Overthinking Conservation

“You’re perfect for this fellowship, but there’s no ‘Whitty et al.’ yet… Your problem is, you overthink things.  You want things to be perfect before you send them out, but everyone else is going ahead and publishing whatever they have and talking it up.  You just gotta get your work out there.  If you don’t get this fellowship, it’s because of your publication record.”

What had started as a casual conversation about a postdoctoral fellowship application turned into an encouraging, flattering, and – most importantly – “get your rear in gear” motivational talk with one of my mentors.  His words showed that he believed in my drive, abilities, and achievements, and that he actually thought about my strengths and weaknesses as a researcher.  And it showed me how well he knew me – overthinking has hampered me in many endeavors, from research to sports to my personal life, from childhood to today.  Coaches, teachers, and friends have pointed it out, and I’ve worked on it.  But my hyperactive brain still churns away in unproductive ways.

I overthink my work.  I am passionate about what I study, and I am driven to share it.  I am (I think) confident, productive, and effective in the field, when I am actively delving into research questions.  But, as I try to put manuscripts together, all I can see are the flaws in my work.  They loom over all of the good, exciting qualities of my research, and then I get lost in a maze of self-doubt and tangled up in brainstorming how to improve what I present.

It’s an issue of confidence and pride.  It’s an issue of being frustrated by the over-hyped work that I see published everywhere, and not wanting to participate in the competitive, fast-paced machine that churns out papers that cover trite ideas with contrived terminology.  It’s an issue of trepidation that I feel that others will confirm my fears about my research, that I’ll be called out as a hack.

This might indicate that academia may not be the best avenue for me.   Success, for me, should not be measured by an H-index or high-profile article; it should be measured in tangible, meaningful contributions to on-the-ground conservation.   Plenty of researchers have documented problems and trends, yet, to quote Aldo Leopold in 1949, “…conservation still proceeds at a snail’s pace; progress still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory.”

In a way, conservation itself suffers from an “overthinking” problem.   More data are always “needed”.  Given their complex, dynamic nature, we will never be able to fully describe and predict ecosystems and their associated human systems.  It’s daunting, to think about all that we don’t and can’t know.  It seems like much of academic conservation science gets stuck here – we don’t have perfect knowledge, so we can’t, in good conscience, move forward to the next step.  And so, that “next step” isn’t really thought about; even as we accumulate more and more information, it’s not clear how that information can be translated into meaningful conservation, particularly with limited time and funding.  It reminds me of those eager, squirming groups of penguins at the ice edge – there they are, all gathered together, but all too tentative to take the plunge.

so…now what? (www.penguinscience.com)

There is some great work being done to forge the path to that next step, with interdisciplinary researchers creating and adapting novel and exciting frameworks to connect information to action.   Certainly, many conservation practitioners do design and implement effective programs.  However, academic conservation science seems almost like its own artificial world at times.  And therein lies much of my problem in getting manuscripts together: while I work on academic manuscripts, I feel a visceral frustration that I’m not “out there”, actually doing work that helps people and the environment, and I become disillusioned about all that I’ve done.  In short, publishing is not enough of an incentive for me, and I’ve found it very difficult to be motivated and to focus on this part of the process.

the enthusiasm is palpable.

But, publishing does serve a very important purpose, underneath the plaque of competition and showboating.   All of my brilliant (indulge me) ideas and hard-earned data don’t mean much floating around in my head; even in summary reports that I submit to collaborators and research agencies, these ideas and information only reach a very small audience.  So, I need to swallow my idealistic pride about conservation science, tell myself that “good enough” is actually good enough, and publish so that I can share my ideas with a wider community of conservationists.  At a recent conference, after I led a solutions-oriented, forward-thinking workshop on marine mammal bycatch, a colleague-friend (somewhat inebriated) pulled me aside: “You’re not gonna like what I have to say, but I’m gonna say it.  You have an obligation to share your work.  You have a lot of talent for this, and your research is gonna be the model for how people do this kind of work and how they move forward, so you are under a lot of pressure to publish.”

And, beyond getting my ideas out there, I need to play the game in order to change the game.  The more I publish, the stronger candidate I’ll be for future jobs, and the better position I’ll be in to influence conservation as a field.  I want to influence conservation scientists to value research that transcends disciplinary and institutional boundaries, that connects the power of academic research with the utility of real-world application.  I want to move conservation science from “conversation science”; I want the overthinking to evolve into doing.  A couple of interesting links along the lines of “inadequate data” and action here and here.

So…fine. I’ll get some manuscripts submitted.

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