Category Archives: Director Message

Director Message

Introverts in Flatland

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“Distress not yourself if you cannot at first understand the deeper mysteries of Spaceland. By degrees they will dawn upon you.”
― Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Some of you may be familiar with Edwin Abbott’s work quoted above.  Flatland (1884) is a novella about a two-dimensional world that satirizes Victorian class culture.  The residents of Flatland, without a third dimension, have no “space” as we commonly know it.  There is no “up” or “down” simply forward, backward and side-to-side.  In addition, there are distinctions based on gender and class.  All women are lines, regardless of standing, so they can literally disappear if viewed end to end.  For men, the complexity of the shape dictates the social class. Middle class workmen are equilateral triangles, gentlemen are pentagons, nobility are hexagons and the priestly order are circles.  Of course, in two dimensions (other than the ability of women to disappear) all these shapes look pretty much the same, so additional senses (smell, sound) are used to distinguish classes.  For example, women (the lines) are required by law to emit a loud cry as they move, lest they accidently stab someone if approaching them end-to-end.  In addition to its satirical elements, Flatland is fascinating from a geometrical standpoint.  This is most notable when a sphere visits from the three-dimensional world (aka spaceland).  A sphere viewed in two dimensions is essentially a line that starts small, gets bigger, then smaller as the sphere passes through flatland – and of course to a Flatlander the sphere appears out of nowhere.  Flatland had a bit of a renaissance moment in the early twentieth century when some interpreted Einstein’s theory of relativity as predicting a 4th dimension.  This is not technically true, and subsequent work by Hermann Minkowski (which Einstein ultimately agreed with) established the notion of “space-time” in which time and space are one intertwined fabric.  Einstein considered time itself the 4th dimension and his theories predict (later confirmed) that time slows down for observers moving fast relative to those moving slowly and that time also slows for observers in higher gravitational fields relative to those within weaker gravitational fields (string theory needs 10 or more dimensions to make the math work, but let’s not go there).  So, does this mean people that live in high rises age quicker (lower gravity) and that truck drivers age more slowly (higher speeds on average) than a non-trucker, non-high-rise dweller?  Yes, but infinitesimally so.  You may have heard about the recent confirmation of gravitational waves by multiple astronomers.  In the most well-known case, these waves were created when two black holes collided a billion years ago.  This collision was so cataclysmic it warped space-time, created the waves that were detected by sensors on earth a few years ago, and confirmed a key component of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

So, Flatlanders are locked into a perceptive bias based on what is observable to them, and there is a lot more going on in our three/four-dimensional world than we realize or can detect with our senses.  This got me thinking about human personality and the way we perceive the world and interact with each other.  The psychiatrist Carl Jung defined the terms introvert and extravert in the early twentieth century, but not how the terms are commonly used today.  Jung used the terms to distinguish whether individuals focus their energy on the inner world or the self (introverts) or external world (extraverts).  This is not necessarily the same as todays common usage where introverts are seen as shy and withdrawn while extraverts are social and outgoing.  The reality is more complicated.  Recent studies have shown that brains of extraverts and introverts (in the Jungian sense) fundamentally differ.  Extraverts are more sensitive to reward than punishment and tend to have more dopamine receptors in the midbrain.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates a pleasurable feeling.  Introverts have greater blood flow on the acetylcholine pathway than the dopamine pathway in their forebrain.  Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter associated with attention, learning and memory.  Of course, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the introvert/extravert scale but your tendencies may have a biological (and genetic) basis.  An extreme extravert within a group of introverts can feel a bit like the sphere entering flatland from another dimension – they experience the world in a fundamentally different way.

Wonder where you stand?  Do you gain energy from interacting with groups of people, or do you need a break to be by yourself after social gatherings?  Try this exercise:  draw a diagram with you in the middle and all the big challenging issues you can think of that impact your life in a circle around you.  Draw a line between yourself and the issues.  Where do you put the points of the arrows?

We are all different and perceive the world in unique ways. Sometimes this is due to things beyond our control.  Understanding and appreciating that fact seems like a good place to start for getting along with each other.

Further reading:

Director Message

Toward a Modern Conservation Model

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Many of you are familiar with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a set of principles codified in the 1990’s that has defined wildlife management in recent years. The core tenets of the model recognize that wildlife belongs to everyone, that access to hunting opportunities should be available to all, that no commercial markets for wildlife should exist and that science should be the basis of wildlife policy. Historically, inland fisheries management in the U.S. was a disorganized hodgepodge with fundamental questions regarding ownership of resources largely unresolved. In the late 1800’s and the first part of the twentieth century some management structure was instituted. Congress established the US Commission on Fish and Fisheries and many states formed their own Commissions in response to declining fish populations. The initial focus of these groups centered around determining causes of the declines, mitigating the effects of dams and developing fish culture and stocking programs. For coastal fisheries, concern over declining commercial landings ultimately lead to the enactment of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in the mid-1970’s, the goal of which was (and still is) preventing overfishing. 

