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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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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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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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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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

Nature moves back in…or will it?

With urban areas around the world suddenly emptied of humans, people are sharing photos and videos on social media showing wild animals cavorting in the empty streets.

I started to collate some of them on Twitter, but I gave up because it’s really hard to confirm how many of them are fake news.

The Goats of Llandudno were a legitimate lockdown observation – but it turns out they’re regular visitors to the town. Some posts are clearly a joke (a herd of buffalo in the centre of Buffalo, NY), while others would seem pretty believable to most people with no specialist knowledge of the species or location, like the ‘rare Malabar civet’ in the streets of an Indian town.

Most posts provide very little context, no confirmation of the date they were filmed, and often no confirmed source. For the average responsible social media user, there is simply no way of verifying them. Continue reading

Special issue on insect conservation and population trends

The latest issue of Insect Conservation & Diversity is out, a special issue on insect population trends. I’m really happy I was able to contribute to a few papers in this issue as both editor and author (obviously not the same papers in each case!).

Thanks to Editor in Chief Raphael Didham for pulling together a great collection of papers, as well as rallying the editorial team to contribute to the issue with this really useful peer-reviewed paper summarising the key challenges involved in measuring insect population trends. This paper is really timely, as it highlights some of the potential pitfalls involved in estimating population changes over time.

Ecological data (e.g. long-term data on animal population trends) are not like simplified stock market trends or sports team stats. They are confounded by numerous complex environmental and measurement factors, many of which an observer may not be aware of. Nature isn’t simple and we’re kidding ourselves if we want a quick and easy answer to sum up everything, everywhere. Continue reading