Summer in the city

summer-cityThe blog is going to take a well earned summer holiday and will start back again in September when hopefully we’ll have a slew of papers and conferences to report on! See you all soon.


Adam Kane, kanead[at]

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We have no need for that hypothesis

Science-vs-Religion-e1364999088759Scientists as a demographic group tend to be atheists. One survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences found “…near universal rejection of the transcendent…” As scientists are concerned with the study of the natural world they are liable to eschew any supernaturalistic explanations, although there are notable exceptions. Historically science and religion have frequently crossed swords but recently there has been a marked increase in the criticism of religion by various scientists.

An increasing number of scientists have become popularisers of their research area and frequently engage with the public; this inevitably leadsto the person’s own philosophy and opinions being put forward in addition to the science. In particular, the past decade has bore witness to a surge in the amount of popular literature promoting atheism and criticizing religion. Scientists have also entered the public sphere to debate intellectuals in theology, philosophy etc. on matters of religion and atheism.

Scientists have had both a proactive and a reactive response to religion. For some, science can now fill the gap that religion once occupied. Richard Dawkins wrote that Darwin has made it possible to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist. This success has led to the development of a modern scientism. Michael Shermer, the founder of The Skeptics Society and a noted atheist, describes it as “…a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena”. This is a complimentary definition of a typically pejorative phrase that has dogmatic connotations.

One criticism from an Irish perspective comes from Gabriel Daly who, while celebrating the achievements of science, says that scientism “…can be rightly repudiated as a monster of arrogance and philistinism.”

Shermer’s contention is that certain developments in science have allowed humans to ask questions and indeed get answers from areas once exclusive to religion. For instance, cosmology and evolution can probe the origins of the universe and of our selves. On Stephen Hawking, Shermer wrote, “…this being the Age of Science, it is scientism’s shamans who command our veneration.” He maintains that scientism can bridge the gap between the two cultures of science and the humanities that CP Snow described. Daly also invokes the idea of Snow’s two cultures but he has a different interpretation to Shermer. He argues that the two cultures offer different perspectives, that neither one has the final say on any issue so there is no reason for conflict.

It does appear that scientists have shed the need for religion as a way to look at the world. If you have that mindset you’re happy with an unwoven rainbow.


Adam Kane, kanead[at]

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Science vs Religion

Photo competition Result

Mot motThanks to everyone who entered the competition. This time around our panel of judges deemed Deirdre McClean’s entry to be the worthy winner. Her picture of a Rufous motmot adorns this very blog so congratulations to her.



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Deirdre McClean

There is no magic formula…(sorry!)


I recently attended a mentoring event that left me faintly frustrated and I was finding it hard to put into words exactly why. Eventually it came to me – at these events people always want the answer to the same question: what is the magic formula for succeeding* in academia? The problem is that there isn’t one, and I always feel really bad having to say that.

Sadly being smart is not enough. You need to work hard (not 24/7 or anything insane but you can’t slack off all the time and expect to succeed) and you need to be lucky. That luck can involve being in the right place at the right time, having the right skills, or knowing the right person. Of course people make their own luck, and being in the right place is not going to help you if you don’t also have the CV to be able to grab the opportunity. But still I would say that luck plays a fairly large part in most people’s careers. Of course you need publications, preferably in well-respected journals (Science and Nature papers would be a bonus!). But how many publications depends on your field, the post and, importantly, who you are competing with. The same applies to grants, presentations, teaching, outreach etc. This makes giving generic advice really difficult.

Another problem is that things are changing rapidly in the academic job market. Often we get advice from PIs who got their jobs in a completely different economic and academic climate. For example, I got a PhD with no papers, no research experience, and when I was half way through my MSc degree. These days this wouldn’t be enough for me to get PhD funding from the Irish Research Council. My point here is that you should take generic advice with a grain of salt, and also try to avoid getting annoyed with PIs for not giving you the “magic formula”. All we can do is tell you about our personal experiences.

What kinds of advice might be more useful (beyond the obvious advice to “write more good papers”)? First, before you’re looking for jobs take a senior academic in your field (preferably several) out for a coffee to show them your CV and ask them if there are any obvious gaps. This gives you the opportunity to fill those gaps before it becomes an issue. Second, when you start applying for jobs, try and get as much information about the job as possible from the advert but also ask people in the department if you can. This might save you time, for example if it turns out there is an internal candidate or if your CV is really not competitive, or give you an idea what the department is really looking for. Third, if you apply for jobs and get rejected, try and get feedback. This won’t always happen due to the volume of applications, and it won’t always be useful, but it’s worth a try. And don’t let rejections discourage you, keep on trying!

Good luck, and if you do find the magic formula please let us know!