Florida created the post of State Game and Fish Commissioner in 1913, followed by the Department of Game and Freshwater Fisheries (1927), the Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (1935), Marine Fisheries Commission (1983) and the current Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC, 1999). In tracking this evolution, you can see a clear progression from a focus on limiting overharvest, expansion of law enforcement, conservation of habitat, incorporating non-game issues and integrating social issues into decision making. On the law enforcement policy side, federal and state agencies have built on the foundation established by the Lacey Act (the nation’s first conservation law signed in 1900 that prohibited trade in illegally harvested wildlife) to establish an encyclopedic array of specific regulations that is continually updated to prevent over-exploitation. In 1902 Guy Bradley was hired by the American Ornithologists Union to police plume hunters in the everglades. Bradley, one of the nation’s first game wardens, was murdered by plume hunters at age 35. In just a few generations, conservation law enforcement in Florida has evolved and expanded to today’s FWC force of over 700 sworn officers. While these policy and enforcement advances occurred social and political factors have framed a body of ethics adopted by most hunters and anglers characterized by concepts such as fair chase and catch and release that has resulted in a more conservation minded user base. 

As conservation agencies were building capability to minimize the risk of overharvesting, habitats were becoming lost and degraded.  Public awareness peaked with the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962), which spurred the birth of the environmental movement and ultimately spawned hundreds of organizations promoting the appreciation of healthy, functioning ecosystems.  Shortly thereafter, social scientists began focusing on the human side of conservation, creating conceptual models for how people perceive and value healthy fish, wildlife and habitats. Collectively, these policy, enforcement and social constructs have created a conservation landscape where the risk of over-exploitation is minimized, and the focus has increasingly transitioned to habitat quantity and quality, ecosystem structure and function, socioeconomic aspects of conservation, change due to extreme environmental events (climate change, harmful algal blooms, storms, etc.) and the impact of invasive species. These are the elements that will define the conservation landscape moving forward.

How is FWC positioned to deal with these challenges?  FWC recognized the need to focus on habitat conservation and restoration before the trend became fashionable. Science driven management ranging from Objective Based Vegetation Management and prescribed burning on our Wildlife Management Areas to comprehensive lake restoration projects and restoration of coastal wetlands have created an impressive portfolio with far-reaching impact.  Dedicated research teams focusing on terrestrial, freshwater aquatic, coastal and marine habitats have advanced the state of the science and informed countless management actions taken by dozens of agencies.  Similarly, FWC has been on the forefront of incorporating human dimensions elements into our conservation planning since its inception.  I want to highlight two initiatives that seek to build on these efforts.

While much good work has been done on protecting and restoring terrestrial habitats, much of that has been accomplished either through acquiring land into public ownership or habitat management efforts on publicly owned land. As the pressures on Florida’s ecosystems intensify, landscape-level approaches to conservation based on sound principles relevant to all types of landowners will be necessary.  Significant progress has been made on this front including establishment of strategic habitat conservation areas, statewide wildlife action plans, the critical lands and waters identification project, the cooperative conservation blueprint, and landscape conservation cooperatives which establish sound technical foundations to inform landscape level conservation.  A new Landscape Conservation Team has been formed with representatives from multiple FWC divisions and led by Beth Stys of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) to review progress to date and identify actions the agency can take to promote conservation across a wide spectrum of landowners and conservation groups.

However, reaching a working consensus on landscape-level goals that will get buy-in from multiple public and private partners will require additional background work.  Understanding the social and economic aspects of conservation will be the focus of the new Center for Conservation Social Sciences Research (CCSSR) recently established as a work unit within FWRI and led by Dr. Nia Morales.  CCSSR is a research center focusing on the complex relationships between people and the fish, wildlife, and habitat resources FWC conserves and protects as well as investigation of the roles people play in fish, wildlife, and conservation issues.  The center will also assist groups within FWC to develop their own social science capacity through collaborations on projects, seminars and training.  For more information on the Center see

While the traditional conservation approaches preventing overharvest will and must continue, the efforts highlighted above will leverage that work and promote large scale, durable conservation outcomes.

Director Message

The Case for Science Within Government

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness…”
– George Washington, Inaugural State of the Union Address, January 8, 1790

Following the American Revolution, the founding fathers faced the daunting task of setting up a government.  The war, which had for all intents and purposes ended with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, was not officially over until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.  At that time, the US was still a loose confederation of states with little to no central authority.  Nothing got done without the agreement of a majority (or in some cases the entirety) of the thirteen states.  That remained the situation until the US Constitution was ratified by a majority of the states.  The Constitution, which became effective in 1789, established the president as chief executive and one of the requirements was that the president shall “…from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union…”, which brings us to the above quote by George Washington.  The quote is from his (and our) inaugural state of the union address which was read to congress in New York City, the capital at that time.  Washington D.C. did not yet exist, and the area was literally a swamp. 

