Monthly Archives: August 2011

Science and Democracy in the Arab Spring and American Fall

[The following is an expanded version of an essay that was read on Valley Public Radio about a week ago as part of their series “The Moral Is“. Archives of the audio broadcast will, hopefully, be available on KVPR’s website in the near future. Meanwhile, freed from the constraints of time and word limits, I have expanded some of my thoughts on the subject and included a couple of images to share below. The essay was inspired by a conversation with Dr. Alaa Ibrahim after I heard him talk about the Cairo Science Festival and the role of science in society last February.]

We are living through a remarkable year for democracy in the world, with autocratic regimes tottering and toppling like dominoes across north Africa and the Middle East, pushed by the growing will of ordinary people who’ve had enough. It was twitter and Facebook that fomented the January 25th revolution in Egypt, we are told. While these modern tools of communication did help coordinate the movement, their importance was rather overblown by the American mass media, whose pundits largely failed to detect or understand the undercurrents that lead to the revolution. More likely, some say, it was rising prices of food and water that drove people to desperation and revolt. Yet, they all overlook another, perhaps deeper and more fundamentally revolutionary undercurrent in Egyptian society: Science! More precisely, the growing public dissemination of science through events like the Cairo Science Festival held in Tahrir Square—epicenter of the January 25th revolution—a mere six months before that square caught all of our imaginations as a beacon of peaceful democratic revolutions. But what does science have to do with democracy?

Dr. Alaa Ibrahim an Egyptian Astronomer, was a postdoctoral scholar at MIT when he experienced the Cambridge Science Festival, an annual celebration of science, technology, engineering, and math. Inspired by the enthusiasm of the participants in the festival, and the potential to fire up the imagination of ordinary people with the wonders of science, Dr. Ibrahim returned to Egypt determined to start a similar science festival. His efforts bore fruit in 2010 when the first Cairo Science Festival was held “to increase awareness of, and opportunities in, science and its role in development, particularly for Egyptian youth, who represent the majority of Cairo’s population of 20 million.” Young people in Egypt, once the heart of a great civilization, were able to connect in real time with counterparts in the US, and even converse with Nobel laureates. How inspiring that must have been!

Six months later, many of the same youth gathered again at the very same location—but this time to demand freedom and democracy. Dr. Ibrahim was there too, along with his young children. In sharing this story at the International Public Science Events Conference during the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC last February, Dr. Ibrahim suggested a direct connection between fostering a culture of science and promoting democracy. Its hard not to be convinced by his juxtaposition of images of the festival and the revolution in the same physical space, with children who enjoyed science shows earlier now sitting on tanks, chanting for democracy in the same Tahrir Square!

Science is about asking questions about how the world really works. A culture of knowledge with science at its core enables its citizens to ask questions, not only about the natural world, but also about the political world they inhabit. A citizenry with a habit of asking questions is a difficult one for autocrats to control. Ergo, democracy! Last May, science once again occupied center stage at Tahrir Square for the second Cairo Science Festival, highlighting the role of science and technology during social and political revolutions. Indeed, Egyptian scientists continue to play an active role in their country’s ongoing social/political revolution towards democracy.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the once shining beacon of democracy and science both, a rather different political movement has gained momentum recently—but this one is inimical to science. Not only do the leaders of this Tea Party demand serious cuts in funding for science, they also actively undermine the teaching of science in the nation’s classrooms. At a time of economic recession, science and technology are strangely viewed as luxuries we can ill afford, rather than as the very engines of any potential economic recovery. Congressmen, Senators, and all but one Presidential hopeful from the Republican Party try to outcompete each other not by demonstrating their knowledge, but by displaying their ignorance: denying the evidence for evolution or for a human role in forcing global climate change, to name but two hot-button issues. Science is a threat to a certain narrow (but widespread) view of religion, and must therefore be suppressed.

Therein lies another, perhaps paradoxical, facet of the relationship between science and democracy. As Dr. Ibrahim argues—and I agree—a scientific temper provides a good strong foundation for democracy. History provides plenty of evidence for the two going hand-in-hand all the way back to the Greeks who may be justly credited with inventing the modern forms of both these wonderful human endeavors. Yet science itself is most emphatically not a democratic process, being beholden to testable evidence from the real world! Truths and ideas in science, unlike human laws and regulations, stand or fall on the basis of evidence alone, and are not up for debate or popular vote. Trying to legislate away the reality of evolution or anthropogenic climate change is therefore a fool’s errand, for, after all, species continue to evolve in response to ongoing natural selection, and the global climate continues to be destabilized as we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere like there is no tomorrow. Opinions, yours or mine, no matter how popular, don’t really matter to the functioning of the real world, which is the domain of science. Democracy, on the other hand, is the domain of humanity, our social sphere, how we choose to govern ourselves, and it can only benefit from taking science’s hand and grounding itself in reality. Politicians who choose to ignore science, or want to legislate its truths away, chasing popular opinion and votes, do so to their own, and all of our, long-term peril.

