Promoting diversity in the lab

15 09 2022

My definition of a ‘lab’ is simply a group of people who do the science in question — and people are a varied bunch, indeed. But I wager that most scientists would not necessarily give much dedicated thought to the diversity of the people in their lab, and instead probably focus more on obtaining the most qualified and cleverest people for the jobs that need doing.

For example, I have yet to meet an overtly racist, sexist, or homophobic scientist involved actively in research today (although unfortunately, I am sure some do still exist), so I doubt that lab heads consciously avoid certain types of people when hiring or taking on new students as they once did. The problem here is not that scientists tend to exclude certain types of people deliberately based on negative stereotypes; rather, it concerns more the subconscious biases that might lurk within, and about which unfortunately most of us are blissfully unaware. But all scientists must be aware of, and seek to address, their hidden biases.

It is time to place my cards on the table: I am a middle-aged, Caucasian, male scientist who has lived in socially inclusive and economically fortunate countries his entire life. As such, I am the quintessential golden child of scientific opportunity, and I am therefore also one of the biggest impediments to human diversity in science. I am not able to change my status per se; however, I can change how I perceive, acknowledge, and act to address my biases.

The earlier scientists recognise these challenges in their career, the more effective they will be.

Gender balance

I acknowledge that as a man, I am already on thin ice discussing gender inequality in science today, for it is a massive topic that many, far more qualified people are tackling. But being of the male flavour means that I have to, like an alcoholic, admit that I have a problem, and then take steps to resolve that problem. After all, privilege is generally invisible to those who have it. If you are a male scientist reading this now, then my discussion is most pertinent to you. If you are female, then perhaps you can use some of these pointers to educate your male colleagues and students.

There is now ample evidence that science as a discipline is just as biased against women as most other sectors of professional employment, even though things have improved since the bad old days of scientific old-boys’ clubs. Journals tend to appoint more men than women on their editorial boards, and that editors display what is known as homophily when selecting reviewers for manuscripts: the tendency to select reviewers of the same gender as themselves.

Likewise, experimental evidence demonstrates that scientists in general rate male-authored science writing higher than female-authored works, and that academic scientists tend to favour male applicants over females for student positions. In the United Kingdom, as I suspect is more or less the case almost everywhere else, female academics in science, engineering, and mathematics also tend to have more administrative duties, and hence, less time to do research; they also have fewer opportunities for career development and training, as well as earning a lower salary, holding fewer senior roles, and being less likely to be granted permanent positions.

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Should we bring back the thylacine? We asked 5 experts

17 08 2022
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Signe Dean, The Conversation

In a newly announced partnership with Texas biotech company Colossal Biosciences, Australian researchers are hoping their dream to bring back the extinct thylacine is a “giant leap” closer to fruition.

Scientists at University of Melbourne’s TIGRR Lab (Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research) believe the new partnership, which brings Colossal’s expertise in CRISPR gene editing on board, could result in the first baby thylacine within a decade.

The genetic engineering firm made headlines in 2021 with the announcement of an ambitious plan to bring back something akin to the woolly mammoth, by producing elephant-mammoth hybrids or “mammophants”.

But de-extinction, as this type of research is known, is a highly controversial field. It’s often criticised for attempts at “playing God” or drawing attention away from the conservation of living species. So, should we bring back the thylacine? We asked five experts.

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Terror management

2 08 2022

As is my tendency, I like to wade carefully into other disciplines from time to time to examine what components they can bring to the conservation table. I do not profess any sort of expertise when I do so, but if I require a true expert for research purposes, then I will collaborate with said experts.

I often say to my students that in many ways, the science of sustainability and conservation is more or less resolved — what we need now is ways to manage the human side of the problems we face. The disciplines that deal with human management, such as psychology, economics, political science, and sociology, are mainly pursuits of the humanities (have I just argued myself out of a job?).