The fact that the first president of this new country would take the time to highlight the importance of an educated citizenry (unfortunately at the time, only white men) is very telling.  Among the various powers the Constitution assigned to Congress is the “promotion of science and the useful arts”.  The founders of our country realized that the idea of the United States was more important than the mechanics of government and that our fundamental principles – government based on consent of the governed, individual rights, freedom of speech and no state sponsorship of religion – needed to be widely taught for our system of government to endure.  Because the concept of the United States was not yet widely accepted the big concern was how to promote national awareness.  Along those lines, Washington and many other early leaders were extremely interested in establishing a national university.  Washington, who was the nation’s wealthiest president excluding (perhaps) the incumbent even provided for the national university in his will.  The idea of a national university did not pan out, mainly because the states developed their own universities to complement those that existed prior to independence.

In challenging times our nation has repeatedly turned to science to inform policy, although the pathway has not always been quick or straightforward.  The National Academy of Sciences was established by Abraham Lincoln in March 1863 in the midst of the Civil War.  Earlier that year, Lincoln had introduced the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in states that had seceded from the union.  One of the first tasks assigned to the newly established Academy was to figure out a way to stabilize compasses aboard the newly deployed ironclad ships, whose iron hulls interfered with the navigational tools.

In Florida with the establishment of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a constitutional agency, the inherent value of science within government is recognized.  Although the word science does not appear in Florida’s Constitution, the word research occurs 3 times: 1) in establishing the mission of the state university system, 2) in exemptions associated with the net limitation amendment, and 3) in defining the mission of FWC.  The three pillars of the FWC mission:  management, research and law enforcement are enshrined in perpetuity in the constitution.

Our FWC mission as laid out in the constitution seems straightforward and laudable but there are some realities relative to science that are not often understood.  While our Commission has a proven track record of basing natural resource decisions on sound science, they are not required to follow that approach.  Technically, our Commission is bound only by something known as the “rational basis test” which simply means that they must act rationally related to a “legitimate government interest”.  Former supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall once said, “The constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws”.  The same could be said for our state constitution and our Commission.  While we can all be proud of the scientific legacy we have built over more than six decades at the Institute (and the fact that our Commission has been committed to science-based management) it is important to realize that does not necessarily have to be the case.  The facts will usually win out, but it can take a very long time for that to happen – consider our ongoing struggles with racial and gender equality.

While it has taken a while to get there, policymakers are beginning to reach out to scientists on the biggest environmental challenge of our time, anthropogenic climate change.  The conditions that result in a warming and less stable climate and the acidification of our oceans have been with us for decades and the rate of accumulation of green house gases in our atmosphere is accelerating.  Florida’s fish and wildlife are and will continue to be impacted by climate change.  Governor DeSantis has introduced bold policy initiatives related to water quality and has hired the state’s first ever Chief Science Officer within DEP, Dr. Tom Frazer who is a longtime FWC partner and a great choice for the position.  As of this writing, the state is advertising for a Chief Resilience Officer to coordinate Florida’s preparations for “environmental, physical and economic impacts of climate change, especially sea level rise”.  While much more needs to be done at the national and international level to combat climate change, these are positive and encouraging steps at the state level.

Policies are not always required to be based on science, but the enduring ones almost always are.  It is our continuing challenge to build on our foundation of success and to be prepared as new opportunities arise.

Director Message

Thanks for Stepping Up

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Remember the days when your workload was predictable, and you could plan and dictate when tasks were tackled and completed?  Well, neither do I.  One fact of life for us as public employees is that we are expected to be flexible and adaptable, and often we are the first (or only) responders associated with potentially damaging environmental events.  In most cases we cannot plan or budget for the rare events like fish and wildlife disease or die-off events, and the occurrence of large scale environmental problems can be a real challenge relative to prioritizing staff time and resource allocation.  Often additional workload is created when we return to postponed or rescheduled activities.  Despite these challenges, FWC and FWRI staff have always risen to the occasion in response to unforeseen environmental events, and I never cease to be amazed at your resolve, commitment and creativity in dealing with these issues.

This year has been particularly challenging with the red tide that affected a large portion of the state.  This red tide, which is still lingering today, has impacted tourism, killed millions of fish and hundreds of sea turtles, manatees and dolphins. The event also created tremendous demand on our staff for a very prolonged period.  Our Harmful Algal Bloom Group lead the way continually adjusting to unpredictable and seemingly endless streams of water samples coming into our St. Pete headquarters for analysis.  To date, over 14,000 water samples have been examined tied to this event.  The HAB group also developed innovative approaches to monitoring and communicating results including aerial surveys with the assistance of FWC Law Enforcement and a near-real time interactive sample reporting tool developed with the invaluable assistance of our communications and GIS specialists.  Our fish health team monitored the fish kill hotline and fielded a record number of calls, responded to countless inquiries and provided data and information in a timely manner.  Our manatee folks, particularly those in the Southwest region, worked long hours under very demanding conditions to respond to an overwhelming number of manatee carcasses and the occasional rescue while assisting partners in responding to dolphin strandings.  Our sea turtle team also distinguished themselves by responding to and documenting a record number of sea turtle mortalities associated with this event.  Our fisheries team spun up specific monitoring programs to assess the effects of red tide on our fisheries, generating data that will be critically important in defining the short and long-term effects of the event. Through it all, our administrative support team managed logistics and budget that form the foundation of an effective response and your leadership team was there every time I needed support.

