Workshop Invitation – The role of scientists in public debate and advocacy

Monday, 6th February 2017

9am – 5pm

University of Melbourne

A one-day workshop for early-mid career scientists in conservation and environmental research areas, who are interested in public engagement for practical and/or philosophical reasons.

RSVP to Fiona Fidler (

What are the bounds of being an ‘objective’ scientist, and how will I know if I overstep them? Is advocacy outside the scope of being a scientist? What is the public’s perception of scientists, and how do they react to scientists who break the ‘honest broker’ model of engagement? Do we simply need more knowledge brokers and NGOs—is it unreasonable to expect scientists to be involved in public debate, as well as their day job? How is objectivity maintained in science, if scientists are people with values? 

We’re here to help with these questions! Dr Kristian Camilleri (History and Philosophy of Science, HPS); Associate Professor Fiona Fidler (BioScience|HPS); Dr Darrin Durant (HPS); The HPS Postgraduate Society; Dr Jenny Martin (BioScience); Dr Georgia Garrard (RMIT, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science); Associate Professor Sarah Bekessy (RMIT, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science). We’ll also have a panel of media experts to take questions on the day.

Public engagement is something strongly encouraged in our University, and there are many existing resources for effective science communication. However, most focus on expert information provision, where a scientist has some new knowledge that they wish to communicate to the public. Engagement advice typically focuses on news-style science communication; it less often deals with other forms of engagement, such as entering public debates or speaking out for or against new policy proposals. In those cases, the advice scientists receive often amounts to ‘separate the facts from your own personal values’, and ‘don’t speak outside your direct domain of expertise’. In practice, most scientists don’t know how to interpret that advice, or implicitly understand that it is impossible to follow. Underdeveloped guidelines, sometimes coupled with warnings from colleagues who have bad prior experiences, can be enough for scientists to withdraw from public engagement.

In this workshop we have two main goals. First, we want to find out from scientists,
in their own words, what the dilemmas they encounter when contemplating engagement.
Do scientists worry about their scientific credibility in the eyes of their peers, or the public,or both if they take a position in public debate on policy issues? Is it beyond the scope of their role of scientist to do this? These are thorny issues that we’ll tackle in a focus group style discussion (structured elicitation exercise) in the first session of workshop.

Second, we aim connect scientists with relevant expertise in philosophy and sociology of
science, to help unpack some of the deeper conceptual issues underlying those
dilemmas. We will explore questions like: How is objectivity maintained in science, if
scientists are people with values? What is the public’s perception of scientists, and how
do they react to scientists who break the ‘honest broker’ or ‘information provision only’
model of engagement? After exploring these questions in the workshop, we will also
discuss how to set up longer term peer-to-peer networks and online resources that take
can take our workshop discussions to a broader audience.

The workshop agenda can be found here.

PhD Opportunity – Improved messaging for threatened species conservation

We have funding for a PhD student to investigate the role of targeted messaging and framing for improving threatened species conservation.  A tax-free stipend of approximately $35,000/yr for 3 years is provided by RMIT University and the National Environmental Science Programme’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

Details on the project, and how to apply, are available here.

Get in touch – soon!  RMIT applications for PhDs beginning in 2017 close on October 31st 2016.

Beyond Advocacy – a new take on the advocacy debate

Garrard et al_Fig 1

Image by James Kenyon

Late last year, I published (in collaboration with colleagues from RMIT and The University of Melbourne) an article in Conservation Letters, which we hope will open up a little more space for conservation scientists and ecologists to engage in public debates without the fear of being labelled an advocate and, by association, having their scientific credibility questioned.

We were motivated to write the paper by what we considered to be a general reluctance by conservation scientists to join public debates about conservation issues and policy.  Without the voices of scientists, public conversations about conservation are dominated by vested interest groups – business and industry on the one hand, and NGOs and lobby groups on the other.  As a result, public debate about these important issues is impoverished.

However, we believe that the reasons conservation scientists choose not to engage are in large part based on misconceptions about the relationship between scientific integrity and objectivity.  In our paper, we set out to unpack this relationship a little bit.  Our key point is that values have a role and a place in science. It is not possible nor advisable for an individual scientist to be value-free.

