)

  5. Ramesh Venkataraman

    An outsider’s view
    When the issue of culling came up, we at Junglescapes posted a comment on our facebook page as below (quote)
    Culling – an ecological perspective
    The Govt seems to have embarked on culling in all good intentions. However this could potentially have long term ecological consequences.
    1. It is very difficult to control the number of animals culled. Hence over-culling could lead to serious predator-prey imbalances. For example, culling to help ranchers led to decimation of wild bison numbers in the USA. 2. By making farming viable around forests, an impetus could arise for occupying more forest lands for farming. 3. It would be impossible to distinguish culling from poaching, and bush meat trade could get a major boost with serious consequences.
    We feel there are other ecologically sound options available:
    a. Improve the quality of the forests so that animals do not have to come out for food. Reclaim our forests from weeds like Lantana. b. Provide compensation to farmers for crop raids.
    c. Reduce dependence on farming in forest abutting areas through alternate livelihood options. d. Is controlled sterilization for a specific period an option in case of animals like Nilgai, as is being tried in cities for stray dogs?
    (unquote)
    To put things in context, Junglescapes is a grassroots NGO working on ecological restoration. We work on habitat health and not on specie conservation. None of our work is directly affected by culling of animals. However, we felt a strong need to express our concerns on this matter in the larger context of conservation. We knew that our views might be rudimentary at a scientific plane, but we were keen to get a discussion going at a wider level.
    In the same way, the scientific community is responsible for putting forth a scientific analysis and viewpoint on such important and landmark shift in State policy. Getting an active discussion going and bringing forth different views is critical in such matters, and scientists are best placed to do this. We cannot let the onus of raising such issues entirely on activists.
    Having said that, I see that the entire conservation community has become muted or soft on various issues. This is something that has happened over the last 2 years and is not a healthy sign at all. While we need not take an activist stance and run the risk of the aftermath that it might throw up, we can and should raise issues in an objective and non-threatening manner. There is a middle path between strident activism and silence.

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