A new study looks at how scientific fields have formed

by Animal_Ethics8 min read18th Jan 20212 comments

15

Scientific progressAnimal Ethics
Frontpage

Cross-posted from the Animal Ethics blog.

Furthering a cause entails acquiring a substantial amount of knowledge about the problem the cause addresses. Investigation into those problems by academics can help to advance work for a certain cause. In addition, academic research and engagement is a very important part of how a topic gains traction in society. Due to this, starting new academic disciplines has historically been critical in advancing the study of many subjects.

This is true for animal advocacy in general, and particularly so in certain areas. We think there is potential for new scientific fields to be created to help animals. Because of this, we conducted a study on how academic fields related to animals are formed and how these fields can be helpful for those working in defense of animals, in particularly animals living in the wild, who are very neglected.

In conducting the research, we interviewed leading experts in different fields and investigated the available literature about the fields’ origins. We focused on fields in natural sciences that developed in recent years. This research shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement by Animal Ethics of the goals and methods of these fields, but we think that they have relevant similarities to potential new fields.

In this research we tried to see if there are practical, concrete lessons that will be useful in the creation of future fields. We found that this is a very difficult topic, and it is actually very hard to draw lessons from what has happened in certain fields and apply them to others. But we think this research may be of interest to anyone concerned with helping animals in an academic context or supporting others to do so.

This work was made possible thanks to the support of Animal Charity Evaluators, who funded this work through its Animal Advocacy Research Fund.

You can download this study here (below is the executive summary):

Establishing a research field in natural sciences

Executive summary

Background

Getting detailed knowledge about the problems that different causes address, including those concerning animal advocacy work, can be crucial for those causes to successfully achieve their goals. This knowledge, however, may not be available, and novel research is sometimes needed to gain it. In comparison to just doing independent research, promoting the creation of a new academic field can maximize the resources available for such research in the long term, the expected quality and quantity of the research that may end up being produced, the impact in practice and policy making that such research can have and its potential to drive a scientific and normative shift. Furthermore, this avoids the risk of the research being discredited as a result of being performed independently of academia. This study seeks to gain more knowledge about how new disciplines emerge in order to provide guidance for advocates working within newly formed cause areas which require such developments.

Objectives

This study aims to provide ideas about actions that both researchers inside academia and other agents outside academia can take to promote the early growth of new academic fields. It also aims to learn more about the obstacles that those attempting to create new academic fields may face, how to overcome them, and the possible mistakes that can be made in doing so.

Methodology

To get a better understanding of this problem, we analyzed three research fields in the life sciences which were established relatively recently and which incorporate both positive and normative analysis: animal welfare science, conservation biology, and cognitive ethology. We reviewed the literature considered to be the basis of early development in each field, and the literature reviewing its history. We also interviewed scholars knowledgeable of the development of each of these fields, which we identified according to their publication history, citation count, and general standing in relation to other authors in the field, as well as with their role in the development of the field, and of how well placed they are to understand it.

Animal welfare science

Animal welfare science was created as a result of public funding being invested in the field. What caused this was the growth of concern about the topic among the general public, especially in Europe and especially in the UK, where, in the 60s, Ruth Harrison’s book Animal machines raised awareness about the situation of animals in factory farms. There was little prior interest among veterinary scientists and other scientists in this topic, although that progressively changed as the field developed. Between the 1970s and the 1990s several relevant publications where published that helped to shape the field, and some journals were created where animal welfare researchers were able to publish their work. Scientists with different backgrounds worked together to develop a common conceptual framework to assess something that is hard to measure objectively, welfare. What made this possible despite the initial lack of interest among scientists was political action, which both led to the provision of funding and to the introduction of legislation and public policies about the conditions in which animals should be kept. This provided opportunities for work for scientists working in animal welfare. Some independent animal organizations also provided funding and support to research in this field.

Conservation biology

Work in conservation biology had several relevant pioneers, but it can be said that it started as such in the 60s, triggered by the interest in the issue among some ecologists and the public. Legislation about conservation approved from then on has promoted research in this field. In addition, public support for conservationist goals grew significantly during that period, which helped private organizations supporting these goals to have much more resources. The field was established after two large conferences took place in the late 70s and early 80s. The Society for Conservation Biology, its journal and several books have been very influential in promoting work in the field and pointing out several key problems for conservation biologists to work on. Interdisciplinarity here, rather than being a challenge, has provided many opportunities for work in this field to be done from different approaches. Today conservation biology is a very prominent discipline. The development of the field was possible thanks to the work of a group of dedicated biologists, but also, and crucially, by the continuous support of external agents. These agents included private organizations with conservationist aims. In addition to putting pressure on legislators and governments to introduce new legislation and public policies that provided opportunities to work to conservation biologists, these organizations directly funded all the relevant efforts done by scientists to create the field.