On the topic of human psychology, I think most people involved in some way with biodiversity conservation often contemplate why human societies are so self-destructive. Even in the face of logic and evidence, people deny what’s going on in front of their eyes (think anti-vaxxers, climate-change denialists, etc.), so it should be no wonder why many (most?) people deny their own existential threats. Yet, it still doesn’t seem to make much sense to us until we put the phenomenon into a psychological framework.

My apologies here to actual psychologists if I oversimplify or otherwise make mistakes, but the following explanation has done a lot for me personally in my own journey to understand this conundrum. It is also a good way to teach others about why there is so much reticence to fixing our environmental problems.

The idea is a rather simple one, but it requires a little journey to appreciate. Let’s pop back to the 1970s with the publication of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 (ironically, two months after his own death). In this book, Becker examined the awareness of death on human behaviour and the strategies that we have developed to mitigate our fear of it. This particular quote sums it up nicely:

This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, and excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression — and with all this yet to die

Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death (1973)

The upshot is that we have evolved a whole raft of coping mechanisms to this personal existential dread. Some engage in overly hedonic pursuits to numb the anxiety; others try to “tranquillise themselves with the trivial”, essentially ignoring the terror, while others still manage the dread through religion and the hope of an existence beyond the mortal.

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Never underestimate the importance of a good figure

27 07 2022

I seem to end up frequently explaining to students and colleagues that it’s a good idea to spend a good deal of time to make your scientific figures the most informative and attractive possible.

But it’s a fine balance between overly flashy and downright boring. Needless to say, empirical accuracy is paramount.

But why should you care, as long as the necessary information is transferred to the reader? The most important answer to that question is that you are trying to catch the attention of editors, reviewers, and readers alike in a highly competitive sea of information. Sure, if the work is good and the paper well-written, you’ll still garner a readership; however, if you give your readers a bit of visual pleasure in the process, they’re much more likely to (a) remember and (b) cite your paper.

I try to ask myself the following when creating a figure — without unnecessary bells and whistles, would I present this figure in a presentation to a group of colleagues? Would I present it to an audience of non-experts? Would I want this figure to appear in a news article about my work? Of course, all of these venues require differing degrees of accuracy, complexity, and aesthetics, but a good figure should ideally serve to educate across very different audiences simultaneously.

A sub-question worth asking here is whether you think a colleague would use your figure in one of their presentations. Think of the last time you made a presentation and found that perfect figure that brilliantly portrays the point you are trying to get across. That’s the kind of figure you should strive to make in your own research papers.

I therefore tend to spend quite a bit of time crafting my figures, and after years of making mistakes and getting a few things right, and retrospectively discovering which figures appear to garner more attention than others, I can offer some basic advice about the DOs and DON’Ts of figure making. Throughout the following section I provide some examples from my own papers that I think demonstrate some of the concepts.

tables vs. graphs — The very first question you should ask yourself is whether you can turn that boring and ugly table into a graph of some sort. Do you really need that table? Can you not just translate the cell entries into a bar/column/xy plot? If you can, you should. When a table cannot easily be translated into a figure, most of the time it probably belongs in the Supplementary Information anyway.

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Journal ranks 2021

4 07 2022

Now that Clarivate, Google, and Scopus have recently published their respective journal citation scores for 2021, I can now present — for the 14th year running on ConvervationBytes.com — the 2021 conservation/ecology/sustainability journal ranks based on my journal-ranking method.

Like last year, I’ve added a few journals. I’ve also included in the ranking the Journal Citation Indicator (JCI) in addition to the Journal Impact Factor and Immediacy Index from Clarivate ISI, and the CiteScore (CS) in addition to the Source-Normalised Impact Per Paper (SNIP) and SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) from Scopus. 

You can access the raw data for 2021 and use my RShiny app to derive your own samples of journal ranks.

I therefore present the new 2021 ranks for: (i) 106 ecology, conservation and multidisciplinary journals, (ii) 27 open-access (i.e., you have to pay) journals from the previous category, (iii) 64 ‘ecology’ journals, (iv) 32 ‘conservation’ journals, (v) 43 ‘sustainability’ journals (with general and energy-focussed journals included), and (vi) 21 ‘marine & freshwater’ journals.

