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:


Highly cited

people (n)
  1. The Netherlands
  2. New Zealand
  3. Norway
  4. Australia
  5. Denmark
  6. Sweden
  7. United Kindom
  8. USA
  9. Canada
  10. Spain
  11. France
  12. Germany
  13. South Africa
  14. Argentina
  15. China
  1. 0.746 (12)
  2. 0.722 (3**)
  3. 0.613 (3)
  4. 0.596 (12)
  5. 0.542 (3)
  6. 0.427 (4)
  7. 0.403 (25)
  8. 0.307 (95)
  9. 0.205 (7)
  10. 0.085 (4)
  11. 0.076 (5)
  12. 0.073 (6)
  13. 0.060 (3)
  14. 0.049 (2)
  15. 0.002 (3)

*There were also some notable absences in Google Scholar; **I happen to know that one NZ ecologist received most of his training and experience in the UK, so this might be exaggerating that country’s rank (my little Aussie dig at the Kiwis – I’m permitted to do this considering I obtained my PhD in New Zealand)

Before you complain, I’m not suggesting that citations are the ‘be all and end all’ of ecological prowess, but it’s a quick-and-dirty assessment of the relative importance of the discipline per country. Neither is per 100,000 population necessarily the best control metric either – per institution might have been better, but I didn’t have those data. Suffice it to say that the metric is extremely rough (so please don’t read too much into the relative rankings).

The main reason I’m interested in this – apart from supporting my heretofore boast – is that I’m disappointed that we do not have a more vibrant ecological community here in Australia. Having just attended the Ecological Society of Australia‘s (ESA) Annual Meeting in Alice Springs, I couldn’t help but notice that many great Australian ecologists and conservation biologists were absent. I’m as guilty as the next person here – I’ve only attended two previous ESA meetings before.

Why is this? I get the distinct impression that many globally recognised Australian ecologists regard the ESA meetings as too parochial for them, or they only send their PhD students or postdoctoral fellows as a slightly patronising half-measure (again, I’m fully admitting my hypocrisy of calling out my colleagues). Whereas Australia undeniably punches above its weight globally, we do not seem to appreciate fully our own capacity, nor support the next generation of ecologists by at least showing up to what should be the most important event in our calendar. I think this stems from an innate lack of confidence in Australian quality and a legacy of looking overseas for something bigger and better. We should grow up.

Another problem is that ‘little’ Australia – at least in terms of its total human population of a mere 23.5 million – has probably too many societies under the general umbrella of ‘ecology’ to support a single ecological entity properly. In addition to the ESA, we have inter alia the Australian Marine Sciences Association (AMSA), the Australian Entomological Society (AES), the Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS), the Australian Society for Fish Biology (AFSB), the Australian Mammal Society (AMS), the Australasian Society for Ecological Restoration, and of course, the Oceania Section of the Society for Conservation Biology. Bloody hell – no wonder we’re so fractured!

While such specialist societies do good work, I think the focus on the differences amongst us takes away from the fact that we all more or less do the same thing – ecology (whether wet or dry, cold or hot, or tropical or temperate). My proposal would be to have joint meetings under the umbrella organisation of the ESA every 2-3 years or so, with small, specialist annual meetings in between. There is no reason at all why Australia can’t have one of the best multidisciplinary ecological meetings in the world – it would just take a little organisation and goodwill.

I also contend that the fractured nature of our ecological community here in Australia is at least partially responsible for the public indifference toward our current, future-eating government’s war on the environment. If we had a more unified and larger voice, we might be able to turn some of the political tide now destroying our fragile ecosystems. Maybe.

CJA Bradshaw



5 responses

20 10 2014
Michael McCarthy

I’m in the same boat as Emily – I didn’t attend ESA because it was in the school holidays.


20 10 2014
It’s not all about cats |

[…] Messieurs Hunt and Andrews, get your heads out of the 1960s and join forces with our own, globally top-ranked ecologists to design a system that actually addresses the extinction crisis. Your approach will not […]


15 10 2014
April Reside

I would blame the “fractured” (or diverse?) nature of Australia’s ecological scientistific community – in addition to your list there is the Aust Bat Society, Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, NCCARF and the once-in-ten-year event the World Parks Congress; all held this year in Australia. Also my postdoc comes with zero conference funding. Joint conferences are a good idea, they would maximise bang-for-travel-buck.


14 10 2014
Tony Hunt

Your calculations may be quick-and-dirty, but they line up pretty well with the official version: Australia was the fifth-ranked nation worldwide in Ecology and Environment for total citation influence 2003-13 (Thompson-ISI Essential Science Indicators 14 Feb 2014). Well done! :-)


13 10 2014

I think Australia does have a vibrant ecology/conservation community. I was not at ESA this year, along with many more senior (ish) people, because it was held during the school holidays, which made it very tricky to get away for a week, given there was a day off in the middle, conference dinner at the end, and substantial travel time. I suspect others were in a similar boat. I was at last years ESA in Melbourne and it was a pretty diverse set age-wise. Perhaps this year was atypical? And perhaps conference organizers need to consider rest-of-life commitments when planning conferences?


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