Research life

Conservation: What’s it to ya?

“That sounds like a job you want when you’re four years old, not a job you actually have as an adult.” That’s how someone responded when I told them what I do for a living.

Of course, I was in no way offended. She was dead right. Conservation biology is exactly what I wanted to do ‘when I grew up’.

I used to rescue wildlife from roads. I used to go through my grandfathers wildlife magazines and write lists of all the threatened species then make ‘fact sheets’ for how to save them.

I now do both of these things, every day.

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 7.08.32 am
Drafting the front cover for my life’s work circa 1993. I still haven’t managed to get a sweet hat or sick beard…

Somewhere along the way though, I forgot those roots. Instead, I could be overhead professing loudly in the corridor, ‘I’m not interested in any particular species, I’m more interested in the research question’, or ‘It’s just a cool way to apply science’.
Those things are true – but they’re not why I chose conservation.

When talking about the value of conserving biodiversity, I would argue health, economic and other utilitarian benefits. I’d point out that ecosystem services have massive economic value, that the health benefits of nature have been well demonstrated, or that there could be incredible medical advances in an as-yet-undiscovered jungle plant.
Those things are true – but they’re not why I chose conservation.

A bit of self-assessment was in order, and I came up with this.

I chose conservation biology because I don’t think that human actions should lead to the whole-sale destruction of the environment. I have been upset by extinction since I learned what it was. I love nature – not because of what it gives us, just because. I believe that human-caused biodiversity loss is unnecessary and unacceptable. I believe we can do better. And I believe science can help us do that. 

Phew. Feels good to get that off my chest.

Now, for someone who admits to writing conservation plans in grade 3 (nerd alert), the above manifesto shouldn’t have required an early-career crisis of identity. To be honest, it surprised me too. Maybe I was worried people would think I couldn’t do good science if I sounded like a bleeding heart. Or maybe I lost track amongst the papers, grants, conferences, field work, shiny new programs and general academic rigmarole.

Here’s the thing though – I don’t think you can truly act impartially if you don’t recognise you might be partial in the first place. And you probably can’t do considered, quality science if you’re in a hurry.

As conservation biologists, we deal in science. Yet we are driven by these values, these reasons why we care about doing science in the first place. We have purpose. If we aren’t honest and explicit about what’s driving us, our science could be compromised without us even noticing. So checking in with your intentions every now and then is really important for a few reasons.

It will help you make better decisions
Ever had a gut reaction to something without knowing why? Me too. But as a scientist, when I disagree with something I need to know whether it’s because I have evidence (i.e. a theory or data) or if it just contradicts my reason for conservation in the first place (i.e. I just don’t like the idea of it). That’s very hard to do without understanding what drives you in the first place.

It will help you make better arguments
Conservation biologists argue with each other a lot. Mostly over small stuff, but quite a lot. We are a delicious mishmash of disciplines, career paths and cultural world views. Our reasons for being here are often deeply personal, and vary from crowd to crowd – so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we don’t always agree on the best way to do things (think about hot-button issues like offsetting or triage). These arguments can be exciting and fun and enlightening! But it’s very hard to explain your reasoning to others if you don’t truly know it yourself.

It will help you write better papers
I recently had my favourite piece of work rejected. It was a long time in the making, and a long time in review, so I was a bit shattered. But my reviewers, bless their patient souls, gently pointed out that while the data were good, and I told a nice story, the two didn’t match. It seems I painstakingly analysed and presented my data, only to ignore it when writing the discussion. How embarrassing. I realise now that I’d been so excited about one aspect of the work – the one I really really wanted to find – that I developed tunnel vision and couldn’t see the rest of the data that I myself had presented. It was a brutal reminder, and one I won’t soon forget.

So, for the sake of conservation, science and your sanity, I encourage you to touch base with your inner four-year-old every now and then. What’s conservation biology to you? Are you in it for the wildlife, human-wellbeing, or maybe for the cool maths? When do your values come into play ? And are you aware of it when they do?


4 comments on “Conservation: What’s it to ya?

  1. Like your post and your field work which I have followed (road bridges)Kylie. We have to do something about road-kill, esp. in Tas. Getting back to your post, I’m not in science but I am also committed to saving species/habitats and believe science is the only way. However I’m beginning to think we are a tiny minority pissing into the wind. Everything is going in the other direction (a boys thing). Maybe we are just Conservatives who cannot abide change. Reading The Conversation today, note the piece
    which I cannot access because I’m a mere human.
    I’m an artist and have to speak on the odd occassion and I cover ecosystem services, health benefits etc, but its all too remote for general audiences. Even when I say up to 2kg of each of us is somebody else (biota) all those brains hone in like magnets to human concerns. So, give some thought to the augument thay WE are the environment now, there is no ‘pristine’place to ‘save’. I’m with you, but the push seem to be coming from this direction..via science/academia.


  2. Oh Kylie, that drawing. ❤

    I really appreciate your point about disentangling our evidence and our values and using both constructively.


  3. Simon Heyes

    I work in land management and started postgrad research just over a year ago. Land management is very much about values based decision making, sprinkled with bits of science here and there. As for scientists, I think scientists are kids who never grew up. Kids are always asking great questions about their world!! Mine was, where do ants take their food (answered by feeding them sugar and attempting to dig up the nest) and my parents were appalled when they woke in the morning with an army of ants raiding every cupboard for the sugar I fed them the day before!


    • Thanks Simon! I completely agree – often the spark starts young. It can get lost somewhere along the way, but we tend to find it again. And yes, values are a such core component of land management! It’s important that we figure out what those values are, how they affect our decision making and management, and how we can work to get the best outcomes for all (or what the ‘best’ outcome even looks like for a given landscape!). Not an easy task by any means…but important all the same. Good luck on your postgrad journey!


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