Standing on the shoulders of giants – a chat with Corey Bradshaw from ConservationBytes

As we walk through life we sometimes don’t know where our current path will take us. Will it be meaningful, and what steps could we take? Seeking out and talking to people who have walked far ahead of us in a line of work that we are interested in could help shape the next steps we take, and help us not make the same mistakes that could have cost us precious time.

A phrase that I love is “standing on the shoulders of giants” and this conversation has really inspired me — I hope it will do for you as well.

Corey Bradshaw is the Matthew Flinders Fellow in Global Ecology at the Flinders University, and author to over 260 hundred peer-reviewed articles. His research is mainly in the area of global-change ecology, and his blog ConservationBytes critiques the science of conservation and has over 11,000 followers. He has written books, and his most recent one ‘The Effective Scientist’ will be published in March (more on this later).

What got you interested in ecology and conservation?

As a child I grew up in British Columbia, Canada, my father was a fur trapper, and we hunted everything we ate (we ate a lot of black bear). My father had lots of dead things around the house and he prepared the skins for the fur market. It was a very consumptive and decidedly non-conservation upbringing.

Ironically, I learnt early in life that some of the biggest impediments to deforestation through logging was the trapping industry, because when you cut down trees nothing that is furry likes to live there. In their own consumptive ways, the hunters were vocal and acted to protect more species possibly than what some dedicated NGOs were able to.

So, at the time, I never fully appreciated it, but not having much exposure to all things urban and the great wide world, and by spending a lot of time out in the bush, I ended up appreciating the conservation of wild things even within that consumptive mind-set.

What steps did you take toward becoming a conservationist?

I did well in public school and in academic pursuits in general, but at that stage, it never occurred to me that I could combine my appreciation for nature with science until I was nearing the end of public school. I took some ecology classes and from then went to university where I continued to study ecology, but still at this point it had nothing to do with conservation; I was more interested in ecological theory.

After that I went on to do a masters still with that theoretical ecological frame of mind. I went to New Zealand to do my PhD at Otago University where I worked on New Zealand fur seals; they were actually abundant and not in trouble at all.

For my postdoc, I went to the subantarctic to work on elephant seal foraging and population ecology.

A change of mind-set and direction

At that point, I was thinking about why I wanted to work on these species and systems because it didn’t contribute much that was practical. In fact, most of the work I have done at this point has not translated into a practical benefit for many species. And only in the last 5 to 10 years did I start to think that I needed to break out of this box.

After my postdoc, I started working in the Northern Territory of Australia based out of Darwin. I worked on invasive species, sea turtles, and landscape dynamics; I shot buffalo from helicopters and harpooned crocodiles, all in the name of science.

And at that point, I started to work with sharks, and with whale sharks in particular. When you see the world’s largest fish declining in numbers and average size over time, it dawned on me that I needed to do something.

I started to work with renowned conservation scientists like Navjot Sodhi (sadly, now deceased), and Barry Brook. Through my contacts I started getting more and more into the conservation side of things, and then I realised that I had published half of my work in the conservation sphere, so I thought I’d start working more in this area but with a more targeted manner.

Training in other areas

My latest realisation is that conservation has less to do with biology per se and is now more of a socioeconomic undertaking (which is certainly nothing novel because many of us in the discipline have realised the same thing). So now I have tried to move some my research into the cross-over links between science and socio-economics.

This led me to ‘re-train’ myself in different areas like economics, epidemiology, and demography. In fact, I have a saying, which is that ‘old ecologists never die, they just end up being badly trained social scientists’.

Much of the ‘biology’ part of conservation biology is merely refining the stuff we already know, and is not necessarily tackling all the big problems our societies now face like overpopulation, sustainable energy, food production, psychology, political extremism, etc. All those things tend to affect species, and ecosystems, much more so than just understanding how, for example, fragmentation affects this or that taxon.

One example is that I would be giving talks in public venues and would get comments about human population and how if we could only ‘control’ that one aspect, then all these conservation problems would simply go away. Intuitively, that sounds correct, at least on a global scale, but I wanted to know how much and at what rate can one ethically encourage a decline in the global human population. This led me to getting involved in human demography, just to see if I could answer that question. It turns out we are not going anywhere fast and it does mean that we need to tackle these issues initially by socio-economic or technical interventions before population has a chance to come down to a ‘sustainable’ carrying capacity.

