A few insights into the inner workings of the Australian Research Council

13 05 2022

I’ve been on the Australian Research Council (ARC) College of Experts now for a little over two and a half years. It has been a time-consuming, yet insightful experience. Without attempting to breach all the confidentiality agreements I signed when I joined up, I would like to explain a few of the internal machinations that go on behind the scenes once a grant application is submitted.

Given that academics spend A LOT of (i.e., way too much) time writing research grants, I think it’s essential to understand not only how to maximise your probability of success (see this post for some generic tips), but also how your grant is treated once you submit it. I’ve heard from colleagues (and been responsible for myself) many unhappy gripes about the ARC over time, which appear to have increased over the last five years in particular.

There are certainly some very good reasons to be upset about the research-grant environment in Australia. While I will restrict this post to issues concerning the ARC because that’s what I know best, I gather that many of the same issues plague other national agencies, such as the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). But to dispel the suspicion that the ARC is just out to make our lives hell, I’m going to provide a list of my experiences on what I think they do exceptionally well. I’m definitely not taking sides here, because after the list of pros, I’ll provide a detailed list of cons and some ways I think the ARC can move forward.

Impartiality

The ARC is very, very good at avoiding bias in the assessment process. Even if some potential bias does manage to creep in, the ARC is also extremely efficient at identifying and removing it. First, all assigned ‘carriages’ (College Experts) assigned to grants cannot work at the same institution as the applicants, they cannot have published with any of the applicants, nor can they have any other association with them. All potential conflicts of interest are declared and dealt with immediately up front.

Second, carriages cannot assign assessors with any of the aforementioned conflicts of interest given restrictions in the online applications that we use to identify and assign suitable assessors.

Third, during the actual deliberations, anyone who has any perceived conflict of interest must ‘leave the room’ (done in Zoom these days), nor can those people even see the grants under discussion for which they’ve been deemed conflicted.

Democracy

I have to admit that I’ve been involved in few processes that were more democratic than advisory panel meetings for deciding the fate of ARC grant applications. Any grant under discussion is not only pored over by the ‘detailed assessors’ (those are the comments to which you have to write a rejoinder), it is discussed in gory detail by the carriages. We not only read all of the detailed assessors’ reports and your rejoinder (after already having read the proposal itself many times), we also compare our scores among carriage members, discuss any scoring disparities, argue for or against various elements, and generally come to a consensus. For those grants under discussion, we also vote as an entire panel, with only majority ‘yes’ grants getting through.

Word of advice here — treat your rejoinder very seriously, and be succinct, polite, erudite, and topical. A good rejoinder can make or break any application.

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What is the role of today’s academic society?

29 04 2022

This is not a rhetorical question. I really do want to solicit responses to the aspects I will raise in this post, because I have to admit that I’m a little unclear on the subject.

Preamble — While I do not intend to deflate the value of any particular academic society, I’m sure some might take offence to the mere notion that someone would dare challenge the existence of academic societies. I confess to have belonged to several academic societies in my career, but haven’t bothered for some time given the uncertainties I describe below.

A Subjective History

In my view, the academic society represented an important evolutionary step in the organisation of thematic collegiality. As disciplines became ever more specialised, it was an opportunity to unite like-minded colleagues and support new generations of academics in the field.

In the pre-internet days, academic societies provided the necessary fora to interact directly with one’s peers and advance. They also published thematic journals, organised field trips, garnered funds for scholarships, recognised prowess via awards, and crafted and promulgated constitutions on issues as varied as academic behaviour, societal warnings, governance, and politics.

Face-to-face meetings were indeed the primary vehicle for these interactions, and are a mainstay even in today’s pandemic world (but more discussion on the modern implications of these below).

Peer-reviewed disciplinary journals were arguably one of the most important products of the academic society. Back before academic publishing became the massive, profit-churning, mega-machine rort that it is today, such journals were integral to the development of different academic fields.

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Bane of the bees

19 04 2022

Bees are essential for pollination, but their critical function can be perturbed by pesticides. The detrimental effects of those chemicals accumulate through a bee’s life, and become stronger if females cannot collect pollen from wildflowers.

Our childhood experiences partly determine our health, personality, and lifestyle when we are adults, and our experiences accumulate over time. Accumulation also occurs in any living being and can explain why some populations and species adapt to their environments better than others.

