Category Archives: Science communication

Science communication in a post‐truth world: promises and pitfalls

Authors: R Keller Kopf, Dale G Nimmo, Euan G Ritchie, and Jen K Martin

Published in: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

The mass decline of biodiversity in this post-truth era means that reliable and influential conservation science communication is more important than ever.

In this era, truths and lies are increasingly difficult to distinguish, posing a major challenge to science communication. As a result, conservation scientists and managers are grappling with new ways of countering misinformation and sharing factual information.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, blogs, online news outlets, webcomics, and satirical articles all provide communication opportunities, but we still have a poor understanding of which of these are most effective, and when and where to best communicate science…

Kopf RK, Nimmo DG, Ritchie EG, Martin JK (2019) Science communication in a post-truth world: promises and pitfalls. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment PDF DOI

We must rip up our environmental laws to address the extinction crisis

The Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi) became extinct in 2009. Image credit Lindy Lumsden

By Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Desley Whisson, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Mike Weston, Deakin University; Raylene Cooke, Deakin University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humans are causing the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, with an estimated one million species at risk of extinction.

Addressing this crisis requires transformative change, including more effective environmental law and implementation.

Improved legislation is one of five main levers for realising change identified in the recent United Nation’s global biodiversity report and the key lesson arising from the Senate’s interim report into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis.

The Senate’s interim report, based on 420 submissions and five hearings, shows Australia is a world leader in causing species extinctions, in part because Australia’s systems for conserving our natural heritage are grossly inadequate.

To allow the continued erosion of this continent’s spectacular and remarkable array of globally unique plants and animals is a travesty of the highest order.

Inadequate protections

One of the problems is species may decline from common to extinct quite rapidly – faster than the time it takes species to be listed as threatened under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

The Christmas Island forest skink was formally listed as a threatened species only four months before the last individual died in captivity, but 15 years after the decline was first reported.

Extinction of the forest skink, Bramble Cay melomys and Christmas Island pipistrelle between 2009 and 2014 may have been averted if the risk was formally recognised in a more timely manner and effective conservation actions, such as captive breeding programs, were implemented.

Currently, if a species is not listed, it is not a “matter of national environmental significance” and federal agency staff generally have no legal basis for acting to protect it.

The black-throated finch has been listed as threatened on the EPBC Act for 14 years and during this time 600,000 ha of potential finch habitat has been destroyed. Worse still, five large coal mines, including the Carmichael Coal Mine, have been given approval (pending environmental conditions being met in Queensland) to clear more than 29,000 ha of black-throated finch habitat in one of its final strongholds, the Galilee Basin.

Coal mining will drive these finches into the critically endangered threat category, pushing them perilously close to extinction, and all with federal government approval.

The controversial Toondah Harbour development in Brisbane is another example of how ministerial discretion can allow disastrous environmental outcomes. The project plans to build 3,600 apartments on wetlands that provide habitat for migratory waterbirds, including the critically endangered eastern curlew.

Despite being described as “clearly unacceptable” by the federal environment department and knocking it back twice, the minister allowed a third submission to proceed for further assessment.

It was reported this decision was made in the context of legal threats and donations from the developer in question. If true, this context would make it very difficult to make impartial decisions that protect biodiversity, as environmental law intends.

Increasing ministerial discretion was a key result of 2007 amendments to the EPBC act, which meant recovery plans were no longer required for threatened species.

The amendment allowed the minister to develop “conservation advices” instead of recovery plans. This amendment downgraded protections for threatened species because a minister can legally make decisions that are inconsistent with conservation advice, but not a recovery plan.

New environmental legislation

Based on these examples and many others that demonstrate the failings of current laws, the interim report concludes that we should rip up the EPBC act and develop stronger and more effective environmental legislation.

This includes establishing an independent Environmental Protection Agency to ensure enforcement of environmental laws, and, in a forward-looking addition by the Greens senators, an independent National Environmental Commission to monitor effectiveness of environmental legislation and propose improvements.

Australia needs a well-resourced, independent umpire for the environment, with powers to investigate environmental concerns and scrutinise government policy, akin to New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. While Australia’s Threatened Species Commissioner is an excellent champion for the environment, this role provides no ability to question government actions regarding environmental protection and nature conservation.

Although replacing the EPBC act with new legislation may seem like a radical step to some (but not all), the interim Senate report, and the global UN report, have independently concluded major reform is essential. We are not in a moment of time when tweaking the current system will do the trick.

Changing Australia’s environmental legislation is a relatively minor update compared with the fundamental social and economic changes recommended by the UN report.

Such changes are already recommended by scientific societies like the Ecological Society of Australia, non-government organisations like Birdlife Australia and the Australian Conservation Foundation, and are demanded by a growing section of society. New, fit-for-purpose legislation must be enforceable, apolitical and responsive.

Opinion polls show that the level of environmental concern is higher in Australia than in other countries , while 29% of ABC Vote Compass respondents ranked the environment as the most important issue, up from 9% in 2016.

