Multiculturalism in the lab

23 02 2017

8294047fabf352ce46f4fd9a89d4a93dWith all the nasty nationalism and xenophobia gurgling nauseatingly to the surface of our political discoursethese days, it is probably worth some reflection regarding the role of multiculturalism in science. I’m therefore going to take a stab, despite being in most respects a ‘golden child’ in terms of privilege and opportunity (I am, after all, a middle-aged Caucasian male living in a wealthy country). My cards are on the table.

I know few overtly racist scientists, although I suspect that they do exist. In fact, most scientists are of a more liberal persuasion generally and tend to pride themselves on their objectivity in all aspects of being human, including the sociological ones. In other words, we tend to think of ourselves as dispassionate pluralists who only judge the empirical capabilities of our colleagues, with their races, genders, sexual persuasions and other physical attributes irrelevant to our assessment. We generally love to travel and interact with our peers from all nations and walks of life, and we regularly decorate our offices and with cultural paraphernalia different to our own.

But are we as unbiased and dispassionate as we think we are? Do we take that professed pluralism and cultural promiscuity with us to the lab each day? Perhaps we could, and should, do better. Read the rest of this entry »

Not all wetlands are created equal

13 02 2017

little-guyLast year I wrote what has become a highly viewed post here at about the plight of the world’s freshwater biodiversity. In a word, it’s ‘buggered’.

But there are steps we can take to avoid losing even more of that precious freshwater biodiversity. The first, of course, is to stop sucking all the water out of our streams and wetlands. With a global population of 7.5 billion people and climbing, the competition for freshwater will usually mean that non-human life forms lose that race. However, the more people (and those making the decisions, in particular) realise that intact wetlands do us more good as wetlands rather than carparks, housing developments, or farmland (via freshwater filtering, species protection, carbon storage, etc.), the more we have a chance to save them.

My former MSc student, the very clever David Deane1, has been working tirelessly to examine different scenarios of wetland plant biodiversity change in South Australia, and is now the proud lead author of a corker of a new paper in Biological Conservation. Having already published one paper about how wetland plant biodiversity patterns are driven by rare terrestrial plants, his latest is a very important contribution about how to manage our precious wetlands. Read the rest of this entry »

Dealing with rejection

8 02 2017

6360351663382153201743264721_ls_crying-menWe scientists can unfortunately be real bastards to each other, and no other interaction brings out that tendency more than peer review. Of course no one, no matter how experienced, likes to have a manuscript rejected. People hate to be on the receiving end of any criticism, and scientists are certainly no different. Many reviews can be harsh and unfair; many reviewers ‘miss the point’ or are just plain nasty.

It is inevitable that you will be rejected outright many times after the first attempt. Sometimes you can counter this negative decision via an appeal, but more often than not the rejection is final no matter what you could argue or modify. So your only recourse is move on to a lower-ranked journal. If you consistently submit to low-ranked journals, you would obviously receive far fewer rejections during the course of your scientific career, but you would also probably minimise the number of citations arising from your work as a consequence.

So your manuscript has been REJECTED. What now? The first thing to remember is that you and your colleagues have not been rejected, only your manuscript has. This might seem obvious as you read these words, but nearly everyone — save the chronically narcissistic — goes through some feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy following a rejection letter. At this point it is essential to remind yourself that your capacity to do science is not being judged here; rather, the most likely explanation is that given your strategy to maximise your paper’s citation potential, you have probably just overshot the target journal. What this really means is that the editor (and/or reviewers) are of the opinion that your paper is not likely to gain as many citations as they think papers in their journal should. Look closely at the rejection letter — does it say anything about “… lacking novelty …”? Read the rest of this entry »

To feed or to perish in an iceless world

1 02 2017

Emaciated female polar bear on drift ice in Hinlopen Strait (Svalbard, Norway), in July 2015 – courtesy of Kerstin Langenberger (

Evolution has designed polar bears to move, hunt and reproduce on a frozen and dynamic habitat that wanes and grows in thickness seasonally. But the modification of the annual cycle of Arctic ice due to global warming is triggering a trophic cascade, which already links polar bears to marine birds.

