science in the field

Don’t be shy, science is here

Scientists are nerdy, often lack social skills, and have an appalling sense of fashion. Not the best characteristics to entice support but don’t let all that put you off. Scientists are critical to the survival of humanity and we need more. Maybe you would like to become one.

Hi there, Mark from sustainably FED here with a personal post this time to make a point about science.

I have been a scientist for over 40 years.

My career has taken me from the UK to Africa, Asia and Australia.

I’ve seen rhinos in the Zambesi Valley, kangaroos on outback gibber plains, dolphins frolicking in the ocean, held a specimen of an extinct bird from a museum collection, almost walked into a lion pride, and talked about it all for hours at a time. 

I consider myself extremely lucky.

So many of my best experiences were when completing scientific surveys and experiments in the bush. It is quite something when you’re trying to extract soil animals from leaf litter and look up to see an elephant curious about what you were doing.

Perhaps the time when many hours into a crossing of the central Kalahari in the aftermath of a rain shower we were forced to stop. On the damp sand, crawling around, were millipedes, hundreds of them. The very creatures we were searching for and yet had no idea that they would live in such dry environments.

Then there were sweaty times digging holes through the concrete like turrets of termite mounds or measuring the length of Acacia shoots to see if they respond more to the goats than they do to giraffes. 

Or the pitfall trap sampling in the outback so far from habitation it seemed like the moon, but on the ground an ancient beer bottle.

Most of the people who witnessed any of these things would have called us mad. Not everyone sees the value in such esoteric pursuits. 

I love it.

ecologists sampling for insects in the Okavango Delta. Botswana
That’s me with the tape noting down a tree selected for tsetse fly sampling. Photo credit — Frank Eckardt

A career ecologist 

It has been a struggle to maintain a career as an ecologist.  

Jobs are few and far between requiring the aptitude of an opportunist and the risk-taking of the gambler. But my career, if not as I imagined, has been very good to me.

One thing I credit for my longevity in this precarious profession is a thorough grounding in the philosophy of science and slave-like adherence to applying the logic of the scientific method.

Science provides the foundation for our understanding of nature. It gives us technology, resources and infrastructure. These things become accessible to us because we understand the basic principles of how materials work and whether or not the bridge will fall down. 

All of this understanding came from the scientific method, specifically establishing cause and effect through controlled experiments or application of inductive reasoning where the observations do more of the heavy lifting.

ecology fieldwork in the Okavango delta, Botswana can be tricky
An awkward crossing on the journey out of the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo credit — Alloporus

Science done well

Science is hard to do well. It takes courage and tenacity to understand the unknown and it takes training as a sceptic to get into the right mindset to accept some concepts as correct and true while testing others.

All scientists walk this tightrope. They second guess the truth of the matter in order to establish it.

When it comes to the use of natural resources, especially in land management to deliver the food and dietary needs of the future, the tightrope is very thin and drawn high above a chasm.  

Growing enough of the right types of food to feed 8 billion-plus souls for a hundred years or more will take all our scientific nous.

That said, it is easy to see why our politicians and bureaucrats and other civic leaders shy away from science. The answers science provides to the pointy questions are rarely black and white and the process is opaque.

This makes for wobbly recommendations even when the technical details can be explained.

Just because lawmakers and leaders might not understand the philosophy, it is wrong for them to ignore the evidence science delivers. Even school kids know that science is important for our understanding of the world. 

The current crop of populist leaders may have decided that science is irrelevant but they will regret that choice.

So do not be shy.

There are careers to be had in science. Maybe not lucrative but highly rewarding in so many positive ways. 

Hero image by Alloporus


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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