Migratory birds are a clear example. Thousands can travel to their breeding grounds after wintering elsewhere, and those coming from regions laden with resources (e.g., food, shelter, water) will have a greater reproductive success than those that migrated from resource-poor regions (1). In ecology, these ‘carry-over’ effects can take place between seasons, but also across the different phases of the life cycle of a plant or animal (2).

From larvae to adults

Clara Stuligross and Neal Williams have studied the carry-over effect of pesticides on the blue orchard bee Osmia lignaria in California (3). Instead of the typical hives constructed by the honey bee (Apis mellifera), solitary blue orchard bees make lines of brood cells with mud partitions, glued into holes and crevices of branches and trunks from fallen trees (see videos herehere, & here).

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXXI

11 04 2022

Now that the Australian election has been called for next month, here are a few cartoon reminders of the state of environmental politics in this country (hint: they’re abysmal). I’ve surpassed my normal 6 cartoons/post here in this second set for 2022 because, well, our lives depend on the outcome of 21 May. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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A cascade of otters

4 04 2022

Carnivores are essential components of trophic webs, and ecosystem functions crumble with their loss. Novel data show the connection between calcareous reefs and sea otters under climate change.


Trophic cascade on the Aleutian Islands (Alaska, USA) linking sea otters (Enhydra lutris) with sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus) and calcareous reefs (Clathromorphum nereostratum). With males weighting up to 50 kg, sea otters have been IUCN-catalogued as Endangered since 2000. The top photo shows a male in a typical, belly-up floating position. The bottom photo shows live (pinkish) and dead (whitish) tissue on the reef surface as a result of grazing of sea urchins at a depth of 10 m. Sea otters are mesopredators, typically foraging on small prey like sea urchins, but their historical decline due to overhunting unleashed the proliferation of the echinoderms. At the same time, acidification and sea-water warming have softened the skeleton of the reefs, allowing for deeper grazing by sea urchins that eliminate the growth layer of living tissue that give the reefs their pinkish hue. Large extents of dead reefs stop fixing the excess in carbonic acid, whose carbon atoms sea water sequesters from the atmosphere enriched in carbon by our burning of fossil fuels. Photos courtesy of Joe Tomoleoni taken in Moss Landing – California, USA (otter), and on the Near Islands – Aleutian Archipelago, Alaska (reef).

For most, the decisions made by people we have never met affect our daily lives. Other species experience the same phenomenon because they are linked to one another through a trophic cascade.

A trophic cascade occurs when a predator limits the abundance or behaviour of its prey, in turn affecting the survival of a third species in lower trophic levels that have nothing directly to do with the predator in question (1).

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) represent a text-book example of a trophic cascade. These mustelids (see video footage here and here) hunt and control the populations of sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus), hence favouring kelp forests  — the fronds of which are eaten by the sea urchins.

Removing the predator from the equation should lead to more sea urchins and less kelp, and this chain of events is exactly what happened along the coasts of the North Pacific (2, 3). The historical distribution of sea otters once ranged from Japan to Baja California through the Aleutian Islands (see NASA’s photo from space, and documentary on the island of Unimak), a sub-Arctic, arc-shaped archipelago including > 300 islands between Alaska (USA) and the Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia), extending ~ 2000 kilometres, and having a land area of ~ 18,000 km2.

But the fur trade during the 18th and 19th centuries brought the species to the brink of extinction, down to < 2000 surviving individuals (4). Without otters, sea urchins boomed and deforested kelp ecosystems during the 20th Century (5). Now we also know that this trophic cascade has climate-related implications in other parts of the marine ecosystem.

Underwater bites

Doug Rasher and collaborators have studied the phenomenon on the Aleutian Islands (6). The seabed of this archipelago is a mix of sandy beds, kelp forests, and calcareous reefs made up of calcium and magnesium carbonates fixed by the red algae Clathromorphum nereostratum. These reefs have grown at a rate of 3 cm annually for centuries as the fine film of living tissue covering the reef takes the carbonates from the seawater (7).

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Correcting times for light exposure across spatial extents

30 03 2022

The other day I was tasked with revising a figure for a paper (that should be out soon) where I had to figure out how to compare incident times in a biologically meaningful way.

