Taxonomy, the science of naming things, is under threat



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Museum collections are repositories of specimens and data, including specimens, tissue samples and vocal recordings.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

Nic Rawlence

Museums are cathedrals of science, but they are under threat worldwide as part of a malaise of undervaluing museum collections and the field of taxonomy, the science of naming biodiversity.

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is the latest example. Te Papa confirmed a restructure in July, following leaked reports. Facing sustained backlash and disquiet in the science community, the museum announced an international review of its collections and has since scaled back its restructure plans.

But jobs remain on the line even though the review panel found the museum didn’t have enough staff to look after all of its collections.




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From Joseph Banks to big data, herbaria bring centuries-old science into the digital age


Taxonomy a keystone of natural history

Taxonomy underpins everything from health to conservation, and biosecurity to the economy.

The international review shows Te Papa is doing a good job in most areas, but needs to improve on several aspects, including access to collections, cataloguing a backlog of specimens and digitisation.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

These areas of concern were seriously exacerbated by the panel’s finding that Te Papa is understaffed.

The review panel was not asked to comment on the restructure. At that stage, the proposal was to cut 25 positions, 10 of which were in the collections team. This has now been scaled back to at least five jobs in the collections team.

Staff whose positions may be affected were told only a day before the review recommendations were made public.




Read more:
Museum or not? The changing face of curated science, tech, art and culture


Museum collections more than sum of parts

Te Papa’s latest leaked restructure document remains a cause for concern. Curators are no longer in the firing line. However, the five natural history collections managers are gone, to be replaced by three assistant curators and two general technical positions. All of this would appear to fall at a lower pay scale.

I congratulate Te Papa on listening to internal and external feedback and increasing their curatorial expertise in neglected strengths, such as marine mammals and seaweeds. Ironically, in the case of marine mammals, this seems to rectify a mistake in making the previous marine mammal expert redundant in 2013.

A member of the international review panel, Tim White at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, told the public broadcaster RNZ:

Te Papa could use more professional collections staff. If they are going to promote the use of their collections … then they need
to think creatively about how they could get more staff.

Taking into account the recently published Decadal Plan for Taxonomy and Biosystematics and the 2015 Royal Society Te Apārangi report on National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand, this is a good opportunity to increase collections staff rather than, at best, approximate the status quo.

It is my hope that the filling of positions in the proposed structure will not result in a loss of areas of taxonomic expertise. Many of Te Papa’s scientists are leaders in their fields, including in areas where Te Papa leads the way internationally. One should not boost the curatorial team at the expense of collections management.

The bigger picture

As an isolated archipelago with unique flora and fauna, New Zealand needs diverse taxonomic expertise to appropriately handle biosecurity and conservation crises. If Te Papa, or museums in general, shed their taxonomic expertise like an unwanted sloughed-off snake skin, it will be up to other institutions to pick up the slack. If not, our biodiversity will suffer.

The greyling is New Zealand’s only extinct freshwater fish.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

There has already been a 10% decline in the taxonomic workforce in Australia in the past 25 years, with declines of around 22% in New Zealand over a similar time period. In both countries, a steadily increasing proportion (currently around a quarter) of taxonomists are unpaid or retired. Let’s not make it any worse.

Undervaluing museum collections and taxonomic expertise is not just limited to New Zealand. The scientific world does not want to see another museum disaster, like the preventable fire that destroyed Brazil’s National Museum.

Whether it is collections under threat or museum libraries being lost in the digital age, or even false assumptions resulting in the closure of a museum, if chief executives and museum boards listen to their scientists and the scientific community, hope remains.The Conversation

Nic Rawlence, Lecturer in Ancient DNA

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

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The science is clear: we have to start creating our low-carbon future today


Alan Finkel, Office of the Chief Scientist

This week’s release of the special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put scientific evidence on the front page of the world’s newspapers.

As Australia’s Chief Scientist, I hope it will be recognised as a tremendous validation of the work that scientists do.

The people of the world, speaking through their governments, requested this report to quantify the impacts of warming by 1.5℃ and what steps might be taken to limit it. They asked for the clearest possible picture of the consequences and feasible solutions.




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The UN’s 1.5°C special climate report at a glance


It is not my intention in this article to offer a detailed commentary on the IPCC’s findings. I commend the many scientists with expertise in climate systems who have helped Australians to understand the messages of this report.

My purpose is to urge all decision-makers – in government, industry and the community – to listen to the science.

Focus on the goal

It would be possible for the public to take from this week’s headlines an overwhelming sense of despair.