This groundswell of environmental concern has spawned mass protest movements like Extinction Rebellion. Young Australians also have shown their concern. In March 2019, thousands of school students took part in 50 rallies across the country to protest against “the destruction of our future”.

Decisions about what and how much we buy, what we eat, how much we travel and by what means, and family size, all contribute to our environmental footprints, and are the fundamental instigators of the biodiversity crisis.

However, we must also look to our political leaders to support effective change. The simplest and most powerful action you can take to reverse the extinction crisis is to vote for a party with policies best aligned with credible scientific advice on how we can get out of this mess.
The Conversation

Reblog: Minister, why is the dingo no longer ‘fauna’ ?

ConservationBytes.com

dead dingoSo, a few of us have just submitted a letter contesting the Western Australia Government’s recent decision to delist dingoes as ‘fauna’ (I know — what the hell else could they be?). The letter was organised brilliantly by Dr Kylie Cairns (University of New South Wales), and she and the rest of the signatories have agreed to reproduce the letter in full here on ConservationBytes.com. If you feel so compelled, please voice your distaste of this decision officially by contacting the Minister (details below).

CJA Bradshaw

Honourable Stephen Dawson MLC
Minister for Environment; Disability Services
Address: 12th Floor, Dumas House
2 Havelock Street, WEST PERTH WA 6005
(minister.dawson@dpc.wa.gov.au)

cc: Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (biodiversity@dbca.wa.gov.au)
cc: Brendan Dooley (brendan.dooley@dpc.wa.gov.au)

Dear Minister,

The undersigned welcome the opportunity to comment on and recommend alteration of the proposed section (9)(2) order of the Biodiversity Conservation Act…

View original post 1,247 more words

The Conversation: Why the WA government is wrong to play identity politics with dingoes

Western Australian Minister for the Environment Stephen Dawson has declared that the dingo, Australia’s native canine, will no longer be classified as native. Image credit Leo via Flickr.

By Bradley Smith (CQUniversity Australia), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) and Lily van Eeden, (University of Sydney).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s Commonwealth Coat of Arms depicts two iconic native animals – the kangaroo and the emu. Both are unquestionably fair dinkum Aussies, unique to this continent and having lived here for a very long time. A “very long time”, according to Australian legislation (the EPBC Act 1999), is any species having been present since before the year 1400.

But in Western Australia, under the state’s Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, no native animal is guaranteed protection. The Act includes a caveat whereby the relevant minister may determine that a native species is in fact, not.

This week, WA’s environment minister Stephen Dawson did just that, declaring that from January 1, 2019, the dingo, Australia’s native canine, will no longer be classified as native fauna.

The dingo does meet the federal government’s criterion, having lived in Australia as a wild canid for an estimated 5,000 years. But under the planned changes in WA, the dingo will lose its current listing as “unprotected fauna”, and will from next year be considered indistinguishable from either the common domestic dog or feral dogs.

What is a species anyway?

According to the biological species concept, a species is a group that has the ability to interbreed and produce viable, fertile offspring. Dingoes, dogs and other canids do interbreed (or “hybridise”), and indeed this is one of the key reasons why the pure dingo is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

But this ability to hybridise is also one of the main justifications cited by the WA government in its decision to revoke the dingo’s citizenship (the fact sheet has since been removed from the website, but can be accessed here). The rationale is that if dingoes and dogs are technically the same species, why should dingoes get special treatment?

However, the biological species concept is problematic when applied to canids. If you lump dingoes and dogs together because they readily interbreed, then logically we must do the same for wolves, coyotes, jackals or other canids that can also interbreed (and have done for millenia).

It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously suggesting that a grey wolf and a pug are the same species. This suggests that this criterion alone is insufficient to solve the conundrum. Indeed, there are at least 32 different species concepts, clearly illustrating the difficulty of defining a single rule by which all organisms should abide.

Despite this, a recent paper that argues the biological species concept should be applied to dingoes, was cited as supporting evidence by the WA government. Adopting this narrow interpretation of taxonomy is perhaps somewhat premature. It ignores other investigations that provide evidence to the contrary. Given the contention around defining species, it seems unwise to determine the species status of dingoes independently of other, more comprehensive evidence and argument.

Distinguishing dingoes

All canids share similarities, but their differences are also many and marked. The dingo can be distinguished from other dogs in various ways: their appearance, anatomy, behaviour, their role in ecosystems, and their genetics (their evolutionary history and degree of relatedness to other species). Dingoes seem to be largely devoid of many of the signs of domestication.

It is therefore reasonable for the dingo to be considered separately from wolves and domestic dogs, while also acknowledging that they all occupy the same broad species classification, Canis lupus.

Having lived in Australia as free-living, wild populations for around 5,000 years almost exclusively under the forces of natural selection, and separately from any other dog lineage until European arrival, there is no notion of the dingo as a domestic animal gone feral. To classify dingoes as nothing more than “feral domestic dogs” expunges their unique, long and quintessentially wild history. Dingoes are not ecologically interchangeable with any other type of dog, either wild or domesticated.

