Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers

11 03 2014

ALERTIf you’ve been following this blog or my Twitter feed over the last few weeks, you’ve surely noticed a few references to A.L.E.R.T. – the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers. You might also have asked yourself, what exactly is ALERT, and is it something I should pay attention to?

Today’s post attempts to explain this new organisation, and hopefully convince you that the answer to the second question is ‘yes’.

Several months ago, a slightly cryptic e-mail from eminent conservation biologist, Bill Laurance, arrived in my inbox. It asked – what do you think of this logo (see associated image)? A few e-mails later and a couple of minor tweaks, and we ended up with what I thought was a pretty cool logo for this new ‘ALERT’ thing. It wasn’t until quite some time later that I finally understood what Bill was attempting to create.

Is ALERT a news aggregator, a blog, an advocacy group, a science-communication resource or a science-policy interface? Why, yes it is!

Read the rest of this entry »

Work-life ‘balance’ – can academics achieve it?

16 12 2013

WorkLifeBalanceA little over a week ago I was asked by the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus) to sit on a panel with Professor Tanya Munro to speak about achieving that elusive ‘life-work balance’. The event was part of the ECRchat network.

The evening was well-attended, and even more so online; now the video is available and I reproduce it here for your viewing pleasure.

I hope you have some interesting insights that we didn’t have – essentially the conclusion is that there really isn’t one; you’ve got to find your own system that works, and nothing works perfectly. Read the rest of this entry »

Biowealth: all creatures great and small

4 12 2013

Curious Country flyer“So consider the crocodiles, sharks and snakes, the small and the squirmy, the smelly, slimy and scaly. Consider the fanged and the hairy, the ugly and the cute alike. The more we degrade this astonishing diversity of evolved life and all its interactions on our only home, the more we expose ourselves to the ravages of a universe that is inherently hostile to life.”

excerpt from ‘Biowealth: all creatures great and small’ The Curious Country (C.J.A. Bradshaw 2013).

I’ve spent the last few days on the east coast with my science partner-in-crime, Barry Brook, and one of our newest research associates (Marta Rodrigues-Rey Gomez). We first flew into Sydney at sparrow’s on Monday, then drove a hire car down to The ‘Gong to follow up on some Australian megafauna databasing & writing with Bert Roberts & Zenobia Jacobs. On Tuesday morning we then flitted over to Canberra where we had the opportunity to attend the official launch of a new book that Barry and I had co-authored.

The book, The Curious Country, is an interesting experiment in science communication and teaching dreamed up by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. Realising that the average Aussie has quite a few questions about ‘how stuff works’, but has little idea how to answer those questions, Ian engaged former Quantum star and science editor, Leigh Dayton, to put together a short, punchy, topical and easily understood book about why science is good for the country.

Yes, intuitive for most of you out there reading this, but science appreciation isn’t always as high as it should be amongst the so-called ‘general public’. Ian thought this might be one way to get more people engaged.

When honoured with the request to write an interesting chapter on biodiversity for the book, I naturally accepted. It turns out Barry was asked to do one on energy provision at the same time (but we didn’t know we had both been asked at the time). Our former lab head, Professor David Bowman, was also asked to write a chapter about fire risk, so it was like a mini-reunion yesterday for the three of us.

Read the rest of this entry »

Making science matter

14 10 2013


I’ve been home from my last overseas trip now for nearly two weeks, but despite not feeling caught up, it’s high time I report what I was up to.

Some of you who follow my Twitter feed or who saw a CB post about cartoonist Seppo Leinonen know that I was visiting the University of Helsinki to participate in a three-day short course for PhD students entitled ‘Making Science Matter‘. I was so impressed with how well Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin put together the course, that I thought I’d share the format with CB readers (just in case any of you out there can be convinced to design a similar course at your university).

I think it’s important first to discuss the philosophy of the course and what it hoped to provide those early-career researchers.