Without giving away too many details, we had a long list of incidents spread right across Australia, covering all periods of the year and going back to the early 20th Century. The specifics of the ‘incidents’ isn’t important here — suffice it to say they were biological in nature, and we wanted to see if they were clustered around any particular times of the day.

Yes, we could just do a histogram of the time bins (say, every 2 hours), but this ignores a very important phenomenon — 17:00 in July in Hobart isn’t directly comparable to 17:00 in January in Darwin (and so on). What matters instead — from a biological/phenological perspective — is the period of day in terms of available light.

Fortunately, there are some clear definitions of relative light availability we can use.

‘Night’ is defined as the time between astronomical dusk and astronomical dawn, which are when the sun is 18º below the horizon. ‘Twilight’ is the period between night and sunrise/sunset (the latter being when the sun first appears/disappears above/below the horizon), further broken down into three periods: astronomical twilight, nautical twilight, and civil twilight. These latter refer to when the sun is 18º, 12º, and 6º below the horizon, respectively.

It’s still ‘dark’ in astronomical twilight, but light starts to be discernible at the start of nautical twilight. We can therefore define four major periods of relative light availability per 24-hour period: night (between the start of astronomical dusk and end of astronomical dawn), dawn (between the end of nautical twilight and sunrise), day (between sunrise and sunset), and dusk (between sunset and the onset of astronomical twilight).

Phew!

So, after all that malarkey, now we need a way of determining when those transition periods occur on any given day in any given location. Sounds difficult, but, there’s a function for that!

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Be wise about what you put online

21 03 2022

While you have little choice these days about posting your data and code online when you publish, here are some things to consider when contemplating putting potentially sensitive data online (modified excerpt from The Effective Scientist).


One aspect of making your data publicly available is the prickly issue of whether your data contain sensitive information.

Of course, there are many different types of ‘sensitive’ information that might accompany the more basic quantitative measurements of your datasets, with perhaps the most common being personal details of any human subjects. For example, if you are a medical researcher and your data are derived primarily from living human beings undergoing some procedure, trial, or intervention, then clearly you are bound by your human ethics approvals not to publish information like names, addresses, or anything that could be used to identify the subjects in your sample. In fact, human ethics approvals generally prohibit any sort of public accessibility to medical data that has personal information included; thus, the scientists concerned are being pulled in two different directions — keeping their subjects’ personal information out of the hands of the public, while still making the data available to other scientists.

There are ways around this, such as publishing only generic information online (i.e., by excluding personal identifiers) that could then be linked to the more sensitive data via unique identifiers. In these cases, any other researcher requiring the additional information would have to seek specific permission from the primary researchers, pending additional human-ethics approvals.

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Can we resurrect the thylacine? Maybe, but it won’t help the global extinction crisis

9 03 2022

NFSA

(published first on The Conversation)

Last week, researchers at the University of Melbourne announced that thylacines or Tasmanian tigers, the Australian marsupial predators extinct since the 1930s, could one day be ushered back to life.

The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), also known as the ‘Tasmanian tiger’ (it was neither Tasmanian, because it was once common in mainland Australia, nor was it related to the tiger), went extinct in Tasmania in the 1930s from persecution by farmers and habitat loss. Art by Eleanor (Nellie) Pease, University of Queensland.
Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage

The main reason for the optimism was the receipt of a A$5 million philanthropic donation to the research team behind the endeavour.

Advances in mapping the genome of the thylacine and its living relative the numbat have made the prospect of re-animating the species seem real. As an ecologist, I would personally relish the opportunity to see a living specimen.

The announcement led to some overhyped headlines about the imminent resurrection of the species. But the idea of “de-extinction” faces a variety of technical, ethical and ecological challenges. Critics (like myself) argue it diverts attention and resources from the urgent and achievable task of preventing still-living species from becoming extinct.

The rebirth of the bucardo

The idea of de-extinction goes back at least to the the creation of the San Diego Frozen Zoo in the early 1970s. This project aimed to freeze blood, DNA, tissue, cells, eggs and sperm from exotic and endangered species in the hope of one day recreating them.

The notion gained broad public attention with the first of the Jurassic Park films in 1993. The famous cloning of Dolly the sheep reported in 1996 created a sense that the necessary know-how wasn’t too far off.

The next technological leap came in 2008, with the cloning of a dead mouse that had been frozen at –20℃ for 16 years. If frozen individuals could be cloned, re-animation of a whole species seemed possible.

