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 »

An appeal to extinction chronologists

2 06 2015

u7Pi3Extinction is forever, right? Yes, it’s true that once the last individual of a species dies (apart from insane notions that de-extinction will do anything to resurrect a species in perpetuity), the species is extinct. However, the answer can also be ‘no’ when you are limited by poor sampling. In other words, when you think something went extinct when in reality you just missed it.

Most of you are familiar with the concept of Lazarus1 species – when we’ve thought of something long extinct that suddenly gets re-discovered by a wandering naturalist or a wayward fisher. In paleontological (and modern conservation biological) terms, the problem is formally described as the ‘Signor-Lipps’ effect, named2 after two American palaeontologists, Phil Signor3 and Jere Lipps. It’s a fairly simple concept, but it’s unfortunately ignored in most palaeontological, and to a lesser extent, conservation studies.

The Signor-Lipps effect arises because the last (or first) evidence (fossil or sighting) of a species presence has a nearly zero chance of heralding its actual timing of extinction (or appearance). In paleontological terms, it’s easy to see why. Fossilisation is in fact a nearly impossible phenomenon – all the right conditions have to be in place for a once-living biological organism to be fossilised: it either has to be buried quickly, in a place where nothing can decompose it (usually, an anoxic environment), and then turned to rock by the process of mineral replacement. It then has to resist transformation by not undergoing metamorphosis (e.g., vulcanism, extensive crushing, etc.). For more recent specimens, preservation can occur without the mineralisation process itself (e.g., bones or flesh in an anoxic bog). Then the bloody things have to be found by a diligent geologist or palaeontologist! In other words, the chances that any one organism is preserved as a fossil after it dies are extremely small. In more modern terms, individuals can go undetected if they are extremely rare or remote, such that sighting records alone are usually insufficient to establish the true timing of extinction. The dodo is a great example of this problem. Remember too that all this works in reverse – the first fossil or observation is very much unlikely to be the first time that the species was there. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s time for environmentalists to give nuclear a fair go

16 12 2014

This is an article by Barry Brook and mepublished today in The Conversation. I’m republishing it here.

Should nuclear energy be part of Australia’s (and many other countries’) future energy mix? We think so, particularly as part of a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent dangerous climate change.

But there are other reasons for supporting nuclear technology. In a paper recently published in Conservation Biology, we show that an energy mix including nuclear power has lowest impact on wildlife and ecosystems — which is what we need given the dire state of the world’s biodiversity.

In response, we have gathered signatures of 70 leading conservation scientists from 14 countries in an open letter asking that the environmental community:

weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Energy demand is rising

Modern society is a ceaseless consumer of energy, and growing demand won’t stop any time soon, even under the most optimistic energy-efficiency scenario.

Although it goes without saying that we must continue to improve energy efficiency in the developed world, the momentum of population growth and rising living standards, particularly in the developing world, means we will continue to need more energy for decades to come. No amount of wishful thinking for reduced demand will change that.

But which are the best forms of energy to supply the world, and not add to the biodiversity crisis?

Assessing our energy options

In short, the argument goes like this.

To avoid the worst ravages of climate change, we have to decarbonise fully (eliminate net carbon emissions from) the global electricity sector. Wildlife and ecosystems are threatened by this climate disruption, largely caused by fossil-fuel derived emissions.

But they are also imperilled by land transformation (i.e., habitat loss) caused in part by other energy sources, such as flooded areas (usually forests) for hydro-electricity and all the associated road development this entails, agricultural areas needed for biofuels, and large spaces needed for wind and solar farms.

Energy density of different fuels. This infographic shows the amount of energy embodied in uranium, coal, natural gas and a chemical battery, scaled to provide enough energy for a lifetime of use in the developed world. Shown are the amount of each source needed to provide same amount of energy, equivalent to 220 kWh of energy per day for 80 years.

Read the rest of this entry »

An Open Letter to Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy

15 12 2014

nuclear biodiversityProfessor Barry W. Brook, Chair of Environmental Sustainability, University of Tasmania, Australia.

Professor Corey J.A. Bradshaw, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, The Environment Institute, The University of Adelaide, Australia.

An Open Letter to Environmentalists:

As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).

Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources—including nuclear power—must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change. They provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling—as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency. This multi-pronged strategy for sustainable energy could also be more cost-effective and spare more land for biodiversity, as well as reduce non-carbon pollution (aerosols, heavy metals).

Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position. However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change (Caldeira et al. 2013), we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.

Signatories (in alphabetical order)

  1. Professor Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  2. Professor Andrew J. Beattie, Emeritus, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  3. Assistant Professor David P. Bickford, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
  4. Professor Tim M. Blackburn, Professor of Invasion Biology, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom.
  5. Professor Daniel T. Blumstein, Chair, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, USA.
  6. Professor Luigi Boitani, Dipartimento di Biologia, e Biotecnologie Charles Darwin, Sapienza Università di Roma, Italy.
  7. Professor Mark S. Boyce, Professor and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Canada.
  8. Professor David M.J.S. Bowman, Professor of Environmental Change Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  9. Professor Scott P. Carroll, Institute for Contemporary Evolution and Department of Entomology and Nematology, University of California Davis, USA.
  10. Associate Professor Phillip Cassey, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  11. Professor F. Stuart Chapin III, Professor Emeritus of Ecology, Department of Biology and Wildlife, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA.
  12. Professor David Choquenot, Director, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia.
  13. Dr Ben Collen, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom.
  14. Professor Richard T. Corlett, Director, Centre for Integrative Conservation, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China.
  15. Dr Franck Courchamp, Director of Research, Laboratoire Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution – UMR CNRS, Member of the European Academy of Sciences, Université Paris-Sud, France.
  16. Professor Chris B. Daniels, Director, Barbara Hardy Institute, University of South Australia, Australia.
  17. Professor Chris Dickman, Professor of Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia.
  18. Associate Professor Don Driscoll, College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, The Australian National University, Australia.
  19. Professor David Dudgeon, Chair Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China.
  20. Associate Professor Erle C. Ellis, Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, USA.
  21. Dr Damien A. Fordham, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  22. Dr Eddie Game, Senior Scientist, The Nature Conservancy Worldwide Office, Australia.
  23. Professor Kevin J. Gaston, Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation, Director, Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, United Kingdom.
  24. Professor Dr Jaboury Ghazoul, Professor of Ecosystem Management, ETH Zürich, Institute for Terrestrial Ecosystems, Switzerland.
  25. Professor Robert G. Harcourt, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  26. Professor Susan P. Harrison, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis, USA.
  27. Professor Fangliang He, Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity and Landscape Modelling, Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Canada and State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol and School of Life Sciences, Sun-yat Sen University, Guangzhou, China.
  28. Professor Mark A. Hindell, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  29. Professor Richard J. Hobbs, School of Plant Biology, The University of Western Australia, Australia.
  30. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor and Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  31. Professor Marcel Holyoak, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, USA.
  32. Professor Lesley Hughes, Distinguished Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  33. Professor Christopher N. Johnson, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  34. Dr Julia P.G. Jones, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology, School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University, United Kingdom.
  35. Professor Kate E. Jones, Biodiversity Modelling Research Group, University College London, United Kingdom.
  36. Dr Menna E. Jones, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  37. Dr Lucas Joppa, Conservation Biologist, United Kingdom.
  38. Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  39. Professor Charles J. Krebs, Emeritus, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Canada.
  40. Dr Robert C. Lacy, Conservation Biologist, USA.
  41. Associate Professor Susan Laurance, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Studies, James Cook University, Australia.
  42. Professor William F. Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia.
  43. Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
  44. Professor Thomas E. Lovejoy, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and University Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy department, George Mason University, USA.
  45. Dr Antony J Lynam, Global Conservation Programs, Wildlife Conservation Society, USA.
  46. Professor Anson W. Mackay, Department of Geography, University College London, United Kingdom.
  47. Professor Helene D. Marsh, College of Marine and Environmental Sciences, Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, James Cook University, Australia.
  48. Professor Michelle Marvier, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University, USA.
  49. Professor Lord Robert M. May of Oxford OM AC Kt FRS, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
  50. Dr Margaret M. Mayfield, Director, The Ecology Centre, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  51. Dr Clive R. McMahon, Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  52. Dr Mark Meekan, Marine Biologist, Australia.
  53. Dr Erik Meijaard, Borneo Futures Project, People and Nature Consulting, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.
  54. Professor L. Scott Mills, Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program in Global Environmental Change, North Carolina State University, USA.
  55. Professor Atte Moilanen, Research Director, Conservation Decision Analysis, University of Helsinki, Finland.
  56. Professor Craig Moritz, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Australia.
  57. Dr Robin Naidoo, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability University of British Columbia, Canada.
  58. Professor Reed F. Noss, Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor, University of Central Florida, USA.
  59. Associate Professor Julian D. Olden, Freshwater Ecology and Conservation Lab, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, USA.
  60. Professor Maharaj Pandit, Professor and Head, Department of Environmental Studies, University of Delhi, India.
  61. Professor Kenneth H. Pollock, Professor of Applied Ecology, Biomathematics and Statistics, Department of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University, USA.
  62. Professor Hugh P. Possingham, School of Biological Science and School of Maths and Physics, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  63. Professor Peter H. Raven, George Engelmann Professor of Botany Emeritus, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden, Washington University in St. Louis, USA.
  64. Professor David M. Richardson, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Invasion Biology, Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
  65. Dr Euan G. Ritchie, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Australia.
  66. Professor Terry L. Root, Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, USA.
  67. Dr Çağan H. Şekercioğlu, Assistant Professor, Biology, University of Utah, USA and Doçent 2010, Biology/Ecology, Inter-university Council (UAK) of Turkey.
  68. Associate Professor Douglas Sheil, Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway.
  69. Professor Richard Shine AM FAA, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia.
  70. Professor William J. Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  71. Professor Chris D. Thomas, FRS, Department of Biology, University of York, United Kingdom.
  72. Professor Ross M. Thompson, Chair of Water Science, Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia.
  73. Professor Ian G. Warkentin, Environmental Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.
  74. Professor Stephen E. Williams, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia.
  75. Professor Kirk O. Winemiller, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and Interdisciplinary Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Texas A&M University, USA.