But thankfully, objectivity isn’t maintained by individuals. It is an emergent property of a collective.  And greater diversity in the scientific community helps to ensure scrutiny and self-correction.  So, in other words, objectivity is maintained by the whole community of scientists, not individual scientists or established statistical thresholds.

Once you accept this, many of the common arguments against advocacy by scientists (ie. that advocacy will damage your credibility, or that advocacy is outside the scope of science) simply don’t make sense.

Of course, it is not the case that ‘anything goes’ when it comes to advocacy by scientists.  There are some value judgements (eg. what is a tolerable level of extinction risk?) that can and should be disentangled from judgements that are more factual in nature (eg. what is the probability of extinction?).  And scientists should aim to avoid inadvertent advocacy (which occurs when a scientist presents personal preference as a scientific judgement) or advocacy by stealth (in which values are deliberately dressed up as facts).

Drawing on precedents in medicine and the social sciences, we provide some guidance for scientists and science in general for responsible advocacy in order to reclaim some space for scientists to engage in informed public debate about conservation issues, in a way that does not deny their value-system.

I will be presenting this work at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology next week in Madison, Wisconsin (Tuesday, 19th July, 8AM, Hall of Ideas Room E), please come along if you’re going to the conference.

Cities are biodiversity hotspots – now online for kids

Earlier this year, we published a paper in Global Ecology and Biogeography that showed that Australian cities are hotspots for threatened species. In a national analysis, we found that 30% of Australia’s threatened species have distributions that include cities, all Australian cities are covered by the mapped distributions of threatened species and that some threatened species are found only in cities.


The highest diversity of threatened species (darker areas) is found around Australia’s largest cities

This is a really exciting paper, mainly because it confirms what many of us already suspected: that cities must play a critical role in the conservation of biodiversity.

But it just got more exciting.   A kids’ version of this paper has just been published in Earth Science Journal for Kids, a not-for-profit organisation that adapts peer-reviewed environmental science research for students and their teachers. It was a rare, rewarding and fun experience, as described here by Pia Lentini, one of the lead authors of the study.


I’ve recently spent some time working with primary school students, hoping to help them see what I see in the native grasslands that still exist in their neighbourhoods. But while they are enthusiastic and keen to learn, I was shocked at how little information there was that was ‘accessible’ to them (I know I wouldn’t have been interested in a ‘small, perenniel herb with many stems to 40cm’ when I was 10 years old, but I do love the Tufted Bluebell).  So I think the Earth Science Journal for Kids is an amazing resource.  If you get a chance to work with them, you should jump at it.

Sustainable, biodiverse mid-rise development for Fishermans Bend

This post is about research recently featured in The Age that promotes an alternative approach to urban development in Melbourne.  This post also appears on RMIT’s Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group’s blog.

The case for an alternative

Current approaches to urban development in Melbourne focus on low-density urban sprawl and high-density high-rise. In middle-ring suburbs, opportunistic, ad hoc infill is occurring, often with marginal dwelling yields and high impact on amenity. The negative impacts of these types of development on communities are well established. Urban sprawl is associated with high transport and household energy costs, susceptibility to household financial stress, large infrastructure costs, high impact on the natural environment, low walkability, poor access to open space and conflicts with food production. High-density high-rise environments exacerbate the urban heat island effect and are typified by low walkability and inactive streetscapes, and residents experience social isolation and a disconnectedness from nature as a result of poor access to open space. Finally, ad hoc, low yield infill results in changes to neighbourhood character, and the loss of backyards, amenity and biodiversity recreational benefits associated with private open space.

What did we do?

We developed designs and visualisations of an alternative model of sustainable mid-rise development to create healthier, connected communities. We also aimed to create an environment that would re-enchant urban residents with nature and provide the multitude of co-benefits that come with experiences in nature. While the case study presented is Fishermans Bend, this model could potentially be applied to a range of infill sites identified in inner Melbourne and established middle-ring suburbs as well as priority greenfield areas. The design is based on two key principles:

Urban design and building types

Our building types are based on successfully implemented designs from Europe.  Urban design features include:

Building heights 4-7 storeys to improve accessibility and connectedness to nature and streets.

Active streetscapes to improve safety and strengthen community (Bain et al. 2012)

Diversity of building typologies to ensure dwellings for a range of urban residents.