Labelling the dingo as a feral domestic dog changes their legal status and removes any current obligations for developing appropriate management plans. This demotion of status could lead to intensified lethal control. Indeed, control may even be legally mandated.

In the absence of thylacines, mainland Tasmanian devils, and other apex predators, the ecological role that the dingo plays in the Australian landscape is vital. Dingoes help to control kangaroo and feral goat populations, and in some cases foxes and cats as well.

Given WA’s remoteness, it remains one of the few bastions of pure dingoes, and as such it presents an opportunity to seek ways to protect them rather than pave the way for their removal. The WA government’s decision also sets a dangerous precedent for the management of dingoes, and indeed other contentious native wildlife, elsewhere in Australia.

How we choose to classify plants and animals might sound like dry science. But it has genuine implications for policy, management and conservation. Our scientific naming systems are vital for helping to organise and understand the rich biological diversity with which we share the planet, but it is important to remember that these systems are informed not just by biology but also by our values.

In this case, economic and political interests appear to have been favoured over wildlife preservation, and given Australia’s unenviable conservation record this is deeply concerning.
The Conversation

The Conversation: A numbers game: killing rabbits to conserve native mammals

Controlling rabbit populations has a key role in conserving Australia’s native plants and animals

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Damien Fordham (University of Adelaide), and Miguel Lurgi, (Centre national de la recherche scientifique)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Invasive species have a devastating effect on biodiversity. In Australia, introduced red foxes and feral cats have been implicated in the majority of the extinctions of the native mammal fauna, which has been decimated since European arrival.

But there’s a herbivore that also causes eco-catastrophe. Rabbits both compete with native animals for food and shelter and act as easy prey for abundant populations of cats and foxes. By over-grazing vegetation and reducing habitat complexity, they make hunting easier for introduced predators.

Food webs are complex. Because of this, once an invasive species is embedded in a food web, simply eradicating them without considering the potential knock-on effects to other species they interact with, could cause unintended and undesirable consequences. We modelled different rates of rabbit population reduction to assess what level of control might be best for aiding the conservation of native mammals and not causing negative outcomes.

Rabbit numbers boom and crash

Rabbits, famously, reproduce rapidly and can cope with a relatively high predation rate. This can cause “hyper-predation”, where rabbit-inflated cat and fox populations indirectly increase the predation pressure on native mammals. This is especially so when rabbit populations intermittently crash due to, for example, extreme environmental events (like severe and prolonged droughts) or disease. This causes predators to switch their diet and eat more native mammals.

This logically suggests that reducing rabbit numbers might thus help reduce cat and fox populations, by removing their abundant prey. Collectively this should benefit native plants and animals, including many threatened mammal species. However, ecosystem and pest management is a complex game.

When controlling rabbits we need to look beyond one or two species. We should consider the potential consequences for the entire ecological community, which ultimately depend on how changes in one species percolate through the network of ecological interactions between them.

Our new research, recently published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, set out to examine these questions in more detail. We consider other key players in Australia’s arid regions, such as kangaroos and dingoes, when looking at the effects of rabbit control on small native mammals. Our aim was to provide a better understanding of how changes in rabbit populations might affect other species via the food web.

We developed a multi-species ecological network model to describe and quantify how changing rabbit abundance can affect species on different feeding levels. In addition to rabbits, small native mammals, and mesopredators (cats and foxes), our model also considers apex predators (dingo) and large herbivores (kangaroo) as part of the Australian arid food web. This model allowed us to examine changes in predator-prey interactions (including potential prey switching and hyper-predation) and how these could affect the survival of native prey through time.

We found that removing rabbits at rates between 30-40% appeared to benefit small mammals. This is approximately the rate at which rabbits are currently managed in Australia using biocontrol agents (introduced diseases).

Rabbit control in Australia typically involves a “press and pulse” approach. Rabbit populations are suppressed via biocontrol (press) and periods of warren destruction and poisoning (pulse). Finding that reducing rabbit populations by around 40% seems most beneficial to small mammals is important, as it informs how and when we combine these strategies.

The 40% rate corresponds well with the disease-induced (press) mortality rate in rabbit populations due to rabbit haemorrhagic disease and myxomatosis. These are the primary biocontrol agents used in arid Australia to control rabbit populations.

Our study supports rabbit-reduction strategies that involve sustained “press” control, that kill a moderate portion of a rabbit population, with less frequent removal at higher proportions of the population.

To effectively manage invasive species, it’s important to focus on entire communities. Targeting single species might not be enough – every animal exists within a complex web of interactions.

There has been much focus by the current government on controlling feral cats, as a way to conserve many of Australia’s unique and threatened mammal species.

However, more focus could be devoted to protecting habitat cover and complexity, by reducing the land clearing and over-grazing that makes hunting easier. We can also manage rabbits sensibly to reduce competition for resources, and indirectly control cats and foxes.
The Conversation

Passing the brumby bill is a backward step for environmental protection in Australia

With the passing of the so-called “brumby bill” against scientific advice, feral horses will continue to damage the internationally significant Kosciuszko National Park.