After this achievement, de-extinction began to look like a potential way to tackle the modern global extinction crisis.

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The integrity battlefield: where science meets policy

4 03 2022

Professor Ross Thompson, University of Canberra


On the whole, I am inclined to conclude that my experience of academia and publishing my work has been largely benign. Despite having published 120-odd peer-reviewed papers, I can count the number of major disputes on one hand. Where there have been disagreements, they have centred on issues of content, and despite the odd grumble, things have rarely escalated to the ad hominem. I have certainly never experienced concerted attacks on my work.

But that changed recently. I work in water science, participating in and leading multi-disciplinary teams that do research directly relevant to water policy and management. My colleagues and I work closely with state and federal governments and are often funded by them through a variety of mechanisms. Our teams are a complex blend of scientists from universities, state and federal research agencies, and private-sector consultancies. Water is big business in Australia, and its management is particularly pertinent as the world’s driest inhabited continent struggles to come to terms with the impacts of climate change.

In the last 10 years, Australia has undergone a AU$16 billion program of water reform that has highlighted the extreme pressure on ecosystems, rural communities, and water-dependent industries. In 2019, two documentaries (Cash Splash and Pumped) broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation were highly critical of the  outcomes of water reform. A group of scientists involved in working on the Murray-Darling Basin were concerned enough about the accuracy of aspects of those stories to support Professor Rob Vertessy from the University of Melbourne in drafting an Open Letter in response. I was a co-author on that letter, and something into which I did not enter lightly. We were very concerned about being seen to advocate for any particular policy position, but were simultaneously committed to contributing to an informed public debate. A later investigation by the Australian Communications and Media Authority also highlighted concerns with the Cash Splash documentary.

Fast forward to 2021 and the publication of a paper by Colloff et al. (2021) in the Australasian Journal of Water Resources. In that paper, the authors were critical of the scientists that had contributed to the Open Letter and claimed they had been subject to “administrative capture” and “issue advocacy”. Administrative capture is defined here as:

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The sixth mass extinction is happening now, and it doesn’t look good for us

2 03 2022

Mounting evidence is pointing to the world having entered a sixth mass extinction. If the current rate of extinction continues we could lose most species by 2200. The implication for human health and wellbeing is dire, but not inevitable.

In the timeline of fossil evidence going right back to the first inkling of any life on Earth — over 3.5 billion years ago — almost 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. That means that as species evolve over time — a process known as ‘speciation’ — they replace other species that go extinct.

Extinctions and speciations do not happen at uniform rates through time; instead, they tend to occur in large pulses interspersed by long periods of relative stability. These extinction pulses are what scientists refer to as mass extinction events.

The Cambrian explosion was a burst of speciation some 540 million years ago. Since then, at least five mass extinction events have been identified in the fossil record (and probably scores of smaller ones). Arguably the most infamous of these was when a giant asteroid smashed into Earth about 66 million years ago in what is now the Gulf of Mexico. The collision vapourised species immediately within the blast zone. Later, species were killed off by climate change arising from pulverised particulates suspended in the atmosphere, as well as intense volcano activity stimulated by the buckling of the Earth’s crust from the asteroid’s impact. Together, about 76 percent of all species around at the time went extinct, of which the disappearance of the dinosaurs is most well-known. But dinosaurs didn’t disappear altogether — the survivors just evolved into birds.

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Need human census data for any of your analyses? Follow these simple steps

25 02 2022

As someone who regularly delves into human demography — often from a conservation perspective — I’m always on the lookout for quick and easy ways to get the latest and greatest datasets. Whether it’s for projection human populations, or just getting country-specific population densities, I’ve found a really nice way to interface great human data with R.

In this particular example, I’m using a api (application programming interface) key to access live data on the US Census Bureau server (don’t worry — they have global data, not just those specific to the US). What’s an ‘api key’? It’s just a code that gives you permission to access the server directly from an application via an internet link.

Step 1. Apply for an api key

This is a straightforward process and just needs to be done via this URL. The approval process doesn’t take long.

Step 2: Install the idbr package in R

This stands for the ‘(US Census Bureau) International Data Base (R)’, and grants access to and queries demographic data, including contemporary, historical, and future projections to 2100 for countries with ≥ 5000 people.

install.packages(“idbr”)

Step 3: Set api key

You need to set your user api using the following commands:

apikey <- “XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX”
idbr::idb_api_key(apikey)

Step 4. Get data

Using the get_idb() command, you can specify all sorts of queries to get various levels of data complexity. All the variable combinations for the international database are described well here.