Most science PhD students will tell you once they’ve completed their degree that they feel completely unprepared to launch themselves into the extra-curricular world of communicating their science beyond the ‘traditional’ (peer-reviewed journals) outlets. Swamped with learning how to write concisely and clearly, getting up to speed with the entire body of theory on which their projects are based, mastering advanced modelling and statistical approaches and learning how to apply efficient computer code, it’s no wonder that many students find precious little time for anything else (including families, good food and proper hygiene).

Once they do land that precious post-doctoral fellowship though, they are immediately expected to interact professionally with the media, embrace social media and give fantastic public lectures to engage the uninformed. Right. Read the rest of this entry »

Science immortalised in cartoon Version 2.0

24 09 2013

© Seppo Leinonen

I’m in the middle of participating in a short-course on science communication based at the University of Helsinki‘s Lammi Biological Station (about 1.5 hours north of Helsinki by car). Organised by two fantastic people, Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin, it’s an eclectic mix of instruction for (mainly) PhD students on how to promote yourself and your science in print, in media, in illustration, in citizen science and for policy makers.

While we aren’t yet finished, I wanted to report that I had the immense pleasure of finally meeting the immeasurably talented environmental cartoonist, Seppo Leinonen. Not only is he an extremely talented artist and a dedicated environmentalist, he’s just a top bloke.

If you haven’t checked out and his cartoons yet, you should.

This is just a brief post to spruik his fine work, and show off his parting cartoon gift to me: Read the rest of this entry »

Early to press is best for success

19 09 2013

publishingThis paper is bound to piss off a few people. So be it. This is what we found, regardless of what you want to believe.

Led by the extremely prolific Bill Laurance, we have just published a paper (online early) that looks at the correlates of publication success for biologists.

I have to preface the main message with a little philosophical discussion of that loaded word – ‘success’. What do we mean by scientific ‘success’? There are several bucket loads of studies that have attempted to get at this question, and several more that have lamented the current system that emphasises publication, publication, publication. Some have even argued that the obsession of ever-more-frequent publication has harmed scientific advancement because of our preoccupation with superficial metrics at the expense of in-depth scientific enquiry.

Well, one can argue these points of view, and empirically support the position that publication frequency is a poor metric. I tend to agree. At the same time, I am not aware of a single scientist known for her or his important scientific contributions that doesn’t have a prolific publication output. No, publishing shitloads of papers won’t win you the Nobel Prize, but if you don’t publish, you won’t win either.

So, publication frequency is certainly correlated with success, even if it’s not the perfect indicator. But my post today isn’t really about that issue. If you accept that writing papers is part of a scientist’s job, then read on. If you don’t, well …

So today I report the result of our study published online in BioScience, Predicting publication success for biologists. We asked the question: what makes someone publish more than someone else? Read the rest of this entry »

I fucking love biodiversity

18 06 2013
© G. Gallice

© G. Gallice

A corker of an idea, and post, from Diogo Veríssimo.

I don’t like biodiversity. I like beef lasagna, I like the British museum and I like everything Jules Verne ever wrote. When it comes to biodiversity, it’s different. I think about it all the time, try to be close to it and suffer emotional distress when I think of it going irretrievably away. This is LOVE.

Understanding how to get this passion across effectively has always been one of my main goals. That is why my research has focused on the links between marketing and conservation. But recently I started feeling a bit more empowered to take this mission seriously, and all thanks to the Facebook page I fucking love Science. This page became an internet sensation amassing more than 5 million fans and engaging frequently over 4 million users in any given week. Forget the New York Times and National Geographic, this is the real deal.

So I wondered, why can’t I do the same for biodiversity? The idea lingered in my head until I read a recent paper by McCallum and Bury on Google search patterns, which shows how even during the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity we are failing to mainstream biodiversity and its associated issues. If fact, people seem to be less interested. Whatever we are doing is clearly not working. So why not give this concept a try? And so I fucking love Biodiversity (IFLB) was born.