The message I take is that we do not have time for fatalism.

We have to look squarely at the goal of a zero-emissions planet, then work out how to get there while maximising our economic growth. It requires an orderly transition, and that transition will have to be managed over several decades.

That is why my review of the National Electricity Market called for a whole-of-economy emissions reduction strategy for 2050, to be in place by the end of 2020.




Read more:
The Finkel Review at a glance


We have to be upfront with the community about the magnitude of the task. In a word, it is huge.

Many of the technologies in the IPCC’s most optimistic scenarios are at an early stage, or conceptual. Two that stand out in that category are:

  • carbon dioxide removal (CDR): large-scale technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

  • carbon capture and sequestration (CCS): technology to capture and store carbon dioxide from electricity generation.

It will take a decade or more for these technologies to be developed to the point at which they have proven impact, then more decades to be widely deployed.

The IPCC’s pathways for rapid emissions reduction also include a substantial role for behavioural change. Behavioural change is with us always, but it is incremental.

Driving change of this magnitude, across all societies, in fundamental matters like the homes we build and the foods we eat, will only succeed if we give it time – and avoid the inevitable backlash from pushing too fast.

The IPCC has made it clear that the level of emissions reduction we can achieve in the next decade will be crucial. So we cannot afford to wait.

Many options

No option should be ruled off the table without rigorous consideration.

In that context, the Finkel Review pointed to a crucial role for natural gas, particularly in the next vital decade, as we scale up renewable energy.

The IPCC has made the same point, not just for Australia but for the world.

The question should not be “renewables or coal”. The focus should be on atmospheric greenhouse emissions. This is the outcome that matters.

Denying ourselves options makes it harder, not easier, to get to the goal.

There also has to be serious consideration of other options modelled by the IPCC, including biofuels, catchment hydroelectricity, and nuclear power.

My own focus in recent months has been on the potential for clean hydrogen, the newest entrant to the world’s energy markets.




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How hydrogen power can help us cut emissions, boost exports, and even drive further between refills


In future, I expect hydrogen to be used as an alternative to fossil fuels to power long-distance travel for cars, trucks, trains and ships; for heating buildings; for electricity storage; and, in some countries, for electricity generation.

We have in Australia the abundant resources required to produce clean hydrogen for the global market at a competitive price, on either of the two viable pathways: splitting water using solar and wind electricity, or deriving hydrogen from natural gas and coal in combination with carbon capture and sequestration.

Building an export hydrogen industry will be a major undertaking. But it will also bring jobs and infrastructure development, largely in regional communities, for decades.

So the scale of the task is all the more reason to press on today – at the same time as we press on with mining lithium for batteries, clearing the path for electric vehicles, planning more carbon-efficient cities, and so much more.

There are no easy answers. I hope, through this and other reports, there are newly determined people ready to contribute to the global good.The Conversation

Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Office of the Chief Scientist

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

Great Barrier Reef Foundation chief scientist: science will lie at the heart of our decisions


Peter J Mumby, The University of Queensland

Much has been made of the federal government’s decision to invest A$500m into management of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), A$443.3m of it to be administered by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, of which I am the chief scientist.

If my conversations with colleagues in the reef research field are any guide, there is still a lot of confusion over the intended use of these funds, the disbursement process, and whether big business will interfere with how the reef is managed.

Filling funding gaps

Over the past five years, the foundation has funded or managed multiple research projects that aim to support long-term management of the reef. Many of these projects would be considered either too risky or not “pure science” enough to be funded by the Australian Research Council (the exception being the ARC Linkage program).

I mean “risky” not in the sense of posing a risk to the GBR, but rather to describe research plans that are at the cutting edge, where the potential rewards are high but so is the risk of failure.

In this way, the GBR Foundation has filled a critical gap in funding researchers who are working at the interface of science, climate change, and reef management. This has included teams from multiple universities, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), and CSIRO.

Decisions over funding allocations are made through a conventional procedure involving external and internal review and two scientific advisory committees with representatives from each of the major research organisations (the University of Queensland, James Cook University, AIMS and CSIRO), the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and an independent chair.




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$500 million for the Great Barrier Reef is welcome, but we need a sea change in tactics too


As a professor of coral reef ecology at the University of Queensland, I participated in the foundation’s technical advisory group for several years and collaborated on several of the funded projects. As my own research focus includes how management can improve coral reef resilience, I was invited some months ago to serve as the GBR Foundation’s chief scientist, a part-time role alongside my main job as a University of Queensland professor.

