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iConScience at EcoTas 2017

An ensemble* of iConScientists will be presenting at EcoTas this year!

Speakers, Titles & Times

Luis Mata: Mon 12.30 Urban Ecology(1)
Bringing nature back into cities.

Florence Damiens: Tues 5.15 Putting Ecology to Work
What have we been offsetting? Understanding the evolution of  biodiversity offset policies in France and Australia.

Ascelin Gordon: Tues 5.00 Putting Ecology to Work 
The challenge of no net loss: a framework for evaluating biodiversity offset policies.

Holly Kirk: Tues 5.00 Freshwater and Marine Ecology  
Structural equation models for understanding decision making in movement ecology: A seabird case study.

Georgia Garrad : Weds 11.15 Communicating Ecology  
We need to talk about talking about triage OR The way we say stuff matters.

Lindall Kidd: Weds 12.45 Communicating Ecology 
Messaging matters: maximizing impact in conservation campaigns.

Emily Gregg: Weds 12.50 Communicating Ecology  
What are the barriers to community buy-in of threatened species conservation in Australia?

Freya Thomas: Weds 4.00 Effectiveness Monitoring  
A field ecologist’s adventures in the virtual world: using simulations to design data collection.


Monday – 

Luis Mata

Bringing nature back into cities

Nature in cities provides a remarkable range of benefits to humans and other species. The experience of nature in cities has positive effects on people’s physiological and psychological health, and the health and wellbeing of urban residents has been correlated with the amount, proximity and access to urban nature. Importantly, nature is fundamental to engage people with local Indigenous knowledge, and plays a key role in supporting biodiversity in urban landscapes, including threatened species. For these reasons, there is growing global enthusiasm for bringing nature back into cities and associated interest from planning, landscape and health practitioners seeking to incorporate nature into the design of cities.

Here we provide a perspective on recent developments revolving around the idea of bringing nature back into cities, highlighting the need to move beyond rewilding and reintroduction strategies that do not consider crucial cultural dimensions such as Indigenous ontologies and the challenges and opportunities of brokering local Indigenous knowledge. We introduce a decision-making framework to assess the ecological, social, cultural and economic suitability of species to be brought back into cities, and present examples that demonstrate how key variables (e.g. species charisma, dispersal potential, cultural significance) can be parameterised. We conclude by discussing the types of actions available to decision-makers who wish to ‘bring back nature’, including nature-based solutions, metanetworks, biodiverse-greening, biodiversity sensitive urban design and safeguarding ‘Iconic’ species in schools, as well as the theoretical and methodological advances needed to move forward the ‘bringing nature back into cities’ research and practitioner agenda.

Urban Ecology
Monday, November 27, 2017
11:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Bimbadeen Room


Tuesday – 

Florence Damiens

What have we been offsetting? Understanding the evolution of biodiversity offset policies in France and Australia

Biodiversity offsetting is generally presented as a biodiversity conservation tool created to compensate for biodiversity losses due to development. While the political origin of biodiversity offsetting and its international success have already been documented, little research has been done to understand how and why the concept of biodiversity offsetting has actually changed through time once materialized in different socio-political contexts; and to link these changes to their ecological consequences. This study participates in filling this knowledge gap. We use a policy analysis approach and qualitative methods (semi-structured interviews with key actors involved in the field of offsetting and document analysis) to understand how and why the definition of offsetting, its objectives and its mechanisms have been changing through time in two key socio-political contexts: Australia (Victoria) and France.

This analysis allows us to investigate how and why the idea of offsetting has been differently interpreted across time in both contexts and to discuss the ecological consequences of these interpretations and their changes. The study provides new insights to understand state, national, international and global trends associated with conservation in general and offsetting in particular. It shows how the way offset policies have been defined and implemented in the studied contexts are intimately related to social representations, institutional legacy as well as political and governance shifts occuring at different scales. Far from being consensual, biodiversity offset policies reflect the power dynamics present in the contexts they are embedded in, leading to uncertain long-tem ecological consequences.

SYMPOSIUM: Putting ecology to work at the land development frontier
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
4:00 PM – 6:00 PM
Sugarloaf Room


Ascelin Gordon

The challenge of no net loss: a framework for evaluating biodiversity offset policies

The decline of biodiversity globally has resulted in many governments, banks and corporations developing policies designed to achieve “no net loss” of biodiversity in the face of development, often utilizing offsets. Evaluating the outcomes of such policies poses significant challenges. This is due to the different time scales involved in generating biodiversity losses and gains, along with a lack of resources to collect evaluation data at appropriate scales. In these cases, the use of ex-ante evaluation—designed to predict the future outcomes of a policy—is the most viable evaluation option, necessitating the use of modelling and simulation approaches. Here we develop a formal approach for evaluating no net loss policies, focusing on the use of biodiversity offsetting. We provide ex-ante evaluations based on simulations to illustrate the following key issues: (i) the importance of defining appropriate counterfactuals for determining the development impact and the additionality of the offset, and the consequences of inappropriate choices of counterfactuals; (iii) the fact there are three scales at which offsetting activities can be evaluated (site, program and landscape), and how the this choice of scale affects the evaluation of policy outcomes; (iii) the implications of different types of offset activities (such as delivering restoration gains or generating avoided losses) for delivering no net loss. We discuss these issues in the context of offset policies in Australia, and the key challenges they imply of achieving no net loss of biodiversity into the future.