Example 1. Life expectancy

Let’s say you wanted to plot a map of the world with the shading of a country related to its average life expectancy at birth. First we get the necessary data:

lex.dat <- idbr::get_idb(
country = “all”,
year = 2022,
variables = c(“name”, “e0”),
geometry = T)

The ensuing lex.dat object looks like this:

Simple feature collection with 6 features and 4 fields
Geometry type: MULTIPOLYGON
Dimension: XY
Bounding box: xmin: -73.41544 ymin: -55.25 xmax: 75.15803 ymax: 42.68825
Geodetic CRS: SOURCECRS
code year name e0 geometry
1 AF 2022 Afghanistan 53.65 MULTIPOLYGON (((61.21082 35…
2 AO 2022 Angola 62.11 MULTIPOLYGON (((16.32653 -5…
3 AL 2022 Albania 79.47 MULTIPOLYGON (((20.59025 41…
4 AE 2022 United Arab Emirates 79.56 MULTIPOLYGON (((51.57952 24…
5 AR 2022 Argentina 78.31 MULTIPOLYGON (((-65.5 -55.2…
6 AM 2022 Armenia 76.13 MULTIPOLYGON (((43.58275 41

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXX

16 02 2022

Here is the first set of biodiversity cartoons for 2022. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Wondering if you should apply for a DECRA?

7 02 2022

Do you love doing job applications, but wish they were longer and more involved?

If so, applying for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) should be right up your alley.

If, like most people, you answered a resounding NO! to that question, there are still many good reasons to apply for a DECRA. But there are also some completely valid reasons why you might not apply, so it pays to weigh up the pros and cons if you’re thinking about it.

Let’s go through some of these points, plus tips on how to make a competitive application (I just submitted a DECRA application in the last round, so it’s all painfully fresh in my memory). 

What the hell is a DECRA?

The Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards offered by the Australian Research Council are highly competitive, with success rates of between 12% (ouch!) and 20% across years (but expect especially low success rates in the next round/DECRA23, given the bumper crop of applicants). 

DECRAs are restricted to researchers who are (i) less than 5-years out from their PhD conferral, and (ii) who are proposing non-medical projects.

The 5-year eligibility period is based on time spent ‘research active’, to accommodate the different career pathways people follow. This means that people who haven’t been working 100% in research since completing their PhD can tally up career interruptions (which can relate to illnesses or disability, carer responsibilities, parental leave, unemployment, and employment in non-research positions) and extend their eligibility period.

So even if you are well-over 5 years post PhD (as was the case for me), you might still be eligible to apply. If you’re considering a medical science project, then you need to check out the schemes offered by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Pros and Cons

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How to manage your academic stress

31 01 2022

Feeling like the stresses of academic life are getting to you? Here are some handy tips for managing your stress (modified excerpt from The Effective Scientist)


As professions go, being an research scientist probably doesn’t top the list for most stressful, although if you are drilling ice cores in Greenland, photographing deep-sea life from submersibles, setting up seismography equipment on the slopes of active volcanoes, diving with sharks, or scaling 75-metre trees in the Amazon rain forest to collect beetles, then stress is just part of the job. However, I am not going to discuss that kind of stress; rather, I am referring to the day-to-day stress of a demanding academic environment.

‘Relieving Stress’ © René Campbell renecampbellart.com

The stress of the career scientists is insidious and multifaceted. The cumulative stress of academia grows as one progresses from being a student, through postdoctoral life, to early-career lectureship, and all the way to tenured professorship. Will I be awarded that grant? Will the editors accept my manuscript? Will I be promoted? How long will I have a job? How do I make sure my lab members succeed? Will I be invited to that conference? Do my peers respect me? How do I recover from that critique of my research?

If you do not learn how to deal with these stresses along the way, you are likely setting yourself up for a big crisis somewhere down the track. I will provide some tips that my colleagues and I have found to be useful in that regard.

