By Andrew L. Rypel
The famous expression ‘Life Happens!’ has certainly been around awhile. It’s reserved as a sort of colloquialism, describing how someone’s life or life plans are completely upended by circumstances, usually because of seemingly random events. This summer, I’ve been reflecting on how these types of events also seem to occur in science. Science, much like life, seems to kinda happen.
In my experience, most scientists follow surprisingly non-linear pathways through their careers. I can’t recall any scientist that set out with a specific plan and then perfectly executed that plan over a career. I’m sure they exist, but it must be rare. Things happen – you meet people, read interesting new things, change the science, and are changed by the changing science and experiences around you. It can feel a bit like a ‘random walk’ as described in movement ecology. And if you study a ecosystem or population for a long time, something big is bound to happen, and it will usually be a surprise. This might come from a species invasion, a mega-disturbance such as from a flood or wildfire, a population collapse, development of land, or any number of other things. It’s one of the reasons long-term research is so vital to our understanding of how the environment works. Humans tend to be quite bad at predicting shocks and shifts in dynamic systems. In their ‘fat tails’ paper, Batt et al. 2017, show how extreme events are more likely to occur for biological variables. Thus ecologists studying aquatic organisms and ecosystems in particular should expect surprises.
In other cases, ideas somehow seem to find their cosmic time. Anecdotally, it seems common enough that scientists have an idea, wait, and then someone else publishes it. And this usually isn’t because another scientist takes their idea (aka ‘scoops them’), but because an idea’s time has somehow come. Perhaps because new tools emerge that enable pursuit of ideas previously intractable. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn (1962) described a process of ‘normal science’, primarily as an articulation of prevalent and previously settled upon theories and frameworks. Sometimes this articulation by the science community happens in synchrony.
Alternatively, in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins (1976) searched for an evolutionary explanation for seemingly harmful behaviors that persist. For example, what is the fitness benefit of martyrdom? Or devoting one’s life to unappreciated art or science? The proposed hypothesis – a surprising one to many, was the notion that ideas themselves might be in competition with one another. Interestingly, it was here where Dawkins originally coined the term ‘meme’ and is apparently still miffed at the internet highjacking of the word. Essentially, he suggested a selection process on ideas themselves, such that some ideas proliferate with success, while others die out. The ideas themselves, like viruses, owe nothing to the host. The meme concept or memetics apparently remains highly controversial throughout science.
Good ideas are often timeless, but also frequently forgotten or ignored for a variety of biased reasons. In these cases, research does not happen – which is unfortunate for everyone (Rypel et al. 2021). For example, the confluence of climate change and biodiversity loss are fundamentally challenging science and society to find novel workable solutions. Indigenous knowledge successfully conserved ecosystems and biodiversity across the globe for long periods of time (Ogar et al. 2020). Unfortunately, western science too often emphasizes a single way of knowing, while ignoring other valid approaches (Dentzau 2019). Blending Indigenous knowledge with other science systems is an exciting step forward for many fields, but especially in the ecology and fisheries fields where I work and collaborate. Relatedly, transdisciplinary science strives for innovation in large part because of a willingness to search for useful ideas in other areas and/or fields – to get uncomfortable. This process seems to generate ideas that are fitter in both the scientific and sociopolitical realms. Yet for years, interdisciplinary science was actively discouraged. Working at the boundaries of the sciences and Indigenous frameworks is where much research will occur in the future. None of these science roads are, or will be, linear.
In my own science journey, conservation needs drive much of what I study. In graduate school I studied rivers, primarily because I grew up on some spectacular ones and was raised to love them, and also because I started to grasp their widespread degradation. Two studies in particular (Benke 1990 and Dynesius and Nilsson 1994) were important in understanding the scope of the problem. Work by Stanley and Doyle (2003) was motivating to help understand the complexities but importance of removing ‘deadbeat dams’. I later studied freshwater mussels, in part because I had always been fascinated by them, but also because I met several experts (seemingly randomly) who patiently taught me some identification, how endangered they were, and how new information could help save them. Amazingly, some of these folks even wanted to collaborate with me! When I worked for the Wisconsin DNR, I studied overfishing in bluegill and management options to remediate overfished ‘panfish’ populations #InDefenseOfPanfish. This topic was one of the top research priorities for fisheries biologists in that region at the time. I never dreamed I would move to California and study western fishes, water and drought. But life happens, and I got this amazing job at UC Davis and now work on all the crazy water and native fish issues in the West. Occasionally, I try and fail at explaining the subtleties of California water to friends and family that live in more hydrated regions.
It’s impossible to understand all the reasons behind the twists, turns, ups and downs in a science journey. And certainly going with the flow too much can be a bad thing too. Sometimes I wonder whether in California water science, we whipsaw too much in our priorities. Might we have better success if we set a more solid, albeit less trendy or weather-based course, and stuck to it? But surprises do happen that change the game – and we need to make room for them in the science enterprise. The fat tails paper tells us we should expect lots of surprises. And, it can be fun to think back about the serendipity of it all. Estes, another California scientist, reflected on the science magic of the twists and turns in this 2020 book – Serendipity.
One thing is clear – scientists rarely work along a linear path and this certainly seems to be the case in California water. This is a topic I try to talk about openly with my own students. Some of my colleagues occasionally rib me for being a generalist, but conservation science has extraordinary depth of interest and overlap with so many fields and important issues. Water in particular connects all these things. We should be open to that which we haven’t planned. And so I thought this topic might make for an interesting blog post for you all too.
If you feel comfortable, please share your own unpredictable (or not) science/water journey in the comments below! If you feel uncomfortable, perhaps this will help stimulate your thinking 🙂
Batt, R. D., S. R. Carpenter, and A. R. Ives. 2017. Extreme events in lake ecosystem time series. Limnology and Oceanography Letters 2:63-69.
Benke, A. C. 1990. A perspective on America’s vanishing streams. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 9:77-88.
Dawkins, R. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Best Books.
Dentzau, M. W. 2019. The tensions between indigenous knowledge and western science. Cultural Studies of Science Education 14:1031-1036.
Dynesius, M., and C. Nilsson. 1994. Fragmentation and flow regulation of river systems in the northern third of the world. Science 266:753-762.
Estes, J. A. 2020. Serendipity: An Ecologist’s Quest to Understand Nature. University of California Press.
Kuhn, T. S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
Ogar, E., G. Pecl, and T. Mustonen. 2020. Science must embrace traditional and indigenous knowledge to solve our biodiversity crisis. One Earth 3:162-165.
Rypel, A. L. 2015. Effects of a reduced daily bag limit on bluegill size structure in Wisconsin lakes. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 35:388-397.
Rypel, A. L., W. R. Haag, and R. H. Findlay. 2009. Pervasive hydrologic effects on freshwater mussels and riparian trees in southeastern floodplain ecosystems. Wetlands 29:497-504.
Rypel, A.L., P. Saffarinia, C.C. Vaughn, L. Nesper, K. O’Reilly, C.A. Parisek, M.L. Miller, P.B. Moyle, N.A. Fangue, M. Bell-Tilcock, D. Ayers, and S.R. David. 2021. Goodbye to “rough fish”: paradigm shift in the conservation of native fishes. Fisheries 46 605-616.
Rypel, A.L., C.A. Parisek, J. Lund, A. Willis, P.B. Moyle, Yarnell, S., and K. Börk. 2020. What’s the dam problem with deadbeat dams? https://californiawaterblog.com/2020/06/14/whats-the-dam-problem-with-deadbeat-dams/
Stanley, E. H., and M. W. Doyle. 2003. Trading off: the ecological effects of dam removal. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1:15-22.