Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Friday, 7 June 2013

"Birds are to woodlands what kittens are to Facebook!"

That was my favourite quote (by Ian Lunt) from the recent Biodiversity Across the Borders conference held at the University of Ballarat. I think I know what he meant!

This one-day conference is held every two years and has a really simple aim: to communicate ecological science to ecosystem managers. Over 550 people turned up to this excellent event, from a variety of organisations (Landcare, CMAs, local & state government, committees of management, universities, ecological consultancies, policy), hinting that land managers and conservationists want to hear about the research we do, as well as to swap stories and catch up with old friends. On the later point, I ran into no fewer than seven! ex-Honours students. It's great to know my students are in the field of their choice making a great contribution.

Science communication is something that is at the core of what research aims to do.

Of course, that sounds all very formal. Getting out and telling people what we've been studying, why we think it's important, and how this information might be of use to land managers should be something we embrace as ecological scientists. I find it amongst the most satisfying of things I do. I give several talks a year to local groups, Field Nats, land management agencies, etc because there is a huge hunger for information amongst passionate people. My university doesn't really value this type of thing (unless it leads to grant applications), but I clearly see the need.

So, when science meets management, what is it that makes for effective communication.

Sitting in the audience, it is pretty clear what makes a good talk. In order of importance, as I see it:

- Be Positive! Conservation biology is full of negative stories. Indeed, Richard Hobbs has just written an interesting piece in the journal Restoration Ecology about conservation grief (where he suggests many people in the conservation field are really down about all the losses and this translates to a kind of depression and negativity). Positive messages engender hope. The keynote speakers, particularly David Lindenmayer (what is needed to restore a landscape), Mike Clarke (managing fire in the mallee) and Ian Lunt (how regrowth is transforming the box-ironbark regions of Victoria) all spoke of the positive outcomes of their research and identified a 'way forward'. Sure, they don't have the answers to all the questions, but they sure as hell had some really practical outcomes that could be used right now to improve landscapes for biodiversity and ecosystem function.

- Evidence-based Science. Managers can be a tough lot. If they are going to change their management and, by extension, commit lots of time and resources to a conservation activity, they need a good reason to do so. It strikes me that managers actually love hearing about science - it gives them the confidence to make decisions. But they don't have time to read all the papers. Making science digestible (whether that is in a Blog, a Newsletter, a seminar) should be something we never forget to do as conservation scientists.

- Use Examples. The best talks I saw illustrated their work with identifiable examples. Powerpoint can be the worst way to present science - lots of text, lots of data, lots of terminology. But if the Powerpoint is used as a slideshow - in the old fashioned way - then science jumps out as tangible. Ian Lunt showed us beautifully (using a Google Earth tour) just how much regrowth has occurred on private property in the tree-change belt of north-central Victoria (heaps). Rodney van der Ree showed us that rope bridges actually work as connecting corridors across major roads! Goanna's, possum's and other critters were captured on film using the bridges, which is far more compelling than some decent histograms showing mean (+/- 1SE) utilisation rates per day!

Biodiversity Across the Borders is testament to the need for conservation science to converse with conservation practice. I am sure everyone who attends gets an enormous amount out of the day, and leaves (as I did) with renewed enthusiasm, ideas and confirmation that what we do is vitally important work. In many respects, this conference is becoming an institution in SE Australia. I can't wait for 2015.