The Effective Scientist

22 03 2018

final coverWhat is an effective scientist?

The more I have tried to answer this question, the more it has eluded me. Before I even venture an attempt, it is necessary to distinguish the more esoteric term ‘effective’ from the more pedestrian term ‘success’. Even ‘success’ can be defined and quantified in many different ways. Is the most successful scientist the one who publishes the most papers, gains the most citations, earns the most grant money, gives the most keynote addresses, lectures the most undergraduate students, supervises the most PhD students, appears on the most television shows, or the one whose results improves the most lives? The unfortunate and wholly unsatisfying answer to each of those components is ‘yes’, but neither is the answer restricted to the superlative of any one of those. What I mean here is that you need to do reasonably well (i.e., relative to your peers, at any rate) in most of these things if you want to be considered ‘successful’. The relative contribution of your performance in these components will vary from person to person, and from discipline to discipline, but most undeniably ‘successful’ scientists do well in many or most of these areas.

That’s the opening paragraph for my new book that has finally been release for sale today in the United Kingdom and Europe (the Australasian release is scheduled for 7 April, and 30 April for North America). Published by Cambridge University Press, The Effective ScientistA Handy Guide to a Successful Academic Career is the culmination of many years of work on all the things an academic scientist today needs to know, but was never taught formally.

Several people have asked me why I decided to write this book, so a little history of its genesis is in order. I suppose my over-arching drive was to create something that I sincerely wish had existed when I was a young scientist just starting out on the academic career path. I was focussed on learning my science, and didn’t necessarily have any formal instruction in all the other varied duties I’d eventually be expected to do well, from how to write papers efficiently, to how to review properly, how to manage my grant money, how to organise and store my data, how to run a lab smoothly, how to get the most out of a conference, how to deal with the media, to how to engage in social media effectively (even though the latter didn’t really exist yet at the time) — all of these so-called ‘extra-curricular’ activities associated with an academic career were things I would eventually just have to learn as I went along. I’m sure you’ll agree, there has to be a better way than just muddling through one’s career picking up haphazard experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Personal deterrents can reduce the risk of shark bites

19 06 2018
Shak deterrent testing

Photo: Charlie Huveneers

A little over a week ago, shark ecologist, Charlie Huveneers, and I attempted to write an article in The Conversation about a report we co-wrote regarding the effectiveness of personal shark-deterrent devices (see below for more on the report itself). It’s a great little story, with both immediate policy implications for human safety and great, big potential improvements to shark conservation in general (i.e., if sharks kill fewer people, then perhaps governments would be less inclined to invokes stupid laws to kill sharks). Indeed, sharks aren’t doing very well around the world, mainly because of over-harvest and persecution from unfounded fear.

Anyway, all was going swimmingly until our editor at The Conversation suddenly decided that they wouldn’t publish the piece based on the following funding disclaimer that we had submitted with the article:

This project was funded by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Shark Management Strategy Competitive Annual Grants Program, the Government of South Australia, Ocean Guardian Pty Ltd, and the Neiser Foundation. We openly and transparently declare that Ocean Guardian contributed financially to the study, but that Ocean Guardian was not involved in the study design or implementation, nor did they have access to the data post-collection. Nor did Ocean Guardian provide input into data analysis, interpretation, writing of the report, or the conclusions drawn. The study design followed a protocol developed for a previous study, which was not funded by Ocean Guardian. In summary, Ocean Guardian had no opportunity to influence any aspect of the study or its conclusions, apart from providing some financial support to realise the field project (e.g., boat hire, equipment purchase, etc.) in the same manner as the other funding agencies. The South Australian cage-diving industry provided logistical support during the testing of the deterrents.

The long and short of The Conversation‘s negative decision was that one of the companies contributed financially to project. However, as we stated above, they had absolutely no influence in the subsequent experimental design, data collection, analysis, interpretation or report writing.