Stepping outside your comfort zone

Some things have been driven by exasperation because I couldn’t find the evidence-based answers in the literature, so I did it myself. And when you do something yourself in which you are not an expert, it does require taking risks. It forces you essentially to learn a new career in a short space of time, but that’s exactly the point. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone, and not just working with people who are experts in other disciplines, but actually learning those techniques, approaches and research protocols yourself.

Now, it’s one thing to master one’s discipline in conservation biology, let alone becoming an economist or a human demographer as well; however, being unafraid to embrace a bio-economic approach or delving into other areas like human demography, or proper survey technique that social sciences employ — these are the kinds of things that can help you have research outcomes that are more practical and potentially meaningful to society. That alone won’t guarantee your research will be turned into real policy that improves biodiversity conservation, but it will help focus your science to be more problem-solving inside of being unidimensional and just focusing on the biology.

There’s 80+ years of decent conservation science that students need to understand before delving into other disciplines. But if you come at it from the perspective that we have complex problems on the planet that require complex solutions, you’ll realise that science alone will not be enough. We also need good evidence on how human beings work, which typically uses other disciplines to quantify properly.

Advice to conservation and ecology students

One of the best things you can tell any conservation student is to go out and see the world. Travel can become an important component of one’s education because it provides an opportunity to witness first hand some of the monumental challenges our society is facing. It could end up discouraging some, but it may show others that their work looking at one particular species isn’t necessarily going to help solve some of the bigger conservation issues out there. Not to take away the importance of single-species research, or the necessity of working on tractable subjects as you train to become a good scientist. But many people tend to stick with that model for the rest of their careers rather than move out of there comfort zones to tackle bigger problems.

And that’s kind of my point, you don’t want to find yourself having lived a long life and then start saying to yourself that you’ve done some good science but that it’s not really done anything useful. It’s at a young age that we need to start thinking about these things.

What would you change

I wouldn’t have done the masters or PhD I did — they were irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

I would have spent more time focusing on mathematics and writing, because they are the two skills I use the most.  Everything I do touches on numbers. Science is measurement, measurement makes numbers, and numbers are the currency of mathematics.

Mathematical prowess and good writing skills allow you to cross disciplinary divides with ease, because you have a toolkit that allows you manipulate different kinds of data (as opposed to a fixed set of conceptual knowledge facts that you can only use in your own discipline). And of course, writing and good communication is the second part of that winning equation because nobody writes in equations, ultimately mathematic manipulation has to be translated into English.

On finding conservation jobs

There are conservation-related jobs out there, but it can be a challenge to find the appropriate candidates for the work because they often don’t have the necessary skills. For instance, there’s a lot of work opportunities in modelling data that require sitting at a desk in front of a computer. But if you want to go from amazing job to amazing job collecting data from beautiful animals or plants, then absolutely go do that, but at some point it will be more difficult to maintain gainful employment because there are many people competing to do that type of work. And it’s unlikely that you will be able to do it forever. However, people with data-processing and analytical skills are highly sought by academic, government and NGO employers these days.

The Effective Scientist: is a book that Corey has written that is something he wished had been available when he was starting out in academia.

What’s the premise?

I would blog about something that was practical from an academic perspective, how to write a paper, good etiquette when reviewing, what jargon to avoid that’s common in scientific writing, etc. I would tend to write things like that off the cuff, but these posts received a lot of views. I started chatting with a book editor who worked for Cambridge University Press, and he thought it might make a good book, so he convinced me to put together a brief synopsis, and then he turned it into a book proposal.

It turned into a handbook of all the things you have to know as a scientist in academia that you are never taught, at least not formally. And as I was constructing it, I thought of it from the perspective of a student again. I wished that I would have had these things explained to me back when I was still one myself.

There are sections on writing and publishing, a section on numbers and financial aspects of research (e.g., writing grants), another on running a lab and managing the complex social dynamics of people, and another on getting the most out of conferences, how to present well and do social media, and ‘what it all means’ anyway.

On the back cover, it says “Choose A: stumble through your career, or B: read this book and avoid our mistakes”, which was written by Corey’s long-term mentor, William Sutherland of the University of Cambridge. The book will be released in late March in the UK and Europe, and 7 April in Australia as a paperback and e-book.

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