ScienceWise - Mar/Apr 2009

The Editor's Corner

Science and environment

In this edition we have a couple of stories relating to the ever growing concerns over the direct and indirect influence of humans on the environment. In one we look at research intended to assess the true impact of the introduced Indian Myna bird population on native birds. And in the other, a team of scientists assisting the Pacific island nation of Kiribati  protect it’s fresh water supply against the worst effects of climate change and over exploitation. But apart from their environmental content these stories have another thing in common. They both involve scientists who set about solving a problem by first thoroughly investigating and understanding it’s nature.

We’re all concerned about the impact of human and natural forces on our environment, after all it’s where we all have to live. And perhaps for this reason we tend to get very emotional about the politics of environmentalism. But if we’re really going to solve the existing problems and avoid even worse ones in the future, we can’t approach this from an emotional perspective. We have to clearly understand what’s going on and what various courses of action are actually achieving.

All too often we see well intentioned but inadequately researched initiatives fail to achieve any measurable outcome or worse still, create problems greater than the ones they aim to solve. This creates a double problem. It draws resources away from the effective projects and worse still, gives ammunition to cynics. If a highly visible environmental program ends up doing more harm than good, there’s a tendency to believe that any attempt to reduce human impact is futile and we may as well not bother.

So how do we make our environmental projects yield maximum benefit? Well in my view by making sure that we get the basic science right first. Make sure we understand the problem, develop a proposed solution, test it and assess the outcome without bias. Of course this is the very essence of the scientific method. Investigate, hypothesise and test.

Science is a great way to address environmental concerns and to solve technical problems but that isn’t all science can do.  Science can also form the basis for a whole way of thinking. Undertaking an education in science is great way to enhance your ability to problem solve across every aspect of life. So even if you end up perusing a career in business, politics or even retire to the hills to grow grapes, the mental discipline and rigorous methodology of science will serve you equally well.

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