Challenging the traditional conference model

28 08 2015

keeping-the-audience-awakeAn interesting take on conference culture by Diogo Veríssimo (mastermind behind I Fucking Love Biodiversity).

Just a few weeks back, more than 2000 conservationists got together in Montpellier, France, for the 27th International Congress on Conservation Biology (ICCB). I have been attending these conferences since 2008, and once again had a blast. Yet as I went through the usual talks, posters, work meetings, and this and that social, I could not help but feel that the traditional conference model was hindering, not helping me, maximise my benefits.

In my experience of conservation conferences, the content is largely delivered via a one-way channel, and attendees listen passively until the chance for a question or two comes up at the end. If time allows, that is, and it rarely does. Given the huge costs (and the footprint) of these events, how can we maximise the outcomes of these meetings?

Let’s look first at what is currently the backbone of most conferences anywhere: the oral presentation. Currently, the gold standard for the vast majority of ICCB presenters is the 15-min presentation, and those who are denied that chance often say they have been “downgraded”. I find this unfortunate.

My biggest criticisms of our current approach to content management during a conference is that it leaves the discussion to happen informally and without the benefit of the collective knowledge that comes together at these meetings. Many conservationists are keen to avoid long-winded lectures in their classrooms, but when we come together, those concerns seem to go out the window. The Q&A after a talk should be the most important part of a session for either the presenter (expert feedback can save a lot of time and resources) and the audience (who otherwise cannot focus on what they think is important).

Giving sessions enough Q&A time, which I argue would have to be as long as the time given to presentations, would imply having fewer presentations — unless we have shorter presentations. The ICCB already has the speed presentation, a format that lasts just 5 minutes. Why not make that the default? Yes, presenting your content effectively in 5 minutes is an acquired skill, but not much different in kind from writing an abstract to a paper. Having presented in both traditional and speed format, I am convinced presentations strongly suffer from the law of diminishing returns, meaning the difference from the audience point of view ends up being small. This is particularly true if fewer talks means more time for the audience to interact and ask about the things in which they are interested, rather than what the presenter thinks they should learn. Read the rest of this entry »

What conservationists should recommend to philanthropists

24 08 2015

business-people-forest-sqIt probably won’t come as too much of a surprise that most of the people I know reasonably well (mates included) are also scientists of some description. I therefore think that I fall into the extremely normal and mundane category of associating the most with people at work. Sure, I’ve also got very good mates who are et alia plumbers, chefs, winemakers (I do live in South Australia, after all), mechanics, coffee roasters and farmers (I also live on a small farm), so at least a get out of the office a bit. In summary, I tend to befriend and hang around people who are for the most part making ends meet, but who are by no means in a position to spend oodles of cash on anything remotely related to the conservation of biodiversity.

From time to time, however, I do meet extremely wealthy people, but we generally do not operate in the same social circles (I know, another big surprise). Nonetheless, I keep finding myself in conversations with such people that start along the lines of the following question:

“What’s the most effective way to invest money to save species from going extinct?”

As the Australian saying goes: “How long is a piece of string” – in other words, it’s a difficult, multi-dimensional answer at best, or a confused non sequitur one at worst.

Those reading this might be thinking right now, “Oh, I know exactly what I’d spend it on if I had that kind of money”, but after a few moments of contemplation, you might not be so sure. This is the dilemma in which I’ve found myself now on more than a few occasions.

So, with the benefit of a little contemplation, here are a few of my thoughts on the subject. Read the rest of this entry »

How to give a scientific presentation

15 08 2015

fearHaving just attended the joint 27th International Congress for Conservation Biology / 4th European Congress for Conservation Biology in Montpellier, France, I have a renewed vigour for proffering advice on the DOs and DO NOTs of giving a scientific presentation.

There are of course many different styles, formats, media and audiences for scientific presentations, so I’m going to outline only general issues of which you should be aware when preparing and delivering that often stress-inducing presentation. There are also many different durations of a scientific talk — including, but not limited to everything from a 5-minute speed talk to a full-on, dazzling, TEDx-like performance that can last for over an hour. Many of these principles apply to the full gamut of talk types, although various elements will have to be adjusted according to format. Only experience and plenty of advice can assist you in the tweaking.

Without further ado, here are the top 15 most important things to consider when preparing and giving a scientific presentation: Read the rest of this entry »

Scariest part of climate change isn’t what we know, but what we don’t

7 08 2015

© Nick Kim

My good friend and tropical conservation rockstar, Bill Laurancejust emailed me and asked if I could repost his recent The Conversation article here on

He said:

It’s going completely viral (26,000 reads so far) in just three days. It’s been republished in The Ecologist, I Fucking Love Science, and several other big media outlets.

Several non-scientists have said it really helped them to understand what’s known versus unknown in climate-change research—which was helpful because they feel pummelled by all the research and draconian stuff that gets reported and have problems parsing out what’s likely versus speculative.

With an introduction like that, you’ll just have to read it!

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”: so goes a Danish proverb attributed variously to baseball coach Yogi Berra and physicist Niels Bohr. Yet some things are so important — such as projecting the future impacts of climate change on the environment — that we obviously must try.

An Australian study published last week predicts that some rainforest plants could see their ranges reduced 95% by 2080. How can we make sense of that given the plethora of climate predictions?

In a 2002 press briefing, Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defence, distinguished among different kinds of uncertainty: things we know, things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know. Though derided at the time for playing word games, Rumsfeld was actually making a good point: it’s vital to be clear about what we’re unclear about.