By Don Driscoll, Euan Ritchie, and Tim Doherty (Deakin University)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Late on Wednesday night the so-called “brumby bill” was passed without amendment in the New South Wales Parliament. The controversial Coalition bill, supported by the Christian Democrats and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, means that feral horses must be kept in Kosciuszko National Park.

It also creates a community advisory panel, with no scientific experts appointed, to advise the minister on how to manage the horse population in the alpine ecosystem.

The NSW government has attracted accusations of a conflict of interest. Former Nationals member Peter Cochran, who now runs a commercial venture offering brumbie-spotting rides through the National Park (and who has donated extensively to Deputy Premier John Barilaro) reportedly commissioned lawyers to draft the bill. Peter Cochran, John Barilaro and Gladys Berejiklian have denied all accusations of conflict of interest and underhanded conduct.

The bill has also been criticised by scientific bodies. In a letter to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian this week, the Australian Academy of Science noted that the legislation removes consideration of scientific advice, and called for the bill to be withdrawn or substantially amended.

In a rare move, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has also written to the NSW government, expressing concern over the potential degradation of this internationally significant national park.

Out of step with other states

The NSW Labor Party does not support the bill and has pledged to repeal the legislation if elected next March. The legislation represents a radical change in NSW’s management of feral horses, coming after a 2016 draft strategy that recommenced reducing their population by 90% over 20 years.

NSW now stands in contrast to other Australian states. Last Saturday, Victoria launched its Feral Horse Strategic Action Plan. That plan aims to protect native species and ecosystems in national parks by removing or controlling feral horses and is a welcome step in the right direction. Victorian environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio called on the NSW and federal governments to support a unified approach to feral horse management in Australia’s alpine regions.

Is culling in or out?

The Victorian plan excludes aerial culling but will revisit horse control methods if the proposed trapping methods don’t reduce environmental impacts. Aerial culling is widely practised throughout Australia, including Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland (where culling was used to improve road safety), and the Australian Capital Territory, which borders Kosciuszko National Park.

Barilaro argued against aerial culling when he presented the Brumby bill to parliament, calling it cruel and barbaric. He reiterated that the bill is meant to prevent lethal control in his response to Victoria’s announcement. But surprisingly, the draft legislation makes no mention of control methods, lethal or otherwise.

The deputy premier also referred to the Guy Fawkes National Park horse cull in northern NSW in 2000 to support his argument against aerial culling. But an independent enquiry found that the cull was an appropriate humane response to the situation, where horses were starving to death and causing environmental damage after a fire. The RSPCA and independent reports show that aerial culling is an acceptable and humane way to manage horse numbers.

Further, the brumby bill now locks in the predictable outcome that thousands of horses are likely to starve to death in the next drought or after large fires. It is therefore puzzling that actions likely to increase horse suffering are not of great concern to many within the pro-brumby lobby.

Greater emphasis, instead, has been put on a cultural argument for protecting feral horses: for example, by claiming that feral horses made enormous contributions to Australia’s World War One effort. However, the cultural heritage report prepared for the NSW National Parks Service says “there is no definitive evidence that remount horses were directly taken from the brumby population of what is now Kosciusko National Park”.

The Sydney Olympics opening ceremony was also offered as evidence that brumbies are integral to Australian culture. However, Australian Stock horses, not brumbies, were showcased at the Sydney Olympics – a distinct breed, established by horse enthusiasts in the 1970s.

That said, it is true that horses in the snowy mountains do have local cultural value. But so too does the native fauna and flora threatened by feral horses, many of which only occur in Australia’s high country. This includes species such as the southern corroboree frog, alpine she-oak skink, broad-toothed rat, Raleigh sedge and mauve burr-daisy.

Can we compromise?

Is a compromise possible, in which both cultural and conservation goals can be accommodated? We think so. The feral horse population can be removed from the national parks and sensitive ecosystems. Brumby herds can thrive on extensive private property in the region, an approach already proven in South Australia’s Coffin Bay National Park.

The brumby bill was written and presented to parliament by groups with at best a perceived conflict of interest, and promoted by using inaccurate information about culling and heritage. It has been roundly criticised by leading national and international scientific bodies for not taking adequate account of science and the key role of national parks in conserving biodiversity.

That this bill has now passed the NSW upper house is a further backward step for conservation goals and Australia’s international reputation for environmental protection, and sets a dangerous precedent by undermining prominent national and state environmental policy. It remains to be seen how this legislation aligns with the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, given that it literally tramples over several matters of national environmental significance.

The Conversation

Radio National: Australia’s new extinction crisis

Over the past few years, Australia has lost the Christmas Island pipistrelle, the Christmas Island skink and the Bramble Cay melomys – the first mammal in the world to have been wiped out by human-caused climate change.

Has the creation of the government’s threatened species strategy and a Threatened Species Commissioner helped? Or is red tape actually hindering conservation efforts?

I spoke to Phillip Adams on Radio National about the extinction crisis facing Australian fauna.

