Big science greets a tough world

Ecologists and Environmental Politics
October 31, 1997

Ecology has, quite recently, become accepted as a serious discipline. Contrary to common belief, ecologists are rarely butterfly chasers or eco-protesters. Ecological science is about organisms in their natural locations, and the discipline covers the physico-chemical environment. The analysis and interpretation often requires sophisticated mathematical and modelling techniques. Answers from complex data sets are not always obvious, so broad experience and depth of ecological knowledge are necessary, too.

Stephen Bocking's book explores one British and three North American institutions. He demonstrates that the discipline's initial task was to convince the political, public and scientific communities that ecology was serious science. The founding of Nature Conservancy - financially independent of the competing interests of agriculture and forestry in 1949, in the "utility" economic stringency of post-war Britain - required persuasive arguments from influential scientists with the ear of government. Sir Arthur Tansley was that man. The group's first executive director, Derek Ovington, also needed vision, scientific respect and strong organisational talents. And, in the British way of creating a gentlemen's club, it worked.

The US equivalent was tied to the coat-tails of the Atomic Energy Commission at Oak Ridge. Initially within the health physics department, ecology was studied to measure the effects of radiation on the environment. Stanley Auerbach was instrumental in setting up the plan for monitoring nutrient cycling through ecosystems. He had a splendid team, reliable budgets and the influence of great outside ecologists such as Howard Odum.

This group exemplified a change of perception - to big science -and pioneered the systems modelling approach. When George Van Dyne joined the team, he shook things up with his prodigious publication output. Oak Ridge was also important in the inception of the International Biological Programme.

A second US example, the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study on forest watersheds, was the result of a serendipitous working relationship between universities and forestry interests headed by Herbert Bormann and Gene Likens. Their work was used effectively to promote whole ecosystem research and engage foresters in projects.

The final example is the Ontario Fisheries project, which examined the physical and biological complexes of fish populations in the Great Lakes. Res-ponding to the needs of commercial and sports anglers, university- based scientists in collaboration with government laboratories, used fundamental research to make practical management plans. Again, the enthusiasm and influence of key individuals determined the project's success, and a long pre- and post-war history of ecological research.

The penultimate chapter compares the institutions and their political effectiveness, while the final chapter assesses the ecologist's role in addressing environmental issues. Well-researched, with good notes and bibliography, and successfully illustrating the determination of certain individuals to promote ecology as science, Bocking's book is a useful publication.

Tony Andrew is lecturer in environmental studies, University of Ulster, Coleraine.

Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology

Author - Stephen Bocking
ISBN - 0 300 06763 1
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 1

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