ESA 2019: Giving science a compelling voice

Meena S. Sritharan, Fenner School of Environment & Society, The Australian National University

“Humans are substantial drivers of global change.”

Dr. Erinn Richmond’s statement, a standpoint echoed throughout Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference (ESA 2019) plenary talks, implies the damaging power of humanity on our biodiversity and the environment. Meanwhile, the voice of science has recently been forced into hiding by fear and its friends, misinformation and money. However, ESA 2019 has demonstrated fantastically how humanity can be a substantial positive driver of change in resolving our current environmental crises. The research presented this year sparkled with ingenuity and hope in developing socio-ecological approaches in science to provide practical solutions, as well as satisfying our innate ecological curiosities. The three key research areas at the 2019 conference had a heavy focus on indigenous land management practices and working on Country, achieving landscape-scale conservation practices, and using science communication effectively to see our solutions through.

Dr. Menna Jones’ Keynote address on the first day was a fantastic introduction to the conference, highlighting the im-portance of taking a landscape scale approach to uncover socio-ecological interactions and processes to inform more ef-fective conservation action. Credit: Meena S. Sritharan.

There has never been a more critical time for ecologists to inspire a community of practice through science. Don Driscoll highlighted how and why science is suppressed or altered, resulting in uninformed policymakers that detrimentally affect public discourse and policy development. But Cass Hunter’s work demonstrates how we can unlock our science to the world by creating user-friendly, adaptive information that is receptive to a wide variety of audiences. Our ESA gold medallist, Jann Williams, emphasised that science communication is a two-way street; not only do we need to speak (and speak out) about our science but we must also listen to the needs of our communities and act accordingly. This two-way connection between science and the public is critical in informing the actions we take, from conserving species like the Tasmanian Devil (Dr. Menna Jones), initiating effective changes in policy and writing better laws to protect our biodiversity (Dr. April Reside), to developing landscape-scale process conservation efforts (Dr. Gary Tabor). We are already seeing how our ecologists are communicating research in various art forms, ranging from comics and photography to musical ensembles and even stand-up comedy!

Dr. April Reside’s talk on the need for better laws to protect Australia’s biodiversity emphasised a recurring theme throughout the conference: the need for policy-makers to better listen to Australia’s ecological community. Credit: Meena S. Sritharan.

The voices with which we communicate have led to cross-cultural dimensions in ecological research. The ESA 2019 forums had a strong emphasis on working with Country to incorporate traditional land management practices for conservation outcomes. We’re traversing the urban space too, involving our local schools and councils to participate in conservation, whether we’re examining the human impacts of species on urban environments (Dr Caragh Threlfall and Dr Erinn Richmond) or marine ecosystems (Dr Adriana Vergés). Further, ESA’s new initiative, ESA Envoys, will assist in establishing connections with local government to support evidence-based policy and decision-making processes.

ESA 2019 has shown us that by giving science a compelling, vision-driven voice, humans can be substantial positive drivers of change. Our researchers have shown us how we can harness science to provide practical solutions by demonstrating how collective visions and communication are key to resolving our ecological dilemmas. Ecologists have a crucial role in providing accurate information to the public and need to further improve our ability to communicate by thinking outside the box, acknowledging traditional knowledge and strategically conveying our science to changing societal needs with its diverse preferences. Giving science a voice allows us to collectively tackle the fear and consequences that come with the restrictions on academic freedom, opening doors to establishing effective policies and practices that can have a positive, powerful impact Australia-wide.

I can’t wait to see how our voices will assist in enacting the change we ecologists wish to see in the world!

For more information, contact Meena here: Sivagowre.Sritharan@anu.edu.au

Read more from the December 2019 ESA Bulletin.