While normally I’m a big fan of The Conversation, I really think they dropped the ball with this one. Their decision was illogical and unsupported for five main reasons:

  1. There were many funding partners involved, and the Ocean Freedom contribution was in no way the major or even majority share of funding.
  2. Other companies with devices tested could have contributed, but only Ocean Freedom offered.
  3. The study was commissioned by a state government agency (New South Wales Department of Primary Industries), which is not a commercial entity.
  4. As stated in our disclosure, there was no opportunity for manipulating experimental design, data ownership, or post-collection analysis or writing that could have influenced the results, by any funders or contributors.
  5. The disclosure is open, honest, comprehensive and in every way truthful.

So, I’m more than just a little disappointed — and my opinion of the organisation has dropped considerably. That, with the constant barrage of donation requests they send makes me think twice about their journalistic integrity. I challenge others to think carefully before giving them any money.

Regardless, let’s move on to the article itself (which I can publish freely here without the Draconian oversight of The Conversation):

Many things might explain why the number of shark bites appear to be increasing. However, the infrequent occurrence of such events makes it nearly impossible to determine why. Recently, an atypically high rate of shark bites occurred in Western Australia in 2010-2011 and on the north coast of New South Wales in 2015-2016. These highly publicised events — often sensationalised in both traditional and social media — have pressured governments to implement new measures to reduce the risk of shark bites.

The rising pressure to do something to reduce shark bites has prompted the recent development or commercial release of many new personal shark deterrents. Yet, most of these devices lack any rigorous scientific assessment of their effectiveness, meaning that some manufacturers have made unfounded claims about how much their devices dissuade sharks from attacking humans.

However, if a particular type of commercially available shark deterrent happens to be less effective (or completely ineffective) as advertised, it can give users a false sense of security, potentially encouraging some to put themselves at greater risk than is necessary. For example, some surfers and spearfishers probably ignore other mitigation measures, such as beach closures, because they ‘feel safe’ when wearing these products.

Read the rest of this entry »

Communicating climate change

5 06 2018

Both the uncertainty inherent in scientific data, and the honesty of those scientists who report such data to any given audience, can sow doubt about the science of climate change. The perception of this duality is engrained in how the human mind works. We illustrate this through a personal experience connecting with global environmentalism, and synthesise some guidelines to communicate the science of climate disruption by humans.


Courtesy of Toté (

In January 2017, the Spanish environmental magazine Quercus invited us to give a talk, at the Cabinet of Natural History in Madrid, about our article on the effects of climate change on the feeding ecology of polar bears, which made to Quercuscover in February 2017 (1) — see blog post here. During questions and debate with the audience (comprising both scientists and non-scientists), we displayed a graph illustrating combinations of seven sources of energy (coal, water, gas, nuclear, biomass, sun and wind) necessary to meet human society’s global energy needs according to Barry Brook & Corey Bradshaw (2). That paper supports the idea that nuclear energy, and to a lesser extent wind energy, offer the best cost-benefit ratios for the conservation of biodiversity after accounting for factors intimately related to energy production, such as land use, waste and climate change.

While discussing this scientific result, one member of the audience made the blunt statement that it was normal that a couple of Australian researchers supported nuclear energy since Australia hosts the largest uranium reservoirs worldwide (~1/3 of the total). The collective membership of Quercus and the Cabinet of Natural History is not suspicious of lack of awareness of environmental problems, but a different matter is that individuals can of course evaluate a piece of information through his/her own and legitimate perspective.

The stigma of hypocrisy

Indeed, when we humans receive and assimilate a piece of information, our (often not self-conscious) approach can range from focusing on the data being presented to questioning potential hidden agendas by the informer. However, the latter can lead to a psychological trap that has been assessed recently (3) — see simple-language summary of that assessment in The New York Times. In one of five experiments, a total of 451 respondents were asked to rank their opinion about four consecutive vignettes tracking the conversation between two hypothetical individuals (Becky & Amanda) who had a common friend. During this conversation, Amanda states that their friend is pirating music from the Internet, and Becky (who also illegally downloads music) can hypothetically give three alternative answers: Read the rest of this entry »

Greater death rates for invasive rabbits from interacting diseases

30 05 2018

When it comes to death rates for invasive European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in Australia, it appears that 1 + 1 = 2.1.