*this assumes that getting a permanent job is equivalent to success!


Natalie Cooper @nhcooper123

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Shall we kill all our bees?

1024px-Bee_covered_in_pollenKill all the bees!!”, the modest proposal of Prof. Paul Sutton from University of South Australia is a provocative attempt to convince economic rationalists to finally start counting what really counts.

If all the bees were to go extinct we will have to replace them by, for example, hand-pollinating our crops. That means employment, economic growth in terms of GDP and tax revenues: very good for the Economy.

Now, the fact that not many economists will actually support this policy does not change the fact that if all the bees are going to be gone then GDP would actually rise, jobs would actually be created as well as tax revenues.

This is a market failure too big to be ignored! We need to “abandon magical thinking about free markets and invisible hands … and develop appropriate worldviews that are broader than the narrow economic worldview we are currently trapped in”. The services provided by healthy ecosystems should be considered too big to fail, just like the big banks.

Environmental scientists have lost an argument with economic rationalists. The evaluation of ecosystem services strives to use a common language between environmental sciences and economics.

Economists are the primary advisors of governments. We need environmental scientists with the same decisional power to face future challenges deriving from our current model of infinite growth on a finite planet.


Luca Coscieme, coscieml[at]

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Wikimedia commons

Outside hours – working for free and making it pay


Do voluntary work and outreach activities really make much of a difference in an environmental career?  Yes, in general, but not for the reasons you might expect.

Picture this: you have finally found an amazing career path that you really want to follow.  It is engaging and challenging and you will make a positive contribution to the world.  But before the excitement carries you away you discover a big problem – other people have found out about your dream job and they want it too.  A good degree is a great start, but if you want to land that first job or move up the ranks, you need something more.  That was the challenge facing me as an aspiring ecologist nearly ten years ago, and the question I asked was this: how can I make myself stand out?

Work for free

The advice pages tell you the same thing again and again – it is all about qualifications, skills and experience.  But if the qualifications are not enough to get the job, then how do you get the skills and experience? Well, you work for free – and frequently from a very young age.  Career profiles of successful ecologists often detail the work they did for the local wildlife group from the age of six, when they were apparently already experts in hedgerow flora and bog moss. For the rest of us who were more interested in Lego and finger painting at that age, it can be a bit disheartening.

Putting it into practice

For me, collecting additional work hours began in college.  I started doing free or badly paid field work during my undergraduate, lectured during my masters, and as a consultant ecologist I did as many training courses as I could.  There is an embarrassment of acronyms in the Professional Memberships section of my CV.  To supplement formal training, I took on some voluntary bird and plant surveys.  A few years ago, I started to help organise an academic conference and environmental career fair in my spare time.

Time for a reckoning

Now, my supervisor tells me that maybe I have gone a bit far.  Is it really possible to be an active member of over ten organisations and still do a PhD in three years? Given the time and money involved, can I afford it? Really, how have I actually ever benefitted from being involved in such a breadth of organisations?  Should I cut down?

Volunteering and training can give you hard skills, but the biggest dividends I noticed are fuzzier and hard to quantify.  Networking opportunities might be the biggest benefit.   When I finished my masters, it was contacts I had built up over the previous two years who helped me to get a decent job.  People I have met through volunteer work advised me when I wanted to go back to college, helped me to find funding and they are there whenever I pick up the phone with a question.

Working outside your comfort zone will increase your confidence.  The thought of selling myself or raising funds used to fill me with toe-curling shame and embarrassment, until I had to fund-raise for a national conference.  Being forced to do it helped me to get over my reluctance to ask for cash.  Without that experience, I don’t think I could have asked for the funding required for my PhD.

Broadening your perspective can be a huge benefit at work.  As a volunteer, you can meet people with a range of backgrounds and training, and this is very helpful when it comes to team work or engaging with clients.  Having recently worked with zoologists, engineers, educators and students made moving from botanical consultancy to a multidisciplinary research project merely intimidating instead of being terrifying and insurmountable.

What do do?

Surprisingly, my experience seems to be quite normal.  Research shows that volunteering helps your job prospects whatever sector you are in, but not for the reasons you might expect.  By taking on volunteer work, you prove yourself to be motivated and engaged, but you are not necessarily perceived as being more skilled or qualified.  Who you know is as important as what you know, and in some cases motivation and drive can trump academic skills.  For me, this means I will keep on doing voluntary work, but be smarter about it.   I have been lucky to get plenty of in the course of my PhD, so I will focus on management and networking activities.  I am looking forward to it.  From now on, I will be socialising for a cause, enjoying the illusion that with each sip of wine I am boosting my career prospects and helping to make the world a better place.

Aoife Delaney, amdelane[at]

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