New paper: we don’t know how extreme fire impacts Australian invertebrates

Really happy to see our new paper is now published at Insect Conservation and Diversity.

We present an evidence-based perspective to show how invertebrates, and the ecosystems they support, face major threats as fire severity and frequency intensifies in response to global climate change. Our capacity to make effective decisions about ecosystem recovery and restoration funding after bushfires is hampered by the lack of knowledge on how invertebrates are impacted by fire, directly and indirectly, and how invertebrate communities influence ecosystem recovery.

After last year’s catastrophic megafires, the world’s attention rightly turned to the devastating impacts on our ecosystems and wildlife.

Unfortunately, invertebrates were often overlooked in media coverage and conservation policy responses. Other than a few charismatic threatened invertebrates, the discourse focused on the tiny proportion of animals that are most well-known and loved – vertebrates.

This is largely because there simply isn’t enough information or baseline data about most of our invertebrate species to talk with any certainty about how many invertebrates were lost or impacted by the fires. Listed threatened invertebrates are a rare thing, mostly an artefact of the taxonomic expertise and recommendation activity that was available for the relevant committee, rather than knowledge of new threats facing invertebrates.

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Let’s talk about standards for scholarly opinion articles

I’ve written a lot of posts here about how frustrating it is to try and publish conceptual or expert opinion-style articles in peer reviewed journals. Most journals have very few standards for this article category, and peer reviewers often don’t seem to have the guidance to know how to review them fairly.

Note, I’m not talking about popular media opinion pieces in the general definition.

I’m talking about the peer reviewed articles that many journals publish in various ‘non-data’ categories, depending on the journal, often called e.g. Opinion, Perspective, Forum, Viewpoint, Essay etc. They are a separate category to standard research data papers or formal literature reviews. The journals that publish these articles generally only provide vague instructions, which may contribute to the confusion over how to review them.

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Applying for a PhD: worth it, why, and how

Last year I wrote about how Academia isn’t all bad, and a PhD is definitely worth it. PhDs are definitely a degree worth having, but how do you know if it’s a degree worth applying for?

This post is a bit more about how to actually apply for a PhD and what it involves, once you’ve decided you might be interested. Most academic structures and processes are unfortunately still influenced by a privileged history based on personal connections. How to find and enrol in a PhD can be a mystery to most prospective candidates interested in further training in the research side of science. Don’t be put off…

As a first-gen academic, I didn’t even know what a PhD was (or that it was a career pathway) when I started my environmental science degree. It wasn’t until I graduated from my undergraduate degree and worked for a year that I realised I really missed the investigative part of science. I didn’t really know what to do about this, so I got back in touch with one of my favourite lecturers to find out my options, and she encouraged me to pursue a PhD. After a few applications and false starts (on available but unsuitable projects), I found a primary supervisor and project that aligned with my interests and goals, at a university I didn’t know much about, in a town I’d never been to.

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Do academic book reviews deserve more credit?

I’m currently collating my research outputs for a grant application, and I got to thinking about academic book reviews. I’m on the transition end of early career researchhood (where number of publications are counted and judged by funding bodies), and five of my ‘scholarly journal publications’ are book reviews – they appear in all the database publication lists, but you can’t technically count them as legitimate publications, because they aren’t peer reviewed.

If you’re not familiar with academic book reviews: publishers send academic journals copies of newly published books; the journal asks academic readers to volunteer, or invites them personally, to read and review said book in their field of expertise; the journal publishes the review, without formal peer review (unless you count the editor’s comments).

The academic reviewer gets a free book, the book author gets a (hopefully positive) review of their book, the publisher potentially increases sales, and the journal gets…actually I’m not really sure what the journal gets out of it, other than potential exposure (book reviews are free to publish, so the journal isn’t making money directly from publishing it).

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Last year

A lot happened last year.

Twelve months ago I’d been breathing bushfire smoke for months and I was struggling with despair and anxiety (personal and empathetically global) over Australia’s devastating bushfire summer, after our hottest and driest year on record, and the lack of responsible climate action our government maintains.

Now, we’re on track to have experienced one of the wettest years on record for our region, with some areas flooding in recent months, others seeing welcome regrowth in farms, forests and gardens. After severe drought and bushfires, some places may not find the sudden deluge so exciting. While our new garden is loving the conditions, our garage has suffered some minor flooding as the dehydrated clay soils slowly drown under the weight of water. (Nice reminder that climate change brings rapidly changing extremes, not static increases or decreases.)

In between, we’ve suffered from pandemic anxieties, losses and inconveniences, along with the rest of the world.  

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Post-fire recovery of threatened plants at Torrington State Conservation Reserve NSW: first observations

In late September, we found out that our Australian Government Bushfire Recovery grant application (submitted back in May 2020) was successful. Our team have been funded until June 2021 to help protect 21 threatened plant species, many of which are endemic to the Torrington and/or Bolivia Hill districts in northern New South Wales.

The 2019-20 summer fires were devastating. Collectively, the season’s fires burned through 10.3 million hectares of land in southern and eastern Australia (this doesn’t include the impact of fires in Western Australia and Northern Territory). About 82% of the burned area in the south/east was forested ecosystems, and hundreds of threatened species were impacted across the country.

In northern NSW, Torrington State Conservation Area was impacted by fire in November 2019. This unique protected area supports a high proportion of endemic plants, many of them listed on state or commonwealth threatened species lists. After reports that the entire reserve was impacted by fire, we wanted to know how many of these species had survived and which were in most urgent need of protection to reduce extinction risk. Nearby, Bolivia Hill Nature Reserve escaped the 2019 fires, but has been impacted by uncontrolled burns in recent years.

These two reserves are both part of the New England batholith, one of the most significant areas of granite outcropping in Australia. While they are similar in geology and habitat characteristics, they have very unique plant communities, each with their own collection of endemic species.

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Admin: drowning, not waving

I worked in admin before my science career, in many roles, in many sectors. I’ve worked as a corporate receptionist, oversaw corporate communications, worked in document control for engineering consultancies, and managed content translation requests for university students with learning disabilities. I’ve been co-managing an unfunded citizen science project for more than six years.

So I’m no stranger to admin and I have no grudge against admin professionals – they are essential!

But, in some cases, the admin sagas that academics are forced to star in are a bit much.

Universities hire admin staff. Even within our own departments, academics generally have access to department-specific admin, finance and technical professionals. So why is so much of an academic’s time taken up with enforced admin, when it’s not technically part of their job description, and they’re not trained to deliver the desired admin outcomes?

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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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