The Conservation Scholars series continues with conservation biologists that were not highlighted in our book Tropical Conservation Biology (where we produced a series of ‘Spotlights’ describing the contributions of great thinkers in conservation science). Each highlight of a Conservation Scholar includes a small biography, a list of major scientific publications and a Q & A on the person’s particular area of expertise.
Another good friend and colleague, Barry Brook, is our twelfth Conservation Scholar…
Professor Barry W. Brook holds the Foundation Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change and is Director of Climate Science at the University of Adelaide‘s Environment Institute. He has published two books and over 140 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and regularly writes opinion pieces and popular articles for the media. In 2006, he was awarded the Australian Academy of Science Fenner Medal for distinguished research in biology and the Edgeworth David Medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales, and in 2007, the H.G. Andrewartha Medal by the Royal Society of South Australia and was listed by Cosmos as one of Australia’s top 10 young scientists. His area of expertise is climate change, global change biology, and the synergies between different human impacts on biodiversity. Specific topics include analytical and computer simulation modelling for risk assessment of climate change impacts, understanding the relevance of past extinctions to the present biodiversity crisis, tropical conservation, and wildlife population management. His research methods focus primarily on the statistical analysis, interpretation and computational modelling of long-term data, and meta-analysis of large-scale databases. Scenarios for future impacts are modelled at global, regional and local scales, to provide a robust scientific underpinning for scientific management and government policy. His current work is aimed at determining the extent to which climate change might amplify other major anthropogenic threats to biodiversity (e.g., demographic and genetic stress, habitat degradation, introduced predator and competitor species), and developing new modelling systems which realistically captures this information and so can be used for the purposes of prediction, adaptation and ecosystem management and restoration. Effective communication of the science of climate change is fundamental to providing policy makers with the type of evidence required to institute meaningful mitigation policy and to understand available adaptation options. It is this imperative that has motivated Barry to take an active leadership role in the communication of the science of global change to government, industry and the community (directly, via public lectures and workshops and advisory committees, and indirectly via television, radio, the print media and popular science articles). It is his strong belief that presenting hard-won technical scientific evidence to a broad audience in an intelligible way is the surest path to provoking meaningful societal change towards long-term sustainability.
- Brook, BW, CJA Bradshaw, LW Traill. 2006. Minimum viable populations and global extinction risk are unrelated. Ecology Letters 9: 375-382
- Spielman, D, BW Brook, R Frankham. 2004. Most species are not driven to extinction before genetic factors impact them. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 101: 15261-15264
- Brook, BW, NS Sodhi, PKL Ng. 2003. Catastrophic extinctions follow deforestation in Singapore. Nature 424: 420-423
- Brook, BW & DMJS Bowman. 2002. Explaining the Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions: models, chronologies, and assumptions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 99: 14624-14627
- Brook, BW, JJ O’Grady, AP Chapman, MA Burgman, HR Akçakaya, R Frankham. 2000. Predictive accuracy of population viability analysis in conservation biology. Nature 404: 385-387
Questions and Answers
1. What do you believe is the most pressing biodiversity conservation problem we need to address as a society today?
Active intervention and triage. Global factors (climate warming, land use change, invasive species, environmental pollution) are the primary drivers of the current biodiversity crisis, and as such, solutions that don’t see ‘the big picture’ are doomed to fail. In the past, we’ve taken a ‘reserve-and-isolate’ approach to conservation (e.g., create protected areas and then exclude people). We’ve also focused predominantly on the problems facing individual threatened species. This will not work on the scales required for 21st century conservation biology. As species distributions shift and whole communities of interacting organisms are damaged by these overarching threats, we are going to have to face two challenging prospects: (i) we’ll need to move many species ourselves rather than simply hoping for them to disperse to new areas of their own accord, and (ii) we’ll need to give up on many of the most-vulnerable species in order to save most of the rest. We are not going to avoid extinctions – but can possibly still avoid a mass extinction.
2. How did you make the change from pure theoretical ecologist to climate change specialist?
I’m not sure I ever really made a change (certainly not a switch). Scientific careers naturally evolve as one’s research interests take different directions. I’ve always been interested in numerical modelling, synergies in complex systems and the emergent properties that result, and treatment of risk and uncertainty. Whether it be theoretical ecology, palaeobiology, or contemporary climate change impacts – it’s all ‘systems science’. Certainly climate change is an overarching threat, potentially the most damaging of all, and so is always in the mix when considering future scenarios of biodiversity and societal responses. Energy, land use, human values – they’re all intrinsic parts of the big picture in which conservation must operate.
3. You’ve done a lot of work predicting species extinction trends – what are some of the principal take-home messages about extinctions and how to prevent (reduce) them?
Species start out rare, and end their existence rare – it’s fundamental to evolution [I guess phyletic transformations are the exception to the former, but the latter is universal]. In between – during most of a species’ lifetime (of typically 1 to 10 million years) – most species are fairly abundant (locally or regionally). So extinction dynamics is the science of understanding how abundant things become rare. There are interesting theoretical properties of small populations that are close to extinction, which make them fun to study, but the business end of conservation is on the decline phase. More abundant populations and those species with populations in multiple locations are harder to knock out. As are genetically diverse populations, and those with wide ranges. ‘Geographical insurance’ should not be underestimated as a conservation tool. If you want to prevent extinctions, you must work hardest at preventing excessive and widespread declines in abundance, and in maintaining viable populations that are resilient to short-term environmental variation. The rest is detail – and much of it theoretically interesting but not particularly relevant to preventing mass extinction.
4. What skill(s) do you believe is(are) most important for burgeoning conservation biologists to master?
Pragmatism, numerical aptitude, and literacy. Pragmatism because you must realise that not everything can be saved (or studied) and that natural laws are not up for negotiation. Numerical skills because all scientists should be modellers (a hypothesis is a verbal model), and sensible integration of data streams into a meaningful ‘signal’ (whilst acknowledging uncertainty) is the most fundamental step in driving scientific progress. We’re all jigsaw builders, but we haven’t got the final picture to look at and haven’t got the time or resources just to jam pieces together randomly. Literacy because if scientists can’t communicate their work, then it is of no practical value. There are a lot of embedded traditions in scientific writing that have no place in modern communication.
5. What’s your philosophy on statistical support for ‘evidence’ of effects in conservation biology?
From a holistic perspective, full reality is, and always will be, unknowable. For reasons of convenience and practicality, we leave most minor things out. Science is about identifying the main factors required to summarise a system of interest, whilst looking out for unusual boundary effects. Evidence is therefore about quantifying effect size, especially the relative important of different effects. Statistics is all about getting a handle on the uncertainty in your estimates of effect size. Issues of power and variability are important considerations here, as are appropriate methods of model construction, selection, simplification and inference. Binary concepts such as whether a result is ‘significant’ (or not), or methods of multivariate ‘data dredging’ in which an investigator is led by the data rather than being driven by a priori hypotheses, are ultimately pretty meaningless.