Radio National

The Guardian: ‘A national disgrace’ — Australia’s extinction crisis is unfolding in plain sight

The plight of Australia’s threatened species is an environmental crisis, with more and more species edging closer to extinction despite our capacity to prevent such a tragedy from occurring.

It’s akin to allowing the art of Namitjira, Olley, Preston, Nolan, Whiteley and others to disappear from our most treasured museums, through neglect, and much of society being unaware or responding with a collective shrug of shoulders.

Read more on The Guardian website

Remember The Wild: To improve nature conservation we must better embrace complexity

The natural world is truly glorious in its diversity, and in the complexity of relationships between its many millions of species, and the environments in which they live. I was lucky enough to immerse myself in this wonder recently, while snorkelling on Heron Island with my family. The kaleidoscope of colours and chaos of movement I saw as I drifted over countless different fishes and corals was truly breathtaking. But they also inspired reflection.

Continue reading at Remember The Wild.

Remember The Wild is a nature engagement charity, connecting people with the natural world.

The Conversation #EmojiMySci

They asked, I answered 😉.

The Conversation: Scientific integrity must be defended, our planet depends on it

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), James Watson (The University of Queensland), Jeremy Kerr, and Martine Maron (The University of Queensland).

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

To conserve Earth’s remarkable species, such as the violet sabrewing, we must also defend the importance of science. Image credit: Jeremy Kerr via The Conversation.

Science is the best method we have for determining what is likely to be true. The knowledge gained from this process benefits society in a multitude of ways, including promoting evidence-based decision-making and management. Nowhere is this more important than conservation, as the intensifying impacts of the Anthropocene increasingly threaten the survival of species.

But truth can be inconvenient: conservation goals sometimes seem at odds with social or economic interests. As a result, scientific evidence may be ignored or suppressed for political reasons. This has led to growing global trends of attacking scientific integrity.

Recent assaults on science and scientists under Donald Trump’s US administration are particularly extreme, but extend far more broadly. Rather than causing scientists to shrink from public discussions, these abuses have spurred them and their professional societies to defend scientific integrity.

Among these efforts was the recent March for Science. The largest pro-science demonstration in history, this event took place in more than 600 locations around the world.

We propose, in a new paper in Conservation Biology, that scientists share their experiences of defending scientific integrity across borders to achieve more lasting success. We summarise eight reforms to protect scientific integrity, drawn from lessons learned in Australia, Canada and the US.

What is scientific integrity?

Scientific integrity is the ability to perform, use and disseminate scientific findings without censorship or political interference. It requires that government scientists can communicate their research to the public and media. Such outbound scientific communication is threatened by policies limiting scientists’ ability to publish, publicise or even mention their research findings.

Public access to websites or other sources of government scientific data have also been curtailed. Limiting access to taxpayer-funded information in this way undermines citizens’ ability to participate in decisions that affect them, or even to know why decisions are being made.

A recent case of scientific information being suppressed concerns the rediscovery, early in 2017, of the plant Hibbertia fumana in New South Wales. Last seen in 1823, 370 plants were found.

Rather than publicly celebrate the news, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage was reportedly asked to suppress the news until after a rail freight plan that overlapped with the plants’ location had been approved.

Protecting scientists’ right to speak out

Scientists employed by government agencies often cannot discuss research that might relate to their employer’s policies. While it may not be appropriate for scientists to weigh in on policy recommendations – and, of course, constant media commentaries would be chaos – the balance has tipped too far towards restriction. Many scientists cannot publicly refer to their research, or that of others, let alone explain the significance of the findings.

To counter this, we need policies that support scientific integrity, an environment of transparency and the public’s right to access scientific information. Scientists’ right to speak freely should be included in collective bargaining agreements.

Scientific integrity requires transparency and accountability. Information from non-government scientists, through submitted comments or reviews of draft policies, can inform the policy process.

Although science is only one source of influence on policy, democratic processes are undermined when policymakers limit scrutiny of decision-making processes and the role that evidence plays in them.

Let science inform policy

Independent reviews of new policy are a vital part of making evidence-based decisions. There is room to broaden these reviews, inviting external organisations to give expert advice on proposed or existing policies. This also means transparently acknowledging any perceived or actual vested interests.

Australian governments often invite scientists and others to contribute their thoughts on proposed policy. The Finkel Review, for example, received 390 written submissions. Of course, agencies might not have time to respond individually to each submission. But if a policy is eventually made that seems to contradict the best available science, that agency should be required to account for that decision.

Finally, agencies should be proactively engaging with scientific groups at all stages of the process.

Active advocacy

Strengthening scientific integrity policies when many administrations are publicly hostile to science is challenging. Scientists are stuck reactively defending protective policies. Instead, they should be actively advocating for their expansion.

The goal is to institutionalise a culture of scientific integrity in the development and implementation of conservation policies.

A transnational movement to defend science will improve the odds that good practices will be retained and strengthened under more science-friendly administrations.

