Putting the ‘science’ in citizen science

30 04 2014
How to tell if a koala has been in your garden. © Great Koala Count

How to tell if a koala has been in your garden. © Great Koala Count

When I was in Finland last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Tomas Roslin and hearing him describe his Finland-wide citizen-science project on dung beetles. What impressed me most was that it completely flipped my general opinion about citizen science and showed me that the process can be useful.

I’m not trying to sound arrogant or scientifically elitist here – I’m merely stating that it was my opinion that most citizen-science endeavours fail to provide truly novel, useful and rigorous data for scientific hypothesis testing. Well, I must admit that I still believe that ‘most’ citizen-science data meet that description (although there are exceptions – see here for an example), but Tomas’ success showed me just how good they can be.

So what’s the problem with citizen science? Nothing, in principle; in fact, it’s a great idea. Convince keen amateur naturalists over a wide area to observe (as objectively) as possible some ecological phenomenon or function, record the data, and submit it to a scientist to test some brilliant hypothesis. If it works, chances are the data are of much broader coverage and more intensively sampled than could ever be done (or afforded) by a single scientific team alone. So why don’t we do this all the time?

If you’re a scientist, I don’t need to tell you how difficult it is to design a good experimental sampling regime, how even more difficult it is to ensure objectivity and precision when sampling, and the fastidiousness with which the data must be recorded and organised digitally for final analysis. And that’s just for trained scientists! Imagine an army of well-intentioned, but largely inexperienced samplers, you can quickly visualise how the errors might accumulate exponentially in a dataset so that it eventually becomes too unreliable for any real scientific application.

So for these reasons, I’ve been largely reluctant to engage with large-scale citizen-science endeavours. However, I’m proud to say that I have now published my first paper based entirely on citizen science data! Call me a hypocrite (or a slow learner). Read the rest of this entry »





Look at the whale (while we wipe out everything else)

24 04 2014
harpoon trees

Modified from Raeside (Victoria Times Colonist)

I’ve tended to stay out of the ‘cetacean wars’ over the years because of the politics, emotions and vested interests involved, but I find it hard to ignore any longer. I’ve been wanting to write this little essay for some time, and given that we are doing a great job of buggering up the greater biodiversity future of this country, I think the time is right.

For years, Australia has been a champion of the anti-whaling movement, both in terms of its self-righteous, loud-mouth condemnation of whaling nations in its role as global ocean policeman at the International Whaling Commission, and its multi-million dollar financial investment in cetacean research. While this considered in isolation is without doubt a laudable objective (i.e., we certainly shouldn’t be hunting these magnificent marine megafauna), it is one of the greatest environmental wool-pulling-over-the-eyes, look-at-the-silly-monkey political sideshows ever devised.

“Why, Corey, that is a particularly Philistine view of the issues, don’t you think?”, I can metaphysically hear you state. However, do not confound the morality with the politics; I’m certainly focussing on the latter.

The simple fact is that being so vocally anti-whaling, Australian politicians can win easy green votes while doing nothing much at all about the other, real environmental crises unfolding right beneath the noses of their constituents. And easy it is – even the most hard-core, right-wing plutocrat would probably not (publicly) denigrate a government for standing up for the whales. In other words, it’s not a controversial environmental issue. So a little emboldened brinkmanship on the international stage, bolstered by some over-the-top, sensationalist media coverage, and you have a guaranteed recipe to garner faux environmental kudos.

It is a case of brilliant politicking, and absolute deviousness. Read the rest of this entry »





South Australia’s tattered environmental remains

16 04 2014
State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment

South Australia State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment

Yesterday I gave the second keynote address at the South Australia Natural Resource Management (NRM) Science Conference at the University of Adelaide (see also a brief synopsis of Day 1 here). Unfortunately, I’m missing today’s talks because of an acute case of man cold, but at least I can stay at home and work while sipping cups of hot tea.

Many people came up afterwards and congratulated me for “being brave enough to tell the truth”, which both encouraged and distressed me – I am encouraged by the positive feedback, but distressed by the lack of action on the part of our natural resource management leaders.

The simple truth is that South Australia’s biodiversity and ecosystems are in shambles, yet few seem to appreciate this.

So for the benefit of those who couldn’t attend, I’ve uploaded the podcast of my slideshow for general viewing here. I’ve also highlighted some key points from the talk below: Read the rest of this entry »





The environmental Abbott-oir

9 04 2014

“What?”, my wife exclaimed, “Is this guy Satan1 himself?”. Within 6 months in office, the Abbott-oir has:

  • attempted to remote World Heritage protection for a large expanse of Tasmanian forest;
  • vowed to reinstate logging in Tasmania on a large scale;
  • broken promise to fund Sumatran rhino recovery;
  • decided to dump 3 million tonnes of dredging spoil on the Great Barrier Reef;
  • scrapped management plans for most of the nation’s representative system of marine protected areas;
  • rollbacked protection in national parks, including allowing logging, grazing, fishing and hunting;
  • refused to send any Australian delegate to global climate change discussions;
  • allowed Western Australia to proceed with a large-scale cull of great white, tiger and bull sharks;
  • weakened Australia’s recently passed anti-illegal logging bill;
  • nearly achieved legal immunity from any challenges to his decisions on mining projects;
  • weakened the processes involved in development proposals by ‘cutting the green tape‘;
  • vowed to halt the creation of any more national parks, saying that Australia already has too many;
  • proposed to ban consumer boycotts of corporations that damage the environment;
  • cut $100 million in funding, and axed 500 jobs, in the federal Environment department;
  • continued to push for abolishing the carbon price.

Cry? Despair? Laugh? No – fight.

Abbott cartoon 5503

Read the rest of this entry »





The lengths Abbott will go to destroy environmentalism

7 04 2014

209678-tony-abbottOver at ALERT (Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers), Bill Laurance has highlighted yet another major blow to environmentalism in Australia: the Coalition’s latest push is to ban consumer boycotts of environmentally damaging corporations. The following press release went out this morning. You can also find more details on the Abbott proposal here and here.

An international scientific group has decried an Australian government proposal to ban consumer boycotts of corporations that damage the environment.

“It’s clearly a bad idea,” said William Laurance, a professor at James Cook University in Australia and director of ALERT, the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers.

“Boycotts have been one of the most important arrows in the quiver of responsible conservationists and consumers,” said Laurance. “They’ve convinced many environmentally predatory firms around the world to clean up their acts.”

Consumer boycotts have improved the behaviour of hundreds of aggressive timber, oil palm, soy, seafood and other corporations around the world, say the scientists.

“Boycotts get the attention of environment-destroying companies because they hit them where it hurts—their reputation and market share,” said Corey Bradshaw, a professor at the University of Adelaide. Read the rest of this entry »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXIII

4 04 2014

Here are another 6 biodiversity cartoons for your conservation pleasure/pain (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

Read the rest of this entry »