Note: Affiliations of signatories are for identification purposes, and do not imply that their organizations have necessarily endorsed this letter.


Brook, B. W., and C. J. A. Bradshaw. 2014. Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology doi:10.1111/cobi.12433.

Caldeira, K., K., Emmanuel, J. Hansen, and T. Wigley. 2013. An Open Letter to those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power. CNN. (Accessed 14 March 2014).

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 »

A fairer way to rank conservation and ecology journals in 2014

1 08 2014

Normally I just report the Thomson-Reuters ISI Web of Knowledge Impact Factors for conservation-orientated journals each year, with some commentary on the rankings of other journals that also publish conservation-related material from time to time (see my lists of the 2008200920102011 and 2012 Impact Factor rankings).

This year, however, I’m doing something different given the growing negativity towards Thomson-Reuters’ secretive behaviour (which they’ve promised this year to rectify by being more transparent) and the generally poor indication of quality that the Impact Factor represents. Although the 2013 Impact Factors have just been released (very late this year, for some reason), I’m going to compare them to the increasingly reputable Google Scholar Journal Metrics, which intuitively make more sense to me, are transparent and turn a little of the rankings dogma on its ear.

In addition to providing both the Google metric as well as the Impact Factor rankings, I’ve come up with a composite (average) rank from the two systems. I think ranks are potentially more useful than raw corrected citation metrics because you must first explicitly set your set of journals to compare. I also go one step further and modify the average ranking with a penalty term that is essentially the addition of the coefficient of variation of rank disparity between the two systems.

Read on for the results.

Read the rest of this entry »

Another 589 scientists speak out against Abbott’s war on the environment

22 07 2014

ATBC_logo_largeI’m currently in Cairns at the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation‘s Annual Conference where scientists from all over the world have amassed for get the latest on tropical ecology and conservation. Unfortunately, all of them have arrived in an Australia different to the one they knew or admired from afar. The environmental devastation unleashed by the stupid policies of the Abbottoir government has attracted the attention and ire of some of the world’s top scientists. This is what they have to say about it (with a little help from me):



Australia has many trees, amphibians, and reptiles that are unique, being found nowhere else on Earth. Northern Australia contains a disproportionate amount of this biodiversity which occurs in little developed areas, parks and reserves, indigenous titled lands, and community-managed lands.

Whilst Australia’s achievements in protecting some of its remaining native forests, wildlife and wilderness are applauded, some 6 million hectares of forest have been lost since 2000. Existing forest protection will be undermined by weak climate change legislation, and poorly regulated agricultural and urban development.

The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), the world’s largest organisation dedicated to the study and conservation of tropical ecosystems, is concerned about recent changes in Australia’s environmental regulations, reduced funding for scientific and environmental research, and support for governmental and civil society organisations concerned with the environment. Read the rest of this entry »


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