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What we don’t know can be surprising

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Blog picture: What we don’t know can be surprising
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"We need to keep a tight hold on, or to find space for our curiosity to work"

With another year gone (although in the case of 2020 we might also add “and good riddance”), fewer hairs on top, and the remaining ones growing ever whiter, this point in the calendar makes me a little philosophical. On this basis, I have sought a bit of inspiration for this ES Blog from that old favourite, Socrates. Although leaving no written texts himself, luckily a lot of other folk seemed to be hanging around with a slate and stylus ready to note down his utterances, which does make me wonder if he just said a LOT of stuff and they only wrote down the good bits… . But anyway, and with respect to research, a nicely relevant quote from Socrates is the statement “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

I think we all get reminded of this from time to time. When I went to university they told me to forget everything I’d learnt at A-level, and then I remember getting the same message when starting my PhD. Or at least if not to forget it, to realise that what we had learned as truths were in fact sometimes opinions, and opinions differed between researchers. Also, a key part of research training was finding out what we didn’t know and targeting these gaps in knowledge. However, this wasn’t always straightforward. Although being told on the one hand that really we know very little for sure, it also seemed to be the case when putting forward research ideas to some senior colleagues that they’d done all that thirty years ago. So, in a world where we knew very little, but also had done it all before, how was I supposed go about tracking down an open research question of real substance?

I think it’s important to acknowledge the part that luck can play in research and that, although a few researchers are the genuine geniuses that will succeed no matter what, hitting the right topic at the right time can be key for many of us in achieving even a modicum of success. One stroke of good fortune for me was to start working on beneficial plant-plant interactions. For anyone currently engrossed in the second series of His Dark Materials, starting to work on facilitation was for me like finding the subtle knife; it let me step from a world where it seemed all the big questions had been answered, to another where we had some genuinely surprising and substantial gaps in our knowledge where simple experiments could generate important new understanding.

But if there were these big gaps in our knowledge, why weren’t they recognised before? Sometimes it’s hard to admit you might have missed something. So for example if you’d spent a career developing theoretical models of community ecology based on negative, competitive interactions, and you were pretty sure these worked and were widely-applicable, then you might be so certain of the models and theories that you then find it hard to imagine they have any gaps. The other possibility is that sometimes you need prompting to ask the question. For me this happened when I started working in sub-arctic plant communities, where the competition-driven plant community models I’d studied as an undergraduate no longer seemed to fit; I thought these theories were all tied up but working in new systems made me think again.

I was reminded that sometimes we need to be forced to look, in order to overcome our preconceptions about what we “know”, when working with Hutton colleagues on the evidence gathering review for the Werritty Report on the future of grouse moor management in Scotland. This review was sparked by the ongoing illegal persecution of birds of prey and has led recently to the decision by the Scottish Government to opt for statutory licensing of grouse moors and allowing muirburn only under license. Within the scope of our 2019 review work was the impact of legal moorland management activities on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Although I didn’t expect there to be a lot of work on how moorland management influenced ecosystem service delivery directly, I thought - particularly given the amount of land under this regime – that for certain we’d know how muirburn and other management techniques impacted on biodiversity.  This turned out not to be the case, with major knowledge gaps highlighted in Alison Hester’s section on muirburn including the impact of muirburn on belowground diversity, the relative impacts of heather burning and cutting, and the impacts of fire frequency and intensity. These evidence reviews have identified several other substantial knowledge gaps that we’re well placed to address as an organisation, and which could form the basis of work in the next SRP. However, I’d certainly never have picked up them on without having been forced to look. I just assumed, because researchers have been working on the impacts of moorland management regimes for decades, that we knew this stuff.

Time to think has been at a premium in 2020. When we’re all running from pillar to post it can be very tempting not to pick holes or to follow up on curiosity. But finding such big gaps in our knowledge during our moorland management review work was, for me, a timely reminder not to fall into the trap of thinking that we know it all already. Moving into 2021 I think we need to keep a tight hold on or to find space for our curiosity to work, and to follow up on those questions which start “I wonder if…”. I’ll certainly try to remember another good pointer from Socrates, that “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author, and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blogs/ecologicalsciences/what-we-don%E2%80%99t-know-can-be-surprising on 17/01/21 01:38:32 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.