Why a (young) scientist should blog

12 11 2018

I started to blog in the middle of my PhD, exactly on 17 February 2011 — as a scientist I remember my first blog like a soccer-loving kid might remember his/her first soccer ball. Postgraduates from ACAD have recently asked me to give a talk about my blogging experience, and I couldn’t resist turning my talk into a blog.

Salvador Herrando-Pérez



The cover of the February (polar bears) and December (water flea) 2017 issues of the Spanish magazine Quercus featured two of my popular-science articles. Founded in 1981, and with a current print run of some 15,000 copies monthly, Quercus has pioneered the dissemination of ecological and environmental science with a conservation edge in Spain and survived the digitalisation age, which has recently deserved the prestigious 2018 BBVA prize for Biodiversity Conservation. My liaison with the magazine already spans seven years with 49 articles published in three theme series (conservation biology: 2011-2012; animal behaviour: 2013; and climate change: active since January 2017 in collaboration with my colleague David Vieites).

I write in blogs, but I am not a blogger in the sense of owning and managing a blog. More exactly, I write about science using a language that should be understandable by an audience of scientists and, primarily, non-scientists. The best English expression I have found to qualify such activity is ‘popular science’ (I use it interchangeably with ‘blog’ hereafter). And blogs are just one platform (internet) to publish popular science.

In fact, I publish popular science on a regular basis here in ConservationBytes, and in Quercus: a printed Spanish-language magazine about ecology and biodiversity. My articles in those outlets typically synthesise the findings, and expand the background and implications, of high-profile research papers from the primary literature. Sometimes, I also write blogs to maximise the audience of my own publications (e.g., here and here), or to discuss a topic of general interest (e.g., numerical literacy). I have listed all my blogs on ConservationBytes at the end of the text.

Frankly, I had never stopped to think why I started and why I keep writing popular science. So after a bit of brainstorming, I have come up with five personal motivations which will probably resonate with those of other scientists entering the Blogosphere (1) — see here Corey’s take on the virtues of blogging.


When you are in the early stage of your research career, letting your peers know that you exist is essential, unless one already publishes hot papers that everybody reads and cites, and/or you have already amassed quite a reputation in the scientific community (not my case). Let’s be clear: my blogs are bound to be read by more people than my research papers, because blogs magnify the chances of being detected by search engines (2), and because the size of the scientific community is dwarfed by the size of the internet community. Doubtless, self-promotion drew me into popular science in the first place, when I was just a PhD student — ahead of me lay some five to ten years over which I would have to compete hard for funding and publication space with a respectable crowd of other researchers, let alone to create new partnerships with colleagues in and out of my area of expertise. So, blogging initially meant like saying ‘hey! I am here, I am doing science’.


Read the rest of this entry »

Shadow of ignorance veiling society despite more science communication

19 04 2016

imagesI’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but it wasn’t until having some long, deep chats today with staff and students at Simon Fraser University‘s Department of Biological Sciences (with a particular hat-tip to the lovely Nick Dulvy, Isabelle Côté & John Reynolds) that the full idea began to take shape in my brain. It seems my presentation was a two-way street: I think I taught a few people some things, and they taught me something back. Nice.

There’s no question at all that science communication has never before been so widespread and of such high quality. More and more scientists and science students are now blogging, tweeting and generally engaging the world about their science findings. There is also an increasing number of professional science communication associations out there, and a growing population of professional science communicators. It is possibly the best time in history to be involved in the generation and/or communication of scientific results.

Why then is the public appreciation, acceptance and understanding of science declining? It really doesn’t make much sense if you merely consider that there has never been more good science ‘out there’ in the media — both social and traditional. For the source literature itself, there has never before been as many scientific journals, articles and even scientists writing. Read the rest of this entry »

Write English well? Help get published someone who doesn’t

27 01 2015

imagesI’ve written before about how sometimes I can feel a little exasperated by what seems to be a constant barrage of bad English from some of my co-authors. No, I’m not focussing solely on students, or even native English speakers for that matter. In fact, one of the best (English) science writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working is a Spaniard (he also happens to write particularly well in Castellano). He was also fairly high up on the command-of-English ladder when he started out as my PhD student. So. There.