Incorporating Melbournes unique city block and laneway features;

High quality living spaces, average apartment size 100 m2

Working with nature

Nature in cities has significant benefits to human residents, including improved human health and wellbeing, workplace productivity and childhood cognitive development. Nature also provides numerous co-benefits including cooling, flood mitigation, air and water purification and improved habitat for iconic and threatened species.

In working with nature, we employed a protocol for biodiversity sensitive urban design, which aims to create suburbs that are a net benefit to native species and ecosystems through the provision of essential habitat and food resources. We focused on five native species including birds (brolga & spotted pardalote), a butterfly (dainty swallowtail), a frog (growling grass frog) and a micro-bat (striped free-tailed bat). These species were chosen for their charismatic characteristics (eg. Brolgas are large, spectacular water birds), potential co-benefits (eg. Bats and frogs are insectivorous and therefore help control pests like mosquitos, and butterflies provide residents with restorative psychological benefits), and feasibility of their ecological requirements (eg. Spotted pardalote are already resident in nearby Westgate Park). In addition, the wetlands required by some species provide additional water purification and flood mitigation services in a flood-prone landscape like Fishermans Bend.

Fishermans Bend_WIDE1

Biodiversity sensitive urban design proceeds in 5 steps: 1 Identify and map ecological values (including ecosystems, species, landscape context, historical values); 2 Define ecological objectives (eg. maintain threatened species, restore ecosystem quality, opportunities for re-wilding); 3 Identify development objectives (population size, infrastructure requirements, etc.); 4 Identify actions and resources required to achieve ecological objectives (including habitat and food requirements for target species); 5 Identify urban design that accommodates ecological and development development objectives from steps 2 and 3.


The sustainable mid-rise model achieves housing densities that are comparable to those identified for brownfield development sites in Plan Melbourne.  However, when compared to the proposed high-rise development for Fishermans Bend, the sustainable mid-rise model will provide better urban design and human health and well-bieng outcomes, including better access to open space and improved streetscapes, a reduction in the urban heat island effect, a reduction in household energy use, and improved workplace productivity and childhood cognitive development.

FBend aerialDensity    We achieved net housing densities of between 200 and 310 dwellings per hectare, assuming average apartment size is 100m2. This is comparable to densities required for many brownfield development sites, as identified in Plan Melbourne.

Activated streetscapes    In contrast to the standard tower & podium model, building frontages are residential, mixed with office spaces and Fishermans Bend_WIDE3commercial use on the ground floor. High diversity of street types, including laneways and vegetated boulevards, provide improved connectivity.

Open space    100% dwellings are within 2 minutes walk of at least one green open space. Open space is a mix of large shared areas and smaller semi-private courtyards.

Access to open space

Fishermans Bend_WIDE2Cooling    Vegetated landscapes are up to 4 degrees cooler on the basis of City of Melbourne urban greening temperature modelling.

Household energy use   Operational energy use of midrise apartments is up to 45% lower per dwelling than that of high-rise apartments.

Childhood cognitive development   Numerous recent studies have connected the provision of biodiverse green open space to significant improvements in childhood cognitive development.

Workplace productivity   Evidence demonstrates that integrating nature with workplace design reduces stress and increases productivity. For example, a recent study showed 6% increase in productivity of employees who have a view of nature compared to those who have no view.

Policy implications

To move towards the sustainable mid-rise model presented here, we need:

  • better strategic identification of appropriate development sites;
  • a tweaked policy environment including some alterations to current zoning to allow residential and mix-use development in sites currently zoned commercial and industrial;
  • a shift in the built-form/design typology of current practice. This could be achieved through changes to precinct plans, planning schemes and design guidelines; and
  • Better integration of planning and biodiversity. Changes to the planning scheme that mandate urban greening are required, as are policies that explicitly link urban greening with biodiversity.

This blog presents initial findings of research funded by The Myer Foundation. Entitled ‘Reimaging the Suburb’, this work seeks to identify alternative urban forms for Melbourne that protect biodiversity, while creating liveable, healthy, connected communities. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with for further information.

Georgia Garrard  Sarah Bekessy

Acknowledgements  This blog post represents the work of many individuals.  Simon van Wijnen did the urban design and video fly-through. Graphic representations of individual scenes were produced in consultation with Mauro Baracco, Catherine Horwill, Jonathan Ware (RMIT School of Architecture and Design).