Many regard science as apolitical. Even the suggestion of publicly advocating for integrity or evidence-based policy and management makes some scientists deeply uncomfortable. It is telling that providing factual information for policy decisions and public information can be labelled as partisan. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that public participation by scientists, if properly framed, does not harm their credibility.

Scientists can operate objectively in conducting research, interpreting discoveries and publicly explaining the significance of the results. Recommendations for how to walk such a tricky, but vital, line are readily available.

Scientists and scientific societies must not shrink from their role, which is more important than ever. They have a responsibility to engage broadly with the public to affirm that science is indispensable for evidence-based policies and regulations. These critical roles for scientists help ensure that policy processes unfold in plain sight, and consequently help sustain functioning, democratic societies.

The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dr Carlos Carroll, a conservation biologist at the Klamath Center for Conservation Research.

The Conversation

The Conversation: Thinking big gives top predators the competitive edge

By Thomas Newsome (Deakin University)

Dingoes could be the key to controlling red foxes and other invasive predators, but only if we encourage them in large enough numbers over a wide enough area, our research shows.

Dingoes can help manage devastating red fox and feral cat numbers, but only if we let enough of them live in key areas. Image credit Bobby Tamayo via The Conversation

Interest in re-introducing or restoring top predators, like dingoes and wolves, has been fuelled by recent studies demonstrating their important roles in their ecosystems. They can especially be vital in suppressing the abundance of lower-order competitors or “mesopredators”, like red foxes and possibly feral cats (which can have devastating effects on native species).

But researchers have found top predators aren’t always successful in reducing mesopredator numbers. Until now, such variation has been linked to human presence, land-use changes and environmental factors such as landscape productivity.

However, our research, published yesterday in Nature Communications, found that a key factor for success is high numbers of dingoes and wolves across their natural range.

The density effect

If you look at how species are typically distributed across a landscape – their range – ecological theory predicts there’ll be lower numbers at the outer edges of their range.

If you do need large numbers of top predators to effectively suppress mesopredators, the core of their range is potentially the best place to look.

We tested this idea, looking at the dingo in Australia and the grey wolf in North America and Europe. The mesopredators included the red fox in Australia, the coyote in North America and the golden jackal in Europe.

We used information from bounty hunting programs, as these provide data on predator numbers across a wide geographical area. In the case of Australia we used historic data from the 1950s, as this is the most recent reliable information about red fox and dingo distribution. The actual population numbers of red foxes and dingoes have changed substantially since then, but the nature of their interactions – which is what we were investigating – has not.

We determined that top predators exist in higher numbers at the core of their ranges in comparison to the edges. We then looked at mesopredator numbers across the range edges of their respective top predator.

The results, which were consistent across the three continents, suggest that top predators can suppress mesopredators effectively (even completely) but only in the core of their geographic range, where their numbers are highest.

In other words, abundant top predators can exert disproportionate mesopredator control once their numbers increase past a certain point.

The ‘enemy constraint hypothesis’

The relationship we uncovered is now formalised as the “Enemy Constraint Hypothesis”. It could apply to other predator dyads, where two animals compete for similar resources – even relationships involving parasites and pathogens.

Our findings are important for understanding species interactions and niches, as well as the ecological role of top predators. It could explain why other studies have found top predators have little influence on mesopredators: they were looking at the edge, not the core, of the top predators’ range.

How many top predators do we need?

Dingoes can be vital for reducing red fox and possibly feral cat numbers. In our case studies the ranges of each top predator were limited primarily by human use of the land and intensive shooting, trapping and poisoning.

Killing pack animals like dingoes can fracture social groups, potentially altering their natural behaviour and interactions with other species. Future studies on predator interactions therefore need to consider the extent to which the animals are acting in response to human intervention.

If we want to benefit from the presence of top predators, we need to rethink our approach to management – especially where they are subjected to broad-scale control, as the dingo is in some parts of Australia.

Changing our relationship with top predators would not come without its challenges, but high extinction rates around the world (and especially in Australia) clearly indicate that we urgently need to change something. If this includes restoring top predators, then we need to think big.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

The Conversation

The Conversation

Capstone Editing: The trouble with academic grant applications

It’s time to look at the way academic grants are awarded. Image: Shutterstock

Regular successful grants are crucial for academic career advancement. Grants fund research, research leads to publications, and publications result in job security and promotion. But the likelihood of success is low, particularly for early-career researchers. Last year, the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Projects, and National Health and Medical Research Council grants had a success rate around 18%, and ARC Linkage Projects around 30%.

A huge amount of effort is being dedicated to writing grants with very little chance of success.

How can we make this system better? My suggestions include prioritising funding for early-career researches, an expression-of-interest system to gauge the success of proposals, transparent and detailed feedback to unsuccessful applicants, and changing the timing of grant season so that is more family-friendly.

Read more on the Capstone Editing blog.

The Conversation: Bigfoot, the Kraken and night parrots – searching for the mythical or mysterious

In 2012 scientists succeeded in filming for the first time ever a giant squid in its natural habitat. Image credit: EPA / NHK / NEP / Discovery Channel / AAP

It’s remarkable how little we know about Earth. How many species do we share this planet with? We don’t know, but estimates vary from millions to a trillion. In some respects we know more about the Moon, Mars and Venus than we do about the ocean’s depths and the vast sea floors.