In other words, just because you grew up speaking the Queen’s doesn’t automatically guarantee that you’ll bust a phrase as easily as Shakespeare, Tolkien, Gould or Flannery; in fact, it might put you at a decided disadvantage compared to your English-as-a-second- (-third-, -fourth-, -fifth- …) language peers because they avoided learning all those terrible habits you picked up as you grunted your way through adolescence. Being forced to learn the grammar of another language often tends to make you grasp that of your mother tongue a little better.

So regardless of your background, if you’ve managed to beat the odds and know in your heart that you are in fact a good writer of science in English (you know who you are), I think you have a moral duty to help out those who still struggle with it. I’m not referring necessarily to the inevitable corrections you’ll make to your co-authors’ prose when drafting manuscripts1. I am instead talking about going out of your way to help someone who really, really needs it. Read the rest of this entry »

Psychological toll of being a sustainability scientist

8 12 2014

depressed scientistLike many academics, I’m more or less convinced that I am somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum. No, I haven’t been diagnosed and I doubt very much that my slight ‘autistic’ tendencies have altered my social capacity, despite my wife claiming that I have only two emotions – angry or happy. Nor have they engendered any sort of idiot savant mathematical capability.

But I’m reasonably comfortable with mathematics, I can do a single task for hours once it consumes my attention, and I’m excited about discovering how things work. And I love to code. Rather than academics having a higher innate likelihood of being ‘autistic’, I just think the job attracts such personalities.

In the past few years though, my psychological state is probably less dictated by the hard-wiring of my ‘autidemic’ mind and more and more influenced by the constant battery of negative information my brain receives.

Read the rest of this entry »

Using ecological theory to make more money

1 12 2014

huge.9.46974Let’s face it: Australia doesn’t have the best international reputation for good ecological management. We’ve been particularly loathsome in our protection of forests, we have an appalling record of mammal extinctions, we’re degenerate water wasters and carbon emitters, our country is overrun with feral animals and weeds, and we have a long-term love affair with archaic, deadly, cruel, counter-productive and xenophobic predator management. To top it all off, we have a government hell-bent on screwing our already screwed environment even more.

Still, we soldier on and try to fix the damages already done or convince people that archaic policies should be scrapped and redrawn. One such policy that I’ve written about extensively is the idiocy and cruelty of the dingo fence.

The ecological evidence that dingoes are good for Australian wildlife and that they pose less threat to livestock than purported by some evidence-less graziers is becoming too big to ignore any longer. Poisoning and fencing are not only counter-productive, they are cruel, ineffective and costly.

So just when ecologists thought that dingoes couldn’t get any cooler, out comes our latest paper demonstrating that letting dingoes do their thing results in a net profit for cattle graziers.

Come again? Read the rest of this entry »

King for a day – what conservation policies would you make?

29 11 2013

CrownI have been thinking a lot lately about poor governance and bad choices when it comes to biodiversity conservation policy. Perhaps its all that latent anger arising from blinkered, backward policies recently implemented by conservative state and national governments in Australia and elsewhere that leads me to contemplate: What would I do if I had the power to change policy?

While I am certain I have neither the experience or complete knowledge to balance national budgets, ensure prosperity and maintain the health of an entire country, I do have some ideas about what we’re doing wrong conservation-wise, and how we could potentially fix things. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list – it is more a discussion point where people can suggest their own ideas.

So here are 16 things I’d change or implement (mainly in Australia) if I were king for a day:

Read the rest of this entry »

I fucking love biodiversity

18 06 2013
© G. Gallice

© G. Gallice

A corker of an idea, and post, from Diogo Veríssimo.

I don’t like biodiversity. I like beef lasagna, I like the British museum and I like everything Jules Verne ever wrote. When it comes to biodiversity, it’s different. I think about it all the time, try to be close to it and suffer emotional distress when I think of it going irretrievably away. This is LOVE.