Read the rest of this entry »

Learning how to fail

6 06 2013

On the way to work yesterday I was listening to ABC Radio National‘s Life Matters program hosted by Natasha Mitchell about how school children are now apparently being given so much positive praise and encouragement that they can no longer handle failure. Poor, wee dears. Maybe that’s why we have such a high attrition rate once they get up to postgraduate level, because that’s when they REALLY experience failure.

Jokes and whinges aside, there is a hard truth in that message that applies to all scientists, and especially the early-career ones. I’m talking about having your paper rejected from a journal.

Even the terms we use to describe the peer-review gauntlet appear designed to instil fear and inadequacy: reject or accept. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a PhD student’s face figuratively melt off the skull as they shuffle into my office to show me the journal’s rejection letter (now just usually forwarded in an email accompanied by implied stooped shoulders – is there an emoticon for that?). As I’ve mentioned before, we scientists can be real bastards to each other, and it comes out in spades during peer review.

While neophytes tend to take these hits the hardest, I want to impart a little wisdom from some of my very well-established and successful colleagues. Rejection should be viewed as an asset, not a mark of failure. Let me explain. Read the rest of this entry »

Take credit for your work

6 05 2013

passive voice ninjaIf science is the best way to reduce subjectivity when asking a question of how something works, then an inherently essential aspect of this is getting your message across to as many people and as clearly as possible. And as CB readers will know, I’m all about ‘getting the message out’.

As such, when asked by a stranger about what I do, I often respond ‘writer’, because perhaps next to maths, I spend most of my time writing. I tend to argue that without good oral and (especially) written communication skills, even the most brilliant scientist is functionally useless to the rest of society.

So being a writer means that focussing on what some would describe as mundane – spelling, grammar, writing style and clarity – is an essential preoccupation. I’ve written about grammatical and style issues before (see here and here), and in the spirit of providing tips to young scientists out there, here’s another suggestion.

Please, please, please use your own voice.

I’m talking about that archaic style of zombie writing that has plagued scientific writing since its inception – the passive voice.

Read the rest of this entry »

Touchy-feely ecologists

18 04 2013

happy scientistOne of the many reasons I started this blog nearly five years ago was to engage both minds and hearts that my (and my colleagues’) scientific journal papers were failing to do. Of course we have emotional attachment to our areas of expertise (I’ve never met a good scientist who wasn’t passionate about what they studied) – but as Alejandro Frid encourages – we just have to transmit that emotional component better to our fellow human beings.

The title is not a joke about sensitive, New Age guys. I am quite serious about it. Though no academic superstar, I have been publishing in ecological and conservation journals for almost twenty years. I love the discipline. I’d hate to see it fail.

What I am talking about is this: ecologists read and write about ‘extinction’, ‘over-exploitation’, ‘climate change’ and so forth as a matter of routine. Yet at the same time, science journals are full of examples of how resources can be used more sustainably, of human behaviours that reduce the greenhouse gases that alter the climate and acidify the oceans, and of alternative economic models that value a healthy biosphere. So why do consumer apathy and political inertia still run the same old show?

I know, I know. Social scientists are working hard on this question (check out, for instance, just about any issue of Nature Climate Change). But what matters is not the rigorous answer that they might produce (we already know that it is 42 - Douglas Adams couldn’t be wrong); it is instead that most non-scientists probably don’t even care about the question. Read the rest of this entry »

Why every scientist needs an online profile

31 01 2013

Don’t be guilty of this.

It astounds me every time I hear about a scientist who is reluctant to place her or his track record on the internet. Now, I may be a little over-the-top when it comes to my own web-presence (some have labelled me a ‘media tart’, but I don’t mind), but I am convinced that without a strong, regularly updated web presence, you’re doing yourself a horrible disservice.

Let’s go through the regularly raised objections that some academics make for avoiding the investment in a strong web presence:

  1. My employer will get angry
  2. My track record isn’t good enough (i.e., I’m embarrassed)
  3. What I do is no one else’s business
  4. I couldn’t be bothered; it’s too much work
  5. No one reads it anyway

While there might be some truth to items 1 & 2 (although the justification is weak or often plainly untrue), the last three are pure bullshit.

