Eutrophication: We are not alone in our conundrum

4 September 2012

Readers of my blog will have followed the recent developments regarding discussions about how to re-energize interest in reservoir management in general and eutrophication in particular, in South Africa.  A colleague has today reminded me of the insightful views on this matter penned by the eminent limnologist Dr Robert (Bob) Wetzel (1937-2005).  In the preamble to the third edition of his classic text on Limnology, Bob observed:

Limnology is currently experiencing a period of introspection. Such criticism is healthy if done constructively and the causes of underlying deficiencies are recognized and addressed. Many problems have arisen, however, in part because of the purported necessity to respond rapidly to governmental and societal demands without an in-depth scientific underpinning.  A root cause is our continuing inability to properly educate and train students and the public. Society must recognize that intellectual creativity is essential to excellence in science and that excellence in science is essential to the most effective and cost-efficient management of our resources.

Improvements in science education and training are critically needed. A fundamental requirement of scientific education is to obtain comprehensive background information prior to interpretation and synthesis. One observes an increasing erroneous reliance upon uninformed excuses that old perceptions have little foundation or relevance for modern interpretations. Additional nonsense arguments emerge that too much information exists to integrate. With modern search and organization capabilities, such ignorance of past research is much more than laziness; it represents a deficiency in the teaching of how science is properly conducted. Bibliographic negligence is more than a lack of responsible scholarship because it leads to increasing scientific redundancy and inefficient use of intellectual and financial resources. A result is an increasing tendency to promote old ideas and interpretations under the guise of new and invariably ambiguous “buzz word” terms. These redundant ideas are actively promoted as inspiration among noncritical peers, science writers, and even granting agency administrators who are unfamiliar with the background development of the subdiscipline. Many contemporary topical reviews are incredibly naive, biased, and incomplete, and parts are simply wrong. Such deficiencies in scholarship must be severely condemned and can be countered by more rigorous preparatory study.

There is an increasing tendency, particularly in the United States, to capitulate to the masses of information on any subject and accept, even promote, superficial understanding of ecological subjects. That level of inquiry may be acceptable for the lay public but is not acceptable for professional limnologists, aquatic ecologists, and water resource managers. A superficial level of understanding is unacceptable in all rigorous disciplines that contemplate systems of equal complexity to natural ecosystems. For example, the great strides made in human medicine are the direct result of concerted, systematic evaluation and rigorous experimental investigations of the mechanisms controlling human and pathogen physiology.

In ecology, as in many other disciplines, the “cop out” deference strategy to the information glut is increasingly to specialize in a small area and to then aggregate teams of specialists to attempt to understand how all of the pieces fit and operate together. The present emphasis on interdisciplinary studies is little more than an expansion of the identical process that has been carried on for decades by competent ecosystem scientists. Emphasis, particularly by non-scientist administrators, on forced collaboration, regardless of expertise, either directly or by fiscal coercion is an increasing problem. Such realities of collaborations reinforce the need for participants to be versed on some comprehensive introductory understanding of the whole.

I argue that one cannot manage aquatic ecosystems effectively without understanding how they operate in response to interactions of physical, chemical, and biotic environmental variables. This insistence is analogous to the statement that one cannot effectively manage human health without understanding human physiological and biochemical interactions with environmental variables. Superficial or biased training in limnology can only lead to superficial and biased understanding. There is a need for rigorous limnological training, even at the introductory level. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (1996) also emphasized that need in the recent thorough evaluation of limnological education.

Sober reading and reflection on the above shows that, in South Africa, we find ourselves at the very juncture that Bob Wetzel experienced when he wrote the above eleven years ago. The points he so eloquently made provide us with a roadmap of what to do and what to avoid.  I and other professional limnologists, with many many years of combined experience, stand ready to be asked to help!


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