Understanding how to get this passion across effectively has always been one of my main goals. That is why my research has focused on the links between marketing and conservation. But recently I started feeling a bit more empowered to take this mission seriously, and all thanks to the Facebook page I fucking love Science. This page became an internet sensation amassing more than 5 million fans and engaging frequently over 4 million users in any given week. Forget the New York Times and National Geographic, this is the real deal.

So I wondered, why can’t I do the same for biodiversity? The idea lingered in my head until I read a recent paper by McCallum and Bury on Google search patterns, which shows how even during the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity we are failing to mainstream biodiversity and its associated issues. If fact, people seem to be less interested. Whatever we are doing is clearly not working. So why not give this concept a try? And so I fucking love Biodiversity (IFLB) was born.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why do conservation scientists get out of bed?

1 10 2012

1*Zd2mpLgOIbJuLg3CqH8BQwI have, on many occasions, been faced with a difficult question after giving a public lecture. The question is philosophical in nature (and I was never very good at philosophy – just ask my IB philosophy teacher), hence its unusually complicated implications. The question goes something like this:

Given what you know about the state of the world – the decline in biodiversity, ecosystem services and our own health and welfare – how do you manage to get out of bed in the morning and go to work?

Yes, I can be a little, shall we say, ‘gloomy’ when I give a public lecture; I don’t tend to hold back much when it comes to just how much we’ve f%$ked over our only home, or why we continue to shit in our own (or in many cases, someone else’s) kitchen. It’s not that I get some sick-and-twisted pleasure out of seeing people in the front row shake their heads and ‘tsk-tsk’ their way through my presentation, but I do feel that as an ‘expert’ (ascribe whatever meaning to that descriptor you choose), I have a certain duty to inform non-experts about what the data say.

And if you’ve read even a handful of the posts on this site, you’ll understand that picture I paint isn’t full of roses and children’s smiling faces. A quick list of recent posts might remind you:

And so on. I agree – pretty depressing. Read the rest of this entry »

Biodiversity begins at home

20 01 2011

A few months ago I was involved in a panel discussion entitled ‘Biodiversity begins at home’ held at the Royal Institution of Australia in Adelaide and sponsored by the Don Dunstan Foundation.

The main thrust of the evening was to have both academic (me & Andy Lowe) and on-the-ground, local conservationists (Sarah Lance, Craig Gillespie and Matt Turner) talk about what people can do to stem the tide of biodiversity loss. The video is now available, so I thought I’d reproduce it here. We talked about a lot of issues (from global to local scale), so if you have a spare hour, you might get something out of this. I did, but it certainly wasn’t long enough to discuss such big issues.

Warning – this was supposed to be more of a discussion and less of a talkfest; unfortunately, many of the panel members seemed to forget this and instead dominated the session. We really needed 4 hours to do this properly (but then, who would have watched the video?).

Read the rest of this entry »

Biowealth – a lexical leap forward for biodiversity appreciation

17 12 2010

Here’s a little idea I’ve been kicking around in my head that I’d like to invite you to debate. Call it an ‘Open Thread’ in the spirit of BraveNewClimate.com’s successful series.

© The Economist

Let’s face it, ‘biodiversity’ is a slippery and abstract concept for most people. Hell, even most ecologists have a hard time describing what biodiversity means. To the uninitiated, it seems simple enough. It’s just the number of species, isn’t it?

Well, no. It isn’t.

Unfortunately, it’s far, far more complicated. First, the somewhat arbitrary pigeon-holing of organisms into Linnaean taxonomic boxes doesn’t really do justice to the genetic gradients within species, among populations and even between individuals. We use the pigeon-hole taxonomy because it’s convenient, that’s all. Sure, molecular genetics has revolutionised the concept, but to most people, a kangaroo is a kangaroo, a robin is a robin and an earthworm is an earthworm. Hierarchical Linnaean taxonomy prevails.

