Moving beyond the Science of Doom at the Inaugural School of BioSciences Seminar

contributed by Lucie Bland

The School of BioSciences held their inaugural seminar on the 10th of December 2015 in the Sidney Myer Centre at the University of Melbourne. The seminar aimed to showcase upcoming views and ideas in conservation, as well as the School’s research agenda. The seminar was very well attended by members of the School, partner organisations, and other Melbourne universities. There was a high QAECO turn out, although we were bleary-eyed from two weeks of conferencing in Adelaide and Canberra. I felt like I was hitting a wall, but was rapidly pulled out of my rut by the entertaining brochure. The title, “Where conservation and science collide” reflects the university’s newly found obsessions with collisions.


I don’t want anything to collide into these cute critters; I believe this makes me a conservationist.

The general theme of the evening was conservation science, although it did not feel like a particular angle or thread was being pursued. The messages were decidedly optimistic – the first speaker, Prof. Peter Kareiva, describes himself as an “environmental optimist”. Kareiva is currently the Director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, and was formerly Chief Scientist at The Nature Conservancy. This mix of academia and applied conservation transpires in his talks – he is deeply engaged, yet pragmatic and focused on the science.

Kareiva started his talk by asking the public – which world would you rather live in? A dystopian world where nature is destroyed; or a world where human interests and nature are integrated? The answer is obvious. As Kareiva points out, the agenda of conservation science is not per se contentious, is an “easy science”, it does not offend. Yes support for conservation is low. “This is caused by the way the conservation debate is framed”, he continues. Especially in the USA, the conservation agenda is usually framed as opposed to job creation and economic development. “Save a farmer, eat an owl” car stickers are a common sight in the northwestern USA. Kareiva points out that we are often engaged in a science of doom, preventing economic development, and perceived as party poopers.

For Kareiva, the solution is to tap into the public’s biophilia, i.e. love for nature. Humans have evolved in natural environments for millions of years – our urban societies are the blink of an eye in terms of human evolution. Kareiva showcases some well-validated findings in the field, e.g. humans perform better on cognitive tests after a walk in nature than after a walk in urban environments. These results are underpinned by brain MRIs, which show less blood flow to brain areas linked to rumination. Similarly, both dogs and humans receive a rush of oxytocin when staring into each other’s eyes – something that does not happen with a human and wolf pair. We tend to forget that dogs (and not computers) are our closest evolutionary allies.


More likely to create a rush of adrenalin than oxytocin (Photo credit: Steve Gettle).

This topic of biophilia is not new. In cognitive psychology, it is often rephrased as its opposite, nature deprivation syndrome. Whilst Kareiva’s take on the subject was interesting, it was not obvious what actions can be taken on this basis. Should we force individuals to walk in nature or stare into dogs’ eyes? Nature orientation (the tendency for people to spend time in nature) is highly variable among individuals (Lin et al. 2014). It is usually explained by early development and childhood, and is very difficult to change during one’s lifetime. What are the prescribed remedies for those of us who are not nature oriented? Should we give up on our generation and focus on the next? To me, Kareiva’s point raises more questions than answers, but this may be the aim of an inaugural seminar.

Kareiva moved away from ecopsychology to business investments. “Conservation investment is a public good”, he states. As conservationists, we should phrase our work in terms of investments rather than priorities (which apparently do not appeal to non-conservationists). His student published a key statistic: the ratio of protected to conserved land is 10:1 in grasslands, and 1:40 in tundras. This finding led to some major investment shifting within TNC to grassland of Mongolia and Argentina. Similarly, ecologists possess knowledge that could make large differences to businesses, such as fisheries and environmental flow management.


The grasslands of Patagonia span 1 million km2 and are among the least protected habitats in the world (Photo credit: TNC).

Catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill can also unlock considerable funds for conservation. Twenty billion dollars are currently being shared among states in remediation. New online tools such as the Restoration Explorer can help pinpoint areas of high human exposure and vulnerability to risk. Kareiva explains why Swiss Re, the world’s second largest reinsurer, is investing in thousands of miles of oyster reef restoration in Alabama. These reefs protect properties from storm surges, and have created 380 jobs and 10 million USD in household income. There lie the strengths of these approaches – sustaining livelihoods and creating positive environmental impact. This approach falls under the umbrella of ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction, which is now a major way of investing in ecosystem-based adaptation.

I agree with Kareiva that the insurance industry is an untapped market for conservation, and especially environmental risk analysis. However, a main limiting factor is the capacity for conservationists to model and communicate uncertainty in a similar way to civil engineers. Ecosystem science is not yet advanced enough to create models of ecosystem risk that can be compared to risk models for built infrastructure (e.g. dikes), and sold as cost-effective approaches. The effectiveness of ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction needs to be underpinned by more case studies, especially ones based on quantitative data.


“Conservation science does not mean more regulation – it can mean smarter regulation, or no regulation” according to Prof. Kareiva.

According to Kareiva, we need to create “opportunities for conservation” – in terms of creating jobs, impact investments, and including minorities. This is probably not something that was achieved during the inaugural seminar: three out of four speakers were male. The School showcased its research agenda and outputs through three short vignettes. Prof. Kareiva even called us “luminaries of quantitative ecology”, and the vignettes definitely did justice to this accolade.

The first speaker was Matthew Le Feuvre, a PhD student in the (former) department of Zoology. Le Feuvre’s research focuses on the poorly-known fishes of northern Australia. He argues that most areas of Australia are extremely undersurveyed for fish diversity – and his field research brings this point home. In the Kimberley, Le Feuvre discovered 20 new freshwater fish species. This constitutes the largest single discovery of freshwater fish in Australia, doubling the Kimberley’s endemic diversity. These fish species are likely to be highly specialized, rare, and possibly threatened. With development less than 20 years away, discovering the Kimberley’s diversity is a matter of urgency.

The second speaker was our own Dr Heini Kujala, who presented her work on conservation planning in the Perth-Peel region. The region is already 71% cleared, with 12 species extirpated, and 46 bird species in decline. By 2050, the Perth-Peel region is predicted to house 3.5 million people (50% more than today), so strategic planning is vitally important. Kujala and Dr Amy Whitehead collaborated with government agencies in WA to inform development plans. Looking at 200 threatened species, they concluded that clearing 10% of the vegetation would lead to 8 species losing more than 50% of their distribution – an unacceptable outcome. By working with the project developers in an iterative manner, Kujala and her team managed to reduce the mean loss of species’ distribution from 10.2%, to 9.7%, and finally to 4.9%. Early involvement with planning authorities was central to this successful outcome.

Finally, Prof. Mick McCarthy gave us a quick overview of the QAEco lab’s research, focusing on invasive species. Mick presented case studies of fox eradication on Phillip Island and hawkweed detection in the Bogong High Plains. All these projects focused on cost-effective detection, but also made it apparent that agencies and partners need to improve detection rates for the best conservation outcomes. The Inaugual Seminar was closed by comments from Head of School Prof. Raoul Mulder, followed by nibbles and networking. At this stage I was conferenced-out, so made a swift exit. The Inaugural Seminar was a very enjoyable evening, with high-quality, through-provoking, and well-delivered talks. More than I can say about many international conferences!


Lin, B. B., et al. (2014). “Opportunity or orientation? Who uses urban parks and why.” PLoS ONE 9(1).

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