I have often said that FWRI staff are at their best when the challenges seem insurmountable.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been contacted by representatives from other agencies praising our response capability, professionalism, and quality of the work you all do associated with unforeseen events.  It is not lost on me that the time demands, and stress associated with this work and the lost time with family and friends takes a toll.  I trust that you all take comfort in the fact that you have leadership that understands and supports you and is willing to do what it takes to make us collectively successful.  Although I join each of you in keeping my fingers crossed that these events do not become routine, I take a great deal of comfort in knowing that whatever comes our way we have demonstrated the ability to rise to the challenge.

Director Message

Putting Red Tide in Context

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“The Florida red tide was caused by the appearance in nearby coastal waters of extraordinary numbers of a microscopic sea creature.  Although individually so small as to be invisible to the human eye, the concentration of billions of Gymnodinium caused the sea water to take on a reddish or amber color…. Mass destruction of fish and certain other aquatic animals which was caused by a deadly toxin, the chemical composition of which is still unknown, which Gymnodinium liberated into the water…”

While this statement may seem to refer to the ongoing red tide that has impacted a large segment of Florida’s Coast this year, it was excerpted from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report completed in December 1947.  The report on a study directed by the Service’s chief shellfish biologist, Dr. Paul S. Galtsoff, outlined the circumstances associated with a particularly severe red tide that began in November 1946 and persisted for 11 months causing massive fish kills and widespread respiratory irritation for beachgoers.  The report also took great pains to debunk a commonly held theory at the time that the red tide was caused by munitions dumped into coastal waters at the end of World War II.

While our understanding of red tides has advanced tremendously since 1946, challenges with predicting the formation, severity and duration of the blooms remain.  The red tide organism, first identified definitively in 1948 and now known by the scientific name Karenia brevis after the accomplished state of Florida scientist (and former Institute Director) Dr. Karen Steidinger, can produce a dozen or more types of toxins.  Cutting edge work done by our colleagues from the USF College of Marine Science and Mote Marine Laboratory using satellite monitoring, oceanographic modelling and autonomous underwater gliders have bolstered the theory that red tides begin offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.  This comports well with the observations of Dr. Galtsoff that the first indications of a red tide in 1946 were reported by fishermen who observed large fish kills 10-14 miles offshore in November of that year.

While the first scientifically documented red tide occurred in the Florida panhandle in 1844, they have undoubtedly been a feature of Florida’s coasts for centuries.  In the 16th century Spanish conquistadors documented oral histories from the Calusa native culture that speak of widespread fish kills and discolored water.  More recent observations indicate that some level of red tide occurs nearly every year off Southwest Florida.  The specific combination of circumstances that cause red tide remains elusive to scientists but the emerging consensus is that a combination of east winds and southwesterly currents in the Gulf of Mexico create upwelling conditions that provide nutrients and bring red tide cells from the bottom to the surface.  Once established, the red tide organism is tremendously versatile at using nutrients from a variety of sources, including those released by decaying fish killed by the bloom.  There is increasing evidence that another marine algal species, known as Trichodesmium, which is adept at turning atmospheric nitrogen into a nutrient form that Karenia brevis can use, plays a significant role in the maintenance and growth of red tides.  In turn, Trichodesmium can be nourished by iron which enters the Gulf of Mexico in dust storms from the Saharan desert which is approximately as large as the continental United States.  Each year over one hundred million tons of Saharan dust is blown across the Atlantic Ocean in spring, summer and fall.  In June of 2018, NASA satellites documented a massive cloud of dust from Africa moving westward across the Atlantic Ocean which was said to be largest observed in 15 years.

The offshore origin of red tides, and the likelihood that red tide blooms initiate hundreds of feet below the ocean surface, make it extremely difficult to detect red tide blooms in the early stages.  However, during the current red tide the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the USF College of Marine Science have used data from autonomous gliders to target water sampling at depth which has confirmed the presence of the red tide organism.  Much like meteorologists have done for hurricanes, this work and related modelling and monitoring activities will lead to more accurate forecasting for future red tides.

Many of our FWRI colleagues, especially those in the harmful algal bloom, fish health, fisheries, marine turtles and manatee groups, have been working exceptionally hard responding to this event.  We have thrown everything we have at it.  Weary but committed staff continue to work in labs, on beaches, in trucks, boats and planes collecting important information that will improve our understanding of red tides and prepare us for future blooms.  I am extremely proud of the work they have done responding to this event – working long hours often in very difficult conditions.  They have handled contentious interactions with the public and local governments with professionalism and courtesy.  Most importantly, they have prioritized safety and the integrity of the data and information collected.

Red tide has been with us for centuries and will be with us in the future.  The red tide organism is particularly adept at using any nutrients that may be available.  In the current red tide we have documented highly concentrated blooms in many areas with little to no man-made nutrient pollution.  However, when red tides move inshore they can use nutrients that are more abundant in our estuaries, including those that may stem from agricultural, domestic, municipal or stormwater sources.  These man-made nutrients do not cause red tides but may contribute to their persistence inshore.  It is important to note that, even in the absence of a connection to red tide, there are numerous reasons to manage the input of excess nutrients into our coastal waters which can be detrimental to seagrass meadows and the fisheries they support.

