Gratitude in biology: thanking organisms & communities that enable discovery

By Jackson A. Helms

Biology stands out from other fields in that virtually every discovery we make requires us to study or exploit living things, from cell cultures to species to entire landscapes of interacting organisms.  Given this defining trait, it is striking how many of our papers lack a basic acknowledgment of credit.  As ecologists, can we express gratitude to the organisms, geographical areas, and human communities that make our work possible?  Should we do so?  Does it matter?

On the surface, scientists are obsessed with assigning credit.  Most publication formats include an Acknowledgments section, and we stuff our papers with citations tracing the obscure origins of every factoid or original idea.  We do this even in cases where the person receiving credit is no longer alive to enjoy any conceivable benefit.  It would seem that standard practices in our field provide ample opportunity to express gratitude.

But, aside from an occasional dry joke, Acknowledgments sections usually do not go beyond boilerplate admissions that other people contributed money or help to a paper.  Can we also use that space to thank countries, communities, and protected areas that steward the organisms we exploit, give us access and assistance, and often have the largest direct stake in our discoveries?  Could we thank a species or ecosystem itself, or at least attribute our discoveries to their existence?

When advocating conservation, biologists routinely profess that each species contains unique information, some of which may be useful to humans, and that destroying a species precludes the possibility of harnessing that knowledge.  Yet when given a chance to demonstrate the phenomenon in concrete cases—we acknowledge that our discovery was made possible by this species which survives in this protected area thanks to the efforts of this human community—we often fail to do so.  Imagine the cumulative impact of reading admissions of gratitude in every paper, press release, or news article.  Conservation might not be such a hard sell if people were constantly reminded that biodiversity, justice for indigenous cultures, and the creation of protected areas lead to concrete benefits for everyone.

Beyond a token thank you, we can also express gratitude in ways that return the favor (or undo some of the harm incidental to research).  Namely, we can donate our money or time to the protection of species, lands, and waters, and to the communities that maintain them.

Helms_FigureEven small donations can impact species and communities that enable our work.  For costs as low as a dollar or two per tree, for example, tropical reforestation programs can restore degraded lands and provide employment or educational opportunities for communities living near protected areas. (Photo by author)

In my work, for example, I usually study ants.  Over the course of a project I might collect kill hundreds or even thousands of specimens animals.  It is only fair that I then pay money to conserve the habitat or region in which I worked, both to benefit the species I exploited, and to ensure that other people can experience those places and species in the future.  If a species, ecosystem, or human community pays some of the costs of a discovery, they should get reimbursed.

As a thought experiment, I once asked about writing these sorts of payments into grant budgets.  I was told that it cannot be done for administrative reasons (anyone else have a different experience with this?).  But we can still use our own money to help protect something or someone that has helped us.  A tiny percentage of an average ecologist’s salary (even that of a graduate student), can go a long way for the biodiversity and human communities that subsidize our work, especially in developing countries.  Several hundred dollars may cover the yearly wages of a conservation or social worker, help repay an indigenous community for setting aside arable land for conservation, or fund endangered species protection.

How do I live up to my own suggestions?  In the Acknowledgments sections of my research publications, I have never directly thanked a species or ecosystem.  I only occasionally acknowledge local human communities (31% of the time), countries or states (50%), or protected areas (56%).  I clearly need to improve.

Failure to express gratitude is at best a missed opportunity.  At worst it perpetuates disregard for people and other organisms.  If we profit by studying, manipulating, and in some cases harming living things, we should at least say thank you.

Author biography: Jackson Helms is a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station.  In addition to his research on ant ecology, he works with environmental and social non-profit organizations and has spent several years as a linguist and translator.  Follow him on Twitter @Marine_Ants or check out his website Marine to Myrmecologist.