Remember not to take much notice if a journal boasts about how its Impact Factor has increased this year, because these tend to increase over time anyway What’s important is a journal’s relative (to other journals) rank.

Here are the results:

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Fallacy of zero-extinction targets

20 05 2022

Nearly a decade ago (my how time flies*), I wrote a post about the guaranteed failure of government policies purporting no-extinction targets within their environmental plans. I was referring to the State of South Australia’s (then) official policy of no future extinctions.

In summary, zero- (or no-) extinction targets at best demonstrate a deep naïvety of how ecology works, and at worst, waste a lot of resources on interventions doomed to fail.

1. Extinctions happen all the time, irrespective of human activity;

2. Through past environmental degradation, we are guaranteed to see future extinctions because of extinction lags;

3. Few, if any, of the indicators of biodiversity change show improvement.

4. Climate change will also guarantee additional (perhaps even most) future extinctions irrespective of Australian policies.

I argued that no-extinction policies are therefore disingenuous to the public in the extreme because they sets false expectations, engender disillusionment after inevitable failure, and ignores the concept of triage — putting our environment-restoration resources toward the species/systems with the best chance of surviving (uniqueness notwithstanding).

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A few insights into the inner workings of the Australian Research Council

13 05 2022

I’ve been on the Australian Research Council (ARC) College of Experts now for a little over two and a half years. It has been a time-consuming, yet insightful experience. Without attempting to breach all the confidentiality agreements I signed when I joined up, I would like to explain a few of the internal machinations that go on behind the scenes once a grant application is submitted.

Given that academics spend A LOT of (i.e., way too much) time writing research grants, I think it’s essential to understand not only how to maximise your probability of success (see this post for some generic tips), but also how your grant is treated once you submit it. I’ve heard from colleagues (and been responsible for myself) many unhappy gripes about the ARC over time, which appear to have increased over the last five years in particular.

There are certainly some very good reasons to be upset about the research-grant environment in Australia. While I will restrict this post to issues concerning the ARC because that’s what I know best, I gather that many of the same issues plague other national agencies, such as the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). But to dispel the suspicion that the ARC is just out to make our lives hell, I’m going to provide a list of my experiences on what I think they do exceptionally well. I’m definitely not taking sides here, because after the list of pros, I’ll provide a detailed list of cons and some ways I think the ARC can move forward.

Impartiality

The ARC is very, very good at avoiding bias in the assessment process. Even if some potential bias does manage to creep in, the ARC is also extremely efficient at identifying and removing it. First, all assigned ‘carriages’ (College Experts) assigned to grants cannot work at the same institution as the applicants, they cannot have published with any of the applicants, nor can they have any other association with them. All potential conflicts of interest are declared and dealt with immediately up front.

Second, carriages cannot assign assessors with any of the aforementioned conflicts of interest given restrictions in the online applications that we use to identify and assign suitable assessors.

Third, during the actual deliberations, anyone who has any perceived conflict of interest must ‘leave the room’ (done in Zoom these days), nor can those people even see the grants under discussion for which they’ve been deemed conflicted.

Democracy

I have to admit that I’ve been involved in few processes that were more democratic than advisory panel meetings for deciding the fate of ARC grant applications. Any grant under discussion is not only pored over by the ‘detailed assessors’ (those are the comments to which you have to write a rejoinder), it is discussed in gory detail by the carriages. We not only read all of the detailed assessors’ reports and your rejoinder (after already having read the proposal itself many times), we also compare our scores among carriage members, discuss any scoring disparities, argue for or against various elements, and generally come to a consensus. For those grants under discussion, we also vote as an entire panel, with only majority ‘yes’ grants getting through.

Word of advice here — treat your rejoinder very seriously, and be succinct, polite, erudite, and topical. A good rejoinder can make or break any application.

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The integrity battlefield: where science meets policy

4 03 2022

Professor Ross Thompson, University of Canberra


On the whole, I am inclined to conclude that my experience of academia and publishing my work has been largely benign. Despite having published 120-odd peer-reviewed papers, I can count the number of major disputes on one hand. Where there have been disagreements, they have centred on issues of content, and despite the odd grumble, things have rarely escalated to the ad hominem. I have certainly never experienced concerted attacks on my work.

