Killer wasps and climate change

We recently got into the Fortitude series screened on the ABC in Australia. (Spoiler alert, if you continue reading). The show started off really well, successfully holding our attention after the incomparable Broadchurch (no mean feat!). Fortitude also had the promise of being truly brilliant. Halfway through, Nordic Noir descended into the standard gratuitous gore that sends a show from well-crafted, thrilling narrative into sensational schlock. Plus some character dead-ends and ambiguous plot-lines loosened the knots holding up a tight story. But it is still definitely worth hanging out for the next series (i.e. not downloading early off iTunes or whatever you cheat with).

From the first episode, I had a theory that the series was based on a pro-environment message. A tiny community (about 800 people) in Arctic Norway, an unconventional setting for standard TV dramas, is plagued by secrets, lies and grisly murders. The community is a mining town, as well as an arctic research station, and the governor is planning to build an ice hotel to boost tourism. Oh, the juxtaposition of ethical quandaries! Continue reading

Single-crop farming is leaving wildlife with nowhere to turn

Rolling plains of wheat, endless fields of flowering canola, row upon row of fruit trees: these agricultural landscapes are the stuff of stunning photographs.

Filling these paddocks with just one crop, known as monoculture, is a relatively easy, common and efficient way to produce food and fibre.

But international research shows that these monocultures can be bad for the environment and production through effects on soil quality, erosion, plants and animals, and ultimately declining crop yields. Research I have published this week in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability shows a possible link between monoculture landscapes and fewer wild pollinators.

Is there a better way to grow our food?

Published today at The Conversation. Read the rest of the story here….

Causal language in ecology papers

‘Correlation does not imply causation’ is a statistical mantra. Most good high school and undergraduate statistics courses teach this, and most good science bloggers, journalists and scientists repeat it over and over again. But when and how far does that mantra extend into regression model territory? And what of the no-man’s-land surrounding this mysterious terra statistica?

Causal language refers to definitive statements that describe a cause and effect between two variables. It is in the same camp as the active voice, which is increasingly being promoted as the ‘way to write’ for scientists. Passive voice and non-directional language, once the standard of scientific writing, are now seen by some as vague, ambiguous and open to misinterpretation. But in our rush to be active, confident and ‘own’ our research results, are we risking misinterpretation and misunderstanding of science at the other end of the scale? “Building more roads increases bee abundance” might sound dramatic, convincing and galvanising…but it doesn’t mean quite the same thing as “Bee abundance was associated with the number of grassy road verges in the landscape”.* Continue reading

Shades of Open Access

Do you think that published science should be freely available to everyone? Of course you do. Most people do. But like every ‘ideal’ system, there are positives and negatives to OA publishing, some that outweigh others. While the overall benefit of OA (public access to scientific information) is a valid reason to advocate it, this single positive is also a huge generalisation encompassing lots of grey areas.

In general, the black-and-white ‘OA is essential’ opinions get the most exposure, with very little discussion of how to manage all the shades of grey. This can give an unbalanced view of the issue and also means that any valid ‘other sides’ to the OA ideal are rarely given credence.

The term ‘open access’ may mean different things to different people, and the cultural connotations of OA can differ significantly between disciplines and demographics. For example, humanities disciplines can be more cautious than science disciplines about jumping on the OA bandwagon. Is it because humanities researchers generally get less funding than scientists (so publishing fees lose priority)? Or is it because humanities-based research and investigations often create more books than journal articles, which aren’t as readily converted to OA?

I am not advocating either for or against OA. But I am suggesting that, while we strive for the OA ideal, we also consider contexts and accept that there are positives to supporting a combination of OA and non-OA publishing. Continue reading

Arthropod April: Insects are animals too

When people say ‘wildlife’, they usually mean ‘animals’ (and sometimes birds). Occasionally, they might lend a fleeting thought to botanical beauties. But rarely are arthropods thought of. Aside from the charismatic honey bees and butterflies, the tiny, squidgy, creepy, crawly arthropods are easily overlooked. They can’t be cuddled and squealed over, and the most commonly-encountered ones are often scary or annoying. Google image search ‘I love wildlife’ and you mostly get big cats, bears, meerkats and baby things.

Technically, arthropods are animals too, just another Phylum in the Kingdom of Animalia, parallel with the chordates (animals, reptiles, and birds). So there is absolutely no reason not to include them in talk of ‘wildlife’. Yes, cheetahs, pygmy possums and meerkats are darned cute – I get giddy over them too! But arthropods are just as endearing. And they are also a vital link in the ecosystems that the cheetahs and meerkats frolic in every day.

Unfortunately, most of the attention that arthropods get is unfavourable or in shock. Spiders are terrifying, mosquitoes and flies are annoying, cockroaches are gross, praying mantises are just off the charts with wackiness. If we are not staring in horror and awe, we’re reaching for the spray can. Remember Danny Kaye’s soothing fairytale ode to the Inchworm? Today, inchworms are mistakenly blacklisted as pests, doomed to death before they can finish measuring the marigolds. Continue reading

Humanities vs Science: is writing a dying art?

Mentioning the word ‘humanities’ in a room full of scientists is pretty risky. For some scientists, there is a stigma attached to the study of ‘arty’ subjects. The process of research and inquiry in classics, history, literature and anthropology is very different to the scientific method. Yet neither approach is wrong, both are equally creative, and both have the ultimate goal of discovering and sharing knowledge. Having studied and worked in both disciplines, I can’t see any way that one is more rigorous than the other. But there is a huge difference in the way that most students are educated in each discipline. Humanities courses, in particular, are often better at teaching students how to write.

Science is about generating and sharing knowledge to build our collective wisdom. So communicating the results of scientific research is a core responsibility of a scientist…something that has become a bit of a topical issue. Experts of various disciplines have been sharing great ideas through blogs, popular science media and academic journals on how scientists can communicate more effectively. However, the majority of these pieces focus on communication as a practising scientist, i.e. after graduation. Far less attention is given to how communication skills can be enhanced prior to starting a science career by top-down initiatives at the education level. Continue reading