Thus have we come to the current state of affairs, where one ancient civilization seeks to rise anew, with the help of science as a handmaiden to democracy, even as the world’s dominant superpower risks losing its leadership in science and technology, because a few vocal but ill-informed leaders have its citizenry convinced that science is useless, even inimical to the prospect of living a moral life.

We live in strange and interesting times indeed.

Did you catch me moralizing on the radio last Sunday?

For that is when, I’m told, the first of my four essays written for Valley public Radio’s series “The Moral Is” was broadcast! I didn’t get a chance to hear how my words sounded as read by Kaye Cummings, because I was out of KVPR’s broadcast range, somewhere in Texas on my way back from the ESA conference in Austin.

Unfortunately, KVPR’s website is woefully behind the times, as you might’ve noticed if you clicked the above link: the most recent episode in the archive is from December 2009! Even the show’s description doesn’t quite match the content of this year’s essays (written by 4 others from Fresno State besides me). My first essay – the one read last week – for instance, was about the role of science in democracy, especially in the context of what happened in Egypt during the ongoing Arab Spring.

Since it may take them a while to update the archives, I will post the text of my essay here soon – probably a slightly expanded bloggy version (when we’ve restored our access to the interwebz at home).

Meanwhile, if any of you locals reading this have actually heard the essay, do let me know what you thought of it!

Austin’s urban bats pour out into the warm summer night


One of the factors attracting almost 4000 ecologists to downtown Austin in the middle of a hot Texas summer, I’m sure, are bats. Urban bats. Not the high-tech gizmo-laden kind from comic books, but tiny furry creatures that emerge from their urban lair in the heart of Austin every summer night to wreak vigilante justice on insects! Its a remarkable phenomenon: a breeding colony of some 1.5 million bats roosting under/inside the heavily trafficked Congress Avenue bridge smack-dab in the middle of the city.

What an amazing example of reconciliation ecology in practice! A bridge retrofit in 1980 resulted in structural changes that created crevices underneath the bridge which led to hollow spaces inside. Perfect habitat for the Mexican Free-tailed Bat, which soon discovered the swank new dwellings—a rent-free, safe, roomy dwelling, overlooking a fabulous river view, plenty of food nearby, and a safe environment to raise kids n teach them how to catch bugs; what’s not to like?—and moved in in droves. After initial fears and concerns about these seriously misunderstood creatures, fears that were allayed by Bat Conservation International, Austinites settled into an easy coexistence with the little creatures, which have continued to return to the bridge every spring from their winter homes in Mexico, to raise new broods by the hundreds of thousands. BatCon’s website has more about this colony’s history and social / economic significance.

This morning I had gone out early to see the bats return to roost in the dawn. I returned in the evening, with my iPad, to see the more remarkable phenomenon of mass emergence at night. The above video is the result – watch it full screen in the highest possible resolution (480P) for the best view. The clip starts a bit slow as I was waiting for the show to start along with a patiently sweating throng under the bridge. The bats started streaming out from the below the far end of the bridge first, so they are a bit hard to see – squint at the lowest strip of the sky near the lower-middle of the screen to see the stream. Keep watching, though, because soon enough more bats came out from right over our heads, and I managed to catch multiple streams pouring out into the evening sky, and a nice view of the sunset too! You’ll also hear the clicking of the bats as they navigated their way around the struts of the bridge, and squeals of delight and amazement from the watching humans.

Watch closely, and you might also notice a curious pattern to their flight under the bridge – the bats on the northern end of the bridge (where I was) wend their way around the struts and pillars supporting their bridge all the way to near the southern end where they then take to the sky as part of the main stream of traffic! I wonder why, except for once or twice during the peak of flow, they don’t just leave the bridge at once instead of joining that single stream. Mysterious and fascinating.

Later, talking to a volunteer docent from Bat Conservation International on the bridge, I learnt that the numbers were probably at the highest for the year because mama bats had weaned their pups of this spring, and were bringing them out to sample the night’s delights!