E-mail

In the day-to-day routine of being a scientist, one activity in particular is simultaneous a blessing and a curse — e-mail. E-mail — rather, the messages delivered by it — can be an immense source of stress. There is the stress associated with pressure to respond quickly to urgent requests, the stress arising from e-mails that you really should have responded to weeks ago, but still haven’t yet, and stress from messages that are nasty, vindictive, or even libel received from angry colleagues or misinformed members of the public.

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Open Letter from Members of the Australian Research Council College of Experts

25 01 2022

People outside Australia might not have heard about the (unfortunately, not unprecedented) intervention of the acting Minister for Education and Youth to deny funding to six Australian Research Council (ARC: Australia’s main scientific funding body) Discovery Grants that had been assessed and recommended for funding by the College of Experts. As an acting College of Expert member, I joined a long list of my fellow members in protest of this political interference, with whom I co-wrote/co-signed this letter published last week (the ARC Laureate fellows wrote an analogous open letter a few weeks before). I have copied the letter here for your viewing displeasure.


(letter originally posted here)

19 January 2022

To: The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Acting Minister for Education and Youth
stuart.robert.mp@aph.gov.au

CC: Professor Sue Thomas
CEO, Australian Research Council
ceo@arc.gov.au

As members of the Australian Research Council‘s (ARC) College of Experts, we write to express our concern over the Acting Minister for Education and Youth’s decision in late 2021 to reject six Discovery Project grants that were recommended for funding by the ARC.

As explained on its website, the ARC engages a College of Experts to play an essential role in identifying research excellence, in order to support the advancement of knowledge and contribute to national innovation. Its members are experts of international standing drawn from the Australian research community: from higher education, industry, and public sector research organisations. Many College of Experts members have extensive industry and community experience in addition to their specialist research expertise.

The quality of grant proposals submitted to the ARC is extremely high. The ARC runs a rigorous, multi-stage selection process. Each grant eventually recommended to the Minister for funding is first assessed by multiple international experts and multiple College members, and then individually discussed and voted on by College members at the Selection Advisory Committee panel meetings. The 19% of submitted proposals recommended for 2022 were therefore considered to be of the highest calibre measured against international standards for research across disciplines. Each was recommended on the strength not only of quality, innovation and feasibility, but also the wider benefit and value of the proposed research.

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Neo-colonialist attitudes ignoring poachernomics will ensure more extinctions

14 01 2022

No matter most people’s best intentions, poaching of species in Sub-Saharan Africa for horn and ivory continues unabated. Despite decades of policies, restrictions, interventions, protections, and incentives, many species of elephant and rhino are still hurtling toward extinction primarily because of poaching.

Clearly, we’re doing something heinously wrong.

Collectively, we have to take a long, hard look in the conservation mirror and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Why haven’t we been able to put any real dent in the illegal trade of poached elephant ivory and rhino horn? How many millions (billions?) of dollars have we spent seemingly to little avail? Why haven’t trade bans and intensive security measures done the trick?

The reasons are many, but they boil down to two main culprits:

  1. neo-colonialist sentiments driven by the best intentions of mainly overseas NGOs have inadvertently created the ideal conditions for the poaching economy — what we term poachernomics — to thrive by ensuring the continued restriction of legal supply of wildlife products; and
  2. shutting off conservation areas to local people and directing the bulk of ecotourism profits away from source communities have maintained steady poaching incentives in the absence of other non-destructive livelihoods.

In our new paper — Dismantling the poachernomics of the illegal wildlife trade (led by Enrico Di Minin of the Universities of Helsinki and KwaZulu-Natal, and co-authored by Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes of the University of Oxford, Jeanetta Selier of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, Maxi Louis of the Namibian Association of Community-Based Natural Resources Management Support Organizations, and me) — published quietly in late 2021, we describe how poachernomics works, and why our efforts to incapacitate it have been so ineffectual.

First, what is poachernomics?

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Influential conservation papers of 2021

5 01 2022

Following my annual tradition, I present the retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of 2021 as assessed by experts in Faculty Opinions (formerly known as F1000). These are in no particular order. See previous years’ lists here: 2020, 201920182017201620152014, and 2013.


Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change — “… confirms what the sparse forest inventory has suggested, that climate change and land-use change is driving Amazonian ecosystems toward carbon sinks. … the research team provides a robust estimate of the carbon dynamics of one of the world’s most important ecosystems and provides insights into the role of land use change and potentials for mitigating direct carbon losses in the future.

