Monday, 25 March 2013
The other day I asked my husband what he thought "ecosystem services" meant. He's accustomed to me asking him odd questions so wasn't thrown by this. After some thought, he suggested that it might be an eco-friendly plumbing firm. He thought they probably drove around in a green van, pumping out blocked drains. Of course he wasn't surprised to learn that "ecosystem services" is more likely to be found in a scientific journal than in the yellow pages. He had probably realised he was, once again, acting the guinea pig in a communications experiment. But I wasn't entirely surprised either, to hear his response. Every profession uses jargon and it can be a useful shorthand, but it also acts as a barrier to exclude the non-expert. Ecosystem services is an expression that, I suspect, few people outside academia or policy making circles have come across. So I tried to explain to my, probably not terribly interested, spouse, what it really means. This took a long time and I'm not sure I really got the message across. Ecosystem services covers so many of the vital functions that land provides for human existence: food, water, carbon storage, leisure, biodiversity, just for starters. Our demands increase all the time. Explaining this concept takes a lot of words, far more words than the two in that short phrase. As a science communicator, I always shy away from using jargon, and if it creeps into my writing I regard that as a failure. But sometimes jargon does, after a while, stop being exclusive and become mainstream. As a colleague pointed out to me, "biodiversity" was an unfamiliar term until quite recently. He remembered a time when most members of the public, and even farmers, would not have known what it meant. Now every farmer can discuss the biodiversity on his or her land, and it saves a lot of long explanations. Acronyms may become familiar in a similar way. I have sat in meetings where every other word was an acronym and felt totally baffled. When I worked in the health service, patients often complained, with good reason, about feeling excluded by acronyms, and we worked hard to eliminate them from information leaflets and other resources. Then, one day, someone complained about the acronym "NHS" and that stopped me in my tracks. Is there anyone in the UK who isn't familiar with this shorthand? Should we stop using it simply because it is an acronym, or accept that it has become a handy way of referring to this public service? I think most people would incline to the latter view. Would it be similarly blinkered to avoid "ecosystem services" forever? This is a dilemma that I am still struggling with at the moment. My instinct is to avoid it, but I accept that I may have to revise my opinion over the next few years. Of course, if I see a couple of plumbers driving round my neighbourhood with "Ecosystem Services Ltd" painted on the side of their bright green van, that's really going to complicate things.