Personal deterrents can reduce the risk of shark bites

19 06 2018
Shak deterrent testing

Photo: Charlie Huveneers

A little over a week ago, shark ecologist, Charlie Huveneers, and I attempted to write an article in The Conversation about a report we co-wrote regarding the effectiveness of personal shark-deterrent devices (see below for more on the report itself). It’s a great little story, with both immediate policy implications for human safety and great, big potential improvements to shark conservation in general (i.e., if sharks kill fewer people, then perhaps governments would be less inclined to invokes stupid laws to kill sharks). Indeed, sharks aren’t doing very well around the world, mainly because of over-harvest and persecution from unfounded fear.

Anyway, all was going swimmingly until our editor at The Conversation suddenly decided that they wouldn’t publish the piece based on the following funding disclaimer that we had submitted with the article:

This project was funded by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Shark Management Strategy Competitive Annual Grants Program, the Government of South Australia, Ocean Guardian Pty Ltd, and the Neiser Foundation. We openly and transparently declare that Ocean Guardian contributed financially to the study, but that Ocean Guardian was not involved in the study design or implementation, nor did they have access to the data post-collection. Nor did Ocean Guardian provide input into data analysis, interpretation, writing of the report, or the conclusions drawn. The study design followed a protocol developed for a previous study, which was not funded by Ocean Guardian. In summary, Ocean Guardian had no opportunity to influence any aspect of the study or its conclusions, apart from providing some financial support to realise the field project (e.g., boat hire, equipment purchase, etc.) in the same manner as the other funding agencies. The South Australian cage-diving industry provided logistical support during the testing of the deterrents.

The long and short of The Conversation‘s negative decision was that one of the companies contributed financially to project. However, as we stated above, they had absolutely no influence in the subsequent experimental design, data collection, analysis, interpretation or report writing.

While normally I’m a big fan of The Conversation, I really think they dropped the ball with this one. Their decision was illogical and unsupported for five main reasons:

  1. There were many funding partners involved, and the Ocean Freedom contribution was in no way the major or even majority share of funding.
  2. Other companies with devices tested could have contributed, but only Ocean Freedom offered.
  3. The study was commissioned by a state government agency (New South Wales Department of Primary Industries), which is not a commercial entity.
  4. As stated in our disclosure, there was no opportunity for manipulating experimental design, data ownership, or post-collection analysis or writing that could have influenced the results, by any funders or contributors.
  5. The disclosure is open, honest, comprehensive and in every way truthful.

So, I’m more than just a little disappointed — and my opinion of the organisation has dropped considerably. That, with the constant barrage of donation requests they send makes me think twice about their journalistic integrity. I challenge others to think carefully before giving them any money.

Regardless, let’s move on to the article itself (which I can publish freely here without the Draconian oversight of The Conversation):

Many things might explain why the number of shark bites appear to be increasing. However, the infrequent occurrence of such events makes it nearly impossible to determine why. Recently, an atypically high rate of shark bites occurred in Western Australia in 2010-2011 and on the north coast of New South Wales in 2015-2016. These highly publicised events — often sensationalised in both traditional and social media — have pressured governments to implement new measures to reduce the risk of shark bites.

The rising pressure to do something to reduce shark bites has prompted the recent development or commercial release of many new personal shark deterrents. Yet, most of these devices lack any rigorous scientific assessment of their effectiveness, meaning that some manufacturers have made unfounded claims about how much their devices dissuade sharks from attacking humans.

However, if a particular type of commercially available shark deterrent happens to be less effective (or completely ineffective) as advertised, it can give users a false sense of security, potentially encouraging some to put themselves at greater risk than is necessary. For example, some surfers and spearfishers probably ignore other mitigation measures, such as beach closures, because they ‘feel safe’ when wearing these products.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Effective Scientist

22 03 2018

final coverWhat is an effective scientist?

The more I have tried to answer this question, the more it has eluded me. Before I even venture an attempt, it is necessary to distinguish the more esoteric term ‘effective’ from the more pedestrian term ‘success’. Even ‘success’ can be defined and quantified in many different ways. Is the most successful scientist the one who publishes the most papers, gains the most citations, earns the most grant money, gives the most keynote addresses, lectures the most undergraduate students, supervises the most PhD students, appears on the most television shows, or the one whose results improves the most lives? The unfortunate and wholly unsatisfying answer to each of those components is ‘yes’, but neither is the answer restricted to the superlative of any one of those. What I mean here is that you need to do reasonably well (i.e., relative to your peers, at any rate) in most of these things if you want to be considered ‘successful’. The relative contribution of your performance in these components will vary from person to person, and from discipline to discipline, but most undeniably ‘successful’ scientists do well in many or most of these areas.

That’s the opening paragraph for my new book that has finally been release for sale today in the United Kingdom and Europe (the Australasian release is scheduled for 7 April, and 30 April for North America). Published by Cambridge University Press, The Effective ScientistA Handy Guide to a Successful Academic Career is the culmination of many years of work on all the things an academic scientist today needs to know, but was never taught formally.

