Scientists are more likely to study bold and beautiful blooms, but ugly flowers matter too


Myricaria germanica is a rare and endangered species hit hard by climate change, but little research is undertaken to help save it.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

Kingsley Dixon, Curtin UniversityWe all love gardens with beautiful flowers and leafy plants, choosing colourful species to plant in and around our homes. Plant scientists, however, may have fallen for the same trick in what they choose to research.

Our research, published today in Nature Plants, found there’s a clear bias among scientists toward visually striking plants. This means they’re more likely chosen for scientific study and conservation efforts, regardless of their ecological or evolutionary significance.

To our surprise, colour played a major role skewing researcher bias. White, red and pink flowers were more likely to feature in research literature than those with dull, or green and brown flowers. Blue plants — the rarest colour in nature — received most research attention.

But does this bias matter? Plants worldwide are facing mass extinction due to environmental threats such as climate change. Now, more than ever, the human-induced tide of extinction means scientists need to be more fair-handed in ensuring all species have a fighting chance at survival.

Hidden plants in carpets of wildflowers

I was part of an international team that sifted through 280 research papers from 1975 to 2020, and analysed 113 plant species found in the southwestern Alps in Europe.

The Alps is a global biodiversity hotspot and the subject of almost 200 years of intensive plant science. But climate change is now creating hotter conditions, threatening many of its rarest species.

White flower with mountains in background
Edelweiss is a charismatic plant of the Alps that heralds spring.
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Carpeted in snow for much of the year, the brief yet explosive flowering of Europe’s alpine flora following the thaw is a joy to behold. Who was not bewitched when Julie Andrews danced in an alpine meadow in its full spring wildflower livery in The Sound of Music? Or when she sung “edelweiss”, one of the charismatic plants of the Alps that heralds spring?




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Hidden in these carpets of bright blue gentians and Delphiniums, vibrant daisies and orchids, are tiny or dull plants. This includes small sedges (Carex species), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla species) or the snake lily (Fritillaria) with its sanguine drooping flowers on thin stems.

Many of these “uncharismatic plants” are also rare or important ecological species, yet garner little attention from scientists and the public.

Close-up of a blue flower
Bellflowers (Campanula) are conspicuous and prominent in the Alps.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

The plants scientists prefer

The study asked if scientists were impartial to good-looking plants. We tested whether there was a relationship between research focus on plant species and characteristics, such as the colour, shape and prominence of species.

Along with a bias towards colourful flowers, we found accessible and conspicuous flowers were among those most studied (outside of plants required for human food or medicine).

Blue flowers
Bold and beautiful flowers in alpine meadows win scientific attention.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

This includes tall, prominent Delphinium and larkspurs, both well-known garden delights with well-displayed, vibrant flowers that often verge on fluorescent. Stem height also contributed to how readily a plant was researched, as it determines a plant’s ability to stand out among others. This includes tall bellflowers (Campanula species) and orchids.

But interestingly, a plant’s rarity didn’t significantly influence research attention. Charismatic orchids, for example, figured prominently despite rarer, less obvious species growing nearby, such as tiny sedges (Cypreaceae) and grass species.

The consequences of plant favouritism

This bias may steer conservation efforts away from plants that, while less visually pleasing, are more important to the health of the overall ecosystem or in need of urgent conservation.

In this time of urgent conservation, controlling our bias in plant science is critical. While the world list of threatened species (the IUCN RED List) should be the basis for guiding global plant conservation, the practice is often far from science based.

Mat rush with brown flowers
Mat rushes are home for rare native sun moths.
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We often don’t know how important a species is until it’s thoroughly researched, and losing an unnoticed species could mean the loss of a keystone plant.

In Australia, for example, milkweeds (Asclepiadaceae) are an important food source for butterflies and caterpillars, while grassy mat rushes (dull-flowered Lomandra species) are now known to be the home for rare native sun moths. From habitats to food, these plants provide foundational ecological services, yet many milkweed and mat rush species are rare, and largely neglected in conservation research.




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Likewise, we can count on one hand the number of scientists who work on creepy fungal-like organisms called “slime molds”, compared to the platoons of scientists who work on the most glamorous of plants: the orchids.

Yet, slime molds, with their extraordinary ability to live without cell walls and to float their nuclei in a pulsating jelly of cytoplasm, could hold keys to all sorts of remarkable scientific discoveries.

Yellow slime on tree trunk
Slime molds could hold the key to many scientific discoveries, but the organisms are understudied.
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We need to love our boring plants

Our study shows the need to take aesthetic biases more explicitly into consideration in science and in the choice of species studied, for the best conservation and ecological outcomes.

While our study didn’t venture into Australia, the principle holds true: we should be more vigilant in all parts of the conservation process, from the science to listing species for protection under the law. (Attractiveness bias may affect public interest here, too.)

So next time you go for a bushwalk, think about the plants you may have trodden on because they weren’t worth a second glance. They may be important to native insects, improve soil health or critical for a healthy bushland.




