Embracing complexity to address equity

Posted by Cate Macinnis-Ng @LoraxCate

Defining order in complex systems is central to the science of ecology. We use Linnaean classification to sort and name organisms, foodwebs to define flows of matter and energy and population models to describe population dynamics. This need for structure in a complicated world is not unique to ecology. Businesses have an organisational structure, maps help us define the location of geographical features and spreadsheets allow us to organise data. As datasets grow, we need more ways to arrange, store and make use of this information.


Leaf venation – an exquisite example of complexity in ecology. Image: Wikimedia commons

This week is the annual Rutherford Discovery Fellowship workshop when we all gather at The Royal Society of New Zealand in Wellington. Our guest speaker this year was Dame Anne Salmond on the topic of equity excellence. With a long and distinguished career as an anthropologist (including nine years as the PVC Equal Opportunity at the University of Auckland), Dame Anne is well placed is provide rich insights on equity and diversity.

Central to her talk was the religious hierarchical structure of life and matter known as the Great Chain of Being. This ancient ladder defines the place in the world for all life forms, precious stones, metals and minerals. Each step up the ladder represents greater authority and leadership while those beings on lower rungs should pay tribute to layers above. Civilised people rule over barbarians, men over women and free citizens over slaves. In modern times, we have dismissed much of this mythical model as parochial but Dame Anne argued this structure still has some influence in our lives as the basis of top-down leadership and the reason for the glass ceiling. She also used the examples of resource management and ecosystem services to illustrate human-centred ideas about earth systems.

Holding on to remnants of hierarchical structures is preventing progress in equity in our research institutions and other organisations. Complex networks are far more realistic and effective because they allow diverse voices to be heard. Science is enriched with new and unexpected styles of thought that remain hidden in a hierarchy. Networks of leadership and relationships with the wider community will help to address a range of equity issues. Finally, networks of researchers are needed to address our most pressing problems such as climate change and invasive species. Without effective collaboration between researchers in science, social science and the humanities, solutions will remain elusive.

Seawifs_global_biosphere.jpgGlobal productivity – large-scale complexity in ecology. Image: Wikimedia commons

Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng is a Senior Lecturer and Rutherford Discovery Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.  She is a plant ecophysiologist and ecohydrologist working on plant-climate interactions.

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