I accepted this position for several reasons. First, scientists and practitioners have been calling for a major government investment in the GBR and I am keen to help steer the process in the most cost-effective way possible. I can help by ensuring that the right people are engaged in the process and that projects are subject to intense scientific scrutiny.

Second, having been involved with the GBR Foundation for some time, I know that its approach is both inclusive and merit-based, soliciting the best minds irrespective of which insitution they work for. This is important if we are to deliver the best value for taxpayers’ money.

Third, the foundation’s decision-making process is science-led, and I have never seen any interference from the board. Although some people have expressed concerns over the board’s links to the fossil fuel industry, climate change has been the focus of the foundation’s funded research for as long as I can remember.

Funding focus

The government’s decision to entrust environmental management and research to a private foundation is not unprecedented internationally. The US National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, for example, receives funds from both government agencies and private donations, which it uses to fund a range of conservation programs.

The A$443.3m provided to the GBR Foundation is intended to pursue a range of aims:

  • improving the quality of freshwater reaching the reef (A$201m)

  • reducing the impact of crown-of-thorns starfish (A$58m)

  • engaging traditional owners and the broader community in reef conservation (A$22.3m)

  • improving monitoring of reef health (A$40m)

  • supporting scientific research into reef restoration, with a specific focus on tackling challenges created by climate change (A$100m).

The latter is particularly significant because this program aims to expand the toolbox of interventions available to reef managers as climate change continues to intensify.

Of course, reef researchers and managers can’t fix climate change on their own. Other funding and incentives will also be needed to help our wider society reduce greenhouse emissions.

But here’s the important point: dealing with climate change will necessitate a wide range of responses, both to address the root cause of the problem and to adapt to its effects. The A$443.3m will help Australia do the latter for the GBR.

Clarifying misconceptions

I’d like to clarify some of the misconceptions I have heard around the funding awarded to the GBR Foundation.

The funds do indeed consider the impacts of climate change, specifically in helping coral reefs – and the associated management practices – adapt to the coming changes.

Science will lie at the heart of the decisions over how best to parcel out the funds, and although the foundation’s board will sign off on the approvals, it will have no say in what is proposed for funding.

Those research and management projects that do receive funding will be carried out by the most appropriate agencies available, whether that be universities, small or large businesses, other charities, AIMS, CSIRO, Natural Resource Management organisations, and so on. All of these agencies are well used to applying for funding under schemes like this.




Read more:
The science and art of reef restoration


Finally, I have heard concerns about the involvement of major corporations on the Foundation’s board. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their view on the appropriateness of this. But for what it’s worth, my own is that progress on climate change will be strengthened, not weakened, by a close dialogue between those responsible for managing the impacts of climate change and those in a position to exert significant change in our society.

Many of world’s greatest innovations occur in major industry, and I hope this will also apply to the Great Barrier Reef.The Conversation

Peter J Mumby, Chair professor, The University of Queensland

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

Politicised science on the Great Barrier Reef? It’s been that way for more than a century



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Successive governments have seen the Great Barrier Reef not just as a scientific wonder, but as a channel to further economic development.
Superjoseph/Shutterstock.com

Rohan James Lloyd, James Cook University

The controversy surrounding the A$444 million given to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation by the federal government shows how politicised science has become on the Great Barrier Reef.

One reef scientist, who declined to be named, was quoted saying that the grant was “obviously” political, and accused the federal government of seeking to deny the opposition the chance to make the Great Barrier Reef an election issue.

But the politicisation of reef science, and particularly the Great Barrier Reef itself, is not new. It has a long history, stretching back to the time when the British empire was at its most powerful.




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In the nineteenth century, scientists studying the Great Barrier Reef were driven by the political winds and whims of British colonialists. For the most part, these scientists aided the mission of exploration and settlement. With every exploratory voyage, the value of the Great Barrier Reef as an arm of the empire grew, as scientists began to weave their insights into the reef’s biology and geology with evocations of its potential resources and suitability for settlement. Scientists such as Joseph Beete Jukes were particularly important in illuminating the Great Barrier Reef’s scientific mysteries and economic possibilities.

Around the time of federation in 1901, however, the politics of reef science took on a heightened nationalistic and provincial tone. Scientists asserted that the Great Barrier Reef’s value to Queensland and the nation lay specifically in its exploitable resources, and argued that it was the government’s responsibility to develop them.

As the science was in its infancy, reef scientists imagined that their field would inevitably develop in concert with the establishment of reef-based industries such as fishing and coral rubble mining.