The site and stench of millions of dead fish on our beaches is disturbing and disconcerting but it is an experience we share with Floridians of 1946, when the state’s population was about a tenth of what it is today, and the native cultures that occupied our region for thousands of years.  Our world-class fisheries have evolved and adapted to red tides and have shown tremendous resilience after previous severe events.  There are situations, such as residential canals and waters near aquaculture operations, where treatment and control of red tides may be feasible.  This is an active area of testing led by scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute involving clays, ozone and other techniques.

While the factors influencing red tide formation and severity are complex and large scale, our science is at a tipping point aided by state of the art technology that will result in improved forecasting abilities to inform Floridians and visitors to our state.  Red tide blooms will persist, but we have an awesome team and we will be ready.

Director Message

In Defense of Boaty McBoatface

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

In 2016 Britain’s National Environmental Research Council (NERC) decided to hold a public naming contest for its new $300 million polar research vessel. The NERC is an organization established by Royal Charter to coordinate environmental and earth sciences research and the new ship, due to its dedicated scientific mission, would be given the prefix RRS (Royal Research Ship). In its press release announcing the online poll, the NERC suggested a few names that might be appropriate for the new state-of-the-art research vessel including Shackleton, Endeavor and Falcon. When the online poll closed after one month there was a runaway winner with over 124,000 votes: RRS Boaty McBoatface. Boaty had gathered more than four times as many votes as the second-place finisher. Other top vote getters included: RRS It’s Bloody Cold Out Here and RRS Clifford the Big Red Boat (mock- ups of the ship had been shown with a red hull). In the end, the NERC chose none of these, opting for the more respectable RRS Sir David Attenborough.  As a concession to democracy, NERC did name one of its autonomous underwater vehicles Boaty McBoatface (perhaps Subby McSubface was taken?). So, when it came to science, the cultural powerhouse that has given us The Ministry of Silly Walks, Mr. Bean, Benny Hill and the lumberjack song was incongruously averse to informality.

It is clear from this case that humor (or is it humour?) with the express purpose of mocking stodgy government science was a galvanizing force that made millions of folks aware of NERC and its polar research program who would have otherwise not have engaged at all. I suspect that many folks also relished the chance to rail against the formality of science, especially in the United Kingdom, home of the world’s oldest national scientific institution:  the Royal Society (founded 1660). In the Royal Society’s early years, science was the exclusive purview of the monied elite and absent support from the monarchy it admitted more wealthy non-scientists than scientists just to pay the bills. By 1800 seven out of ten members were wealthy non-scientists. So, in the UK there is plenty of scientific mocking material.

In response to the naming contest gone awry, the UK Parliament formed an inquiry into the issue and the state of scientific communication in general (if you are interested you can watch it here:  One of the more stunning statistics from the inquiry is the reach that twitter hashtags associated with the naming contest had.  The hashtag #nameourship reached 23 million twitter users while the hashtag #boatymcboatface reached an astonishing 214 million twitter users.  These numbers are even more impressive when considering that the total number of monthly twitter users at the time was just over 300 million.

What are we to make of the rebuffed RRS Boaty McBoatface?  People like to have fun and humor has a way of engaging people regardless of background, culture, or worldview. Many of the most successful marketing programs use humor to engage customers.  Science, more than any other discipline except perhaps accounting and certain highly invasive medical specialties, is notoriously inaccessible and largely humor-free. Over 22 years of holding our MarineQuest annual open house at FWRI Headquarters in St. Petersburg we have learned that humor is by far the best way to engage kids and get them interested in science. Over the years, the number of silly costumes, funny stories, interactive games and generally goofy unfettered FWC staff has grown and reached thousands of kids who would not have sat still for a five-minute scientific PowerPoint. While I am sure the RRS Attenborough has a dedicated following, think of the millions of kids around the world who would want to follow the adventures and scientific exploits of the RRS Boaty McBoatface.

To many, science is still viewed as a distant, inaccessible discipline. But science is no different than any other human endeavor, fraught with failure, intrigue, personal biases, rivalries, and believe it or not -humor. As scientists working in public service, it is part our job to figure out the best way to connect people with science. Humor is a good place to start. If you remain unconvinced, consider the name of one of the world’s most popular tagged humpback whales: Mr. Splashy Pants.

Science and Advocacy

By Gil McRae

We often think of science as consisting solely of objective facts and advocacy as driven by personal values and emotions.  This view puts science and advocacy on opposite ends of a continuum when it comes to forces that influence policy.  The reality is much more complex than this, and navigating the landscape of values, emotions, objective analysis, and policy-making is not always an easy thing to do.

