Death of the question

17 12 2015
Zombie apocalypse

Zombie apocalypse

It’s something I’ve noticed over the years going to scientific conferences and seminars — the number of questions, and more importantly their quality, have declined.

Sure, it’s anecdotal and it might just be that my perspective has changed, but I’d bet my left testicle that it’s true.

But why? There are possibly many contributing factors, such as increasingly jam-packed conferences with multiple concurrent sessions, a massive and increasing number of participants and less time for each of us to present our work. However, I think the main reason is that we’re now all glued to our electronic devices.

Yes, I’m talking about the Twitteratti, but also the tablet-tossers, laptop-layabouts and the iPhone-idiots. We have a saying in our family when we spot a smartphone zombie oblivious to oncoming traffic that she/he looks like a “… spastic fingering a sandwich” (not my quote, but I am particularly fond of using it).

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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 »

Write English well? Help get published someone who doesn’t

27 01 2015

imagesI’ve written before about how sometimes I can feel a little exasperated by what seems to be a constant barrage of bad English from some of my co-authors. No, I’m not focussing solely on students, or even native English speakers for that matter. In fact, one of the best (English) science writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working is a Spaniard (he also happens to write particularly well in Castellano). He was also fairly high up on the command-of-English ladder when he started out as my PhD student. So. There.

In other words, just because you grew up speaking the Queen’s doesn’t automatically guarantee that you’ll bust a phrase as easily as Shakespeare, Tolkien, Gould or Flannery; in fact, it might put you at a decided disadvantage compared to your English-as-a-second- (-third-, -fourth-, -fifth- …) language peers because they avoided learning all those terrible habits you picked up as you grunted your way through adolescence. Being forced to learn the grammar of another language often tends to make you grasp that of your mother tongue a little better.

So regardless of your background, if you’ve managed to beat the odds and know in your heart that you are in fact a good writer of science in English (you know who you are), I think you have a moral duty to help out those who still struggle with it. I’m not referring necessarily to the inevitable corrections you’ll make to your co-authors’ prose when drafting manuscripts1. I am instead talking about going out of your way to help someone who really, really needs it. Read the rest of this entry »

Australia should have a more vibrant ecological culture

13 10 2014
Another great social event bringing ecologists together

Another great social event bringing ecologists together

I’ve always had the gut feeling that Australia punched above its weight when it comes to ecology and conservation. For years I’ve been confidently bragging to whomever might listen (mostly at conference pub sessions) that Australians have a vibrant academic and professional community of ecologists who are internationally renowned and respected. However, my bragging was entirely anecdotal and I always qualified the boast with the caveat that I hadn’t actually looked at the numbers.

Well, I finally did look at the numbers – at least superficially. It seems that for the most part, my assertion was true. I will qualify the following results with another caveat – I’ve only looked at the smallest of samples to generate this rank, so take it with a few grains of salt. Looking at the 200 most-cited ecologists in Google Scholar (with some licence as to who qualifies as an ‘ecologist’ – for example, I ditched a few medicos), I calculated the number of ecologists in that range per 100,000 people for each country. Of course, even the country of designation is somewhat fluid and imprecise – I did not know where most had received the bulk of their training and in which country they had spent most of their time, so the numbers are (again) only indicative. Excluding countries with only one highly cited ecologist in the top 200, the sorted list comes out as: Read the rest of this entry »

We generally ignore the big issues

11 08 2014

I’ve had a good week at Stanford University with Paul Ehrlich where we’ve been putting the final touches1 on our book. It’s been taking a while to put together, but we’re both pretty happy with the result, which should be published by The University of Chicago Press within the first quarter of 2015.

It has indeed been a pleasure and a privilege to work with one of the greatest thinkers of our age, and let me tell you that at 82, he’s still a force with which to be reckoned. While I won’t divulge much of our discussions here given they’ll appear soon-ish in the book, I did want to raise one subject that I think we all need to think about a little more.

The issue is what we, as ecologists (I’m including conservation scientists here), choose to study and contemplate in our professional life.

I’m just as guilty as most of the rest of you, but I argue that our discipline is caught in a rut of irrelevancy on the grander scale. We spend a lot of time refining the basics of what we essentially already know pretty well. While there will be an eternity of processes to understand, species to describe, and relationships to measure, can our discipline really afford to avoid the biggest issues while biodiversity (and our society included) are flushed down the drain?

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Upcoming conservation, ecology and modelling conferences

7 03 2014

IMG_34271Our lab just put together a handy list of upcoming ecology, conservation and modelling conferences around the world in 2014. Others might also find it useful. Some of the abstract submission deadlines have already passed, but it still might be useful to know what’s on the immediate horizon if attendance only is an option.

Conference Dates Venue Call for Abstracts Deadline
Queensland Ornithological Conference 31 May Brisbane, Australia Open 10 Mar
Spatial Ecology and Conservation 17 Jun Birmingham, UK Closed 21 Feb
Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium 23 Jun Taiwan Closed 5 Feb
International Statistical Ecology Conference 1 Jul Montpellier, France Closed 13 Jan
International Institute of Fisheries Economics & Trade 2014 7 Jul Brisbane Closed 31 Jan
World Conference on Natural Resource Modeling 8 Jul Vilnius, Lithuania Open 31 Mar
Society for Conservation Biology Oceania Section 9 Jul Suva, Fiji Open 7 Mar Read the rest of this entry »

Making the scientific workshop work

28 10 2013
I don't mean this

I don’t mean this

I’ve been a little delayed in blogging this month, but for a very good reason – I’ve just experienced one of the best workshops of my career. I’d like to share a little of that perfect science recipe with you now.

I’ve said it before, but it can stand being repeated: done right, workshops can be some of the most efficient structures for doing big science.

First, let me define ‘workshop’ for those of you who might have only a vague notion of what it entails. To me, a workshop is a small group of like-minded scientists – all of whom possess different skills and specialities – who are brought together to achieve one goal. That goal is writing the superlative manuscript for publication.

So I don’t mean just a bog-standard chin-wag infected with motherhoods and diatribes. Workshops are not mini-conferences; neither are they soap boxes. It is my personal view that nothing can waste a scientist’s precious time more than an ill-planned and aimless workshop.

But with a little planning and some key ingredients that I’ll list shortly, you can turn a moderately good idea into something that can potentially shake the foundations of an entire discipline. So what are these secret ingredients? Read the rest of this entry »


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