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  • Writer's pictureD. Pataki

Solutions-oriented ecology: Thoughts from the other ESA (and a platypus!)

American universities are still struggling to evaluate and reward practical, use-inspired, and community engaged research on solutions to ecological problems. Can we learn from off-campus partnerships in Australia?

I've spent quite a bit of time with the Ecological Society of America lately (shameless plug: join! Join now!). But Australia has an analogous organization - the Ecological Society of Australia, and it's been interesting to compare urban ecological research in the two societies. Australia's ESA held their annual conference in Launceston, Tasmania in November and the meeting theme was right up our alley as far as this blog is concerned: "Ecology: Science for Practical Solutions."

Cataract Gorge
The Cataract Gorge is walking distance from the town center of Launceston and quite a stunning urban amenity.

There was a whole day of urban ecological sessions that ran the gamut from studies of urban flora and fauna to socioecological research, ecological theory, and big data. You can see all the abstracts here. This diversity of subjects, scales, and methods seems pretty common worldwide, as urban ecology has become a big tent encompassing all kinds of bioscience, geoscience, and human-centered research. But the way researchers, especially academic researchers, approach solutions-oriented research seems to differ in the U.S. vs. Australia.

In my experience, American universities are still grappling with how to treat practical or "applied" research that's aimed at solving real world problems, especially when it involves collaborations between academics and non-academics. In ecology, this type of research now goes by many names, including translational and use-inspired ecology, as well as participatory and engaged research. In part, new language to describe solutions-oriented research is cropping up to battle the long history of valuing "basic" research more highly than applied research in academia. While this is starting to change (e.g., the new APLU report on Public Impact Research), there still aren't enough incentives and, in fact, some remaining disincentives, for academics to participate in research aimed at solving specific, local urban problems.

dendrometers on Melbourne street trees
A City of Melbourne-University of Melbourne partnership: dendrometers monitored by postdoctoral fellow Janka Konarksa.

In Australia, I'm seeing more collaborative projects between academic researchers and non-academics ranging from city governments, NGOs, and private industry partners. This is partially due to differences in funding sources, which are relatively scarce at the local level in the U.S, at least for ecological research. In contrast, some Australian cities and local agencies (particularly in and around wealthier cities such as Melbourne) have their own competitive funding programs, because there's a strong emphasis on evidenced-based decision-making in Australian cities, some of which invest in their own sensor networks, data collection, and research staff to measure urban planning and design outcomes. As a result, academic researchers and their universities are building and rewarding extensive partnerships with local governments.

I want to take a closer look at these collaborations in the next few posts. Australian researchers are very effective at communicating the value of scientific data (including social science data) for local decision-making, and we can probably learn from their example.

But first - one last observation about differences in research emphasis between the two ecological societies. It seemed to me that there's a higher proportion of wildlife studies in the Australian ESA. Let's face it - Australian wildlife gets people's attention! I have no expertise in wildlife biology, and generally stick with forests, other flora, or the occasional geoscience study. But few can resist the call of weird and wonderful marsupials and monotremes (egg-laying mammals).

Thanks to Nick Williams, an urban ecologist at the University of Melbourne (more on his innovative research in a later post), while at the conference I had a chance to glimpse several Tasmanian animals, including the ever elusive platypus. Unlike the all-too-sociable wallabies, platypus shy away from humans and it's rare to encounter one. However, Nick had the inside scoop on a particularly platypus-rich stretch of riverbed, and after some careful stalking we were rewarded with a good, long look at the little fellow below. And now you can take a peek too:

I will spare you my Tasmanian devil photos for now (unless, of course, you ask). Happy New Year everyone!


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