Photo: Kristian Bell
Industry News

Happy Birthday to us! 60 years of ESA

2020 marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of a national society for ecology. The Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) was formed on 1 August 1960, with 72 Foundation members. Membership grew to more than 500 by the 1980s and surpassed 1000 members in the 1990s.

Professor Carla Catterall, President of ESA from 2008 to 2010 (during which time the ESA’s photo competition was launched and the first ESA calendar planned), says Australian marine and terrestrial plants, animals and habitats are unique, so we can’t adequately understand these ecosystems by relying on research from other continents. ‘Ecological science is very strong in this country, and its development has been fostered for six decades by the Ecological Society of Australia. ESA also endeavours to ensure that this knowledge is wisely applied as we interact with our environment, and that it is widely communicated among ecologists and to the broader community.’

An inclusive national conference

To foster and encourage communication, each year ESA holds the largest ecological conference in the country. Professor Barry Fox, a member of ESA since the mid-1970s, recalls that the conference has evolved from a biennial meeting with only invited speakers and fewer than 100 delegates, to an annual conference attracting almost 1000 people. ‘In 1975, the meeting had maybe six invited speakers and other established ecologists, and everyone would just listen to them. In 1978, Marilyn Fox (a graduate student at the time, and later the first female ESA President) initiated a day of open forum, where all members, especially students, were encouraged to submit an abstract. The next conference had two days of open forum, then three days, and now all members of ESA have the opportunity to speak at the conference.’

Professor Jann Williams, ESA President in 1990 and 1991, and recipient of the 2019 ESA Gold Medal, says the energy at the annual ESA conferences is exciting. ‘The opportunity to engage with and learn from your colleagues, in a supportive and inclusive environment, significantly helped nurture my career as a female ecologist.’

Publishing ecological research

Professor Mark Westoby, President of ESA from 1982 to 1984, says the establishment of two scientific journals is another achievement, with Austral Ecology promoting Australian and Southern Hemisphere ecological work to a worldwide audience, and Ecological Management & Restoration linking ecological science and practice. ‘ESA provides the main means of communication among Australian ecologists, through meetings and the journals. Ecology is probably the strongest science in Australia, with a large proportion of Australia’s highest cited researchers working in ecology. ESA is a factor in this.’

Professor Nigel Andrew, President from 2014 to 2016, agrees that the journals help bring ecologists together and ensure their work is valued and seen by the wider community. ‘The conference and journals are the lifeblood of ESA. As editor of Austral Ecology, I see the journal playing a leading role in publishing world-class ecological research. The first major research project I led was published in Austral Ecology, and ESA97 in Albury was the first conference I ever attended; the ESA has supported me and enabled me to push my research into new and challenging directions. The society is fundamentally collegial, and
the dynamic interaction between members at all career levels and different research areas is one of the great things about ESA.’

An evolving society

Professor Don Driscoll, Immediate Past President, says ESA survives on efforts from members and this is enhanced through the professional operation of the society. ‘Our finances are professionally managed by an accountant, our outreach is supported by professional media staff, an Executive Officer provides professional coordination, and we have a five-year strategic plan that can make a difference in areas we value, including Indigenous ecologists, education, equity, engaging with practitioners and providing advice on how to improve land management and prevent further loss of our natural heritage. ESA is always reassessing itself to find new ways to stay relevant to as wide an audience as possible. While other societies have experienced declines in membership, our membership growth reflects our increasing relevance.’

Dr Bek Christensen, the current President of ESA, says ESA has evolved to meet the needs of the time. ‘We’re now in a really exciting time where ESA, after 60 years, is maturing and does a lot in addition to the conference and journals, including providing awards and major grants, public communication through social and traditional media, and engagement with policymakers and managers. There are research chapters of people with common interests and initiatives to improve science education. We’re also engaging with the research community beyond academia, as more and more ecologists are working for government, NGOs, and as consultants in large consulting corporations or in their own small businesses.’