The classic image of the researcher as an isolated individual, free to focus on the specifics of a question without the impact of uncontrolled variables, personal values, and societal pressures is a false premise that is less applicable every day.  The scientist’s “ivory tower” is crowded with many influences that directly or indirectly influence how he or she addresses a problem or question.  Many researchers struggle to maintain their objectivity on contentious or emotionally charged issues and to pretend otherwise would be diminishing the human side of our science.  This is why the very best researchers have a strong record of collaboration with other scientists and the policymakers who depend on their results.  Despite scientist’s best efforts to maintain absolute objectivity, there is no substitute for actively soliciting viewpoints from colleagues who may approach an issue from a slightly different angle.  It is equally important for researchers to maintain a close connection with the policymakers who base decisions on scientific results.  The ultimate policy decision may not have the luxury of following every scientific recommendation to the letter.  Social issues such as the cost of implementation, safety concerns, legal authorities, and many other factors often must be considered along with the science in final decision-making.  The FWC model, where research is independent but integrated with management decision-making, recognizes the importance of objective science but also emphasizes that the ultimate success of our agency depends on a high level of integration between science and policy.

Similarly, the common view of an advocate for an issue or cause is that of a zealot who has pre-determined the good-guys and bad-guys and seeks to steer others to their cause.  This is also an oversimplification.  Many advocacy groups employ their own scientists who work diligently to enhance the body of objective knowledge on issues relevant to their cause.  In general, even the most outspoken advocates for an issue or particular species will consider objective scientific information and modify their views, if appropriate.  However, there is sometimes a lack of trust that prevents the constructive communication of scientific results to advocacy groups or limits scientific collaboration.  Building this trust and paving the way for scientific information to inform the debate on an issue takes time and effort, but it is well worth it.  Active engagement is the key.  Advocates are more likely to accept the outcome of scientific studies if they have been informed of or involved in the planning and design of the work.

So, instead of viewing science and advocacy as two opposite extremes on a continuum, it may be more appropriate to recognize elements of each embedded in the other.  While it is absolutely essential for our science to be objective, we must be aware of personal values and opinions that may cloud that objectivity.  At the same time, the energy and enthusiasm of the advocate can be channeled into a productive collaboration if a high level of trust is in place.  Working the boundaries of these perspectives can be tricky, but it is an underappreciated component of the work with do with FWC and in the long run, effort spent on the “human side” of science often pays the highest dividends.

Lots of Changes

If you follow our FWC Commission meetings, you are probably aware of the high level of change we are undergoing right now as an agency. Long-time commissioner (and former chair) Brian Yablonski is leaving FWC to join the Property and Environmental Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. Commissioner Yablonski served for 14 years on the Commission and became a strong advocate for science-based decision making and an ardent supporter of FWC/FWRI. This creates a vacant commission position that will be filled in the near future. We also had two new Commissioners appointed: Sonya Rood from St. Augustine who replaces Liesa Priddy, and Gary Nicklaus, who replaces Ron Bergeron. If that’s not enough for you, our Executive Director, Nick Wiley has left FWC to take a position with Ducks Unlimited. At the last Commission meeting Eric Sutton, our former Assistant Executive Director, was appointed new FWC Executive Director. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Eason, former Director of our Division of Habitat Species and Conservation, was selected as the new FWC Assistant Executive Director. Eric and Thomas’ selection maintains a strong thread of continuity as we transition to new leadership. They are both accomplished biologists and leaders who understand and appreciate the value of science-based resource management.

I know that so many changes happening at once tend to create a bit of uncertainty, if not anxiety. This form of anxiety is so common that an entire industry has developed dedicated to managing organizational change. While everyone deals with change in their own way, I would like to offer a few thoughts on the topic. Anxiety related to organizational change usually has two components: 1) how the changes might affect someone personally and 2) how the changes might affect the organization itself.

At the individual level, people often are concerned about how organizational change might affect their professional (or personal) well-being. There is an increasing body of evidence (and associated cottage industries springing up) that well-being, or happiness in general, is much more dependent on how the individual reacts to a situation rather than external factors associated with the situation itself. Fundamentally, the resiliency factor that allows people to deal with change effectively is self-awareness. In turn, self-awareness is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, a set of behavioral attributes that refers to how one recognizes and manages their emotions and forms productive interpersonal relationships. The connection between self-awareness and happiness has spawned a “mindfulness” industry that focuses on helping people free their mind, become more self-aware and improve their well-being. This is far from a new concept. While we associate meditation or similar exercises with Buddhism and Hinduism, every major religion includes elements related to self-awareness and managing one’s emotions and behavior. It is not always easy to do, but when faced with uncertainty or change, focusing inward rather than outward is often the most productive first step.

Much like individual response to change depends on one’s outlook, at the organizational level the effect of change often depends on the organizational culture. There is a huge body of literature associated with organizational culture and even tools for assessing organizational culture. Much of the research into organizational culture settles into a characterization based on shared values, common assumptions and approaches to doing work. One of the more useful constructs is illustrated in the figure at left. This diagram characterizes organizations based on two axes: stability vs. flexibility in work approaches and internal vs. external focus of the organization. In this framework, FWC clearly falls out with the clan organizational culture archetype. This type of culture is representative of a family-style work environment where decision making is collaborative and teamwork is fundamental to work operations. The internal focus refers to a culture that emphasizes internal integration and unity vs. an external approach focused on rivalry and differentiation. Some basic assumptions in the clan organizational culture are that workload can best be managed through teamwork and employee development and that the role of leadership is to empower employees. Promotion of this type of organizational culture has been cited as a major factor in Japanese industrial success post World War II and was adopted by many American firms decades later. Turnover of a few positions, even among leadership, is less likely to dramatically change culture in our type of organization than a more hierarchical agency. It is clear to me that the new leaders in FWC appreciate and embrace our culture, and that they will be looking for all our help to find ways to strengthen it.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that change will often catch us off guard despite our best attempts to prepare for it. According to legend, the Greek playwright Aeschylus, ironically known as the father of tragedy for his dramatic works, was reportedly killed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle who mistook the playwright’s bald head for a rock. This untimely end occurred while Aeschylus purposefully spent most of his time outdoors after an oracle told him he would be killed by a falling object.