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The Conversation


Kingsley Dixon, John Curtin Distinguished Professor, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A great start, but still not enough: why Victoria’s new climate target isn’t as ambitious as it sounds


Anita Foerster, Monash University; Alice Bleby, UNSW, and Anne Kallies, RMIT UniversityIn a great start towards net zero emissions by 2050, the Victorian Government recently released their Climate Change Strategy, committing to halving greenhouse emissions by 2030.

Victoria’s leadership, alongside commitments from other Australian states and territories, stands in stark contrast to the poor climate performance of our federal government.

But is it enough? Climate scientists are urging Australia to do more to reduce emissions and to do it quicker if we’re going to avert dangerous global warming. In fact, a recent Climate Council report claims achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is at least a decade too late.

We think the Victorian government has the legal mandate to do more. But we also recognise that ambitious climate action at the state level is hindered by a lack of commitment at the federal level.

Using law to drive emissions reductions

Victoria’s new strategy was developed under the Climate Change Act 2017, state legislation requiring the government to set interim emissions reduction targets on the way to net zero by 2050.

It spreads the job of achieving these targets across the economy, with different ministers responsible for pledging emissions reductions actions and reporting on progress over time.

Laws like this are emerging around the world to set targets and hold governments accountable for delivering on them. They’re a key tool to deliver on international commitments under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2℃.

Although Australia has set a national target for emissions reduction under the Paris Agreement, it’s widely considered to be inadequate, and there’s currently no framework climate law at the national level. Independent Zali Steggall introduced such a bill in 2020, but the Morrison government hasn’t supported it.

Victoria’s new strategy lacks detail

Victoria’s Climate Change Strategy contains many exciting climate policy announcements, including:

  • renewable energy zones and big batteries in the regions
  • all government operations including schools and hospitals powered by 100% renewables by 2025
  • targets and subsidies for electric vehicle uptake
  • commitments to support innovation in hard-to-abate sectors such as agriculture.

It also recognises the need to phase out natural gas and accelerate Victoria’s renewable hydrogen industry.

These policies are designed to reduce emissions while supporting economic growth and job creation. Yet they are scant on detail.

There’s heavy reliance on achieving emissions reductions in the energy sector — arguably, this is the low-hanging fruit. Policies in transport and agriculture are far less developed, with no quantification of targeted emissions reductions to 2030.

Cows in a paddock
Victoria has committed to support innovation in hard-to-abate sectors such as agriculture.
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This makes it difficult to assess whether the sector pledges will drive enough change to achieve the government’s interim targets (ambitious or otherwise) and support a trajectory to net zero.

It has taken several years to develop the Climate Change Strategy. This makes the lack of detail and the undeveloped nature of some pledges a big concern.

There are also few safeguards in the Climate Change Act to ensure pledges add up to achieving targets, or that ministers across sectors deliver on them. Much depends on the political will of the government of the day.

Why Victoria’s targets aren’t enough

The Victorian Government proposes targets to reduce emissions by 28–33% on 2005 levels by 2025, and by 45–50% on 2005 levels by 2030.

The government claims these targets are ambitious. Compared to current federal government targets, this is true.




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However, the target ranges are lower than those recommended in 2019 by the Independent Expert Panel, established under the Climate Change Act to advise the government on target setting.

The panel recommended targets of 32–39% by 2025 and 45–60% by 2030 as Victoria’s “fair share” contribution to limiting warming to well below 2℃ in accordance with Paris Agreement goals. And it acknowledged these recommended ranges still wouldn’t be enough to keep warming to 1.5℃, in the context of global efforts.

Solar panels on a roof
Reducing emissions in the energy sector is low-hanging fruit.
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Ultimately, Victoria’s targets don’t match what scientists are now telling us about the importance of cutting emissions early to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

A pragmatic approach or a missed opportunity?

In setting the targets, the state government has clearly taken a politically pragmatic approach.

The government claims the targets are achievable and suggests they would’ve set more ambitious targets if the federal government made a stronger commitment to climate action.

Yes, the current lack of climate ambition at the federal level in Australia is a very real constraint on progress in some areas such as energy, where a coordinated approach is crucial. But this shouldn’t outweigh aligning to best available science.

State governments have many regulatory, policy and economic levers at their disposal, with opportunities to drive significant change and innovation. And Victoria has already demonstrated strong progress in emissions reduction and renewables in the energy sector, easily meeting and exceeding previous targets.

Under the Climate Change Act, the Victorian Government will need to set new, more ambitious targets in five years.

But waiting five years goes against Victoria’s aim to lead the nation on climate action and contribute fairly to global efforts to mitigate global warming. More ambitious, science-aligned targets now would’ve been a valuable signal for industry and a sign of real climate leadership.

We need stronger laws

Without doubt, the new Climate Change Strategy is a significant step forward on an issue that’s plagued Australian politics for years. Victoria has showed framework climate laws can drive government action on climate change.




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But there are also opportunities to bolster the Climate Change Act by aligning targets to science, strengthening legal obligations to drive timely progress, and including an ongoing role for independent experts to advise on target setting and oversee progress.

Finally, it’s important to get on with the job at a federal level.

