Monday, August 25, 2008

Interview with Shai Meiri, Research Fellow, NERC Centre for Population Biology, Imperial College London

Shai Meiri is interested in the evolution of body size and its implications, in biogeographical correlates of morphology and in the morphological signatures of speciation and community composition.

Relevance of biogeography to your work
Antje Ahrends. Do you think that biogeography has important implications for conservation in practice?
Shai Meiri. I think it sometime have important implication for conservation, but very often does not, and every case have to be examined in detail.
AA. Do you read conservation journals, or otherwise receive information on new developments in conservation practice/policy?
SM. I admit I seldom do.
AA. Do you think that biogeographers have a responsibility to contribute to conservation in practice, or should research be entirely free of political agendas? Does your research help conservation in practice? Which stakeholder group is benefiting from your research, and how do you communicate your findings?
SM. I think all humanity has a responsibility to conservation, and of course all organismal biologists cannot do wrong if they contribute to conservation science, but responsibility? I’m not sure. If one is doing e.g., basic science than one has no responsibility, unless you are funded by a conservation body. Research should always always always be free of political agenda. Politics is not science. I communicate my findings by publishing them in the scientific media, representing them in conferences, sometime presenting them to the media, and sometime by teaching graduate and undergraduate students.

General practicality of incorporating new biogeographic findings in conservation
AA. It is still uncertain to which degree predictive species distribution models are applicable at a local scale. Also, there are necessarily a lot of uncertainties associated with the predictions at all scales. Do you think that the results of these models should nevertheless be communicated to conservation practitioners and potentially influence management decisions? Is there a risk that the validity of these models is over-estimated?
SM. I think there is a very substantial risk that the models are wrong and overestimated. This is not to say they should not be developed, but the developers and “consumers” should be aware of the potential for error, which I feel can often be substantial.
AA. Implementing conservation strategies is partly reliant on public and decision makers' support. The communication of uncertainty or conflicting messages can be difficult, for example with respect to the merits of existing prioritisation schemes such as hotspots and Global 200. Do you feel that this aspect of conservation hampers the integration of newer research findings? Do you generally perceive a gap between biogeography science and conservation policy?
SM. I confess not to have understood the question fully. I think that if scientists are uncertain this uncertainty must be presented, and never covered-up or ignored.
AA. Conservation planning needs long-term strategies. Do you perceive a gap between the comparatively rapid turn-over of existing paradigms in science and their acceptance in the conservation world?
SM. I don’t know, because I don’t know what “the conservation world” is, or what is meant by paradigms here. The term paradigm is often miss-used. It should refer to the major unifying theories of our science, and this has been Darwinian biology for the last 150 years. What turnover?

Communication between biogeographers and conservation practitioners
AA. Do you think that biogeographers communicate the applicability of their research findings to conservationists adequately? And vice versa, do conservationists adequately communicate their information needs to biogeographers?
SM. I am not sure what “adequately” means in this context. I think conservationists do not usually communicate their information needs to biogeographers – and maybe because they don’t perceive biogeographers as having the necessary answers to the questions they ask. I am not sure they are wrong. I think some biogeographers who say their research has implications for conservation may be wide off the mark.
AA. Is an intensified exchange between conservationists and biogeographers necessary, and if so, where do you see potential platforms for this?
SM. I don’t know whether it is really intensified, or necessary. Potential platform? a conference and a journal (I propose the original name “conservation biogeography”) may be good.

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