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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New paper: Conceptual ambiguity and ecosystem disservices

Just published in Journal of Applied Ecology: Conceptual ambiguity hinders measurement and management of ecosystem disservices.  

Ecosystem services is one of the most misunderstood scientific concepts. Ambiguity and confusion can be a real barrier to establishing a new scientific concept or field of research. Ecosystem services is still a young discipline (formalised in the 1990s based on a much longer heritage) and is often misrepresented as being a purely economic concept that is damaging to biodiversity conservation and ecological science. This couldn’t be further from the truth, yet this misguided opinion consistently gets regular airtime and clouds broader understanding of the relevance of ecosystem services to research, policy, and land management.

The term ecosystem disservices was first used to address an early criticism of the ES concept, i.e. that ES was largely focused on benefits and overlooked the ecological reality that nature sometimes harms us. This is a valid issue that must be addressed in any ES approach. But, as we argued a few years’ ago, creating a false dichotomy around opposing terms is not the most effective way to solve this problem.

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What is a literature review?

Literature reviews summarise existing knowledge and emerging paths for inquiry. They are essential for most grant applications, undergrad assignments and research projects.

But how do you actually do one? And what should you expect when you read a literature review?

Recently, I’m seeing a lot of papers submitted to or published in reputable journals that claim to be “comprehensive reviews” when they could not be further from the truth. Flawed review methods, no review methods, or a limited/localised observational study dressed up as a global review….

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Counting bees…which bees?

The concept of citizen science is as old as the hills, but large-scale coordinated projects are growing in popularity, especially those with digital engagement tools. It’s always great to see new projects that fill an important knowledge gap and engage the public with the natural world.

Recording biodiversity sightings is an easy and rewarding way to get involved. There are plenty of opportunities to contribute to coordinated data collections, such as iNaturalist or Atlas of Living Australia. Other projects have more standardised scientific goals, such as the UK’s Pollinator Monitoring Scheme, the USA’s Great Sunflower Project, and our own Australian Wild Pollinator Count (disclaimer: this is my own project).

So what about new projects that overlap existing projects and don’t provide clear information about how the data will be used? Continue reading

How many species live in your home?

This is a guest post from Matthew Holden, an applied mathematician based at the University of Queensland. I loved seeing his backyard biodiversity hunt on Twitter, because so many of his pictures were of invertebrates! His story…

Well that’s what I wanted to know about my home.

It all started one day, more than a year ago, when my housemate, Dr Andrew Rogers, was cleaning out his closet. He wanted to move the spiders outside and spare them from getting sucked up by our vacuum, during a much-needed cleaning session. But there was one problem, there were a lot of spiders, definitely several species. He thought, “How many spiders do I share the house with?” It was a slippery slope … it wasn’t long till we wanted to know all of the species in our home.

From then on, we regularly talked about conducting a very local biodiversity survey, but never got around to it. We were fortunate enough to even have a taxonomist, Dr Russell Yong, move in with us, who was keen to help out. But we kept putting it off.

Then the pandemic happened. We all decided to start working for home – a perfect time to do the survey. It would give us all a social activity to bond over during this time of isolation. Andrew even came up with a hashtag for us to share our findings #StayHomeBiodiversityChallenge. Continue reading