Cognitive ethology

Unlike animal welfare science and conservation biology, cognitive ethology has not been promoted or supported from outside academia, rather its development was the result of the interest of a relatively small number of scientists. It has not been as successful as conservation biology and animal welfare science, and it remains a small field that is little known by the public. However, it has permeated the work of scientists in other disciplines, which are now more open to attributing minds to nonhuman animals. Initially it was presented as a field not committed to a normative approach in order to avoid controversy, though that has changed in recent decades. This, however, has likely contributed to animal advocates not recognizing the field as a relevant one for their work, and so animal organizations haven’t funded research in the field. As a result, scientists working in this field have only had access to funding through the more usual academic channels. This has meant that this field has not had the same opportunities for growth as the others.

Lessons for establishing a new field of research

In light of the results of the three case studies there are some lessons that can be learned about what scientists and external agents can do to promote the early growth of a new field.

We saw that actions like the organization of conferences, the establishment of influential professional organizations, the creation of specialized journals, ant the organization of training programs were very important ones in the case of at least some of the fields we examined. However, they may be unfeasible at very early stages when there are just not enough scholars interested in the field. Getting support from senior scientists can also be very helpful, but may not be possible. Individual scientists can nevertheless try to influence others by trying to publish their research in well-respected journals, in addition to conducting seminars and engaging in personal communication. They can work on developing a clear conceptual framework. When other researchers become more interested in this issue, they can try organizing activities, opening courses and publishing books.

As for external supporters of the field, they can provide grants to researchers and fund small projects or minor events like seminars or small conferences. They can also help to put scientists interested in the area in contact with one another. At some point they can also fund small training programs to interested scientists or students. In addition to this, their work can be important in raising awareness among the general public, which may indirectly spark support for the field, and do lobby work which can help to channel public funding to do more research in it.

Conclusions

We found it difficult to draw clear generalizations from the history of previously established fields, as there are many factors influencing new disciplines in different directions, which can depend crucially on circumstances external to academia. Also, the section about the lessons for establishing a new field shows that many of the actions that appear to have played an important role are relatively common sense ones which we would have already expected to work before doing this study. Beyond this, we gained some insights that may be useful to keep in mind in developing a new field. Among them, we have also seen that while openly stating the normative commitments of the field may mean dismissive reactions by peers, it can also make it easier to get support from outside academia. For their part, external agents who want to support the creation of new fields of research should have good knowledge of the actual status of the field to decide how to proceed.

15

2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:02 PM
New Comment

Isn't there a difference between creating entirely new frameworks, and just adopting frameworks to different species in parallel?

For instance, it seems that adopting frameworks to different species in parallel often ends up happening over time (as we've seen people gradually adopt cognitive ethology from chimpanzees and captive dolphins into wild dolphins, elephants, african grey parrots, kea [where academic labs do exist to study them], capuchin monkeys, and new Caledonian Crows). It seems that some species of animals are intensively studied, and the vast majority of others not so much (like, WHERE are the Irene Pepperbergs on storks and pelicans or Andean Condors or deer?).

One thing I've often noticed is how little attention is spent on studying individual orders of protists and very small animals (especially nematodes that aren't C. elegans or most species of invertebrates), which should presumably have even more genetic diversity than what we see in charismatic megafauna.I know there is a conference specifically for tardigrades, but it hasn't gotten much attention..

As for cognitive ethology - people like Louis Herman, Joyce Poole (of elephants), Andrea Marshall (of manta rays) all seemed to get funding through independent research institutes. It seems that sometimes they get support from sources that overlap with sources that support zoos? 

John Marzluff def gets a lot of academic support  for studying crows (and before that, prairie dogs)

Hi, yes there is a difference between creating new frameworks, and just adopting frameworks to different species in parallel. You probably have in mind the establishment of welfare biology as a new field. What happens in that case is that the study of the circumstances affecting the welfare of wild animals requires learning many things about their environment, due to which cross-disciplinary work intersecting animal welfare science and ecology is needed, which is not the case with domesticated animals.

You're probably right with regards to sources of funding for cognitive ethology, and that's also the case for animal welfare science.
What you say about little attention being paid to invertebrates is also true. 

Thanks for your comment!