Category Archives: Science communication

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.

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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.

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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.

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