Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I was there

This summer, I was lucky enough to get an invite to the meeting 'Toward an extended evolutionary synthesis' at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Altenberg, Austria. Or, as it was pre-labeled on the Interweb, the WOMAD 1994 of Evolution. (Hang on, that doesn't sound right. Altamont of Evolution?)

Anyway, I have a feature pegged to the meeting in this week's Nature. It deals mainly with the relationship between the modern synthesis and evo-devo. There were also many interesting discussion of palaeontology, genomics and ecology, which I am sure will surface in other guises elsewhere, most notably the book derived from the conference, due out early next year.

For the official line, the meeting's final statement is here. And to see what it looked like, go to the flickr group. It's a tough old job.

Friday, September 05, 2008

BES 2008

The last time I went to a British Ecological Society annual meeting, in 2006, I wrote a (remarkably long) post about how it was all a bit impenetrable and inward looking. I went to this year’s at Imperial on Wednesday and Thursday and had a much better time. Hopefully I'll get a few pieces written on the back of it.

The highlight was an excellent session on the impact of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Working out how species will respond to climate change is a big deal right now – and lots of ecologists are unhappy with the climate envelope models that look at the climate where something lives now, look at where that climate will be in 2100 (e.g. further north, higher up) and work out whether that’s a feasible journey. But there’s more to life than the weather – food, parasites, species interactions. Several of the talks tried to factor these into climate projections without becoming hopelessly complicated, and did a pretty good job.

(And ecosystem services seem massive right now in ecological research and environmental policy, at least in the UK. A couple of people made the point that policymaker’s enthusiasm for incorporating them into policy actually outstrips scientific understanding of how they contribute to human wellbeing. Lots of work for ecologists there, and lots of potential collaborations with social scientists.) The issue of how you value them – is money the only meaningful metric? was also touched upon.

And, wandering in and out of sessions, most stuff was pretty good. The only thing that I entirely failed to get my head around was any of the talks in the session on rapid human-induced evolutionary change, which sounded like it should be interesting, but was all over my head, with no clear take-home messages. I was peeved, because I should have stayed in the session on using phylogenetics to explain tropical diversity – Toby Pennington’s talk on trees, dispersal and speciation was excellent.

Anyway, the general feeling was that many UK ecologists are engaged with providing good science that is really relevant to our problems, and of getting that science across to decision makers, despite the inevitable need to compromise that’ll entail, in a way that they weren’t even a couple of years ago. And the science isn’t just boring cut-down-reeds-to-create-habitat-for-invertebrates kinda stuff, it’s an exciting blend of theory and data, getting a really fundamental questions – the relationship between ecological networks (food and mutualism webs) and ecosystem services being a prime example.

The BES also has an Ecology and Policy blog.