Let’s start by analysing the bullshit (rolls up sleeves, starts digging…).

Read the rest of this entry »

How to write a scientific paper

22 10 2012

Several years ago, my long-time mate, colleague and co-director, Barry Brook, and I were lamenting how most of our neophyte PhD students were having a hard time putting together their first paper drafts. It’s a common problem, and most supervisors probably get their collective paper-writing wisdom across in dribs and drabs over the course of their students’ torment… errhm, PhD. And I know that every supervisor has a different style, emphasis, short-cut (or two) and focus when writing a paper, and students invariably pick at least some of these up.

But the fact that this knowledge isn’t innate, nor is it in any way taught in probably most undergraduate programmes (I include Honours in that list), means that most supervisors must bleed heavily on those first drafts presented to them by their students. Bleeding is painful for both the supervisor and student who has to clean up the mess – there has to be a better way.

Yes, there are books on the issue (see, for example, Day & Castel 2011, Hofmann 2009, Schimel 2011), but how many starting PhDs sit down and read such books cover to cover? Hell, I can barely get them to read the basic statistics texts.

So as is classic for Barry, he came up with his own approach that I like to call ‘La Méthode Brookoise’ (a tribute to another clever jeu de mots). This short-cut guide to setting up a scientific paper is simple, effective and intuitive. Sure, it was designed with ecology in mind, but it should apply to most scientific disciplines. It appeals to most of our students, and we have both been asked for copies by other supervisors over the years. Our original intention was to write a paper about writing papers to flesh out the full Méthode, but that has yet to happen.

Therefore, for the benefit of the up-and-comings (and perhaps to a few of those longer in tooth), behold La Méthode Brookoise for writing papers: Read the rest of this entry »

Knowledge slavery

29 01 2012

manaclesAnother workshop; another productive week.

As many readers will know, I’ve spent the last week in the mountains north of Madrid working on a series of conservation ecology papers with host Miguel Araújo (of the Integrative Biology and Global Change Group at the Spanish National Museum of Natural Sciences), my lab colleagues, Barry Brook, Damien Fordham and Salvador Herrando-Pérez, and Miguel’s post-doc, Regan Early.

Let me tell you, staying in the craggy granite Sierra de Guadarrama mountains at a well-known health spa eating explosively flavourful Spanish food and drinking an immodest selection of the region’s delicious wines, is particularly conducive to scientific productivity (yes, I AM a jammy tart). Although unlikely to be followed by many (even if they have the means), I highly recommend the experience for those suffering from writer’s block.

But this post isn’t about the scenery, food, wine, hydrothermal treatment or even the content of the workshop at all (I just prefaced it as such to gloat); it’s about a particularly sore point for me and hundreds of thousands of other scientists the world over – our slavery to the scientific publishing industry.

And ‘slavery’ is definitely the most appropriate term here, for how else would you describe a business where the product is produced by others for free1 (scientific results), is assessed for quality by others for free (reviewing), is commissioned, overviewed and selected by yet others for free (editing), and then sold back to the very same scientists and the rest of the world’s consumers at exorbitant prices.

This isn’t just a whinge about a specialised and economically irrelevant sector of the economy, we’re talking about an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. In fact, Elsevier (agreed by many to be the leader in the greed-pack – see how some scientists are staging their protest; also here) made US$1.1 billion in 2010! Read the rest of this entry »

Supercharge Your Science V.2

24 11 2011

I suspect a lot of readers will be attending the imminent 25th International Congress for Conservation Biology to be held in Auckland from 5-9 December 2011 (it was to be held in Christchurch, but the venue was changed after that city fell down). I’ve now been to 3 previous ICCBs myself, and it should prove to be a good, informative (and fun) meeting.

I’ll be giving a talk or two, as will some of my students and postdocs, but I’m not spruiking those here (but you’re all invited, of course).