But that changed recently. I work in water science, participating in and leading multi-disciplinary teams that do research directly relevant to water policy and management. My colleagues and I work closely with state and federal governments and are often funded by them through a variety of mechanisms. Our teams are a complex blend of scientists from universities, state and federal research agencies, and private-sector consultancies. Water is big business in Australia, and its management is particularly pertinent as the world’s driest inhabited continent struggles to come to terms with the impacts of climate change.

In the last 10 years, Australia has undergone a AU$16 billion program of water reform that has highlighted the extreme pressure on ecosystems, rural communities, and water-dependent industries. In 2019, two documentaries (Cash Splash and Pumped) broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation were highly critical of the  outcomes of water reform. A group of scientists involved in working on the Murray-Darling Basin were concerned enough about the accuracy of aspects of those stories to support Professor Rob Vertessy from the University of Melbourne in drafting an Open Letter in response. I was a co-author on that letter, and something into which I did not enter lightly. We were very concerned about being seen to advocate for any particular policy position, but were simultaneously committed to contributing to an informed public debate. A later investigation by the Australian Communications and Media Authority also highlighted concerns with the Cash Splash documentary.

Fast forward to 2021 and the publication of a paper by Colloff et al. (2021) in the Australasian Journal of Water Resources. In that paper, the authors were critical of the scientists that had contributed to the Open Letter and claimed they had been subject to “administrative capture” and “issue advocacy”. Administrative capture is defined here as:

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Wondering if you should apply for a DECRA?

7 02 2022

Do you love doing job applications, but wish they were longer and more involved?

If so, applying for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) should be right up your alley.

If, like most people, you answered a resounding NO! to that question, there are still many good reasons to apply for a DECRA. But there are also some completely valid reasons why you might not apply, so it pays to weigh up the pros and cons if you’re thinking about it.

Let’s go through some of these points, plus tips on how to make a competitive application (I just submitted a DECRA application in the last round, so it’s all painfully fresh in my memory). 

What the hell is a DECRA?

The Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards offered by the Australian Research Council are highly competitive, with success rates of between 12% (ouch!) and 20% across years (but expect especially low success rates in the next round/DECRA23, given the bumper crop of applicants). 

DECRAs are restricted to researchers who are (i) less than 5-years out from their PhD conferral, and (ii) who are proposing non-medical projects.

The 5-year eligibility period is based on time spent ‘research active’, to accommodate the different career pathways people follow. This means that people who haven’t been working 100% in research since completing their PhD can tally up career interruptions (which can relate to illnesses or disability, carer responsibilities, parental leave, unemployment, and employment in non-research positions) and extend their eligibility period.

So even if you are well-over 5 years post PhD (as was the case for me), you might still be eligible to apply. If you’re considering a medical science project, then you need to check out the schemes offered by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Pros and Cons

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Animating models of ecological change

6 12 2021

Flinders University Global Ecology postdoc, Dr Farzin Shabani, recently created this astonishing video not only about the results of his models predicting vegetation change in northern Australia as a function of long-term (tens of thousands of years) climate change, but also on the research journey itself!

He provides a brief background to how and why he took up the challenge:


Science would be a lot harder to digest without succinct and meaningful images, graphs, and tables. So, being able to visualise both inputs and outputs of scientific models to cut through the fog of data is an essential element of all science writing and communication. Diagrams help us understand trends and patterns much more quickly than do raw data, and they assist with making comparisons.

During my academic career, I have studied many different topics, including natural hazards (susceptibility & vulnerability risks), GIS-based ensemble modelling, climate-change impacts, environmental modelling at different temporal and spatial scales, species-distribution modelling, and time-series analysis. I use a wide range of graphschartsplotsmaps and tables to transfer the key messages.

