Expanded perspectives give greater voice to invasive species working group

Originally posted by Jessica Zielske

What do Burmese pythons, the red berries on holiday wreaths, and COVID-19 have in common?

All are introduced invasive species that are reshaping ecosystems, disrupting economies, and causing disease, costing an estimated $1.3 trillion globally each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Invasive Species Information Center.

At Virginia Tech, the Invasive Species Working Group is crowdsourcing resources and expertise to tackle these global challenges.

The working group brings together biologists, resource managers, social scientists, policy experts, and local stakeholders to facilitate new partnerships across the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond to address these complex issues.

This approach of embracing wide-ranging stakeholder engagement and non-science perspectives was recently published in Science Direct’s Trends in Ecology and Evolution journal article. 

“Broad inclusivity is essential as we attempt to mitigate a global threat that impacts a wide range of stakeholders, industries, and ecosystems,” said Jacob Barney, director of the working group. “A diversity of voices is needed to address a problem with such diverse challenges.”

The Virginia Tech community is invited to visit the group who will hosting an exhibit at the Institute of Creativity, Arts, and Technology Day on May 1 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Moss Arts Center.

With roots in the Global Change Center, an arm of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the Invasive Species Working Group began as one of the center’s sponsored research working groups in 2017 with simple goals: build collaboration, capacity, and interest in research, teaching, outreach, and policy of biological invasions. It has since gained momentum with four graduate courses, three workshops, numerous grant proposals, and several publications.

Recently, the working group was awarded a Virginia Tech Destination Area 2.0 Grant to position the university as a leader in the field of invasive species science, technology, outreach, and policy. 

As part of this award, a Virginia Tech Summit on Invasive Species workshop was held in February, bringing together faculty and researchers from 16 academic units as well as stakeholders from the Town of Blacksburg. Participants worked to identify new opportunities for collaboration, expanding, and strengthening the robust portfolio of Virginia Tech researchers whose expertise intersects with invasion science.

Associate Professor Jacob Barney, the working group director, captures takeaways from the smaller break-out groups at the Invasive Species Working Group Summit. Photo by Bri Wills for Virginia Tech.
Paul Huxley, a postdoctoral researcher in the Global Change Center, contributes his feedback to the multi-dimensional world of invasive species schematic at the Invasive Species Working Group Summit. Photo by Bri Wills for Virginia Tech.

Because of Virginia Tech’s proximity to federal policy-making centers and the diverse expertise of its plant ecologists, entomologists, social scientists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease specialists, Barney said he sees an opportunity for the university to be a leader and establish a center of excellence in this space.

“We’ve hosted a few workshops before, but this one was especially rewarding because it attracted lots of new faces, including participants from five colleges; Virginia Cooperative Extension; the Institute for Creativity, Art, and Technology; and the Fralin Life Sciences Institute,” said Barney, associate professor in the Department of School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

“Sometimes just getting everyone in the same room is an important first step that can lead to unexpected and profitable outcomes,” he said.  

Last year, the Invasive Species Working Group also joined forces with the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Invasive Species Task Force, ultimately aiding in the cooperation of diverse academic units and external stakeholders.

“Much like climate change, invasive species represent a grand challenge that affects virtually every sector of society — from forest health and agricultural production to water quality and health care systems,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “Invasive species were even highlighted at a special college forum on environmental security last spring, raising awareness that invasives are a national security risk. Virginia Tech has a tremendous opportunity to tackle this problem and generate solutions that will benefit the commonwealth and the nation.”

To learn more and get involved with the Invasive Species Working Group at Virgnia Tech, subscribe to the quarterly newsletter or join the Google Group.