The main reason for this short post today is to advertise for Version 2 of our (i.e., Bill Laurance and me) popular ‘Supercharge Your Science‘ workshop. Yes, the organising committee of the ICCB decided it was a good idea to accept our application to repeat our previously successful series of presentations extolling the virtues of positive and controlled media interactions, social media and good writing techniques for ‘supercharging’ the impact of one’s science. You can read more about the content of this workshop here and here.

The description of the workshop (to be held from 19.00 – 21.00 on 6 December in the SkyCity venue) on the ICCB website is: Read the rest of this entry »

A supervisor’s lament

5 09 2011

© hradcanska

Time for a little supervisory whinge. I’ve lamented these very issues over many a beer at many a conference, so I thought I’d solidify those hazy arguments into a blog post.

I’m by no means the most burdened academic when it comes to student load. We tend to be very picky in our lab when engaging post-graduate student prospects, and even pickier when hiring post-doctoral fellows (because the latter require little things like salaries that unfortunately, do not grow on trees). We also endeavour to share the load – most of our post-docs have at least one primary PhD student responsibility which reduces some of my burden and gives the post-doc in question the requisite experience in supervising. In my opinion, it’s a good way to run a lab, and allows for a high number of productive students, yet is not overly onerous for any one person.

That said, I make sure I read EVERYTHING my students produce, and I take a certain amount of pride in providing as much of my intellectual input as possible: from study design right through to proof correction. If my name is going to be on a paper, I had better bloody well earn my co-authorship. Read the rest of this entry »

Demise of the Australian ERA journal rankings

3 06 2011

Earlier this week Australian Senator Kim Carr (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) announced the removal of the somewhat controversial ERA rankings for scientific journals.

Early last year I posted about the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) journal rankings for ecology and conservation journals. To remind you, the ERA has ranked > 20,000 unique peer-reviewed journals, with each given a single quality rating – and they are careful to say that “A journal’s quality rating represents the overall quality of the journal. This is defined in terms of how it compares with other journals and should not be confused with its relevance or importance to a particular discipline.”.

Now, after much to-ing and fro-ing about what the four rankings actually mean (A*, A, B & C), Senator Carr has announced that he’s dumping them under the advice of the Australian Research Council. Read the rest of this entry »

Build a bridge out of ‘er

12 03 2011

Apologies to Monty Python and my poor attempt to make the over-used expression ‘bridging the gap’ humorous.

Today’s guest post comes from across the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Sara Maxwell is a postdoctoral fellow with Marine Conservation Biology Institute and University of California Santa Cruz, Long Marine Laboratory. She was kind enough to contribute to about an issue I’ve covered before in various forms – making conservation research relevant for conservation action.

© R. Arlettaz

In a catalyzing article titled “From publications to public actions: when conservation biologists bridge the gap between research and implementation” in the November 2010 issue of BioScience, Raphaël Arlettaz1 and his colleagues Michael Schaub2, Jérôme Fournier3, Thomas Reichlin2, Antoine Sierro4, James Watson5 and Veronika Braunisch2 explore reasons for our hard work as conservation biologists not reaching the implementation phase. This article strongly resonated with my colleague, Kiki Jenkins6 and I, Sara Maxwell. This resulted in a series of letters published in BioScience and now we join together, along with Jeffrey Camm7, Guillaume Chapron8, Liana Joseph9, and Rudi Suchant10 to synthesize our ideas and present them to the larger conservation community via ConservationBytes.

The article that sparked the discussion

In their article, Arlettaz and colleagues highlight some of the main roadblocks to implementing conservation research. The main reasons are that:

  1. The research made by conservation biologists’ does not lend itself well to implementation, i.e., as a community we often focus on the wrong questions or address them in ways that do not lead to practical applications for practitioners;
  2. The outcomes of conservation biologists’ research tends not to reach practitioners and so fails to be put into action;
  3. When we successfully align and collaborate with practitioners, there is a lack of economic or political support to make the changes that need to happen; or
  4. Conservation biologists do not commit to engaging themselves in the implementation of their recommendations due to a lack of reward structure for this behaviour and the conflicting roles of academia and conservation.