For my latest project, however, I was given the opportunity to make a short animation and visualise my results and the journey itself. I think that my animation inspires a sense of wonder, which is among the most important goals of science education. I also think that my animation draws connections to real-life problems (e.g., ecosystem changes as a product of climate change), and also develops an appreciation of the scientific process itself.

Take a look at let me know what you think!

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An eye on the past: a view to the future

29 11 2021

originally published in Brave Minds, Flinders University’s research-news publication (text by David Sly)

Clues to understanding human interactions with global ecosystems already exist. The challenge is to read them more accurately so we can design the best path forward for a world beset by species extinctions and the repercussions of global warming.


This is the puzzle being solved by Professor Corey Bradshaw, head of the Global Ecology Lab at Flinders University. By developing complex computer modelling and steering a vast international cohort of collaborators, he is developing research that can influence environmental policy — from reconstructing the past to revealing insights of the future.

As an ecologist, he aims both to reconstruct and project how ecosystems adapt, how they are maintained, and how they change. Human intervention is pivotal to this understanding, so Professor Bradshaw casts his gaze back to when humans first entered a landscape – and this has helped construct an entirely fresh view of how Aboriginal people first came to Australia, up to 75,000 years ago.

Two recent papers he co-authored — ‘Stochastic models support rapid peopling of Late Pleistocene Sahul‘, published in Nature Communications, and ‘Landscape rules predict optimal super-highways for the first peopling of Sahul‘ published in Nature Human Behaviour — showed where, how and when Indigenous Australians first settled in Sahul, which is the combined mega-continent that joined Australia with New Guinea in the Pleistocene era, when sea levels were lower than today.

Professor Bradshaw and colleagues identified and tested more than 125 billion possible pathways using rigorous computational analysis in the largest movement-simulation project ever attempted, with the pathways compared to the oldest known archaeological sites as a means of distinguishing the most likely routes.

The study revealed that the first Indigenous people not only survived but thrived in harsh environments, providing further evidence of the capacity and resilience of the ancestors of Indigenous people, and suggests large, well-organised groups were able to navigate tough terrain.

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Avoiding a ghastly future — The Science Show

1 10 2021

Just thought I’d share the audio of an interview I did with the famous Robyn Williams of ABC Radio National‘s The Science Show.

I’d be surprised if any Australians with even a passing interest in science could claim not to have listened to the Science Show before, and I suspect a fair mob of people overseas would be in the same boat.

It was a real privilege to talk with Robyn about our work on the ghastly future, and as always, the production value is outstanding.

Thank you, Robyn and the ABC.

Listen below, or link to the interview directly.





The very worn slur of “neo-Malthusian”

7 09 2021

After the rather astounding response to our Ghastly Future paper published in January this year (> 443,000 views and counting; 61 citations and counting), we received a Commentary that was rather critical of our article.

A Malthusian slur

We have finally published a Response to the Commentary, which is now available online (accepted version) in Frontiers in Conservation Science. Given that it is published under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY), I can repost the Response here:


In their comment on our paper Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future, Bluwstein et al.2 attempt to contravene our exposé of the enormous challenges facing the entire human population from a rapidly degrading global environment. While we broadly agree with the need for multi-disciplinary solutions, and we worry deeply about the inequality of those who pay the costs of biodiversity loss and ecological collapse, we feel obligated to correct misconceptions and incorrect statements that Bluwstein et al.2 made about our original article.

After incorrectly assuming that our message implied the existence of “one science” and a “united scientific community”, the final paragraph of their comment contradicts their own charge by calling for the scientific community to “… stand in solidarity”. Of course, there is no “one science” — we never made such a claim. Science is by its nature necessarily untidy because it is a bottom-up process driven by different individuals, cultures, perspectives, and goals. But it is solid at the core. Scientific confluence is reached by curiosity, rigorous testing of assumptions, and search for contradictions, leading to many — sometimes counter-intuitive or even conflicting — insights about how the world works. There is no one body of scientific knowledge, even though there is good chance that disagreements are eventually resolved by updated, better evidence, although perhaps too slowly. That was, in fact, a main message of our original article — that obligatory specialisation of disparate scientific fields, embedded within a highly unequal and complex socio-cultural-economic framework, reduces the capacity of society to appreciate, measure, and potentially counter the complexity of its interacting existential challenges. We agree that scientists play a role in political struggles, but we never claimed, as Bluwstein et al.2 contended, that such struggles can be “… reduced to science-led processes of positive change”. Indeed, this is exactly the reason our paper emphasized the political impotence surrounding the required responses. We obviously recognize the essential role social scientists play in creating solutions to avoid a ghastly future. Science can only provide the best available evidence that individuals and policymakers can elect to use to inform their decisions. 