But humans are inquisitive creatures, and we’re driven to explore. Chasing mythical or mysterious animals grabs media headlines and spurs debates, but it can also lead to remarkable discoveries.

The recent photographing of a live night parrot in Western Australia brought much joy. These enigmatic nocturnal birds have been only sporadically sighted over decades.

Another Australian species that inspires dedicated searchers is the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine. A new hunt is under way, not in Tasmania but in Queensland’s vast wilderness region of Cape York.

Other plans are afoot to search for the long-beaked echidna in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.

In the case of the thylacine, old accounts from the region that sound very much like descriptions of the species raise the prospect that perhaps Cape York isn’t such a bad place to look after all.

But in reality, and tragically, it’s very unlikely that either of these species still survives in Australia. For some species there is scientific research that estimates just how improbable such an event would be; in the case of thylacines, one model suggests the odds are 1 in 1.6 trillion.

Chasing myths

The study and pursuit of “hidden” animals, thought to be extinct or fictitious, is often called cryptozoology. The word itself invites scorn – notorious examples include the search for Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster or Victoria’s legendary black panthers.

Granted, it’s probably apt to describe those searches as wild goose chases, but we must also acknowledge that genuine species – often quite sizeable ones – have been discovered.

Remarkable discoveries of animals thought to be fantasies or long extinct include giant squid, mountain gorillas, okapi, Komodo dragons and coelacanths.

In some cases, like the giant squid, these animals have been dismissed as legends. The reclusive oarfish, for example, are thought to be the inspiration for centuries of stories about sea serpents.

Technology to the rescue

Finding rare and cryptic species is self-evidently challenging, but rapid advances in technology open up amazing possibilities. Camera traps now provide us with regular selfies of once highly elusive snow leopards, and could equally be used with other difficult-to-find animals.

Environmental DNA is allowing us to detect species otherwise difficult to observe. Animal DNA found in the blood of leeches has uncovered rare and endangered mammals, meaning these and other much maligned blood-sucking parasites could be powerful biodiversity survey tools.

Acoustic recording devices can be left in areas for extended time periods, allowing us to eavesdrop on ecosystems and look out for sounds that might indicate otherwise hidden biological treasures. And coupling drones with thermal sensors and high resolution cameras means we can now take an eagle eye to remote and challenging environments.

The benefits of exploration and lessons learned

It’s easy to criticise the pursuit of the unlikely, but “miracles” can and do occur, sometimes on our doorstep. The discovery of the ancient Wollemi pine is a case in point. Even if we don’t find what we’re after, we may still benefit from what we learn along the way.

I’ve often wondered how many more species might be revealed to us if scientists invested more time in carefully listening to, recording and following up on the knowledge of Indigenous, farming, and other communities who have long and intimate associations with the land and sea.

Such an approach, combined with the deployment of new technologies, could create a boom of biological discovery.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

The Conversation

The Conversation

Capstone Editing: Crowd funding your research

Is crowd funding the future of grants for science and the arts?

I’ve successfully crowd funded two research projects: The Big Roo Count and Papua New Guinea’s mountain mammals, and learnt a few things along the way.

As well as an alternative source of income for research, crowd funding allows direct and immediate contact with the public. You carry them along on the way with you, which is how science should be.

Read more on the Capstone Editing blog.

The Conversation: Government needs to front up billions, not millions, to save Australia’s threatened species

By Don Driscoll (Deakin University) Bek Christensen (University of Queensland) and Euan Ritchie (Deakin University)

Southern cassowaries, orange-bellied parrots, Leadbeater’s possums, and Australia’s only purple wattle are among the threatened species the government is seeking conservation investment for under its recently released threatened species prospectus. The prospectus seeks business and philanthropic support in partnership with the government and community groups to raise around A$14 million each year.

Orange-bellied parrots are one of the species included in the government’s Threatened Species Prospectus. Image crdeit: JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons

The government has proposed 51 projects, costing from A$45,000 to A$6 million. At first glance the prospectus is a positive initiative.

But it also highlights that the current government is unwilling to invest what’s needed to assure the conservation of our threatened plants, animals and other organisms.

The good news

The government’s partial outsourcing of conservation investment and responsibility might have some benefit. Raising broader awareness about the plight of Australia’s threatened species, particularly among Australia’s leading companies and donors, could lead to valuable conservation gains. It could translate to pressure for greater financial investment in conservation and less damaging actions by big companies.

The prospectus includes an excellent range of critically important projects. These include seed banks for plants facing extinction, and projects to control feral animals and create safe havens for mammals and birds.

These projects could help to save species on the brink of extinction, such as the critically endangered Gilbert’s potoroo, the Christmas Island flying fox and the orange-bellied parrot.

The projects have a high chance of success. Community groups and government are already on board and ready to take action, if only the funds materialise.

Why do so many species need urgent help?