Several people have asked me why I decided to write this book, so a little history of its genesis is in order. I suppose my over-arching drive was to create something that I sincerely wish had existed when I was a young scientist just starting out on the academic career path. I was focussed on learning my science, and didn’t necessarily have any formal instruction in all the other varied duties I’d eventually be expected to do well, from how to write papers efficiently, to how to review properly, how to manage my grant money, how to organise and store my data, how to run a lab smoothly, how to get the most out of a conference, how to deal with the media, to how to engage in social media effectively (even though the latter didn’t really exist yet at the time) — all of these so-called ‘extra-curricular’ activities associated with an academic career were things I would eventually just have to learn as I went along. I’m sure you’ll agree, there has to be a better way than just muddling through one’s career picking up haphazard experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Tips for scientists to deal with the media

21 11 2016


I regularly give science communication workshops that include tips for dealing with reporters and journalists in the mass media. Most of these tips come from my own experience, or from stories I’ve heard from close colleagues. Instead of just teaching these important lessons to a select few who get to hear about them in person, I’ve decided to write a little post listing the most important points. Most of the following has little to do with maximising the likelihood of getting an interview, but these tips should help you avoid problems should a reporter notice your important work.

Welcome to the jungle.

1. The best way to get noticed by the media is to write a press release, although this is no guarantee in itself that anyone will pay attention. A good rule of thumb is to write a release for nearly every peer-reviewed article you publish, even if you think no one will be that interested. You’d be surprised how seemingly innocuous and run-of-the-mill papers can go viral if the press release is well-written. On that latter point, engage closely with your institution’s media office, and help them write the release by, for example, sending them a link to the lucid blog post you wrote about your own paper.

2. You can maximise the probability of uptake of your press release if you foster good working relationships with journalists. If you’ve ever had positive interactions with some before, keep the names on record and send a pre-release version of the article and the press release itself before the main event. Every journalist loves a scoop.

3. Register on expert media sites so that journalists can find you (e.g., like Scimex, Expert Guide, Ocean Expert, etc.). Most countries have such things.

4. If a journalist contacts you, make sure you respond immediately. Often even 30 minutes is too long before they seek opinions from some other scientist. If you are travelling, make sure you have an emergency contact auto-responder designed specifically for deadline-enslaved journalists.

Remember, you're smarter than they are (© Monty Python)

Remember, you’re smarter than they are (© Monty Python)

5. Once you do manage to gain an interview, whether it is live radio, recorded television or just as a chat for a newspaper article, avoid jargon like the plague. And make sure you test your language on a non-expert — what’s jargon to a non-specialist might not appear to be jargon at all to you. This often comes with experience, but at the very least try to avoid big, technical-sounding words (they do not make you sound more intelligent; rather, they make you sound boring and up-yourself).

6. Still on the issue of language, use short, punchy answers, analogies and a little humour. Try to relax (again, this comes with experience) by remembering that you know your shit more than 99.99% of the people that will be listening to you.

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 »

Getting your conservation science to the right people

22 01 2016

argument-cartoon-yellingA perennial lament of nearly every conservation scientist — at least at some point (often later in one’s career) — is that the years of blood, sweat and tears spent to obtain those precious results count for nought in terms of improving real biodiversity conservation.

Conservation scientists often claim, especially in the first and last paragraphs of their papers and research proposals, that by collecting such-and-such data and doing such-and-such analyses they will transform how we manage landscapes and species to the overall betterment of biodiversity. Unfortunately, most of these claims are hollow (or just plain bullshit) because the results are either: (i) never read by people who actually make conservation decisions, (ii) not understood by them even if they read the work, or (iii) never implemented because they are too vague or too unrealistic to translate into a tangible, positive shift in policy.

A depressing state of being, I know.

This isn’t any sort of novel revelation, for we’ve been discussing the divide between policy makers and scientists for donkey’s years. Regardless, the whinges can be summarised succinctly: Read the rest of this entry »

Only thing worse than being labelled ‘deadly’, is not being called anything at all

13 10 2015

11034-Snake-BiteI had an interesting exchange on Twitter today that deserves some discussion, not because the brief internet argument that ensued offers some insightful wisdom (internet debates rarely do anything more than identify all those involved as fuckwits), but because it raises an interesting issue in conservation.

The abbreviated (and slightly expurgated) main message of the exchange was whether drawing attention to the potential for a species to cause harm to humans is good or bad (for the species in question).

The elasmobranchologists in particular usually become apoplectic whenever anyone calls a shark ‘deadly’, or some such similar adjective. As it turns out, the ophidiologists appear to be equally sensitive. I admit that they do have a point — it’s probably fair to assume that films like Jaws and Anaconda (or, Darwin-forbid, Sharknado) haven’t done much to make most people appreciate the amazing diversity, evolutionary adaptations and wonderful life histories of these subclasses & clades (respectively).

In fact, most marine biologists assume that Jaws in particular was responsible for decades of overt prosecution of sharks that has led to the massive population declines. However, I sincerely wonder whether the bad media was in the real culprit and over-fishing was instead the principal cause of today’s observed shark declines (the questionable nature of the numbers often cited notwithstanding).  Read the rest of this entry »

Why every scientist needs an online profile

31 01 2013

Don’t be guilty of this.

It astounds me every time I hear about a scientist who is reluctant to place her or his track record on the internet. Now, I may be a little over-the-top when it comes to my own web-presence (some have labelled me a ‘media tart’, but I don’t mind), but I am convinced that without a strong, regularly updated web presence, you’re doing yourself a horrible disservice.

Let’s go through the regularly raised objections that some academics make for avoiding the investment in a strong web presence:

  1. My employer will get angry
  2. My track record isn’t good enough (i.e., I’m embarrassed)
  3. What I do is no one else’s business
  4. I couldn’t be bothered; it’s too much work
  5. No one reads it anyway

While there might be some truth to items 1 & 2 (although the justification is weak or often plainly untrue), the last three are pure bullshit.

Let’s start by analysing the bullshit (rolls up sleeves, starts digging…).

Read the rest of this entry »