SYMPOSIUM: Putting ecology to work at the land development frontier
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
4:00 PM – 6:00 PM
Sugarloaf Room


Holly Kirk

Structural equation models for understanding decision making in movement ecology: A seabird case study

Behavioural decisions made by individual animals can have a critical impact on future breeding success and survival. This is particularly true for long-lived species, such as migratory seabirds. Analyses of multi-year behavioural datasets enable us to understand the interactions between the timing and outcome of different life-history events as a first step towards understanding decision making in these species.

Data were collected from 126 individual Manx shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) on five breeding colonies over a seven year period. Machine-learning methods were used to identify the timing of key breeding and migratory events from geolocation and saltwater immersion loggers. Interactions between the timing of these events, migratory route and the degree to which behavioural strategies are conserved between individuals were investigated using structural equation modelling. This approach also allowed the inclusion of environmental variables (such as sea-surface temperature, wind direction and speed) in order to understand the contribution of abiotic conditions to the cycle of ecological carry-over effects.

The timing of departure from the overwintering area had a strong carry-over effect on other events. Departure date largely dictated the route taken to the breeding colony and the subsequent body condition on return to the colony. This type of information is crucial for our understanding of how behavioural ecology and the environment can influence individual movement decisions as well as understanding how populations of long-lived species will respond to environmental change.

Marine and Freshwater Ecology
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
4:00 PM – 6:00 PM
Cypress #2


Wednesday – 

Georgia Garrard

We need to talk about talking about triage OR The way we say stuff matters

The words and ideas we use to talk about something (frames) can change the way people respond to it. Some people know this (i.e. politicians, advertisers, marketers) and use it to help their cause. But those of us who hope to look after animals and other living things that are not human (conservation scientists) are still learning to make the most of it. In this study, we looked at how using different ideas (or frames) to talk about a (threatened) animal made people think about how important that animal is and whether its place in the world (i.e. its existence) is more important than building a new mine. We found that the type of person they were changed the way people responded to different words and ideas (frames), but that suggesting that it is alright to give up on the animal (i.e. using a species-triage frame) almost always made people think the animal was less important.

This abstract has been prepared using the Up-Goer Five challenge. Words in brackets are not within the top ten hundred most used words in the English language, but may be useful in helping to provide some conservation context in this example.

SYMPOSIUM: Communicating ecology to a broad audience – novel ideas and approaches
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
11:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Wattagan Room


Emily Gregg

What are the barriers to community buy-in of threatened species conservation in Australia?

Up Goer 5 Challenge Title: What is stopping people from saving animals?

Saving animals is important for both the world and us, and we need normal people to understand this and play their part for everything to work out. But first we need to understand what exactly is stopping people from doing things to help save animals. I looked at possible problems and suggest that they fit into three types: how people look at the world, being far away from the problem, and whether there is a clear thing to do. I believe that using the right words and ideas in our writing can help with all three types of problems. Understanding what is stopping people from helping is important for our work and should help us make better calls about how to write and speak to people about saving animals.

This abstract was prepared using the Up Goer 5 Challenge – using only the top ten hundred most commonly used words in the English language.

SYMPOSIUM: Communicating ecology to a broad audience – novel ideas and approaches
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
11:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Wattagan Room


Lindall Kidd

Messaging matters: maximizing impact in conservation campaigns

Human actions are accelerating extinction rates worldwide and there is a growing awareness that changes in human behaviour are necessary for biodiversity protection. Despite an increased understanding of how messaging influences environmental behavior, strategies guiding conservation messaging are often not evidence-based. To clarify current understanding about the use of messaging in conservation, we conducted a systematic review of research relating to conservation messaging. We examined critical aspects of messaging, including the purpose, action, audience and evaluation. We found that, as expected, interest in this topic has increased recently within the conservation research community. Message framing and marketing were the most commonly used theories, highlighting the growing emphasis that marketing, and the careful framing of messages may play in developing strategic campaigns. However, we also identified a number of research gaps that present exciting opportunities for conservation research. For example, half of the studies investigated did not draw on an established theory or identify a target audience or evaluation strategy: key standards for communications research. We draw on multiple disciplines, including marketing, psychology and communication, with a focus on their application to environmental problems.