Pt tagged rab with RHD+myxo 1 10-08

Tagged European rabbit kitten infected with myxoma virus, but that died from rabbit haemorrhagic virus disease (RHDV). Photo by David Peacock, Biosecurity South Australia.

“Canberra, we have a problem” — Sure, it’s an old problem and much less of one than it used to be back in the 1950s, but invasive rabbits are nonetheless an ecological, conservation, and financial catastrophe across Australia.

relative rabbit abundance South Australia

Semi-schematic diagram, redrawn using data from Saunders and others and extended to include the recent spread of RHDV2, showing changes in rabbit abundance in relation to the introduction of biological control agents into north-eastern South Australia. Dotted lines indicate uncertainty due to lack of continuous annual data. The broken line indicates a level of about 0.5 rabbits ha-1, below which rabbits must be held to ensure recovery of native pastures and shrubs (from B. Cooke 2018 Vet Rec doi:10.1136/vr.k2105)

Rabbits used to reach plague numbers in much of agricultural and outback Australia, but the introduction and clever manipulation of two rather effective rabbit-specific viruses and insect vectors — first, myxoma virus in 1950, European rabbit fleas in the 1960s to help spread the virus, then Spanish rabbit fleas in the 1990s to increase spread into arid areas, and then rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) in 1995 — have been effective in dropping rabbit abundances by an estimated 75-80% in South Australia alone since the 1950s.

Read the rest of this entry »

What Works in Conservation 2018

23 05 2018

Do you have a copy of this book? If not, why not?


This book is free to download. This book contains the evidence for the effectiveness of over 1200 things you might do for conservation. If you don’t have a copy, go and download yourself a free one here, right now, before you even finish reading this article. Seriously. Go. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll change your life.

Why you’ll laugh

OK, I may have exaggerated the laughing part. ‘What Works in Conservation 2018’ is a serious and weighty tome, 660 pages of the evidence for 1277 conservation interventions (anything you might do to conserve a species or habitat), assessed by experts and graded into colour-coded categories of effectiveness. This is pretty nerdy stuff, and probably not something you’ll lay down with on the beach or dip into as you enjoy a large glass of scotch (although I don’t know your life, maybe it is).

But that’s not really what it’s meant for. This is intended as a reference book for conservation managers and policymakers, a way to scan through your possible solutions and get a feel for those that are most likely to be effective. Once you have a few ideas in mind, you can follow the links to see the full evidence base for each study at, where over 5000 studies have been summarised into digestible paragraphs.

The book takes the form of discrete chapters on taxa, habitats or topics (such as ‘control of freshwater invasives’). Each chapter is split into IUCN threat categories such as ‘Agriculture’ or ‘Energy production and mining’. For each threat there are a series of interventions that could be used to tackle it, and for each of these interventions the evidence has been collated. Experts have then graded the body of the evidence over three rounds of Delphi scoring, looking at the effectiveness, certainty in the evidence (i.e., the quality and quantity of evidence available), and any harms to the target taxa. These scores combine to place each intervention in a category from ‘Beneficial’ to ‘Likely to be ineffective or harmful’. Read the rest of this entry »

Science + music = productivity

17 05 2018

da2a4c4015f37dcd15015a2bfcef2a2dA take on a small section of my recent book, The Effective Scientist, about the importance of music in science.

I don’t know any scientists who don’t love music, and I will go out on a limb by stating that most of us probably combine our science activities with music during the quieter times in front of the computer.

One tool that can effectively mask distractions when writing or coding, especially noisy ones, is music. I consider my earphones to be an essential tool of the science trade, for they allow me to ‘tune out’ as I ‘tune in’ to my favourite mood music.