Then there’s the more prickly issue of α, β and γ diversity. α diversity essentially quantifies species richness within a particular area, whereas β diversity is the difference in α diversity between ecosystems. γ diversity is used to measure overall diversity for the different constituent ecosystems of a region. Scale is very, very important (see our recent book chapter for more on this). Read the rest of this entry »

The Joke’s On Us

30 11 2010


© decostudio.pl

Here’s an idea to garner some appreciation for the dire straits in which humanity finds itself mounting from the global biodiversity crisis. More importantly, I hope that ‘appreciation’ would translate into ‘action’ as a result.

The idea came, as good ideas often tend to, around a table with some mates1,2 and several bottles of wine. The idea got more outlandish as the bottles were emptied, and I have to say I can’t remember many of the finer details (probably a good thing).

But the nugget of that idea is, I think, a very good one. I’d like to hear your opinions about it, and some suggestions about how to make it happen.

(get to the point, Bradshaw)


The idea would be to create an international (televised) comedy festival called ‘The Joke’s On Us‘ where very high-profile comedians would be individually matched to high-profile scientists of various areas of expertise. Let’s say we had a climate change scientist like James Hansen sit down with, oh, maybe Eddie Izzard, the famous and highly regarded Gaia creator, James Lovelock, locked in a room for a few days with Michael McIntyre, tropical deforestation specialist, Bill Laurance, matched with Chris Rock, and that population bomb, Paul Ehrlich, with Robin Williams or Jerry Seinfeld. The possible combinations are endless. Read the rest of this entry »

Long, deep and broad

24 08 2010

© T. Holub Flickr

Thought that would get your attention ;-)

More scientists need to be trained in quantitative synthesis, visualization and other software tools.” D. Peters (2010)

In fact, that is part of the title of today’s focus paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution by D. Peters – Accessible ecology: synthesis of the long, deep,and broad.

As a ‘quantitative’ ecologist (modeller, numerate, etc.) whose career has been based to a large degree on the analysis of large ecological datasets, I am certainly singing Peters’ tune. However, it’s much deeper and more important than my career – good (long, deep, broad – see definitions below) ecological data are ESSENTIAL to avoid some of the worst ravages of biodiversity loss over the coming decades and centuries. Unfortunately, investment in long-term ecological studies is poor in most countries (Australia is no exception), and it’s not improving.

But why are long-term ecological data essential? Let’s take a notable example. Climate change (mainly temperature increases) measured over the last century or so (depending on the area) has been determined mainly through the analysis of long-term records. This, one of the world’s most important (yet sadly, not yet even remotely acted upon) issues today, derives from relatively simple long-term datasets. Another good example is the waning of the world’s forests (see posts herehere and here for examples) and our increasing political attention on what this means for human society. These trends can only be determined from long-term datasets.

For a long time the dirty word ‘monitoring’ was considered the bastion of the uncreative and amateur – ‘real’ scientists performed complicated experiments, whereas ‘monitoring’ was viewed mainly as a form of low-intellect showcasing to please someone somewhere that at least something was being done. I’ll admit, there are many monitoring programmes producing data that aren’t worth the paper their printed on (see a good discussion of this issue in ‘Monitoring does not always count‘), but I think the value of good monitoring data has been mostly vindicated. You see, many ecological systems are far too complex to manipulate easily, or are too broad and interactive to determine much with only a few years of data; only by examining over the ‘long’ term do patterns (and the effect of extremes) sometimes become clear.

But as you’ll see, it’s not just the ‘long’ that is required to determine which land- and sea-use decisions will be the best to minimise biodiversity loss – we also need the ‘deep’ and the ‘broad’. But first, the ‘long’. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation research rarely equals conservation

21 07 2010

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

I am currently attending the 2010 International Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) in Sanur, Bali (Indonesia). As I did a few weeks ago at the ICCB in Canada, I’m tweeting and blogging my way through.

Yesterday I attended a talk by my good friend Trish Shanley (formerly of CIFOR) where she highlighted the disconnect between conservation research and actual conservation. I’ve posted about this before (see Out of touch, impractical and irrelevantMake your conservation PhD relevant), but this was a sobering reminder of how conservation research can be a self-perpetuating phenomenon and often not touch the people who need it most.

