Science in Practice: Highlights from the Ecological Society of Australia’s 2019 Annual Meeting

The Cataract Gorge in Launceston, Tasmania, where the 2019 Ecological Society of Australia Annual Meeting was held (Image Credit: Marina Schmoeller, CC BY 2.0)

I just got back from 10 days in Tasmania, Australia. As a temporary visitor in the country, I extended my trip to attend the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference (ESAus) as much as I could, so I could explore the surroundings and get to know a little of the place, its people and its unique biodiversity.

The conference was held in Launceston, the second largest city in Tasmania. With about ninety thousand inhabitants, a rich history with deep roots in its eye-catching landscapes, the Tamar River Valley and the Cataract Gorge, Launceston is a charming place with a lot to offer all visitors. But let’s talk about the conference.

The 2019 ESAus Theme: Science for Practical Solutions

And, boy, we discussed that! From the first plenary, the tone was set: humans, all of us, are part of ecological and conservation processes, and should be treated as so. More often than not, we delegate the study of all things human to the humanities, and leave them out of the environmental debate, as if social development, education, sanitation, economy, did not have anything to do with the environmental crisis. Not to speak of the other way around: the social and economic impacts of, for instance, climate change, that have already been shown to be alarming (I suggest reading about environmental migrants at this link and this link).  Prof. Menna Jones, a renowned researcher who has contributed enormously to the Tasmanian Devil ecology and conservation science, stated that we need to think of landscapes from a holistic perspective, incorporating more social science.

Getting scientists out of our little boxes and among politicians, First Nations people and general public has been a central concern in all conferences I’ve attended over the past 5 years, but never have I actually been exposed to so many fantastic practical examples. Full days were dedicated to discussing projects in all stages of development aiming to connect scientists to on-ground practitioners and traditional owners of lands to promote positive environmental change, for the benefit of ecosystems and people alike. I was particularly struck by the continuous participation of First Nations people in the talks, and the fact that the conference demanded that all speakers acknowledged the traditional owners of the lands were they worked, something I could never even imagine happening in most of Brazil, where traditional people are largely neglected in science, with few exceptions (most of them in the Amazon). Dr. Cass Hunter’s plenary talk went further, eschewing the advantages of incorporating local populations and their traditional knowledge in the scientific process and urging us to make science user-friendly.

Alternative Communication

There was also a strong focus on effectively communicating science to all people, from kids to adults. In the words of the amazing Dr. Jann Williams, “Art is a powerful means to communicate science”, and it showed. I had the privilege to participate on “Communicating real ecology through stories: a writers workshop”, where we had writers, illustrators and publishers come by to talk about their work, the publication market and process, and pitch ideas for them to critique. I can’t express how valuable that was.

I must acknowledge Drs. Ayesha Tulloch and Kirsten Parris, who led that workshop and the symposiums on art & science, gifting us with music, drawing, writing, etc. Plus, I’m pretty sure they were responsible for creating the #sketchyourscience challenge – a table with drawing and painting material for everyone to go and draw anything about their research (or anything at all, really).


Dr. Kirsten Parris (@urbanfrogger) at the #sketchyourscience table (Image Credit: Marina Schmoeller, CC BY 2.0)

Causes for Concern

I learned a lot about Australian biodiversity, conservation issues and law. And you know what? The main challenges here are not that different from those in Brazil. The environment-related scientific community in Australia struggles with turning science into effective action, and all that goes along with that. The conference, as it should, focused on the most pressing issues in the country: fire management, climate change, invasive species (please keep your pets in your house! Feral cats are a big issue here, as feral dogs are in Brazil), among others. Did you know that the way indigenous people manage fire might help control the wildfires? Check it out.

I could go on and on about all the great talks I heard, but let me just say this. 1) The address that ESAus president Don Driscoll gave about (the lack of) academic freedom was alarming (and you can and should watch it all at this link). 2) Gary Tabor, from the Centre for Large Landscape Conservation, made a great point of how NGO’s are important because they remain while governments come and go. If you are at all familiar with the war the current Brazilian government is waging on NGO’s, even accusing them of setting the Amazon on fire, you will understand why that stayed in my mind.

Practicing What You Preach

On a less technical note, the conference was also remarkable in keeping it diverse, respectful and environmentally conscious. Most plenary speakers were women, as were almost all award winners! Plus, we had the first ever “Queer Mixer” event, brought by an ESAus commission for diversity & equality, with huge success. The conference was fully catered with food that was (I’m guessing here) 90% either vegetarian or vegan. There was little paper involved, with all conference material available on an App. However, I must say I still got the printed version, just because I felt I could have a better view of all events there than with the app, to make sure I wouldn’t miss my favorites. And I’m a bit old-school when it comes to printed word.

The week came to an end with a collective sense of urgency, as the final keynote speakers came to, pardon my French, set a fire under our asses. Dr. April Reside showed how Australian Environmental Law is not enough to protect ecosystems and species and is not being properly enforced (one major outcome of which being the trouble koalas are in at the moment). Dr. Brendan Wintle followed, taking us deeper into a funk by showing lots of striking data on biodiversity loss and climate change impacts, and stating that economy vs. environment is a false dichotomy that is not bringing about good outcomes to anyone. Together, they made it clear: ecologists are much needed in the public debate, we can no longer sit on the sidelines hurling criticism.

To close on a high note, as the conference did, here is the final message by Dr. Perpetua Turner:

“Share what you have learned. Go forward and practice what you preach.”

So shall we do.

Marina Schmoeller is an ecologist, conservation biologist and sustainability enthusiast. She is currently pursuing a PhD in understanding the effects of landscape change in biodiversity. You can follow her on Twitter here.


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