Organic and conservation agriculture promote ecosystem multifunctionality — “… a very clear insight into the trade-offs between the different ecosystem services and indicate that yield and product quality are lower in organic systems compared to conventional systems, yet organic systems have higher economic performance due to higher product prices and subsidies.

Biodiversity of coral reef cryptobiota shuffles but does not decline under the combined stressors of ocean warming and acidification — “… even with similar richness, community function is very likely to be perturbed by ocean warming/acidification with unpredictable impacts on economically important species such as fish and corals.

Local conditions magnify coral loss after marine heatwaves — “… show that climate-induced coral loss is greater in areas with elevated seaweed abundance and elevated sea urchin densities, both of which commonly result from local overfishing … effective local management can synergize with global efforts to mitigate climate change and help coral reefs survive the Anthropocene.

Large ecosystem-scale effects of restoration fail to mitigate impacts of land-use legacies in longleaf pine savannas — “… while restoration can have major benefits in longleaf savannas, land-use legacies have clear effects on many aspects of the ecosystem.

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Fancy a pangolin infected with coronavirus? Apparently, many people do

30 12 2021

The logic of money contradicts the logic of species conservation and human health. As illegal trade has driven pangolins to near extinction, their hunting and market value has kept increasing ― even when we have known that they act as coronavirus reservoirs in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) in a monsoon forest (Sumba Island, Indonesia). With adult weights up to 10 kg and body lengths around half a metre, these animals are mostly solitary and nocturnal, feed on ants and termites, and love tree climbing using bark hollows to shelter and give birth to singletons. The species occurs across mainland and islands of South East Asia, and became ‘Endangered’ in 2008 and ‘Critically Endangered’ in 2014, following a 80% decline in the last 20 years due to hunting and poaching. It has been the most heavily trafficked Asian species, and the IUCN’s assessment states: “… the incentives for harvesting and illegally trading in the species are universally high based on the high financial value of pangolin parts and derivatives”. Captive breeding is unlikely to deter wild collection because (among other reasons) farming costs are high (more so on a large scale) and, even if the species could be traded legally, wild versus farmed pangolin products and individuals are difficult to distinguish (23). Photo courtesy of Michael Pitts

Urbanites are attracted to exotic species, materials, and places. Our purchasing power seems to give us the right to buy any ‘object’ that we can pay for, no matter how exotic the object might be. In such a capitalist rationale, it is no surprise that > 150 thousand illegal cargos with wild animals and plants have been confiscated in 149 countries over the last two decades, moving some 6000 species from one place of the planet to another (1).

Social networks show people interacting with all kinds of fauna, creating the illusion that any animal can become a pet (2). And there’s a multi-$billion market of wildlife for a diverse array of uses including collecting, food, ornamentation, leisure, clothing and medicine (3-5). The paradox is that the rarer a species is, the higher its market value runs and the more lucrative selling it turns out to be, leading to more exploitation and rocketing extinction risk (6).

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXIX

23 12 2021

Here is the final set of biodiversity cartoons for 2021, with some à propos seasonal content. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Remote areas not necessarily safe havens for biodiversity

16 12 2021

The intensity of threats to biodiversity from human endeavour becomes weaker as the distance to them increases.


As you move away from the big city to enjoy the countryside, you’ll notice the obvious increase in biodiversity. Even the data strongly support this otherwise subjective perception — there is a positive correlation between the degree we destroy habitat, harvest species, and pollute the environment, and the distance from big cities.

Remote locations are therefore usually considered safe havens and potential reservoirs for biodiversity. But our new study published recently in Nature Communications shows how this obvious pattern depicts only half of the story, and that global conservation management and actions might benefit from learning more about the missing part.

Communities are not just lists of individual species. Instead, they consist of complex networks of ecological interactions linking interdependent species. The structure of such networks is a fundamental determinant of biodiversity emergence and maintenance. However, it also plays an essential role in the processes of biodiversity loss. The decline or disappearance of some species might have detrimental —often fatal — effects on their associates. For example, a parasite cannot survive without its hosts, as much as a predator will starve without prey, or a plant will not reproduce without pollinators.

Events where a species disappears following the loss of other species on which it depends are known as co-extinctions, and they are now recognised as a primary driver of the ongoing global biodiversity crisis. The potential risk stemming from ecological dependencies is a major concern for all ecological systems.

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