By  Gil McRae, FWRI Director

We have all heard the phrase: “You can’t choose your family” which is usually employed when some family member distinguishes themselves through their less than stellar behavior. If we think about it, most of us would probably say that our most memorable moments of joy, pride, disappointment and heartbreak center on family. Despite our individual tendencies to be more introverted or extroverted, we evolved as social creatures and that group connection is probably more important than many of us realize.

I suspect the cynical among you bristle a bit when you hear the term “FWC Family” but I know for a fact there is meaning and substance behind those words. I have seen Executive Director Nick Wiley with his wife and boys numerous times and I assure you he would never use this term lightly. Even when they are navigating the tumultuous waters of teenage years, their closeness and commitment to each other is truly inspiring. Also, our shared sense of mission and recognition that the conservation challenges Florida faces will always outpace the resources we have available (and in some cases our ability) to meet them absolutely requires that we harness all of our collective expertise to be successful.

But can a group of thousands of FWC employees really be a family? Probably not in the literal sense but our shared values and commitment to supporting each other are certainly foundational attributes of a successful family. But we all recognize that our ability to personally connect with people in a meaningful way is limited to a certain number (our own resident extrovert Nick Wiley may be an outlier in this regard). In fact, there has been a lot written about the size of groups both from a cultural evolution sense and from the standpoint of group effectiveness.

For example, there is an evolutionary school of thought that claims that social group size in primates increased as brain size increased. In non-human primates, the social bond is often reinforced through grooming, which is not only the poster child for the invasion of personal space but also very time-consuming. There are only so many grooming partners you can take on in a day. As brain size increased, non-verbal communication and ultimately the development of language expanded the size of the core social group. Non-human primate social groups usually consist of relatively few individuals; a few dozen or perhaps one hundred at most. While resource constraints and other environmental factors are critically important, in general, these groups tend to split when the number gets beyond several dozen. In contrast, a review of group size in modern human hunter-gatherer societies around the world revealed that the mean village size is around 150 people, with the larger tribe consisting of perhaps 1200 individuals. The numbers are not radically different when we look at that uniquely human invention, the military. From Roman armies ca. 100 BCE to the current day, the size of a military company (the basic unit of an army) has remained remarkably the same at around 150 individuals (i.e. about the same size as the hunter-gatherer village). So clearly the ability of humans to connect at a level necessary to survive day-to-day or go into battle is baked into our being despite dramatic advances in technology and communication tools.

We have all had the experience of “too many cooks in the kitchen” – a spot-on euphemism for a group being too large to get the tasks at hand accomplished. My own personal version of expanding group size and unintended consequences comes from my family’s relatively short-lived attempt at holding annual reunions. Growing up in Michigan in the 1970s most of my extended family spent their days working at the “shop” which is the term they used for the group of General Motors auto manufacturing plants scattered around town (all shut down now). Their days consisted of welding the same part, tightening the same bolt or gluing the same fabric onto cars as they rolled by on the assembly line. Not surprisingly, they occupied their minds during these times of tedium by planning what sort of adventures they were going to get into when the whistle blew (yes there were actual whistles). This may have had something to do with the quality of American cars produced during that time. Needless to say, the gathering of several dozen of my extended family members for a reunion often did not end well. There would always be one or more family members who took advantage of this time (invariably facilitated by adult beverages) to air their family grievances accumulated over the decades for all to hear. I have (not so fond) memories of my mom and my aunt Betty spending the better part of one reunion in the back of a police car. While my brothers and I successfully negotiated their release (almost thwarted when my mom took a swing at a nice officer more than twice her size), by then much of the frivolity of the occasion had dissipated. At that point, we didn’t need to know about the relationship of brain size to primate social structure to figure out a smaller family gathering was in order.

While the FWC may not be a family in the literal sense of the word, we display the most admirable attributes of a family on a daily basis. Nowhere is this fact more apparent than with the tight-knit group of staff we have in the Florida Keys. As I write this, our staff in the Keys are just beginning to trickle back home from their evacuations. These last few weeks have been a whirlwind of anxiety, uncertainty and ultimately fear associated with this storm. Many staff members face significant challenges putting their lives back together. Through it all, this collective group of about 40 people has impressed me with their resilience, support for each other and positive attitude in the face of serious challenges. This group cohesion is made possible by the dedication and leadership of John Hunt, Tom Matthews, Bill Sharp, Alejandro Acosta, Bob Glazer, Kelly Sullivan and many others who have built a positive team dynamic that is second to none in this agency. To my knowledge, they do not regularly engage in social grooming, and they are a little large for a traditional family unit – but they are undeniably Family.