What a wonderful experience to watch this remarkable natural phenomenon happen right in the middle of a major urban area. And how amazing to see the wonder on the faces of humans crowding the bridge (some 8 million come to watch them every year, I’m told) for a glimpse of bats on a hot day. If this is possible in the middle of Texas, with all its rattlesnake-round-ups and evolution-denying schoolboards, surely we can find other ways to accommodate other wildlife in the midst of our own habitats now blanketing most of the land.

Watching the bats, mamas, pups, and all, drawing such a human crowd, with many a child gaping in awe… what a perfect way to end the ESA meeting, which had as its main theme: Earth Stewardship! There may yet be hope for our species and cohabitants of spaceship Earth, it seems…

As Ecosystems, Cities Yield Some Surprises – a report on the ULTRA-Ex symposia at ESA 2011

As I have been tootin my own horn in several posts here this past week, I co-organized two symposia (1 & 2 and a workshop on Wednesday for a day of Urban Stewardship at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America which ended in Austin earlier today. The two symposia brought together researchers from 21 sites in the ULTRA-Ex network, and we met again later for a late evening workshop to discuss ways to nurture, grow, and sustain a grassroots network of collaborative long-term urban research sites. More of my thoughts on that later. For now, read the following report from science writer Hillary Rosner, who happened to be in the audience for much of the day, and even came to the evening workshop on an empty stomach! I’m very happy at the turnout to the events, and the quality of the conversations throughout the day – and thrilled to have our work appear in the online pages of the Gray Lady!

Researchers at Boston University have been measuring the ebb and flow of carbon dioxide emissions. Researchers at Boston University have been measuring the ebb and flow of carbon dioxide emissions on different days of the week.
Green: Science

In Boston, scientists measuring the city’s greenhouse gas emissions have found what they call a “weekend effect,” a clear drop-off in the amount of carbon dioxide entering the city’s atmosphere on Saturdays and Sundays. In Fresno, researchers have discovered that backyard water use increases with wealth, as does backyard biodiversity. And in Los Angeles, ecologists studying the city’s “ecohydrology” have calculated that planting a million new trees, an idea with fairly universal appeal, would have the drawback of increasing water consumption by 5 percent.

The researchers, who presented their findings this week at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Austin, Tex., are all involved in a nascent program to understand the nation’s cities, home to 80 percent of the population, as functioning ecosystems. The goal is to educate urbanites about their environment and how they can act to make it more sustainable.

The program, called Ultra, for Urban Long-Term Research Area, is a joint effort of the National Science Foundation and the Forest Service. A total of 21 projects are under way, including two in New York City. In establishing financing (known as Ultra-Ex grants) for exploratory sites in 2009, the science foundation called urban sustainability one of “the greatest challenges to the long-term environmental quality of the nation.”

At a research site in Fresno, Calif., overseen by Madhusudan Katti, an ecologist at California State University’s campus there, the aim is to untangle the interactions between city water policy, outdoor water use at homes and biodiversity to help inform policy. On the average, wealthier households in Fresno use more water in their yards, yet not because the water is more affordable for them: the city has no metering system, so residents pay a fixed monthly rate.

Reducing water use is considered crucial to guaranteeing long-term sustainability, yet Dr. Katti found that using less water could cause local bird diversity to decline.

“Half the population globally lives in cities, but we don’t have a conceptual understanding of how cities work as dynamic systems,” Dr. Katti said. “We need to generate that understanding.”

Nathan Phillips, an ecologist at Boston University who runs one of the city’s two Ultra-Ex sites, told the audience at the conference that his project, which includes rooftop plant experiments both in and outside the city as well as measurements of greenhouse gases, had revealed a “pulsing type of urban metabolism.”

In a visible signature of human activity, emissions of carbon dioxide increase during the week and decline on the weekends, he said. The next step is putting sensors on 160 Boston buses and identifying the locations of natural gas leaks around the city.

In New York City, one Ultra-Ex project based at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is exploring links between public health, green spaces, and ecosystem services, or nature’s ability to perform functions like cleaning the air and water or preventing flooding. The project is studying seven green roofs, including one at the main post office building on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, to understand their role in preventing sewage from spilling into the city’s waterways during heavy rains.

Some Ultra-Ex projects have a social justice component. In Syracuse, the research helped prevent the installation of a sewage pipe in a low-income neighborhood. Scientists were able to show that installing features like green roofs and porous pavements could reduce storm water runoff.

