Studies show that we are losing plant and animal diversity at an alarming rate. Alarming because, in the words of biologist Paul Ehrlich:
“Losing species in an ecosystem is like progressively removing rivets from an aeroplane: the plane may fly on for a while, but eventually it will fall out of the sky."
Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology at the University of Reading, focuses his research on understanding and acting on these risks of biodiversity loss. He works to provide effective solutions by understanding connections between our social systems and the environment, and remarks on the urgency of changing underlying mind-sets about how we relate to the world:
“If we really want to halt biodiversity loss and ensure a safe course for current and future generations on Spaceship Earth, we need to think beyond government, and forget the selfish 'I' – the solutions start with 'us'."
The importance of hands-on learning
Tom emphasises that we cannot just focus on ecology in solving environmental problems. The elephant in the room is intensive food production and food waste, which are both social and ecological problems. Tom is intent on showing his students that the connectedness of such different scientific disciplines is essential in helping our planet survive and thrive.
Great hands-on learning like this is one of the advantages of studying biological sciences at Reading. Tom cites a recent highlight when he was working on a paper on the global food system with authors from many University groups, including Geography, Development, Agriculture, Business, and Political ecology, and was able to involve his students in this important research at various levels.
“I really enjoy synthesising research across different academic disciplines, and I see this as crucial to solving some of the world's most pressing sustainability issues.
"Three times a year I travel to Copenhagen and sit on the European Environment Agency Scientific Committee and this has also been a great way to learn how integration with the social sciences is becoming essential if we are to solve many pressing environmental problems.
"I am now applying these findings in a secondment with the UK government in their new Systems Research Programme."
Tom's interest in this research area started at a very young age. Born in Kenya and with a childhood spent in mega-diverse Malaysia, he observed biodiversity and connectedness from his earliest days.
Now he is committed to raising awareness of environmental risk in order to support decision-making and steer emergent behaviours. He has recently written a general science book that explores human connectedness - both with each other and with the natural world – and its implications in solving social and environmental problems.
Great teaching inspired by research
Tom cites his "very bright" PhD students' research as inspiring, covering such diverse topics as population ecology, landscape genetics and food system dynamics. At undergraduate level, Tom offers students a chance to learn from him when he offers a project theme for each final year's research projects.
Whatever level of study, Tom actively encourages students to follow a topic they are passionate about and then helps them to develop novel research questions. He points to students producing results which contribute to furthering the frontiers of a scientific field, receiving great experience and training whilst doing so.
In the midst of our accelerating cultural evolution, Tom sees the human mind as a battleground. He hopes that through teaching students the value of outreach, influence and connectedness, change can occur.
“Ecosystems and social systems exhibit similar patterns. Each has the capacity for rapid transformation. I am hopeful that when it happens, change towards sustainability may occur very quickly."