A Meeting of the Waters: In Defense of Scientific Elitism

As an international umbrella organization for the discipline of the ecology of inland waters, SIL is constantly faced with melding of theoretical scientific understanding with applied practicalities, such as provision of adequate water supplies of acceptable quality for human utilization. The latter demands crescendo with ever increasing frequencies and intensities as the human population continues to increase globally in log phase. Although the population problem is recognized, humanity remains seemingly incapable of either addressing its obvious causes or of encouraging population controls within great political and religious constraints. The usual response is to seek improved engineering strategies in order to meet the daunting increases in human demands for water. To be sure, significant improvements have occurred in the efficiency of water distribution and utilization. But such efficiency improvements occur at linear rates that are unable to cope with exponentially increasing demands. The result is a litany of failed scenarios, often with catastrophic results of excessive waste and misuse of finite water supplies, within cyclically increasing demands, particularly from agriculture. These problems are exacerbated by the increasing vagaries of short- and long-term changes in climate and hydrology.

In defense of theoretical limnology: Little controversy would emerge if one were to conduct curiosity or theoretical research, sometimes referred to as the elite science, in order to gain understanding of the natural world independently of public funding. However, most research is supported in some or large part by society. That public support affords a trust that scientists conducting research of little apparent practical value are contributing to a fundamental knowledge base, and that such information is essential to understanding of the overwhelming complexities of the natural world. It is an exigent responsibility for scientists to recognize the need for communication of why such understanding is critical. This need is particularly critical as political motivations now often demand that scientists address how the research contributes to, for example, such ambiguous criteria as intellectual merit and creativity and the ability of the research to integrate into and enhance educational and social structures.

It is also important that scientists educate non-scientists on why scientific methods and procedures are essential and must not be circumvented in the name of expediency. Furthermore, it is important to illustrate with superb examples how effective these scientific procedures can be for practical management purposes. For example, our understanding of eutrophication problems and effective management of surface water quality evolved only following the plethora of chemical, biochemical, and algal physiological research. These detailed results provide the foundations that underpin the modeling and management protocols for controlling eutrophication. Such sophisticated understanding could never have been achieved by trial and error empirical manipulations alone. Similar understanding is evolving with feeding and trophic interaction studies, genetic foundations of biochemical control mechanisms for growth, reproduction, and mortality, biodiversity effects on trophic interactions and energetics, and many others.

Can we wait for understanding? Emphatically, no! Many of the water problems literally affect the survival of large segments of humanity. And these problems require immediate management decisions, often based on limited or very poor information. Simply because these problems are so desperate, however, does not mean they should have priority and replace the basic studies that are underway to improve our understanding and effective management of these surface waters and the biotic regulation of water quality. Both efforts must proceed simultaneously and with intensified vigor. Without the scientific foundations and understanding, management will always be fuzzy, imprecise, unpredictable, and fraught with failures. Engineering solutions may be necessary, but even with enormous safety factors to compensate for functional ignorance, they should never supplant scientific understanding. The feedbacks and modifications of management protocols based on new and increased understanding is what ‘adaptive management’ is all about – it is simply applying good scientific methods, as have been used by scientists for decades, to management problems.

A meeting of water studies: I have had the privilege to boat over the meeting of the Solimões River with the Rio Negro as they fuse with the Amazon north of Manaus. One witnesses the turbulent mixing and dilution as this magnificent Amazon builds in its flow to the Atlantic. The rivers merge, build, and gain strength in the united whole. Analogously, the mutualism between theoretical and applied limnology is essential for a rigorous whole. The pragmatic, applied questions force critical and insightful questions and directions into ecosystem functions, particularly in relation to water chemistry, pollution interactions, and the consequences of imbalances among populations and communities of surface waters. Importantly, the essential interfolding of biochemical, genetic, physiological, and modeling understanding that is infused by the melding of theoretical and applied – these are essential for grasping how the complexities of freshwater ecosystems operate. That operational understanding is critical to effective management of inland waters – without such knowledge, management is largely trial and error probes in the dark, often manipulated by self-centered economic or political demands to the detriment of optimal, long-term bases essential to freshwater sustainability for humanity.

Robert G. Wetzel >>>
General Secretary and Treasurer