We certainly recognise that there is no single policy or polity capable of addressing compounding and mounting problems, and we agree that that there is no “universal understanding of the intertwined socio-ecological challenges we face”. Bluwstein et al.2 claimed that we had suggested scientific messaging alone can “… adequately communicate to the public how socio-ecological crises should be addressed”. We did not state or imply such ideas of unilateral scientific power anywhere in our article. Indeed, the point of framing our message as pertaining to a complex adaptive system means that we cannot, and should not, work towards a single goal. Instead, humanity will be more successful tackling challenges simultaneously and from multiple perspectives, by exploiting manifold institutions, technologies, approaches, and governances to match the complexity of the predicament we are attempting to resolve.

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It’s a tough time for young conservation scientists

24 08 2021

Sure, it’s a tough time for everyone, isn’t it? But it’s a lot worse for the already disadvantaged, and it’s only going to go downhill from here. I suppose that most people who read this blog can certainly think of myriad ways they are, in fact, still privileged and very fortunate (I know that I am).

Nonetheless, quite a few of us I suspect are rather ground down by the onslaught of bad news, some of which I’ve been responsible for perpetuating myself. Add lock downs, dwindling job security, and the prospect of dying tragically due to lung infection, many have become exasperated.

I once wrote that being a conservation scientist is a particularly depressing job, because in our case, knowledge is a source of despair. But as I’ve shifted my focus from ‘preventing disaster’ to trying to lessen the degree of future shittyness, I find it easier to get out of bed in the morning.

What can we do in addition to shifting our focus to making the future a little less shitty than it could otherwise be? I have a few tips that you might find useful:

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Journal ranks 2020

23 07 2021

This is the 13th year in a row that I’ve generated journal ranks based on the journal-ranking method we published several years ago.

There are few differences in how I calculated this year’s ranks, as well as some relevant updates:

  1. As always, I’ve added a few new journals (either those who have only recently been scored with the component metrics, or ones I’ve just missed before);
  2. I’ve included the new ‘Journal Citation Indicator’ (JCI) in addition to the Journal Impact Factor and Immediacy Index from Clarivate ISI. JCI “… a field-normalised metric, represents the average category-normalised citation impact for papers published in the prior three-year period.”. In other words, it’s supposed to correct for field-specific citation trends;
  3. While this isn’t my change, the Clarivate metrics are now calculated based on when an article is first published online, rather than just in an issue. You would have thought that this should have been the case for many years, but they’ve only just done it;
  4. I’ve also added the ‘CiteScore’ (CS) in addition to the Source-Normalised Impact Per Paper (SNIP) and SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) from Scopus. CS is “the number of citations, received in that year and previous 3 years, for documents published in the journal during that period (four years), divided by the total number of published documents … in the journal during the same four-year period”;
  5. Finally, you can access the raw data for 2020 (I’ve done the hard work for you) and use my RShiny app to derive your own samples of journal ranks (also see the relevant blog post). You can add new journal as well to the list if my sample isn’t comprehensive enough for you.

Since the Google Scholar metrics were just released today, I present the new 2020 ranks for: (i) 101 ecology, conservation and multidisciplinary journals, and a subset of (ii) 61 ‘ecology’ journals, (iii) 29 ‘conservation’ journals, (iv) 41 ‘sustainability’ journals (with general and energy-focussed journals included), and (v) 20 ‘marine & freshwater’ journals.

