Mia Wroe covers BioSoc’s second Careers Conference, where Dr Steve Unwin discusses how great ape conservation can provide a template for ethical and effective science during the pandemic.
Readers of SATNAV magazine will know that our student groups and societies here at the University of Birmingham have been working hard to adapt to the new challenges of COVID-19. The Biology Society (BioSoc) are no exception; this year, they have introduced their very first virtual Careers Conference series. Consisting of alumni and staff from their own department, the series showcases the potential career paths that Life Sciences’ students can take and the impact that COVID-19 has had on these fields.
SATNAV was kindly invited to attend the second installment in the Careers Conference series, led by University of Birmingham lecturer and zoo health management expert Dr Steve Unwin. Dr Unwin is a renowned figure in international conservation and veterinary health, having established multidisciplinary conservation networks of professionals and workers across Africa and SouthEast Asia. In his lecture, Dr Unwin discussed the effects of the pandemic on great ape conservation and the importance of communicated, international, and interdisciplinary science in the age of COVID-19.
Dr Unwin is a founding member of the Orangutan Veterinary Advisory Group (OVAG). OVAG is a global network encompassing a multitude of different sectors, from non-governmental organisations and industries to zoos and veterinary colleges. Together, they work collaboratively in the best interests of great apes, ensuring they and the environments they call home remain protected. This work is an excellent example of the multidisciplinary ‘One Health’ approach to public health, conservation, and policy-making, of which Dr Unwin is an advocate—as he says, ‘no single discipline has all the tools.’.
As the COVID-19 pandemic tightens its grip on the world, OVAG have been at the forefront of action to protect great apes from the disease and to create a positive precedent should another pandemic take hold in the future. Their co-operative approach means they have a unique cumulative knowledge from across all sectors involved in great ape conservation—from researchers and people on the ground to industry management and government. This information has been collated into the Non Human Primate COVID-19 Information Hub, a publicly available, free-to-access Canvas page updated in real time by OVAG. It includes an FAQ covering the potential effects of COVID-19 on great apes and the conservation field, alongside advice for different industries (including mining, agriculture, and forestry) that can be accessed quickly and easily, by mobile if needed.
‘You have to be first, people believe the first thing they hear, which is why we have such a problem with fake news at the minute,’ says Dr Unwin. The information hub is an attempt to battle this wave of misinformation, providing a sort of ‘one-stop shop’ for those working with great apes throughout the pandemic. It is only this kind of co-operation and willingness to share knowledge, unaffected by political spats and the unreasonable demands of business and industry, that can protect vulnerable species from the current pandemic.
Currently, the medical field is (understandably) dominating the media, but the medical field has an unfortunate tendency to paint animals as enemies and humans as heroes. It is perhaps then natural to think “what is a threat to us?” rather than “what threat are we to the environment?”. However, Dr Unwin believes that this is the key to understanding the spread of COVID-19. The transition to home working, both in the UK and worldwide, has given people the opportunity to ‘get back to nature’ in a way that many have not experienced before. Nevertheless, conservation groups have missed a huge opportunity to educate the public on the environmental effects of COVID-19.
‘Effective conservation is all about people,’ says Dr. Unwin, ‘and scientists are not typically good at lay person communication.’ Science communication is not only at the forefront of great ape conservation, but also the fight against COVID-19. Until a vaccine is found, there is no greater weapon than an army of effective science communicators, trained in their own respective fields. They can engage the general public with the science of the pandemic, and allow them to understand the reasonings behind new COVID-19 restrictions.
If there is one lesson we can take away from OVAG’s approach to mitigating the pandemic, it is that international and interdisciplinary science should not be at the mercy of politics and governmental disputes. The principles by which OVAG operates sets an example of ethical science that can (and should) be adopted across all fields of scientific research. Using a co-operative, global approach to develop a COVID-19 vaccine is just one example of the many things we could achieve if all science was planned in such a way. With a potential impending political storm over the discovery, manufacturing, and sale of such a vaccine approaching, this is an excellent opportunity for us to re-evaluate how we do science and how we communicate it to the masses. We must acknowledge that humans as a part of the environment, and work together for a better future; both for us, and for the great apes.
Thank you to BioSoc and Dr Steve Unwin for allowing SATNAV to cover this lecture. You can take part in BioSoc’s Careers Conference series by joining the society at https://www.guildofstudents.com/studentgroups/societies/biosoc/.
Non Human Primate COVID-19 Information Hub
From COVID-19 mini issue, 2020