Presenting the highlights of her paper published earlier this year in Biotropica entitled Out of the loop: why research rarely reaches policy makers and the public and what can be done, one comment she made during the talk that really caught my attention was the following (I’m paraphrasing, of course).

Most of the world’s poor living off the land are unconcerned about biodiversity per se. As conservationists we should not therefore adopt the typical preamble that biodiversity (e.g., forests) represent the “lungs of our planet” – what people (and especially women) need to know is how biodiversity loss affects “food for my children”.

The paper itself was an interview 268 researchers from 29 countries (of which I was one) about their views on the relevance of their work. Not surprisingly (but amazingly that we were so honest), most respondents stated that their principal target was other scientists, with policy makers and other marginalised groups/local people holding a distant second place. Corporate targets were also pretty rare – I guess we feel as a group that that’s generallly a lost cause.
Neither a surprise was that we generally view peer-reviewed scientific publications as the main vehicle for the dissemination of our results. What was a bit of a surprise though is that we fully admit papers aren’t the best way to trickle down the information (again, more of that brutal honesty); apparently we mainly believe ‘stakeholder meetings’
are more effective (I have my doubts).

To market, to market, to buy a fat… fish

4 05 2009

An interesting new paper just appeared online (uncorrected proof stage) in Biological Conservation. Brewer and colleagues’ paper entitled Thresholds and multiple scale interaction of environment, resource use, and market proximity on reef fishery resources in the Solomon Islands describes how the proximity of fish markets explains some of the variation in fisheries takes on South Pacific coral reefs. Well, that may seem intuitive, you say – if you can’t access even a local market, chances are your fish will only feed you and your immediate family. Make an economic link to a larger pool of demanding consumers, and you have all the incentive you need to over-exploit your little patch of finned money.

Of course, the advent of better, more efficient transport (including refrigerated transport) and the development of local markets (i.e., tapping into larger ones in more populated areas) has inevitably caused fish depletions across the globe. Brewer and colleagues’ work provides a quantitative link between human demand and biodiversity decline (including ‘fishing down the web‘), and suggests that our best way to manage fisheries is to target the source of this demand – the markets and patterns of consumption. Ultimately, it’s the consumer that will dictate what does and what does not go extinct (see also previous post on consumer preferences for rare species). After all, if there’s a demand, someone will step in to provide the resource (provided it’s still there). Better education, smarter consumption and regulation along the entire chain will be far more effective in the long run than just attempting to control the fishers’ behaviour.

CJA Bradshaw

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Perceptions on poverty: the rising Middle Class

16 03 2009

I’m being somewhat ‘lazy’ this week in that I have unfortunately less time to spend on pertinent blog posts than I’d like (lecturing, looming deadlines, that sort of thing). So, I start out this week’s posts with one of my favourite TED talks – Hans Rosling debunks myths about the developing world.

What’s the relevance to biodiversity conservation? I’ll admit, it may appear somewhat tangential, but there are a few important messages (both potentially good and bad):

1. POSSIBLE BENEFIT #1: The rising wealth in the developing world and associated reduction in family size may inevitably curb our human population growth rates;

2. POSSIBLE DISADVANTAGE #1: Rising wealth will necessarily mean more and more consumption, and as we know at least for tropical developing nations, resource consumption is killing biodiversity faster than anywhere else on the planet;

3. POSSIBLE DISADVANTAGE #2: As family wealth rises, so too do opportunities do opportunities for the Anthropogenic Allee effect (consuming rare species just because you can afford to do so);

4. POSSIBLE BENEFIT #2: Better health care associated with rising wealth and lower infant mortality might make education a higher priority, teaching more people about the necessity of safeguarding ecosystem services.

I’m not convinced the advantages will necessarily outweigh the disadvantages; regardless, Prof. Rosling’s amazing 20-minute presentation will both entertain and enlighten. I recommend it for a lunchtime sitting or that late-afternoon attention wain.

