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Inside the mind of Shahid Naeem

Renowned scientist Shahid Naeem on growing up in NYC, the formation of the SDGs, and the ‘so what?’ of science

21 October 2020
21 October 2020

Shahid Naeem is tireless. At Columbia University, he chairs the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, runs the Naeem-Palmer Lab, and teaches as a professor in ecology and at the renowned Earth Institute, which brings together the physical and social sciences to improve global sustainability. He has more than 100 publications to his name and has, in years past, been one of the most-cited researchers in the world.

His enthusiasm for researching the natural world and mentoring others to do the same seems to have only grown through the course of his career, a hand in the face of cynicism from the concurrent demise of the planet’s climate and ecological health. The mottos of his lab – Never apologize for the truth! Eschew obfuscation! Do what you gotta do and stay fly! – are a case in point, as are the constellations of his thoughts shared in a conversation with Landscape News via Zoom from his home in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City.

This transcript has been edited for content and clarity.

“I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City. I was born in California, and I went back to California to get my degrees, but I wound up coming back in New York City in 2003 to work at Columbia University. But I think that growing up in the city, I was exposed to things. School trips to the American Museum or to the planetarium, to the zoos, to the botanical gardens to see the cherry trees blossom, to the conservatory to see the tropical rainforest, and the movies, the theater, the restaurants. And the multiculturalism – other languages in the subway. I don’t want to romanticize it because I was a kid, but to me, everything was interesting.

“Mostly I wanted to be a doctor because it would make my parents happy, but I decided to become an ecologist instead when I was about 30 years old. My parents were horrified. But out of the many fascinating things that were out there, nature was the most complex and the most interesting. My first mentor had money in his grant and took me to the tropics. He was studying the evolution of the sex ratio – why it is always about 50-50 in most species – and he was doing that by studying these little arthropods, these mites that rode on the bills of hummingbirds from flower to flower. And everything about what he was doing was fascinating to me. One, I thought he was never going to find the answer to that question. But two, that’s a really crazy, cool question, right? And to get up in the morning before dawn and set up mist nets to catch hummingbirds and measure them, mark and release them; and then at the end of the day, to sit out on the veranda with a rum punch and peanuts and watch the parrots come again, I thought, ‘This is the laboratory that I want to be in.’

Naeem with a drone. Courtesy of Shahid Naeem
Naeem with a drone. Courtesy of Shahid Naeem

“I like to say that we at the ecology department study the entirety of the living world, and we’re the school’s smallest department. The second-smallest department is astronomy. They study the cosmos. So, in a way, I don’t know who’s got the tougher challenge there. You get to biology, chemistry and physics, and they’re four to ten times bigger than we are. So environmental biology still has a smaller footprint in the realm of science – which is too bad, because I think a lot of the challenges we face are environmental.

“Our department goes across that full spectrum, from people who do everything from studying the evolutionary genomics of hormone receptors in birds to studying tiger conservation in India. I’ve had students work in the Okavango Delta, in the Arctic, the Solomon Islands, China, the Black Rock Forest, which is about 10 minutes away from my house here in New York. And yet what brings our lab group together are the core questions about the interface between humanity and the living world.

“One of my colleagues, Ruth DeFries, will ask students at the end of their presentation, ‘So what?’ What she means by that is, ‘Can you tell me how your research benefits humanity?’ And I ask the same question, so what?, meaning ‘Can you tell me how your research advances scientific knowledge?’ I think that’s important, because if you’re significantly advancing science, we should hope that that’s going to benefit humanity one way or another too.

Conducting field research in Mali. Courtesy of Shahid Naeem
Conducting field research in Mali. Courtesy of Shahid Naeem

“For some of our work in poor communities, when you ask what it is they need the most, they will say a school, a clinic, food, electricity, cell phone towers – these are things that they want so that they could call to ask somebody for information, get help for someone who’s sick. They know the value of the environment, but in terms of urgency, it winds up on the back burner. They have so many other things that are pressing.

“They do often understand the value of trees, and we’ve been asked to help plant. But they often don’t think about having 25 years to see a positive outcome. They think more, ‘Let’s get A, B, and C done and then we’ll work on D later.’ The problem is that ecological processes don’t allow that sort of luxury. You have to act now in order to see the results 10 years from now, and you can’t wait, because you can’t catch up. It’s actually a lengthy process.

“You see this also at the governmental level. A lot of countries have a five-year plan, which they call a long-term plan. But ecological cycles take decades, so if you have long-term policies that run only five years, plus government turnover, it doesn’t work. I was at Black Rock Forest just the other day, and we were looking at some of the data of the forest growth. It’s still recovering from the colonists from Europe who cut parts of the forest down 200 years ago

“Anyway, I was on the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which is sort of the think-tank for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I was active there in the early days, in the development of the SDGS. And I really feel that looking at the SDGs, you can see that the majority of the goals are social – universal schooling, gender equity, ending poverty, ending hunger. Most people in the world are poor, but the one thing that I think is sometimes forgotten is that most people now also live in urban environments. So the thing that I don’t think it’s particularly clear is how achieving the social goals achieves sustainable development – and if we take a robotic approach to sustainable development, we can make a sustainable planet, but we might not achieve the social goals. Integrating the two is important – but it’s quite an eye-opener to see the difference.

With students at Columbia University. Courtesy of Shahid Naeem
With students at Columbia University. Courtesy of Shahid Naeem

“Some of the other things we suggested for the SDGs were completely ignored. One of the things we suggested was not to separate land from sea (SDG 15 and SDG 14), because as an ecologist, it doesn’t make any sense at all. Three-quarters of the Earth is the ocean. It’s a big heat sink, integral to climate models. The other thing we said was that there should only be 10 goals, but there ended up being 17.

“One thing I’ve learned is that the government works, but it’s really slow. And that was certainly a take-home message and a strong one: by and large things do get done and will get done for the betterment of people, but it’s very, very slow.

“What winds up being personal is that I have to realize that I’m not a policymaker, I’m not a decision-maker, I’m not even a social scientist – I’m a scientist. This means that I have to be willing to work with people who are involved in decision-making processes, or developing policy, or these international agreements, because that’s all I can do as a scientist.

“My spouse, a historian, has often commented – and I’ve seen this to be very true – that scientists actually have to spend fairly dedicated and intense phases of their life focusing on being scientists. It’s not an easy trade. Neither are most trades, if you want to excel – if you’re a ceramicist or a computer engineer, if you want to be good at it, you have to dedicate most of your life to it.”


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