Detectability, threatened species and environmental impact assessments

This blog post is about an upcoming paper in Conservation Biology.

It is now widely accepted that many species are not perfectly detectable during an ecological survey. This means that, sometimes, a species that is present at a site will not be detected by an observer (or observers) during a survey of that site.

The probability that the species will be detected if it is present (its ‘detectability’) is influenced by many factors. One of the most important factors is the level of effort put into the survey – in general, the more effort that is expended, the higher the chance of detecting the species.

Detectability curve showing how the probability of detecting a species when it is present increases with survey effort

Detectability curve showing how the probability of detecting a species when it is present increases with survey effort

But why do we care? Well, there are many reasons. Imperfect detectability affects our ability to determine a range of important ecological metrics, such as the size of a population and the spatial extent or distribution of a species. It also makes it difficult to detect changes in these metrics, which is particularly important when we invest valuable funds in programs designed to address things such as declining population size and shrinking ranges.

But the implications of imperfect detectability can be particularly severe when we are considering the potential impacts of development on a threatened species. Falsely assuming the species is absent may mean that decisions about the future use of the site cause unknown impacts on the species. In many cases, the species will be lost from the site and, at worst, the chance of the species going extinct will be increased.

Despite this, most environmental impact assessment regulations do not specify requirements for survey effort to ensure that the probability of detecting threatened species is high.

In our study, we aimed to do 2 things:

  1. Estimate the detectability of a threatened grassland plant species (Pimelea spinescens subsp. spinescens) and identify the variables that influence detection of the species;
  2. Demonstrate how to use detectability estimates to set minimum survey effort requirements for environmental impact assessments.
Pimelea spinescens subsp. spinescens is a critically endangered  shrub endemic to the grasslands of the Victorian Volcanic Plains west of Melbourne.  It can be very difficult to detect during environmental impact assessment surveys, especially at sites where Themeda biomass is high.

Pimelea spinescens subsp. spinescens is a critically endangered shrub endemic to the grasslands of the Victorian Volcanic Plains west of Melbourne. It can be very difficult to detect during environmental impact assessment surveys, especially at sites where Themeda biomass is high.

We present two methods for determining minimum survey effort requirements for threatened species during environmental impact assessments. One method allows the regulator to specify the survey effort required to ensure that the species will be detected (with some probability) if it is present. This method uses a simple relationship between detectability and survey effort to estimate the probability of detection given the species is present.

The second allows the regulator to place the burden on the developer to demonstrate that the species is absent from the site. This requires information on detectability and survey effort, as well as information on the belief – prior to conducting surveys – that the species is present. The basic premise of this method is that, when surveying a site that you have good reason to believe is occupied by the species (for example, because the species has previously been recorded there, or because the habitat is thought to be suitable), a greater investment in survey effort is required to convince you (or anyone else!) that the species is truly absent if it is not detected than if you were surveying a site that was deemed unlikely to contain the species (See Wintle et al. 2012).

We found that Pimelea spinescens has a detection probability of less than 0.53. This means that, during a survey of a site that contains the species, about ½ of the observers won’t find it. We also found that detectability of the species is substantially higher when experienced observers are used, and when the cover of the dominant grass species (Themeda triandra) is low.

The survey effort required to achieve a 0.95 probability of detecting the species when it is present is around 200 minutes per hectare for an observer experienced in grassland surveys, surveying at a site where the cover of Themeda triandra is 35%. This increases dramatically when a less experienced observer is used.

Detectability curves for experienced and intermediate observers at sites where the cover of Themeda triandra is 35%

Detectability curves for experienced and intermediate observers at sites where the cover of Themeda triandra is 35%

When undertaken by an experienced observer at sites with 35% Themeda cover, less than 2 hours (104 mins) per hectare is required to demonstrate that the species is absent with probability = 0.95, when the prior belief in presence is low (prior probability of presence = 0.2). This increases to more than 3 hours per hectare when the species is thought equally likely to be present as absent before survey (prior probability of presence = 0.5), and to almost 5 hours per hectare when there is strong evidence to believe the species is present (prior probability of presence = 0.8).

The survey effort required to demonstrate absence when no detections are made increases with the prior belief in species' presence.  All curves are for an experienced observer searching at a site with 35% Themeda triandra cover.