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Death on the Great Barrier Reef: how dead coral went from economic resource to conservation symbol


In the early twentieth century, scientists suggested that a research station needed to be established along the Queensland coast. The idea was championed by natural historian Edmund Banfield, who wrote that it would “demonstrate how best the riches of the Great Barrier Reef might be exploited”.

Many scientists of the day believed that the government had failed to sufficiently develop the Great Barrier Reef, and feared that its dormant resources were at risk of plunder by our northern Asian neighbours. Reef science became caught up in the prevailing discourse of an empty and undeveloped northern Australia.

In response, Queensland-based scientists established the Great Barrier Reef Committee in 1922. The committee saw itself as having two roles: “pure” scientific research on the reef’s biology and geology; and the identification of commercial products that the reef could provide.

In 1928 the committee, backed by the British, Australian and Queensland governments, organised a research expedition to Low Isles, off the coast of Port Douglas.

The year-long expedition, led by British-born marine scientist Charles Maurice Yonge, aimed to find evidence of the reef’s economic potential. But the research, while significant to coral-reef science, offered little advice for the Queensland government despite its significant financial investment.

Nonetheless, the Great Barrier Reef Committee continued to leverage the state government’s interest in developing northern Queensland, and in 1950 it secured a lease on Heron Island. The committee was also given funding to build a research station on the island, after promising that it would reveal commercial products and boost tourism.

Heron Island, where the research station is still operating, now run by the University of Queensland.
UQ/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The Heron Island research station was built at a time when only a few Australian universities offered full courses in marine biology. Reef science had always been dominated by geology, as researchers sought to understand how coral reefs were formed.

After the second world war, aided by more sophisticated drilling equipment, and governments eager to locate local oil reserves, scientists such as the Queensland geologist Dorothy Hill began studying the Great Barrier Reef’s mineral and petroleum reserves, and recommended several sites for further exploration.

Between 1959 and 1967 three exploration wells were drilled along the reef, but none showed signs of oil or gas. In the same period, the Queensland government granted 37 prospecting and exploration permits, 23 of them in the vicinity of the Great Barrier Reef.

Geologists’ role in this exploration meant that they were viewed with suspicion by their marine biologist colleagues when the “Save the Reef” campaign began in 1967.

Geologists were largely seen as sympathetic to the oil industry’s interests, whereas marine biologists typically aligned themselves with the views of conservationists. At the same time, scientists found themselves taking sides in response to the first outbreak of Crown of Thorns starfish in the 1960s.

Robert Endean, the scientist who campaigned for government intervention in the outbreak, found himself marginalised by the scientific community, faced backlash from tourist operators concerned by his claims of dying reefs, and eventually lost government support for his research.

During both the Save the Reef campaign and the Crown of Thorns outbreak, scientists were publicly scrutinised for how their research, and their public comments, impacted the debate. A similar pattern has played out over the mass coral bleaching that hit the Great Barrier Reef in 2016.

Today, it seems governments are seeking to make the Great Barrier Reef appear to be protected while scientists themselves leverage the political and public fascination, with the result that the Great Barrier Reef accounts for a significant proportion of Australia’s entire marine research output.

The issues of sediment and nutrient run-off, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, Crown of Thorns starfish, coal mines, and port developments have all complicated the politics of reef science.




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Not out of hot water yet: what the world thinks about the Great Barrier Reef


For half a century, the science has been overlaid with a wider discourse about the need to preserve the Great Barrier Reef. This idea, championed by scientists, politicians and civil society, shows no sign of subsiding.

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The Conversation

Today, the amounts of money involved may well be unprecedented. But the idea of reef science coming with political strings attached is nothing new.

Rohan James Lloyd, Adjunct Lecturer, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight: the science of beautiful sunsets



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If you live in a place where the weather moves west to east, then an old proverb could help you predict the weather.
TimOve/flickr

Adam Morgan, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

“A red sky at night is a shepherd’s delight! A red sky in the morning is a shepherd’s warning.”

Perhaps this saying came to mind if you caught a spectacular sunrise or sunset recently.

Since biblical times and probably before, proverbs and folklore such as this developed as a way for societies to understand and foretell prevailing weather conditions.

The “red sky” proverb has endured across cultures for centuries, and modern science can explain why this is so.




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What causes a red sky at sunrise and sunset?

The Sun is low on the horizon at sunrise and sunset. At these times of the day, sunlight has had to travel through more of the atmosphere to reach us. When light hits the atmosphere it is scattered, particularly when dust, smoke and other particles are in the air.

