Pitching Biodiversity

Saturday 22nd May was about as biodiversity-centred as it’s possible to get: the International Year of Biodiversity International Day of Biodiversity. I’m not sure it made as big an impact as it might have done on me (a self-confessed ‘biodiversity scientist’), although I would wholeheartedly endorse the statement of Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity. In particular, he puts to rest the outdated idea that conserving biodiversity is somehow a ‘luxury’ available only to rich countries:

Overall, it is estimated that natural capital constitutes 26 per cent of the total wealth of low-income countries, which is why slowing the loss of biodiversity was incorporated as a new target under the Millennium Development Goals. Let there be no doubt: it will be absolutely impossible to achieve sustainable development if we do not protect and preserve our biological resource base.

Accepting the key role that biological resources must play in development and poverty alleviation brings home how important it is for those of us working in the field of biodiversity science to communicate appropriately our research findings. This means treading the fine line between boldly stating the massive problems that we face, whilst at the same time giving some hope that appropriate action might be effective. According to Tim Caro, professor of wildlife biology at the University of California, Davis, this is a line from which both academics and NGOs often stray. In a letter to Nature last week, he writes that:

Some leading conservation biologists deliver unnecessarily gloomy addresses, closing with no solutions or a few anecdotal success stories. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), by contrast, can be too optimistic in their fund-raising lectures and magazines: false starts and dead ends don’t figure, because donors prefer winners. Both groups are misjudging their audiences.

I think we can all identify with this, in terms of how we pitch a paper. For instance, recently I’ve been getting really interested in identifying gaps in our knowledge of marine biodiversity – essentially, cataloguing biodiversity’s ‘known unknowns’. One result of this is a paper due out very soon in PLoS ONE, in which we used OBIS, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, to perform a global analysis which graphically shows where our knowledge of the distribution of marine species comes from.

Not wishing to scoop myself, I won’t discuss the results in detail – just mentioning in passing that the deep pelagic ocean, by a distance the largest habitat on Earth, is virtually unexplored. What I wanted to discuss rather was the decision we had to make regarding how to pitch the paper. One option was to note the huge gaps in our knowledge – the millions of cubic kilometres from which no specimens have ever been recorded – and go for an ‘Oh no, look at how little we know!’ tone.

Alternatively, we could have highlighted the fact that OBIS has managed to compile, in only a few years, 27.5 million records (each record is a specific location at which a given species has been recorded), meaning that we now have at least some idea of the geographic distributions of some 113,000 marine species. What is more, all of this information is accessible to anyone who wishes to use it. So it would have been perfectly justifiable to have written an ’Isn’t it fantastic how much we know, even in this hostile and inaccessible environment!’ paper.

In fact, we leant towards the former message, whilst making sure not to denigrate the achievements of initiatives like OBIS, the Census of Marine Life, and the wider community of researchers and institutes who have bought into this huge experiment in data-sharing. But it does bring home how these kinds of decisions – which are largely independent of the more objective process of actually doing the science – really influence the content of the published scientific record.