The survey effort required to demonstrate absence when no detections are made increases with the prior belief in species’ presence. All curves are for an experienced observer searching at a site with 35% Themeda triandra cover.

Determining minimum survey effort requirements is not trivial. It involves making decisions about the level of risk to the species we (as a society) are prepared to accept and difficult trade-offs between the site-level value of the species and the value of alternative uses of the site. It also depends on where the burden of proof lies. For example, should it be the responsibility of the developer (or person undertaking activity at the site) to demonstrate that the species is absent from the site? Or should the regulator make an assessment based on whether the reported survey effort was sufficient to detect the species if it was present. These questions cannot be answered by science alone.

What does this mean for Pimelea spinescens?

The qualitative findings of our study – that experienced observers and low cover of dominant grasses improve detectability of Pimelea spinescens – are already reflected in the guidelines for determining significant impact for the species under the EPBC Act.

Our study demonstrated – for the first time – how much survey effort is required to detect the species. The minimum survey effort requirements identified in our study are well above the effort traditionally expended in environmental impact assessments for this species. We also showed how much MORE survey effort is required if the observer does not have the appropriate experience, or the grass biomass at the site is high.  The latter finding is particularly important in urban and urban fringe environments, where biomass reduction management through burning or mowing is limited or non-existent. We have shown that taking action to reduce the cover of Themeda prior to surveying for Pimelea spinescens may reduce survey effort requirements by as much as 50% or 75%.

This article is currently in press in Conservation Biology. You can read the auth-submitted version of the manuscript here.

Writer's Diet Test Result: Flabby 

Splendour in the grass

This afternoon, on my way home from a friend’s in Malmsbury, I decided to stop in Sunbury to have a look at one of Melbourne’s best native grasslands.  I first saw this grassland when I started my PhD in 2005.  But it’s been a few years since I’ve seen it at this time of the year, and I wanted to see how it was looking.

What a good idea!  I was completely blown away by what I saw…

Common everlasting (Chrysocephalum apiculatum) and Blue grass-lilies (Caesia calliantha).

Blue pincushions (Brunonia australis) and Blue grass-lilies, with Common everlasting in the background.

A diverse patch, including Lemon beauty-heads (Calocephalus citreus), Scaly buttons (Leptorhynchos squamatus), Curved rice-flower (Pimelea curviflora), Kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra), and Blue devil (Eryngium ovinum).

I started this post thinking it was a good excuse just to put up some pretty grassland pictures.  But it’s turned into something a little more than that – for me, at least.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about grasslands, why they’re important and the role they play in our city.  This afternoon’s visit involved a bit of a detour – not much, but it felt like an effort after a weekend away.  It would have been pretty easy to drive past the turn-off and head straight home.  I’ve done that before.  Just decided that it didn’t seem worth the effort on that particular day.  But today I was determined.

So, was it worth the effort?

Absolutely.  I got a real kick out of seeing this urban grassland in such good condition.  I felt a sense of satisfaction from detecting and identifying the many beautiful plant species that I see so rarely in my day-to-day life.  And spending an hour wandering around the grassland provided a sense of calm and time-out that is hard to find in the inner north.  So, while I don’t get there often enough, it is important to me to know that these places exist.

It’s no secret that Melbourne’s grasslands have taken a hammering.  There’s now less than 1% of the original grasslands of the Victorian volcanic plain remaining.  And only about 10% of that is in good condition.  More grasslands are certain to be lost under recently approved plans to further expand the city.  To offset this loss, 15,000 hectares have been set aside to the west of Melbourne for the Western Grassland Reserves.  Much of the grassland in the new reserves is not in great condition.  Significant investment in restoration and research is required.  In my books, this is not a great outcome – yet.  We shouldn’t be trading certain losses of remnant grasslands now for uncertain future gains.  But it has the potential to be great.  Large areas of diverse native grassland would be a significant achievement.

But we should remember that small grasslands in urban environments are worth protecting too.  And just in case you need some more convincing … here are a few more photos:

Yellow rush-lily (Tricoryne elatior) with Blue devil (Eryngium ovinum)

Slender speedwell (Veronica gracilis)

Common rice-flower (Pimelea humilis)

A sea of colour. Common everlasting, Blue pincushions and Chocolate lilies (Arthropodium strictum).

Blue pincushions and common everlasting. Late afternoon, Sunbury.