Zali Steggall’s Climate Change Bill 2020 picks up on best practice climate laws from around the world. It’s also supported by industry groups and investors.

Victoria’s experience suggests it’s surely time for Australia to take this important step.The Conversation

Anita Foerster, Senior Lecturer, Monash University; Alice Bleby, PhD Candidate, UNSW, and Anne Kallies, Senior Lecturer, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The government has pledged over $800m to fight natural disasters. It could be revolutionary — if done right


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Paul Barnes, UNSWTo help Australia adapt to climate change and manage the disasters that come with it, the federal government this week pledged A$600 million towards establishing the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, and $210 million for the Australian Climate Service initiative.

The sizeable investments make sense, as Australia’s threat landscape has changed. Climate change, drought, land clearing, urban growth and other activities have significantly increased the chances of natural hazards and disasters Australia-wide. All of which are costly to recover from.

The new organisations could deliver revolutionary benefits to Australia by better aligning policy and practice in a more agile way that matches the complex set of threats we face.

There are, however, issues that warrant attention. It’s not yet clear how the government plans to bring together Australia’s best experts — including policy thinkers, emergency managers, researchers and practitioners — to address the complex, evolving threats. Currently, it seems the role of universities has not been adequately defined.

Australia’s recent disasters

The 2019-20 bushfire season was arguably the most extreme in living memory. It started earlier than what might normally have been expected and made history for its severity and widespread damage to life, property and the environment.

Bushfires weren’t the only natural hazard Australia dealt with during this period. Insurance claims from hailstorms, flooding and bushfire damage for the 2019-20 period exceeded $5.19 billion.

A man and woman use a kayak to travel up a flooded street.
The March floods in western Sydney peaked at a staggering 12.9 metres.
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Then came the severe flooding across New South Wales in March, which peaked at 12.9 metres. As of March 23, policyholders had lodged up to 11,700 insurance claims associated with these storms.




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While these recent disasters were unprecedented in their scale and impact, we can expect disasters in the future to worsen due to climate change, from longer heatwaves to intensifying cyclones and a range of cascading and cumulative impacts on society.

This is why the federal government’s announcement this week is extremely important.

So what will these initiatives do?

The new organisations are in response to recommendations from the recent bushfire royal commission, and as part of next week’s federal budget.

The National Recovery and Resilience Agency will be led by former Northern Territory chief minister Shane Stone, and brings together the responsibilities of the national agencies in charge of flood and bushfire recovery.

Its job is to oversee $600 million that will go towards new programs for disaster preparation and mitigation. It’ll focus on minimising disruptive impacts on communities and assist in making them ready to face future disasters. It will also administer the $2 billion National Bushfire Recovery Fund on an ongoing basis.




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A key enabler of this is the National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy, which is currently getting updated after its first release in 2015. The new strategy will be released later this year, and should be vital in underpinning the direction of the new agency.

The government must ensure the strategy provides guidance that matches the goals of the new agency – in particular that of building resilience. It’s important to recognise that while disaster response is generally similar across the board, the effects of disasters vary depending on the community, urban and physical features, as well as socioeconomic levels and access to services.

And the Australian Climate Service initiative will, according to Environment Minister Sussan Ley:

help provide an environmental road map in our planning for infrastructure, housing and basic services like power, telecommunications, and water [and in] anticipating and adapting to the impacts of [a] changing climate.

Together, the benefits of both new organisations have the potential to be revolutionary.

They — along with a new national research centre focused on hazard resilience and disaster risk reduction (announced in July last year) — may be the largest realignments in disaster management policy and practice for a generation.

But how they’re implemented and coordinated will, ultimately, determine this.

There’s more to do

A potential issue with the Australian Climate Service Initiative that might limit its effectiveness is its emphasis on the roles of the Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Geoscience Australia.

This collaboration means the initiative has access to huge amounts of data, information resources, and links to the National Environmental Science Program and Great Barrier Reef Restoration and Adaptation initiatives.




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But we shouldn’t forget many Australian universities have considerable relevant expertise at their disposal, too. Not including the network of expertise and experience of universities means we may be shooting ourselves in the foot.

What’s more, the National Recovery and Resilience Agency intends to provide accredited training for people working in disaster recovery. The deep training and development expertise of universities is a perfect fit for this goal.

To really embed the benefits, we need to break down historical silos between national, state and local agencies. On-the-ground efforts for disaster risk reduction, emergency management and response, and the broad social aspects of recovery are largely state and local government responsibilities.

Crisis response planning and action is a team-based sport, so getting the federal, state and local governments — and the private sector — involved will help streamline the application of the new disaster policies and protocols embodied in the announced changes across the continent.




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We saw this type of team-based effort at a national level when the emergency national cabinet was established to oversee collaborative decision-making in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s joined-up thinking that enables rapid and more complete decision- making.

In short, we need better collaboration. How we can work together and utilise all our capabilities and capacities are questions that need to be at the forefront of national thinking.


This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Paul Barnes, Research Fellow (Disaster & Urban Resilience), UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.