CJA Bradshaw

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Get serious about understanding biodiversity

3 03 2009

Sometimes I realise I live inside something of a bubble where most of my immediate human contacts have a higher-than-average comprehension of basic life science (after all, I work at a university). I often find myself surprised when I overhear so-called ‘lay’ people discussing whether or not penguins are fish, or that environmental awareness is just a pre-occupation of deluded greenies with nothing better to do.

If only it were so innocuous.

I found a great little article in the Canberra Times that laments the populace’s general ignorance of natural and environmental sciences. In my view, we must be as ecologically literate as we are in economics, maths and literature (and as the rapidly changing climate stresses even our most resilient resources and systems, I argue it will become THE most important thing to teach the young).

I’ve reproduced the Canberra Times article by Rossyln Beeby below:

“You don’t have to look, you don’t have to see, you can feel it in your olfactory,” sang Loudon Wainwright in a chirpy song about skunk roadkill back in the 1970s.

Likewise, it could be argued that if, as claimed, 5000 eastern grey kangaroos have died of starvation “in one season” at a Federal department of defence training site in Canberra, our noses would know about it. Do the maths. Even if 5000 kangaroos had died in one year, that’s roughly 14 animals a day, building to 98 carcasses a week. There would be, as one kangaroo ecologist dryly observed, “a murder of crows” descending on the site. If we interpret “one season” as three months, the carcass count would be over 1600 a month – which would amount to a serious health hazard for any troops using the training site as well as a unique waste disposal problem. Let’s be blunt here, as well as a murder of crows, the decaying corpses would also attract a buzz of blowflies and a heave of maggots.

Can this estimate be accurate? Or does it simply reveal the usual flaw in using walked ground surveys, or line transects, to estimate kangaroo numbers? This accuracy of this method, and the correction factors required, have been debated since the mid-1980s. These issues were the subject of a paper published in the “Australian Zoologist” almost a decade ago, which argues a case for aerial surveys to gain a better estimate of kangaroo numbers.

And are kangaroos starving at the site? If such large numbers are dying over such a short period, then are we in fact looking at a fatal virus – similar to outbreaks recently reported in northern NSW – which attacks the brain and eyes of kangaroos. Or a macropod alphaherpes virus – similar to that now attacking the immune system of koalas – which was identified in nasal swabs taken from eastern grey kangaroos that died in captivity in Queensland. Has someone done the necessary pathology?

Research in universities across Australia is revealing that macropod biology – that’s the biology of more than 50 species of creatures that are usually lumped, by the unobservant, into the generic category of “kangaroo” – is far more complex than previously thought. Recent developments include the revelation that climate change is affecting the breeding patterns of red kangaroos. Heat stress is killing young animals, because they need to work harder – an increased rate of shallow panting and bigger breaths – to cool their bodies. The late Alan Newsome, a senior CSIRO researcher, also did pioneering research that found high temperatures reduced the fertility of male red kangaroos. Has anyone looked at the impact of temperature extremes on mortality rates in eastern greys? Is there a link between drought and increased gut parasite burdens?

Wildlife ecology should not be the domain of popular myth, casual speculation or media manipulation. It is a serious science, requiring mathematically based field work, an understanding of environmental complexities and a formidable intellect. At its best, it’s an enthralling, exhilarating science that’s right up there with the best of astronomy and quantum physics. It’s not about patting critters and taking a stroll through the bush.

As a nation, our politicians are mostly woefully uninformed about our biodiversity, and as a recent Australian Audit office report pointed out, our policy makers often are not fully across the complexities of environmental issues. Does anyone remember that episode of “The West Wing” (it’s in the second series) where the White House deputy chief of staff (Josh Lyman) and the communications director (the usually erudite Toby Ziegler) are describing one of America’s 12 subspecies of lynx as “a kind of possum'” when briefing the president on an emerging environmental issue? There’s also an episode where Josh (a character with a formidable knowledge of political systems) is struggling to establish the difference between a panda and a koala.

Given Australia’s vulnerability to climate change, we can’t afford this kind of muddle-headed confusion among our environmental policy makers.