SYMPOSIUM: Communicating ecology to a broad audience – novel ideas and approaches
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
11:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Wattagan Room


Freya Thomas

A field ecologist’s adventures in the virtual world: using simulations to design data collection

Ecologists commonly collect field data. How can we know if we are collecting enough? Pilot studies and power analysis help us figure this out. Unfortunately, in practice this can be challenging. Ecologists increasingly use datasets collected over complicated ecological gradients that require complex analyses. Traditional power analyses are often poorly suited to these problems. For example, questions such as ‘what’s a good sample size?’ are often really ‘what’s a good design for a multi-level model?’. I will demonstrate a flexible simulation approach designed to have field realism. I will explain a case study which aimed to use a multi-species non-linear growth model to predict heights of plant species in the Victorian Mallee.

The Mallee is vast and heterogeneous – not all species are in the same place, and some species are harder to find than others. Our simulation revealed that multi-species growth models require relatively intensive data collection for adequate sample sizes – and when practical field constraints (travel time, measuring time, species detection) are not taken into account, the field time needed is underestimated. I hope to provide a convincing argument that using simulations to design field based research or monitoring not only gives insight analogous to that of traditional power analysis but can also be incredibly valuable for estimating field costs and making research decisions. This approach is relevant to researchers but also individuals or organisations responsible for designing field programs with limited and/or transparent budgets.

SYMPOSIUM: Effectiveness Monitoring (Part 2)
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
4:00 PM – 6:00 PM
Sugarloaf Room


*check out storify for collective nouns used for groups of scientists


The Victorian Biodiversity Conference 6th – 7th February 2018

After a successful inaugural Victorian Biodiversity Conference earlier this year, a group of motivated students and early career researchers from a wide range of Victorian Universities (RMIT, La Trobe, Monash, Federation, Charles Sturt, Melbourne, Deakin) have begun planning our next conference to be held early February 2018 at La Trobe University, Melbourne (


Halgania cyanea (Boraginaceae) from the Victorian Mallee

This event aims to be a low cost and accessible conference to promote networking between graduate and postdoctoral researchers, as well as practitioners in government and NGOs working on research related to Victorian biodiversity.

The conference will provide an important and rare opportunity for young researchers to hear from government, industry and non-governmental organisations, as well as foster inter-University interactions through a series of plenaries, invited talks, workshops and networking opportunities.


A bee on a daisy in the Victorian Alps

We are organising!
Get your abstracts ready, and stay tuned for further updates!
Visit our website:



Dividing lines in conservation

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 11.51.47 amAs members of an interdisciplinary lab, I initially thought our views of conservation would be a little more divergent. But, after taking the Future of Conservation Survey (like a personality test for conservationists), it seems we collectively straddle the left-hand side of the Conservation and Capitalism x-axis; meaning that we view natural and social systems as inseparable and intertwined. We fell into the New Conservationists or Critical Social Science groupings (for a comprehensive breakdown of the groupings visit the description page).

Where we differ and only just slightly, are in our views the roles that market-based mechanisms, ecosystem services and corporations play in conservation. Our group is made up of wayward physicists, ecologists, political scientists, and practitioners whose epistemologies for the most part reflect pragmatism rather than strict ideologies and I guess this pragmatism is the reason why we were all mostly aligned.

As you can see from my red dot on the graph I fall in the upper left quadrant, the New Conservation “camp”, but only just so. There were certain statements in the questionnaire such as “Economic arguments for conservation are risky because they can lead to unintended negative conservation outcomes” that I think most conservationists agree with even if they, as I do, support the limited use of financial instruments or economic case for the conservation of biodiversity. Economic incentives can work but they often do not (Lim et al. 2017, Selinske et al. 2017)—context matters.

At least from the snapshot of other’s results that took the test before me, it seems that most would agree with Georgina Mace’s Science editorial Whose Conservation? in which she posits that we are currently in a People and Nature framing of conservation, celebrating interdisciplinarity, both social and ecological sciences and concepts of change such as resilience and adaptability; rejecting a nature for people and “Half-Earth” framing of conservation. The debates that mark conservation—new conservation vs. traditional conservation; land-sparing vs. land sharing—are not black or white and it is likely that many conservationists have nuanced views of conservation, and fall across the spectrum.

Debates are a fixture of conservation science, because we are passionate about our work and the direction of conservation as evidenced by our recent disagreement with an article published by Peter Karieva and Emma Fuller. Conservation practice emerged as a ‘big tent’ movement encompassing the divergent views of visionaries such as Muir, Pinchot, and Leopold, and this continued diversity in conservation science should be supported, critiqued and embraced as the conservation community for some time will remain an assemblage of philosophies and approaches to conservation policy and implementation.