One final observation. I’ve noted that several journals are boasting about how their Impact Factors have increased this year, when they fail to mention that this is the norm across most journals. As you’ll see below, relative ranks don’t actually change that much for most journals. In fact, this is a redacted email I received from a journal that I will not identify here:

We’re pleased to let you know that the new Impact Factor for [JOURNAL NAME] marks a remarkable increase, as it now stands at X.XXX, compared to last year’s X.XXX. And what is even more important: [JOURNAL NAME] increased its rank in the relevant disciplines: [DISCIPLINE NAME].

Although the Impact Factor may not be the perfect indicator of success, it remains the most widely recognised one at journal level. Therefore, we’re excited to share this achievement with you, as it wouldn’t have been possible, had it not been for all of your contributions and support as authors, reviewers, editors and readers. A huge ‘THANK YOU’ goes to all of you!

What bullshit.

Anyway, on to the results:

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… some (models) are useful

8 06 2021

As someone who writes a lot of models — many for applied questions in conservation management (e.g., harvest quotas, eradication targets, minimum viable population sizes, etc.), and supervises people writing even more of them, I’ve had many different experiences with their uptake and implementation by management authorities.

Some of those experiences have involved catastrophic failures to influence any management or policy. One particularly painful memory relates to a model we wrote to assist with optimising approaches to eradicate (or at least, reduce the densities of) feral animals in Kakadu National Park. We even wrote the bloody thing in Visual Basic (horrible coding language) so people could run the module in Excel. As far as I’m aware, no one ever used it.

Others have been accepted more readily, such as a shark-harvest model, which (I think, but have no evidence to support) has been used to justify fishing quotas, and one we’ve done recently for the eradication of feral pigs on Kangaroo Island (as yet unpublished) has led directly to increased funding to the agency responsible for the programme.

According to Altmetrics (and the online tool I developed to get paper-level Altmetric information quickly), only 3 of the 16 of what I’d call my most ‘applied modelling’ papers have been cited in policy documents:

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A perfect storm of global ineptitude

18 03 2021

Given the ‘success’ (i.e., a lot of people seem to be reading it) of our recent Ghastly Future paper, I thought it would be interesting to go back and have a look at what we wrote in our 2015 book Killing the Koala on the subject. I think you’ll find that if anything we were probably overly optimistic.

An updated digest of that material follows.


When your accountant tells you to reduce expenditure, you do it or risk bankruptcy; when your electrician tells you the wiring in your house is dodgy, you replace it or risk your family dying in an avoidable fire; when your doctor tells you your cholesterol is too high, you cut back fat intake (and/or take cholesterol-reducing drugs) or risk a heart attack.

Yet few with any real political or financial power heed the warnings of environmental scientists. It is not just a few of us either — globally, ecologists, conservation biologists and environmental scientists are united in telling the world (for decades now) that growth in population and consumption cannot go on forever. They have been united in telling us if we do not clean up our planet, our life-support systems could ultimately fail.

There are now nearly eight billion people on Earth, and median projections suggest that the population will grow to ten billion or more by the end of the century. Some analyses indicate that with present technologies, Earth could only sustainably support indefinitely some 5 billion people under best-case scenarios, but assuming similar proportions of poverty and suffering as we have today. Others imply that 5 billion could be many too many.

As a result, humanity is entering that near-perfect storm of problems driven by overpopulation, overconsumption, gross inequalities, and the use of needlessly environmentally damaging technologies. The problems include the intertwined dilemmas of loss of the biodiversity that runs human life-support systems, climate disruption, energy shortages, global toxification, alteration of critical biogeochemical cycles, shortages of water, soil, mineral resources and farmland, and increasing probability of vast epidemics (as COVID-19 poignantly exemplifies).

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Ancient bones — how old?