Just as these research sites are beginning to reveal how such urban ecosystems function, federal budget cuts are calling their future into question. At the ecology meeting, a few dozen Ultra researchers met to discuss how to merge their independent projects into a more closely knit network with an online hub, with or without a central financing source. Cities, after all, will still live and breathe and eat and sweat regardless of what happens in Washington — where there is, by the way, an Ultra-Ex site researching the environmental factors that cause neighborhoods to decline or flourish.

Ecologists Discuss World’s Problems in Austin – #ESA11 report on KUT radio

At the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, 3500 scientists meet in Austin this week to discuss issues like overpopulation, climate change and loss of biodiversity. Photo courtesy of NASA.At the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, 3500 scientists meet in Austin this week to discuss issues like overpopulation, climate change and loss of biodiversity. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Homepage Feature Slider, News

Ecologists Discuss World’s Problems in Austin

August 11, 2011 5:44 am by: Axel Gerdau

By Lindsay Patterson for KUT News

Until the end of the week, 3500 scientists are gathered in Austin at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America to discuss—and try to solve—some of the biggest problems facing the planet today. On the agenda are issues like overpopulation, climate change and loss of biodiversity.

The six-day conference allows ecologists to share the latest research with each other and talk about solutions.

University of Texas Professor Camille Parmesan is one of the speakers at the conference. In a conversation with KUT News, she emphasized the changing role of her profession.

“What ecologists used to do, which is work in a pristine environment and try to figure out how species are interacting and how they interact with their environment, is now becoming how species interact with each other and all the human activities going on,” Parmesan said. “That requires collaborating with a diverse range of other professions, like architects, economists and policy makers.”

A collaboration with professions inside and outside of academia is essential when it comes to solving the biggest ecological problems facing the planet, according to Parmesan.

“Working together with other disciplines, we’ve come a long way towards actually having solutions,” she said.

To listen to the full story, click on the audio player above.

Abstract of my ESA 2011 talk today

If you are reading this blog, and are at ESA, allow me a shameless plug and invite you to my talk in the Urban Stewardship symposium (which I’m co-organizing) this morning at 10:00 AM in Ballroom G. I will be in that room throughout the day as the morning symposium is followed by part two in the afternoon – so even if you can’t attend the talk, but are intrigued by my study, please come and find me.

Here’s the abstract of my talk – I will upload the slides to my slideshare account sometime soon, and will then embed it within this blog, so you’ll have the visuals.

Interactions between urban water policy, residential irrigation, and plant and bird diversity in Fresno-Clovis Metro Area


Ecological theory has begun to incorporate humans as part of coupled socio-ecological systems. Modern urban development provides an excellent laboratory to examine the interplay among socio-ecological relationships. Urban land and water management decisions result from dynamic interactions between institutional, individual and ecological factors. Landscaping and irrigation at any particular residence, for example, is a product of geography, hydrology, soil, and other local environmental conditions, the homeowners’ cultural preferences, socioeconomic status, identity construction, neighborhood dynamics, as well as zoning laws, market conditions, city policies, and county/state/federal government regulations. Since land and water management are key determinants of habitat for other species, urban biodiversity is strongly driven by the outcome of interactions between these variables. This study addresses the significance of water as a key variable in the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area (FCMA), shaping current patterns of landscape and water use, at a time when the city of Fresno is installing meters as a regulatory tool to conserve water. We combine data from a citizen science bird monitoring project, field surveys of trees, and mail surveys of residents to address interactions among key components of the urban socioecological system.


We present results of multivariate analyses of bird and tree surveys to show that neighborhood income and irrigation levels interact to influence species diversity of both taxa. Data from the Fresno Bird Count found that bird species richness and functional group diversity are both strongly correlated with residential irrigation and neighborhood income levels. Tree species diversity shows a similar pattern. We examine these results to test and develop several theoretical models explaining outdoor water use behaviors, with the aim of assessing the resilience of such behaviors with the introduction of water metering in Fresno, and the resilience of urban plant and bird communities to resulting changes in water use in the landscape. We argue that socioeconomic status results from a complex interplay of cultural, economic, structural, and social-psychological factors, influencing institutional policies regarding the governance of water resources, and in turn impacts biodiversity within the urban landscape through spatial and temporal variations in water usage. This study is part of a long-term research project that examines the impacts of human water usage and water use policies on biodiversity within an urban environment.