So here’s my attempt to summarise what we think we know, don’t know, and things that could surprise us about climate change and the environment.

Things we think we know

We know that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen markedly in the last two centuries, especially in recent decades, and the Earth is getting warmer. Furthermore, 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded. That’s consistent with what we’d expect from the greenhouse effect. Read the rest of this entry »

All (fisheries) models are wrong, but some are useful (to indigenous people)

1 08 2015

miracle_cartoonAnother post from Alejandro Frid. (Note: title modified from George Box‘s most excellent quote).

As an ecologist working for indigenous people of coastal British Columbia, western Canada, I live at the interface of two worlds. On the one hand, I know that computer models can be important management tools. On the other hand, my job constantly reminds me that whether a model actually improves fishery management depends, fundamentally, on the worldview that shapes the model’s objectives. To explore why, I will first review some general concepts about what models can and cannot do. After that, I will summarize a recent model of herring populations and then pull it all together in a way that matters to indigenous people who rely on marine resources for cultural integrity and food security.

Models do a great job of distilling the essence of how an ecosystem might respond to external forces—such as fisheries—but only under the specific conditions that the modeller assumes to be true in the ‘world’ of the model. Sometimes these assumptions are well-grounded in reality. Sometimes they are blatant but necessary simplifications. Otherwise, it would be difficult to ask questions about how major forces for which we have no historical precedent—such as the combined effects of industrial fisheries, ocean acidification and climate change—might be altering the ocean. For instance, due to our greenhouse gas emissions, the ocean is warming and contains less dissolved oxygen. These stressful conditions hamper the capacity of fish to grow, and appear to be on their way to shrinking the body sizes of entire fish communities1. If you want even to begin to comprehend what the ocean will look like in the long term due to these effects of climate change, it makes sense to assume, in the ‘world’ of your model, that fishing does not exist, even though you know it does. Of course, you would then acknowledge that climate change probably exacerbates the effects of fisheries, which highlights that you still have to examine the combination of these effects. And that is exactly what an excellent team of modellers did1. Read the rest of this entry »

Écologie en France

27 07 2015

DCOUVRI2This is just a quick post to update followers about a few things I’ll be up to over the next 5 months. While I can guarantee that the posts will be more or less as frequent, some of the subject material might shift slightly given my new geographic focus.

I’m most fortunate to have been invited to spend the rest of 2015 in Franck Courchamp‘s Systematic Ecology & Evolution lab at Université Paris-Sud (also check out Franck’s blog here), and I’ll be leaving for France tomorrow. Franck is a long-time mate and colleague, who has not only previously hosted me briefly in his home in France, he and his family also put me up in Los Angeles earlier this year (where both he and his partner Muriel are on sabbatical themselves at UCLA until the end of August 2015). Franck was also kind enough to visit Adelaide last year where he gave some rather kick-arse seminars.

So what will I be doing during my mini-‘sabbatical’ with Franck? Franck is known for many things, not least of which is his reputation for being ‘King Allee Effect‘, but the main focus of my work there will be on the economic impacts of invasive insects in Europe as the climate continues to warm over the coming century. The project is financed by a large French bank (BNP-Paribas) and is known as InvaCost:

InvaCost will look at the impact on invasive insects, when climate change allows them to invade regions that are now too cold for them, but that will warm up in the coming decades. These include the red imported fire ant, the predatory Asian wasp, the disease-carrying tiger mosquito, and many others that are among the worst invaders worldwide.

Of course, that’s just the main topic. Franck is a little like me in that he’s a jack of many ecological trades, so we also plan to work on a few things like the global impacts of feral cats, some more conservation-based things, and perhaps a review or two. Lots planned for five months! Read the rest of this entry »

Ice Age? No. Abrupt warmings and hunting together polished off Holarctic megafauna

24 07 2015
Oh shit oh shit oh shit ...

Oh shit oh shit oh shit …

Did ice ages cause the Pleistocene megafauna to go extinct? Contrary to popular opinion, no, they didn’t. But climate change did have something to do with them, only it was global warming events instead.

Just out today in Science, our long-time-coming (9 years in total if you count the time from the original idea to today) paper ‘Abrupt warmings drove Late Pleistocene Holarctic megafaunal turnover‘ led by Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA and Chris Turney of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre demonstrates for the first time that abrupt warming periods over the last 60,000 years were at least partially responsible for the collapse of the megafauna in Eurasia and North America.

You might recall that I’ve been a bit sceptical of claims that climate changes had much to do with megafauna extinctions during the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene, mainly because of the overwhelming evidence that humans had a big part to play in their demise (surprise, surprise). What I’ve rejected though isn’t so much that climate had nothing to do with the extinctions; rather, I took issue with claims that climate change was the dominant driver. I’ve also had problems with blanket claims that it was ‘always this’ or ‘always that’, when the complexity of biogeography and community dynamics means that it was most assuredly more complicated than most people think.

I’m happy to say that our latest paper indeed demonstrates the complexity of megafauna extinctions, and that it took a heap of fairly complex datasets and analyses to demonstrate. Not only were the data varied – the combination of scientists involved was just as eclectic, with ancient DNA specialists, palaeo-climatologists and ecological modellers (including yours truly) assembled to make sense of the complicated story that the data ultimately revealed. Read the rest of this entry »


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