22 01 2021

Radiocarbon (14C) dating was developed by Nobel-Prize winning chemist Willard Libby, and has become the predominant method to build chronologies of ancient populations and species using the Quaternary fossil record. I have just published a research paper about 14C dating of fossil bone reviewing the four standard chemical pretreatments of bone collagen to avoid sample contamination and generate accurate fossil ages: gelatinization, ultrafiltration, XAD purification and hydroxyproline isolation. Hydroxyproline isolation is perceived as the most accurate pretreatment in a questionnaire survey completed by 132 experts from 25 countries, but remains costly, time-consuming and not widely available. I argue that (1) innovation is urgently required to develop affordable analytical chemistry to date low-mass samples of collagen amino acids, (2) those developments should be overseen by a certification agency, and (3) 14C users should be more conceptually involved in how (much) 14C chemistry determines dating accuracy. Across the board, scientific controversies like the timing of Quaternary extinctions need not be fuelled by inaccurate chronological data.


Megafauna bones from the Quaternary fossil record. Top: excavation of a partial skeleton of a short-faced kangaroo Procoptodon browneorum at Tight Entrance Cave (Western Australia) [1]: these bones are close to the limit of radiocarbon (14C) dating in a geological context 43000 to 49000 years old. Middle: metacarpal of the extinct horse Hippidion cf. devillei from Casa del Diablo (Peru) 14C dated at 11980 ± 100 years before present (BP) (CAMS-175039) following XAD purification of collagen gelatin [2]. Bottom: collection of skeletal remains of (mostly) red deer Cervus elaphus from El Cierro Cave (Spain) 14C dated at 15520 ± 75 years BP on ultrafiltered gelatin (OxA-27869 and OxA-27870 average) [3].


Scientists have widely been interested in the present and future state of biodiversity. Ecologists (the main audience of this blog) have also looked into the past with pioneering investigations addressing the composition of ancient forests and the origins of agriculture in layers of fossil pollen accumulated in lake sediments [4]. But it took us decades to see the fossil record as a useful tool (combining biological, geochemical and molecular techniques) to answer basic ecological questions. Some of those questions are critical for conserving today’s biodiversity [5, 6]: for example, when did human impacts on ecosystems become global or what extinct species have best tolerated past environmental change and what that means to modern species? [7].

The study of (pre)historic biological events relies one way or another on our ability to time when a certain animal, human, or plant occurred and what environmental conditions they experienced, and relies on concepts borrowed from archaeology (past human activity), palaeontology (fossils), palaeocology (species responses to past environments), and geochronology (age of fossils and/or their geological context). Among the range of chronological methods available to date biological and cultural samples [8], radiocarbon (14C) dating has become the most important for dating bones aged modern to late Quaternary (last ~ 50,000 years). Hereafter, ‘bone’ comprises antler, bone, ivory and teeth. 14C dating of bones is appealing at least for four reasons: 

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Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp

14 01 2021

Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.

The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.

The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.

Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.

Girl in breathing mask attached ot plant in container

Humanity must come to terms with the future we and future generations face. Shutterstock

Getting to grips with the problem

First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe. Read the rest of this entry »





Time for a ‘cold shower’ about our ability to avoid a ghastly future

13 01 2021

I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,’ said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Frodo Baggins and Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

Today, 16 high-profile scientists and I published what I describe as a ‘cold shower’ about society’s capacity to avoid a ghastly future of warfare, disease, inequality, persecution, extinction, and suffering.

And it goes way beyond just the plight of biodiversity.

No one who knows me well would mistake me for an optimist, try as I might to use my colleagues’ and my research for good. Instead, I like to describe myself as a ‘realist’. However, this latest paper has made even my gloomier past outputs look downright hopeful.

And before being accused of sensationalism, let me make one thing abundantly clear — I sincerely hope that what we describe in this paper does not come to pass. Not even I am that masochistic.

I am also supportive of every attempt to make the world a better place, to sing about our successes, regroup effectively from our failures, and maintain hope in spite of evidence to the contrary.

But failing to acknowledge the magnitude and the gravity of the problems facing us is not just naïve, it is positively dangerous and potentially fatal.

It is this reason alone that prompted us to write our new paper “Underestimating the challenges of
avoiding a ghastly future
” just published in the new journal, Frontiers in Conservation Science.

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