New paper: EPBC Act condition thresholds hinder conservation of threatened ecosystems

Our new paper has just been published, highlighting another way that Australia’s environmental laws aren’t doing enough to protect our ecosystems. In the paper, we look at condition thresholds, which are part of the listing for threatened ecological communities (TECs). These thresholds are often restrictive and may actually increase the extinction risk for TECs that depend on cycles of changing species composition.

Read our summary article at The Conversation: We found a huge flaw in Australia’s environment laws. Wetlands and woodlands will pay the price

Access the paper here: Condition thresholds in Australia’s threatened ecological community listings hinder conservation of dynamic ecosystems

© Manu Saunders 2020

How not to do peer review

Academia may be unique among careers in its lack of standardised processes or training for so many of the common activities that are essential to being an academic. Instead, new researchers have to bumble blindfolded through the dark room of early career researchhood to work out how to literally do the academic parts of their job. Sometimes we’re lucky to have a supervisor, colleague, or mentor who might guide us to a door (but it may not always be the right door).

Publishing and peer review are part of this bumbling process. Publishing our research in peer-reviewed literature is a key part of our job description, to share knowledge with the discipline and beyond.

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Friendships in academia are not just good for your mental health, but they can help your career

This is a guest post by Dr Elise Gornish from University of Arizona. Thanks Elise for writing about a valuable kind of work relationship we often take for granted.

Several years ago, as a new faculty member, I suggested to my department that we organize a holiday party for students, faculty and staff as a nice opportunity to interact with one another while enjoying some baked goods and nostalgia winter music. I distinctly remember one of the senior faculty members scoff at the suggestion saying, ‘I have real friends outside of the department, why do I need to act like I have any friends inside the department?’ I was astonished that someone might consider having friends within your department specifically and perhaps, in academic in general, as a bad or unnecessary thing.

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Why common names are essential for bee conservation

This is a guest post by Dr Tobias Smith, a bee ecologist and stingless bee expert at University of Queensland. He founded Bee Aware Brisbane and is also on the board of Wild Pollinators Oceania. Tobias is one of Australia’s leading native bee experts and has published an easy to use identification key to Australian bee genera, which you can download for free here. Effective communication plays a key role in conservation of bees (and biodiversity generally), a topic Tobias and I have published on before.

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Lately on social media I have seen some spread of the idea that common names for bee species are detrimental to the science and conservation of bees and so should be avoided. I disagree, and in fact I regard common names as a vital part of bee conservation. Let me explain why.

First of all, let’s look at scientific naming, using Australia’s two biggest bee species as an example, Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) aruana and Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) lieftincki. These are big (males up to 26mm in length, females up to 22–23mm in length) beautiful, furry, yellow and black bees. These bees have the genus name Xylocopa. In Australia there are eight known Xylocopa species, but there are hundreds more found around the world. The second name, Koptortosoma, is the subgenus name. It tells us which part of the evolutionary tree of Xylocopa these bees are in.

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Does science need press releases?

It’s increasingly common to see universities publishing press releases about newly published papers from academics. This practice emerged a few decades ago and originally seemed to be associated with health and medical research (educated guess, not sure there are any data on this).

But it has since spread more widely to many other disciplines. Ecology journals are now doing it; some ask you to submit a mandatory media summary with your manuscript ‘just in case’ (most authors will never get a media request). Some of the Big Famous journals operate on a strict authoritarian embargo system, to ensure the author doesn’t exercise their right to talk to people about their own research.

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Insect declines: Apocalypse Now to Great Expectations

Some interesting syntheses of long-term insect data have been published in the last few months. These synthesis studies attempt to provide an answer to the big question mark raised by the recent insect apocalypse narrative.

This is how much of an impact a single study that gets lots of attention can have on the direction of science. The insectageddon opinion piece that started this ball rolling had fundamental flaws that are now well-documented (unfortunately it is still being widely cited in scientific literature and popular media as supposed evidence of decline). Sure, one could argue it got people talking about an important issue that we already had decades of evidence for.

But at what cost? Its long-term effects on science communication and scientific efforts are most concerning, something we flagged in our analysis published earlier this year.

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The impossible quest for a biodiversity metric to rule them all

Will a new metric save biodiversity? This recent opinion piece in Science magazine argues for just that: “a single, simple indicator”, an annual biodiversity target based on species extinction rate. The idea is that the metric will encourage people and policy to protect nature.

The authors justify their argument based on two assumptions:

1) extinction fully incorporates the most fundamental aspect of biodiversity loss

2) extinction is widely understood and easy to communicate

This all sounds well and good. But…

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Teaching resources: history and philosophy of ecology

I’ve just written a few lectures for a first year ecology unit on history and philosophy of ecology. I remembered my own undergrad education, dominated by the male European history of science, and didn’t want to repeat that history. Ecology is so much more that!

Modern science is founded on western philosophy, so it’s understandable that European science gets most of the attention. But despite what most of us learned at school, scientists aren’t all male and there were many non-European scientists that contributed to the development of modern scientific knowledge.

Most importantly, Indigenous people’s knowledge is tied to place, and we often ignore the wealth of knowledge about ecological interactions and processes that Indigenous cultures hold, as well as the respectful environmental interaction (management) that is embedded in country and culture.

This is a list of some good resources that I found useful to highlight an inclusive history of the development of ecological science, at an introductory level. There are more nuanced details, but these resources simply highlight the important fact that science has developed from diverse minds, not just a select few white guys. Some of those famous guys deserve the credit, others don’t so much.

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Academia isn’t all bad, and a PhD is definitely worth it

I read this recent Thesis Whisperer post a few times, and it troubled me. Then they posted this follow-up post doubling down on the original argument denouncing academic writing.

Comments aren’t allowed on the Thesis Whisperer blog, so I’m writing here. I really think these posts send negative messaging to prospective (and current) PhDs. Do read the original posts, but here’s a quick summary of how I interpreted the Thesis Whisperer’s argument:

(i) the way we do PhDs needs to change;

(ii) we should galvanise PhD students to go against the norms of academia to get the personal outcome they want.

(iii) academic writing is ritualised and archaic and it “sucks”.

From a distance, this general argument might resonate. Yes, as with most sectors, there are many ways the past is holding academia back.

I agree, PhD students need to make sure they get what they need out of the 3 or more years they spend on the PhD.

But PhDs are definitely still “a degree worth having”. They will always provide the opportunity for graduates to develop a unique set of skills and expertise that are useful for academic and non-academic careers. 

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