Today’s my Bill Murray day. Not Groundhog Day but Lost in Translation. I’m filling time in a hotel lobby, waiting to fly out of town. My working hypothesis is that Scarlett Johansson (should she drop by) is more likely to be attracted to a lone blogger than to a lugubrious drunk at the bar. Fingers crossed for a great day ahead.
Unlike Bill, I’ve got a great reason to be here, having spent the week at the annual conference of the Ecological Society of Australia. With over 450 talks and posters, the Australian ESA conference is big enough to showcase a smorgasbord of fascinating research, but small enough to let everyone rush between symposia and catch up with friends and speakers in the breaks.
Each year, I look forward to seeing which topics are big on the timetable. Conservation biology is a pretty reactive discipline. As issues play out publicly, research funds become available (briefly), and a year or two later a string of talks are presented at conferences. Wildfire ecology and climate change distribution modelling are obvious recent examples. Earlier on, issues like tree decline, salinity, river restoration, invasive species, over-abundant mammals and more, have bubbled up to dominate symposia.
This year, tree mortality caused by severe droughts and climate change prompted a series of talks on ecohydrology that wouldn’t have gotten much attention in previous years. When I started to write my talk, I briefly included a slide on how a really basic question – ‘why don’t trees grow on heavy clay soils?’ – has been ignored for decades because it’s ‘so boring’. Fortunately I pulled the slide out, as this year the topic bobbed back to the surface, prompted by the realization that basic questions like this underpin our ability to predict how forests and species distributions will change in the future.
By day 4 of any conference, Death By PowerPoint is a favorite refrain from an overwhelmed audience. The standard of presentations has always been amazing at ESA conferences, but this year I was struck by the sheer elegance of many presentations. Back in the day, PowerPoint slides were bog-standard: blue slides with yellow and white text. Then they exploded with color, and audiences recoiled before lurid purple text on bright orange backgrounds, replete with swirling patterns, palm trees and sunsets. Animations blossomed briefly. Then corporate designers reigned supreme, and charts and tables were relegated to a corner, surrounded by banner-heads of corporate logos on each and every slide.
Finally, elegance prevails. This year’s best talks sported simple, restrained backgrounds, a minimum of ancillary decorations, no gimmicks, well designed story lines, and clean, elegant text and illustrations. This is definitely the most tasteful generation of ecologists ever!
Ultimately conferences are about people – catching up with old friends and meeting the enthusiastic new researchers who generate the great bulk of ecological data (and the best slide shows). And this brings us to the elephant in every conference room, that rarely rated a mention. Over the last 30 years, conference size has grown enormously. This isn’t because there are more agency researchers (the opposite) or tenured academics (a static market). It’s because governments have boosted research capacity by employing the most dedicated and hard-working, but cheapest, casualized work force that’s legally possible under Australian labour laws – post-graduate students. Universities, CRCs, Networks, Hubs and 1000s of Linkage grants have relied on PhD students to maximize outputs for the lowest price possible.
Many speakers at the conference lamented the difficulty of maintaining long-term research projects under short-term funding cycles. This is a big problem, but it ignores a problem that affects far more researchers. For more and more attendees every year, the opportunity to conduct a short-term research project after their PhD finishes gets smaller and smaller.
The enjoyment we all get from conferences like ESA2012 is based on a revolving pool of young researchers that turns over every 4 years or so. The ‘advantages’ of this turnover for organizations like the ESA are obvious. The rate of attitudinal change in what used to be a very, very conservative organization has been far faster than it would have been without the continual influx of new attitudes and ideas. This year, Twitter jokes highlighted the generation gap between old and new researchers. Twenty years ago the generational divide focused on arguments about the importance of (old) fundamental ecology versus (young) conservation biology and advocacy. It’s easy to see how that tide has shifted.
More broadly, this research turnover benefits ‘society’ and the environment due to the continual influx of qualified post-graduates into consulting companies, NGOs and (until the recent spate of retrenchments) government conservation agencies. But on a personal level, the uncertainty, pressure and stress on new researchers has reached an intensity that hasn’t existed before. Many researchers who are directly affected by this increasingly dysfunctional system have discussed the issue far better than I can – see posts by Euan, Joern & Pia for example.
Unfortunately, it is hard to see how this situation can improve quickly, since the fundamental issue is one of global supply and demand. Regulatory changes might improve employment opportunities (e.g. make CRCs employ more research fellows than PhD students), but this won’t affect the pathological expectation that every PhD student should manically publish a string of papers in peak journals.
Maybe science in Australia is like Groundhog Day, but worse. Each year we re-shoot the movie with a brand new cast. We replace Bill Murray with Steve Carroll, then Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller (Adam Sandler can have a speed talk). But somehow, our Groundhog Conference gets better and better each year, not worse, thanks to the revolving cast of underpaid, but fully appreciated, post-graduate students.
Tenured staff like me can’t change the system from within (we’re captured by the problem in different ways), but it’s important that every researcher demonstrates that we all recognize the scale of the problem, and that we truly value the amazing contributions of everyone who contributes to ecological research, no matter how brief that contribution may be.
All of our contributions to ecology, conservation and the world at large continue apace as we hurtle through changes in careers, family and life in general. So, for those of you who may not attend an ESA conference again, I hope you continue to engage, indulge and enjoy life to the fullest. And rest assured that the skills you’ve gained will serve you and the planet well in the future. To everyone else, I look forward to seeing you again next year.
P.S. Having spent a few hours waiting to test my Lost in Translation hotel blogging theory, my working hypothesis remains largely untested due to poor replication. Scarlett Johansson must have gone to a different lobby today. Hopefully, I’ll get to meet her and everyone else I didn’t chat to this year at next year’s conference.