The State of the Environment Report released in early March shows that the major pressures on wildlife have not decreased since 2011 when the previous report was released. The prospects for most threatened species have not improved.

Habitat loss is still the biggest threat. The homes of many threatened species are continually under threat from developments. Coal mines threaten the black-throated finch, urban sprawl eats away at the last 1% of critically endangered Victorian grasslands, and clearing for agriculture has spiked in Queensland.

Feral animals are widespread and control programs have been inadequate. New diseases are emerging, such as the chytrid fungus that has devastated frog populations worldwide.

The horticulture industry, for example, introduced myrtle rust to Australia. The disease was poorly managed when it was first detected. It now infects more than 350 species of the Myrtaceae family (including eucalypts).

We have so many threatened species because national and state governments don’t invest enough money in protecting our natural heritage, and environmental protections have been rolled back in favour of economic development.

Show us the money

Over the past three years the federal government has invested A$210 million in threatened species. This annual investment of A$70 million each year is minuscule compared with the government’s revenue (0.017% of A$416.9 billion).

It includes projects under the National Landcare Program, Green Army (much of which didn’t help threatened species) and the 20 Million Trees program.

The A$14 million that the prospectus hopes to raise is a near-negligible proportion of annual revenue (0.003%).

Globally, the amount of money needed to prevent extinctions and recover threatened species is at least ten times more than what is being spent.

In Australia, A$40 million each year would prevent the loss of 45 mammals, birds and reptiles from the Kimberley region.

Can we afford it? The 2016 Defence White Paper outlines an expansion of Australia’s defence expenditure from A$32.4 billion in 2016-17 to A$58.7 billion by 2025, even though the appropriate level of investment is extremely uncertain.

We are more certain that our biodiversity will continue to decline with current funding levels. Every State of the Environment report shows ongoing biodiversity loss at relatively stable, low-level funding.

And what will happen if industry won’t open its wallets? Will the government close the funding gap, or shrug its shoulders, hoping the delay between committing a species to extinction and the actual event will be long enough to avoid accountability?

In the past few years we’ve seen the extinction of the Christmas Island forest skink, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, and the Bramble Cay melomys with no public inquiry. Academics have been left to probe the causes, and there is no clear line of government responsibility or mechanism to provide enough funding to help prevent more extinctions.

Popularity poll

Another problem is the prospectus’s bias towards the cute and cuddly, reflecting the prejudice in the Commonwealth Threatened Species Strategy. The strategy and prospectus make the assumption that potential benefactors are inclined to fork out for a freckled duck, but not for a Fitzroy land snail.

The prospectus includes almost half of Australia’s threatened mammals (listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) and one-fifth of the threatened birds.

Other groups are woefully represented, ranging from 13% of threatened reptiles to just 1% of threatened plants and none of the listed threatened invertebrates. The prospectus does not even mention spectacular and uniquely Australian threatened crayfish, snails, velvet worms, beetles, butterflies, moths and other insects.

The allocation of funds is equally problematic. We found that birds received the most money (A$209,000 per species on average), followed by mammals and plants.

Raising new funds to help save iconic species is valuable, and can help other species. This focus on birds and mammals wouldn’t be a problem if the government were to pick up the tab for the less popular threatened species.

But it hasn’t. That means our threatened species program will continue to be exceptionally biased, while many more species vanish forever, with little acknowledgement.

We think that the prospectus, despite its biases, is a positive initiative. It is vital to engage society, including business and wealthy philanthropists, in the care of Australia’s natural heritage. But it also highlights how little the government is willing to invest in preserving our threatened wildlife and ecosystems.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

The Conversation

The Conversation

Communication: Science censorship is a global issue

Authors: Euan G Ritchie, Don A Driscoll and Martine Maron

Published in: Nature, volume 542, number 7640 (February 2017)

Government gagging of scientists is a slippery slope towards removing evidence from public debate.

Government gagging of scientists is a slippery slope towards removing evidence from public debate.

President Donald Trump issued an order on 23 January to effectively gag US government scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture from communicating with the media and the public (see Nature 54210112017). Regrettably, suppression of public scientific information is already the norm, or is being attempted, in many countries (see, for example, go.nature.com/2kr5dnd). We fear that such gagging orders could encourage senior bureaucrats to use funding as a tool with which to rein in academic freedoms.

In Australia, public servants must abide by codes of conduct for communication that restrict them from contributing scientific evidence to public debates. Allegations emerged in 2011 that an Australian state government had threatened to stop funding university scientists who spoke out against cattle grazing in national parks, despite peer-reviewed evidence that this could damage a fragile alpine ecosystem and was unlikely to reduce fire risk as claimed (see also Nature 4714222011).

The response of scientists to this type of coercion has been to share scientific information widely and openly using such legal means as social media to defend facts and transparency (see Nature 5414352017). Academics and scientific associations are among the last still free to speak, so must continue to do so to protect open discussion of government policies.

Ritchie EG, Driscoll DA, Maron M (2017) Communication: Science censorship is a global issue, Nature 542 PDF DOI