Communicating Science and the Fallacy of the Deficit Model

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”  ― Lewis Carroll (Real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an accomplished mathematician) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In high school I had a math teacher who could write equally well with both hands – at the same time. In fact, he would start an equation on the chalk board from both ends meeting perfectly in the middle. But this was not his most amazing skill. He had a unique ability to explain how the algebra, geometry and trigonometry he taught had impacted the course of history and why it was important to understand their applications even if you did not necessarily need the skills in your chosen profession. One example he gave still sticks with me to this day. Using trigonometry it is possible to tell the height of a tall object without ever leaving the ground (or throwing something up there). My 14 year old self found this amazing (discretely of course because nerdy was not cool back then). If this type of thing is possible, what else is out there for me to discover?

The remarkably ambidextrous Mr. Scherzer was not simply trying to transfer what he knew to his students, he took the time to figure out how students might relate to the information and make it meaningful to them. He understood that good communication is not just about the transfer of knowledge, it is about making a connection.   To paraphrase Maya Angelou, people may forget what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel. This is something we cannot fight, it is embedded in our DNA. Humans have been telling stories for at least 40,000 years and the advance of language and complex narrative communication shaped our evolution long before that. When you hear basic factual information in list form (or a bulleted PowerPoint) the language is processed in a certain area of the brain (Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area) which simply decodes the words into meaning. That’s it. When we hear a descriptive metaphor or a story we can relate to our brain’s sensory cortex is also activated. So when we read or hear a story about a beautiful song or a velvety soft chair our brain activates in the same area that is used when we are actually hearing or feeling these sensations. Good narrative communication and storytelling literally create a simulation of reality in our brain. This is why you can read Harry Potter much more quickly (and enthusiastically) than an economics textbook.

So how does this help us communicate science to non-specialists? For much of recent history, the communication of science has relied on what has come to be called the “deficit model”. This model assumes two things: 1) that public distrust or skepticism toward science is due to a lack of knowledge about science and 2) that providing information about science will overcome this knowledge deficit and thus cause the public to conclude that goods things emerge from science. This approach has resulted in the presentation of countless fact-laden PowerPoints and reports containing information that is quickly lost after pinging Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Simply conveying information is not enough, you need to figure out a way to ping the sensory cortex as well. You need to make a connection. This is increasingly the case when nearly limitless facts (and alternative facts) are available to anyone with an internet connection. Facts are no longer the exclusive purview of a learned elite.

In the mid-1980’s the Royal Society of London recognized that technology and science pervaded modern life and concluded that national prosperity depended on public understanding of the methods and limitations of science and its practical and social implications. They embarked on a decade long effort to promote Public Understanding of Science (PUS – the acronym is unfortunate) which mandated that UK scientists receiving government grants communicate about their work to the public. The goal was to promote public understanding of science and appreciation of scientific matters. Committees were set up to guide the process and funding was allocated to support the program. In an assessment a decade later, the review team concluded that all components of the PUS initiative were working splendidly, but there was little improvement in public scientific literacy other than the recognition of the initials “DNA”. The review also indicated that 80% of the public were interested in science but only 20% thought they were well informed. It became very clear that these approaches based on the “deficit model” were simply not working. In the UK, the deficit model has been abandoned as a communication strategy and a new contextual approach to Public Understanding of Science which relies on dialogue and trust building has proven much more effective.

It is not an easy thing to convey scientific information within a meaningful narrative with contextual relevance that impacts how people feel about an issue. The two forms of communication often seem to be at odds with each other. Logical scientific communication strives to be context free while narrative communication is context dependent. Also, logical scientific communication is judged on the accuracy of its claims, while the legitimacy of narrative communication is judged on the believability of its situations. It is important to realize that the sources from which people receive most of their science information are already biased toward narrative forms of communication. Just think about the most popular news or radio shows or podcasts. If viewers or listeners are presented with a compelling narrative that they consider believable they may consider that on an equal level of “truth” with an opposing outcome delivered through logical-scientific communication.

So in communicating science to non-specialists we need to think first about building trust, creating a productive dialogue and presenting the information in a meaningful context to the specific audience we are addressing. This requires more up front work to understand your audience, but it is always time well spent. If you need inspiration in this area, I have a few suggestions. Cosmos, the PBS television series (and subsequent book) from 1980 by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, is a masterful example of scientific communication for a general audience and my personal inspiration for pursuing a career in science. There is a recent re-boot of this series narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the noted astrophysicist and an excellent scientific communicator. Also, pick up any of the more than 300 essays written by Stephen J. Gould during his remarkable 25 year run writing the “This View of Life” column for Natural History magazine. A number of these essays are published separately in several books (easily found on Amazon) with whimsical titles such as “The Panda’s Thumb” and “The Flamingo’s smile”. His ability to take a specific detail and generalize to a broader context was unparalleled.

Let’s all make nerdy cool again!