This scattering affects the blue part of the light spectrum the most. So by the time the sunlight reaches our eyes there is generally more of the red and yellow parts of the spectrum remaining.

Dust and smoke particles commonly build up in the atmosphere beneath high-pressure systems, which are generally associated with dry and settled weather.

If you’ve ever been to Darwin in the Northern Territory during the dry season (the period between May and September), you’ll know glorious red and orange sunsets are an almost daily occurrence.

This makes sense – the sky across the Top End at this time of year is often full of dust particles whipped up off the land by dry southeasterly winds, as well as smoke from bushfires burning through the landscape.

What can red sky tell us about the weather?

In areas of the world where weather systems move routinely from the west to the east, including across southern areas of Australia, the “red sky” proverb often holds true.

A red sky sunrise suggests that an area of high pressure and fine weather, with its trapped dust and other particles, has moved out towards to the east. This allows for an area of lower pressure and deteriorating weather – perhaps a cold front and band of rain – to move in from the west during the day.

On the other hand, a red sky sunset tells us the worst of the weather has now eased, with higher pressure and improving weather approaching from the west for the following day.

Across northern Australia and other areas of the tropics, the “red sky” proverb is an unreliable method to predict the weather. In these regions, weather patterns are often very localised, moving in no particular direction at all, and larger tropical weather systems usually move from east to west.

Red skies and cloud

What often makes red sky sunrises and sunsets even more spectacular is the position of the Sun in the sky, relative to cloud.

When the Sun is low on the horizon, rays of light shine back up onto the underside of cloud high in the sky, reflecting back those bright orange and red colours that make it look as if the sky has turned to fire.

With a red sky sunrise, the eastern sky is more likely to be cloud-free with finer weather, allowing the Sun to shine upon the higher cloud moving in with the deteriorating weather from the west.

With a red sky sunset, it’s the western sky more likely to be clear, with the Sun’s rays shining up onto cloud further east.

So the next time you spot a spectacular sunrise or sunset, keep the “red sky” proverb in mind and you’ll become a pro at forecasting the weather in no time!




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The Conversation

Adam Morgan, Senior Meteorologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The science and art of reef restoration



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Silent Evolution by Jason deCaires Taylor. Taylor makes sculptures and sinks them beneath the sea to create artificial reefs.
© Jason deCaires Taylor

Adam Smith, James Cook University and Ian McLeod, James Cook University

Coral reefs around the world are in crisis. Under pressure from climate change, overfishing, pollution, introduced species and apathy, coral colonies and fish communities are steadily deteriorating.

Coral cover in the Great Barrier reef has declined by an alarming 50% since the 1980s. Some leading scientists believe that the Great Barrier Reef is at a terminal stage.




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One way to address this is through reef restoration. At its simplest, this involves the addition of coral or habitat to a reef. It’s generally undertaken on existing coral reefs, but can also be done on rocky reefs or bare sand.

We have looked back through the decades to celebrate the history of reef restoration, not just in science but also in art, business and politics.

Gardener, by Jason deCaires Taylor.
© Jason deCaires Taylor

Band-aid or reef revolution?

Just as there is no magic solution in human healthcare, there is likewise no magic solution in caring for corals. You do what you can with the resources you have.




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Some scientists have argued that reef restoration is a Band-Aid for the enormous problems that reefs face. We can agree with this point of view, but there are times when a band aid is very useful – and may prevent much more serious injuries.

Reef restoration makes an important local difference, as seen here at Koh Tao, Thailand.
Author provided

Earlier this year the federal government allotted an unprecedented A$500 million dollars to the Great Barrier Reef. This included A$100 million focused on restoration to improve the health of the reef.

Reef restoration science and projects complement community efforts. There is an increasing focus on addressing local issues such as water quality, overfishing, and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish.




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When scientists, industry and government work with local communities we can accelerate the recovery of local reefs.

To do this, we need people who want to make a difference. Once we recognise a degraded ecosystem, we work to reduce stress (like pollution in the water) and add new habitat or helpful species.

Artist Jason deCaires Taylor builds breathtaking underwater sculptures that double as artificial coral reefs.

The history of reef restoration

People have been restoring ecosystems and degraded land for thousands of years. Reef restoration, on the other hand, is relatively new and rarely documented.