Popular and epicurean gastronomy claims that the best recipes should use seasonal veggies and fruits. Once upon a time, when there were no greenhouses, international trade routes, or as much frozen and canned food, our grandparents enjoyed what was available at the time. So in some years we had plenty of cherries, while during others we might have feasted on plums. Read the rest of this entry »

Venting your author frustrations

27 01 2017

frustrationEvery scientist worth her salt has had her share of annoying interactions with journal editors — both verbally and via e-mail. My friend and colleague Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University, is no exception, and penned this hypothetical exchange between an author and editor as a way of venting his frustrations. Enjoy!

Author to Journal Editor, at a conference

Author: “You know, if I could sniff my own butt like you do, I would.”

Editor: Wags butt like he’s wagging his tail

Author: “Then again, maybe I wouldn’t …”

Editor: “You’re taking this kind of personally.”

Author:  “You think howling after getting kicked in the nuts by three referees is ‘taking it personally’? How about if I kick you in the nuts and we see how you go?”

Editor: “Sorry, I have to maintain editorial impartiality.”

Author: “I wonder if you’ll stay impartial after I stick this in your ear?” Read the rest of this entry »

Fertilisers can make plants sicker

25 01 2017

sick-plantLast year we reported experimental evidence that the dilution effect was the phenomenon by which greater biodiversity imparts disease resistance in plant communities. Our latest paper shows the mechanism underlying this.

In my ongoing collaboration with the crack team of plant community ecologists led by Shurong Zhou at Fudan University in Shanghai, we have now shown that nitrogen-based fertilisers — in addition to causing soil damage and environmental problems from run-off — reduce a plant community’s resistance to fungal diseases.

This means that prolonged use of artificial fertilisers can lead to the extinction of the most resistant plant species in a community, meaning that the remaining species are in fact more susceptible to diseases.

Continuing the experimental field trials in alpine meadows of the Tibetan Plateau, we tested the biodiversity resilience of an isolated  plant community to increasing concentrations of nitrogenous fertilisers. In this diverse and pristine ecosystem, we have finally established that extended fertilisation of soils not only alters the structure of natural plant communities, it also exacerbates pathogen emergence and transmission. Read the rest of this entry »

The Evidence Strikes Back — What Works 2017

16 01 2017
Bat gantry on the A590, Cumbria, UK. Photo credit: Anna Berthinussen

Bat gantry on the A590, Cumbria, UK. Photo credit: Anna Berthinussen

Tired of living in a world where you’re constrained by inconvenient truths, irritating evidence and incommodious facts? 2016 must have been great for you. But in conservation, the fight against the ‘post-truth’ world is getting a little extra ammunition this year, as the Conservation Evidence project launches its updated book ‘What Works in Conservation 2017’.

Conservation Evidence, as many readers of this blog will know, is the brainchild of conservation heavyweight Professor Bill Sutherland, based at Cambridge University in the UK. Like all the best ideas, the Conservation Evidence project is at once staggeringly simple and breathtakingly ambitious — to list every conservation intervention ever cooked up around the world, and see how well, in the cold light of evidence, they actually worked. The project is ongoing, with new chapters of evidence added every year grouped by taxa, habitat or topic — all available for free on

What Works in Conservation’ is a book that summarises the key findings from the Conservation Evidence website, and presents them in a simple, clear format, with links to where more information can be found on each topic. Experts (some of us still listen to them, Michael) review the evidence and score every intervention for its effectiveness, the certainty of the evidence and any harmful side effects, placing each intervention into a colour coded category from ‘beneficial’ to ‘likely to be ineffective or harmful.’ The last ‘What Works’ book included chapters on birds, bats, amphibians, soil fertility, natural pest control, some aspects of freshwater invasives and farmland conservation in Europe; new for 2017 is a chapter on forests and more species added to freshwater invasives. Read the rest of this entry »