Arlettaz and colleagues illustrate how to overcome these roadblocks using a case study of their own work on the endangered hoopoe (Upupa epops) in Switzerland, showing how they followed through the recommendations of their work to implementation and had a direct impact on species recovery. They highlight means by which other conservation biologists can do the same.

Read the rest of this entry »

Biodiversity begins at home

20 01 2011

A few months ago I was involved in a panel discussion entitled ‘Biodiversity begins at home’ held at the Royal Institution of Australia in Adelaide and sponsored by the Don Dunstan Foundation.

The main thrust of the evening was to have both academic (me & Andy Lowe) and on-the-ground, local conservationists (Sarah Lance, Craig Gillespie and Matt Turner) talk about what people can do to stem the tide of biodiversity loss. The video is now available, so I thought I’d reproduce it here. We talked about a lot of issues (from global to local scale), so if you have a spare hour, you might get something out of this. I did, but it certainly wasn’t long enough to discuss such big issues.

Warning – this was supposed to be more of a discussion and less of a talkfest; unfortunately, many of the panel members seemed to forget this and instead dominated the session. We really needed 4 hours to do this properly (but then, who would have watched the video?).

Read the rest of this entry »

Leaving Conservation Letters

21 12 2010

It is with both sighs of relief and some sentimentality that I announce my departure from the Senior Editor’s position at Conservation Letters.

After 3 volumes and 17 issues, and a very good prospect for an ISI Impact Factor > 3.0 coming out in June 2011, I feel that I’ve contributed sufficiently for the journal to persist in the conservation publication space for the coming decades.

Now I need a beer. ;-)

The road to Senior Editor certainly involved a steep learning curve for me, and I sincerely thank the four Editors-in-Chief (Hugh Possingham, Bill Sutherland, Richard Cowling & Mike Mascia) for their faith in my abilities and the flexibility to allow me to make important decisions. But most importantly, I thank our highly professional and rigorous editorial board who really did all the hard work (voluntarily, I might add). The full list of editors can be found here, but I want to pass on some extra gratitude to a few specific people here:

In a word, you lot were brilliant. Thank you for going well beyond expectations and handling some very difficult manuscripts. Your expertise, professionalism and generosity will not go unnoticed, I can guarantee that.

I also thank Jennifer Mahar for keeping me (mostly) on the ball and for making the whole thing come together. Marjorie Spencer, whose brainchild this journal was, was a breath of fresh air and enthusiasm. Thanks for stepping up for me (oh, and thanks too for the many drinks courtesy of Uncle Wiley).

Read the rest of this entry »

Biowealth – a lexical leap forward for biodiversity appreciation

17 12 2010

Here’s a little idea I’ve been kicking around in my head that I’d like to invite you to debate. Call it an ‘Open Thread’ in the spirit of’s successful series.

© The Economist

Let’s face it, ‘biodiversity’ is a slippery and abstract concept for most people. Hell, even most ecologists have a hard time describing what biodiversity means. To the uninitiated, it seems simple enough. It’s just the number of species, isn’t it?

Well, no. It isn’t.

Unfortunately, it’s far, far more complicated. First, the somewhat arbitrary pigeon-holing of organisms into Linnaean taxonomic boxes doesn’t really do justice to the genetic gradients within species, among populations and even between individuals. We use the pigeon-hole taxonomy because it’s convenient, that’s all. Sure, molecular genetics has revolutionised the concept, but to most people, a kangaroo is a kangaroo, a robin is a robin and an earthworm is an earthworm. Hierarchical Linnaean taxonomy prevails.

Then there’s the more prickly issue of α, β and γ diversity. α diversity essentially quantifies species richness within a particular area, whereas β diversity is the difference in α diversity between ecosystems. γ diversity is used to measure overall diversity for the different constituent ecosystems of a region. Scale is very, very important (see our recent book chapter for more on this). Read the rest of this entry »


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