However, a little caution is required here. If the music is set to loud to mask the ambient noises that you are presently finding annoying, you might discover that your capacity to concentrate is reduced. The style of music is also important. When I am writing actual text, anything that could induce the slightest foot tapping or head banging tends to send me off into space; I prefer something light and instrumental in these circumstances, like Vivaldi, Mozart, or Miles Davis.

On the contrary, if I am merely transcribing data, coding, analysing, or creating display items, then I tend to go more for heavy metal or electronica to set an intense pace. While this is absolutely a personal choice, you might do well inevitably to find some combination of music styles that works best for you.

I’m going to use this occasion though to list my top-10 metal/hard-core tracks that I find particularly good for coding. Somehow for me, heavy metal and coding go together like Vegemite and toast (but the combination doesn’t work for writing papers, although at this very moment I’m listen to some of the tracks listed below). This list is also a little window into my own frustration with the Anthropocene and the political inertia about limiting the damage we humans are doing to our own life-support system.

In no particular order, here are my top-10 heavy-metal/coding/angst/frustration tunes (listen to the lyrics — they help): Read the rest of this entry »

A life of fragmentation

9 05 2018

LauranceWhat do you say to a man whose list of conservation awards reads like a Star Wars film intro, who has introduced terms like the ‘hyperdynamism hypothesis’ to the field of ecology, and whose organisation reaches over one million people each week with updates of the scientific kind?

Interview with Bill Laurance by Joel Howland (originally published in Conjour)

Well, I started by asking what it is that leads him to love the natural world to the extent he does. His answer was disarmingly simple.

“I grew up in the country, on an Oregon cattle ranch, and I think my love of nature just evolved naturally from that. When I was a young kid my dad and I did some fishing and ‘rock-hounding’— searching for rare stones and fossils. As an adolescent and teen I loved heading off into a forest or wilderness, rifle in hand – back in those days you could do that – to see whatever I could find. I watched red foxes hunting, eagles mating, and even heard a mountain lion scream. I got to be a pretty good duck and game-bird hunter.”

He’s quick to point out, however, he realised his taste for guns was not so developed as his love of nature.

“I gave up my rifles for a camera, and enjoyed that even more. I really got into photography for a while. Nature has always just calmed and fascinated me —I guess that’s partly why I became a conservationist.”

Who is Bill Laurance?

William F. Laurance is one of the leading ecology and conservation scientists globally, publishing dozens of papers in journals like Nature and Science, and rewriting the way scientists in the field research the complex interactions between flora and fauna — particularly in rainforests like the Amazon.

He is a Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University in Australia, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has received an Australian Laureate Fellowship from the Australian Research Council.

All this for a man from western USA who dreamed of running a zoo. Instead, he has travelled a path of intricate and game-changing research, trailblazing awareness campaigns and inspirational writings that have driven the way many see the environment over the past few decades.

Despite this profile, Laurance gave some time to tell Conjour about his life, his passion and his aims. I asked him what — considering his impressive CV — the future holds.

His response seems a real insight to the man. Read the rest of this entry »

Why do they take so long?

4 05 2018

phd1This is probably more of an act of self-therapy on a Friday afternoon to alleviate some frustration, but it is an important issue all the same.

An Open Letter to academic publishers:

Why, oh why, do some of you take so bloody long to publish our papers online after acceptance?

I have been known to complain about how the general academic-publishing industry makes sickening amount of profit on the backs of our essentially free labour, and I suppose this is just another whinge along those lines. Should it take weeks to months to publish our papers online once they are accepted?

No. it shouldn’t.

I’m fully aware that most publishing companies these days outsource the actual publishing side of things to subcontracting agencies (and I’ve noticed more and more that these tend to be in developing nations, probably because the labour is cheaper), and that it can take someone some time to work through the backlog of Word or Latex documents and produce nice, polished PDFs. Read the rest of this entry »