“Cootie” Scientists are Observational Too!

It’s always nice to see an old colleague in print, even if he is referred to as a “cootie scientist”.  So I was glad to see NewScientist do an interview with Noah Fierer, who was in grad school with me at UCSB some years ago (reprinted in Slate here, with “cootie” substituting for the apparently too scientific “microbe” in the headline). What was really exciting is how much Noah’s work—which in part involves screening everyday environments like bathrooms and kitchens for their microbial ecology–fits the model of technology-enabled observational discovery that we discuss in Observation and Ecology.  Noah notes how similar his work is to that of early naturalists—where they were discovering new species they could see and hear (and usually shoot) and trying to piece together their relationships—Noah and his lab are uncovering the hidden world of microbes and just making the first linkages to understand the ecology (not just the diversity) of the microbial world.  Alas, Noah confided in me that he too has been beaten up by the “it’s just a fishing expedition” critique, which Aníbal and I take to task in Chapter 7 of Observation and Ecology. If you’ve ever heard this critique (most likely in a rejected grant application!) take heart—great scientists like Noah have heard it too! And if you’ve ever made this critique, what do you have against fishing expeditions?  Most of the really important ecological discoveries started with scientists like Noah, who were curious enough to cast a line and observe what wonderful things get reeled in.


About Rafe

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst at the University of Arizona. In both his science and policy work, Sagarin connects basic observations of nature to issues of broad societal interest, including conservation biology, protecting public trust resources, and making responses to terrorism and other security threats more adaptable. Dr. Sagarin is a recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and has recently published two books, Learning from the Octopus (Basic Books, March 2012) and Observation and Ecology (Island Press, July 2012), which show how nature observation--when extended across large scales and enhanced with both new technologies and greater deference to traditional knowledge sources—is revealing profound new insights about our dynamic social and ecological world. He was a Geological Society of America Congressional Science Fellow in the office of U.S. Representative (and later U.S. Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis. He has taught ecology and environmental policy at Duke University, California State University Monterey Bay, Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles and University of Arizona. His research has appeared in Science, Nature, Conservation Biology, Ecological Monographs, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Foreign Policy, Homeland Security Affairs and other leading journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the editor, with Terence Taylor of the volume Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World (2008, University of California Press).
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