Why politics and context matter in conservation policy

By Florence Damiens

Politics and context matter for conservation policy. That is why our research group, in collaboration with Brian Coffey and Lauren Rickards from RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research, has just published a collective reply to Peter Kareiva and Emma Fuller’s article in Global Policy.

In brief, we argue that Kareiva’s and Fuller’s proposal does not sufficiently consider the core challenges faced by biodiversity conservation researchers and practitioners in this time of dramatic change, for people and nature. Conservation issues are context-dependent: ecological, economic, social, ethical and political. Embracing and responding to this complexity is a necessity when conceiving potential solutions for the future of conservation, humans and the biosphere.

While some of the approaches the authors promote may work in particular situations, we believe their proposal risks unintended and detrimental social and ecological consequences by presenting them as global solutions to complex problems that are context-dependent. In particular, their proposal does not address some of the key causes of biodiversity loss, i.e. over-exploitation of natural resources, intensive agricultural activity, urban development, and pollution. These causes are accepted as fait accompli and their mitigation as potential conservation strategies is not considered. New technologies and ‘managing for evolution’ are presented as guiding principles for any context, which is problematic. Moreover, the questions around what should be conserved, the processes by which biodiversity is valued, and who has the legitimacy to value it are not addressed. Lastly, we argue that a one-size-fits-all utilitarian approach and a neoliberal governance model, as proposed by Kareiva and Fuller, risks poor involvement or opposition from communities and societies and may undermine their traditional structures and relationships with nature.

See our full reply here: Damiens et al. (Online, 13 March 2017)

If you can’t access the paper using this link please send me an e-mail ( and I will send you the pdf directly – thanks!

ICSRG at the Banksia Awards

Last week, I attended the Banksia Awards dinner in Sydney, hopeful of bringing home the Sustainable Cities Award for our entry Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design.


ICSRG Researcher Georgia Garrard at the Banksia Awards

Unfortunately, we didn’t win – the gong was taken by 202020 Vision, who have been working towards a target of 20% more green space in Australian cities by 2020. But I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some of the benefits of the experience, which lies outside of the day-to-day experiences of most researchers.

First, it was fun! We got to dress up in cocktail/lounge wear, which is otherwise pretty much non-existent for conservation researchers.

But jokes aside, although Awards like this are not necessarily recognised by the reward structures we are used to, a number of potential benefits became pretty obvious very early on.  The Banksia Awards are held in very high regard by industry and local government.  Winning one (and perhaps even being a finalist, as we were) could be very helpful when trying to secure industry partners for research grants. In addition to (or perhaps BECAUSE of) this, recognition by the Banksia Foundation is an indication of the relevance of research beyond academia and therefore helpful in demonstrating research impact. And finally, the Awards attract a large number of applicants and I found it to be a great way of learning about what is going on in my own field OUTSIDE of academia. And there’s a LOT. The Awards dinner was a great opportunity to engage with a different group of people who are potential collaborators, stakeholders and end-users of our research.

Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design by ICSRG researchers Georgia Garrard and Sarah Bekessy was a Finalist in the Banksia Sustainable Cities Award.  We’d like to acknowledge the great work done by other finalists and winners, as highlighted here.  We’d also like to thank The Myer Foundation and RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research for supporting our research and application.

Beyond Advocacy – a new take on the advocacy debate

Georgia 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.

James Kenyon Cartoon_signedLate last year, we published (in collaboration with colleagues from 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.

What is the fate of Victoria’s flower-strewn plains?

ISCRG’s Georgia Garrard and Sarah Bekessy discuss the fate of Victoria’s native grasslands as part of The Conversation’s Ecocheck series.


The native grasslands of the Victorian Volcanic Plain are one of Australia’s most endangered ecosystems. Productive and fertile, these grasslands were quickly converted to grazing pastures by early European settlers, and a notable degradation in their quality was documented by the beginning of the 20th century.  Since then, the addition of fertilisers, and clearing for cropping and development have led to further losses. Now, less than 1% of the original extent of these native grasslands remains.

Native grasslands are intriguing ecosystems. Historically, they provided habitat for a wide array of native animals, including rufous bettongs and eastern barred bandicoots, and were an important food source for Aboriginal people. Today, native grasslands are still home to fascinating native species, such as the grassland earless dragon and striped legless lizard, and native wildflowers continue produce a dazzling array of colour during spring (although you might have to get up close to see them!).

Conservation of these systems must occur alongside human-dominated landuses, such as urban development and agriculture. Community engagement is critical. Grasslands in other parts of the world, such as North America’s prairies or the African savannah, are viewed with romanticism and awe. In the Australian consciousness, grasslands take a back seat to the mythical outback. But the future of the grasslands of southeastern Victoria may well depend on our capacity to generate the same public profile for this truly remarkable but critically endangered ecosystem.