Our research indicates that in the modern era there have been three major waves of reef restoration. The first wave started in the 1970s and ‘80s, as scientists were able to easily SCUBA dive and new protective legislation was introduced around the world. This largely involved the addition of new habitats. These could be coral transplants, or artificial constructs likes shipwrecks, concrete pipes, tyres and a purpose built structure called a reef ball.

The second wave from 2000-2010 was associated with scientists and conservationists responding to local concerns from cyclone damage, overfishing, introduced species and over-crowding at tourism sites, particularly in the Caribbean. Restoration methods at this point expanded to removing items as well as adding them, including algae, crown-of-thorns and lionfish.

Reef restoration has evolved over decades.
Author provided

The third wave, from 2016, has focused on new scientific technology such as micro-fragmentation: breaking coral into small pieces so it grows faster. It also emphasises partnerships between government-business-community to reduce threats and restore reefs.

This era also sees a huge increase in communication. Increasingly, we are influenced by social sciences and marketing rather than science and biology in our search for coral reef solutions. Organisations such as Rare, Citizens of the GBR and Reef Check are using citizen scientists, campaigns and pledges to reduce human impact and improve reefs’ health. As an example, the rapid phase out of plastic bags has been led by social media – not science.

Celebrating the Reef restoration Leaders

Documenting the history of reef restoration is important because it allows us to understand our past and be more informed and inspired to take action in the future.

Sculpture at the Underwater Museum at Lanzarote Rubicon.
© Jason deCaires Taylor

The great men and women in our history were innovators who responded to crisis and went against convention by restoring reefs.

We reviewed academic literature and conducted a global survey to find the pioneers who led reef restoration science, management, business and communication. These include Drs Austin Bowden-Kerby, David Vaughan, Todd Barber, Barach Rinkievich and Kristen Marhaver.




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An idea without action is just a dream. Similarly, an idea that has not been communicated widely and is not known and adopted by the general community cannot result in changed behaviour. Increasingly we recognise that good science and management is not enough without community support and action.


The authors would like to acknowledge the valuable contribution of Nathan Cook, Senior Marine Scientist at Reef Ecologic, to this article.

A presentation on the history of Reef Restoration will occur at the Great Barrier Reef Restoration Symposium, July 16-19, Cairns.

Thanks to Jason deCaires Taylor for the use of images. See more at underwatersculpture.com.

The ConversationThis article was updated on July 25 to clarify the location of the reef pictured demonstrating the impact of restoration.

Adam Smith, Adjunct Associate Professor, James Cook University and Ian McLeod, Senior Research Scientist – Coastal Restoration, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)



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Single-use plastics are convenient, but it’s time to phase them out.
Photo by Sander Wehkamp/Unsplash

Kim Borg, Monash University

Australia is responsible for over 13 thousand tonnes of plastic litter per year. At the end of June 2018, the Australian government released an inquiry report on the waste and recycling industry in Australia. One of the recommendations was that we should phase out petroleum-based single-use plastics by 2023.

This means a real social shift, because the convenient plastic products that we use once and throw away are ubiquitous in Australia.




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Bans, as Coles and Woolworths recently adopted for plastic bags, are one option – but are not suitable for every situation. They can also feel like an imposition, which can inspire backlash if the community is not on board. Behavioural science can offer a path to curb our plastic use.

Technology alone is not the solution

First off, plastic is not evil: it’s flexible, durable, waterproof and cheap. The issue is the way we dispose of it. Because plastic is so versatile it has been adopted across a range of single-use “throw away” consumer products.

Many people are working on technological solutions to our plastic problems. These range from better recycling techniques and biodegradable “plastics” made from algae or starch, to (my favourite) using the wax moth caterpillar or “mutant bacteria” to consume plastic waste.

But these options are slow and expensive. They can also have other environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption.

There are lots of reusable alternatives to many single-use products. The challenge is getting people to use them.

Behavioural science to the rescue

My research involves applying insights from various disciplines (like economics, psychology, sociology or communication) to understand how governments and businesses can encourage people to change their behaviour for environmental, social and economic benefits.




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Research has found that simply providing information through awareness campaigns is unlikely to change behaviour. What media attention and campaigning can do is increase the public visibility of an issue. This can indirectly influence our behaviour by making us more open to other interventions and by signalling social norms – the unwritten rules of acceptable behaviour.

Successful behaviour change campaigns must empower individuals. We should be left feeling capable of changing, that changing our behaviour will impact the problem, and that we are not alone. One positive example is modelling sustainable behaviours, like using KeepCups or beeswax wraps, in popular TV shows.

Once we’re aware of an issue, we may need a little help to move from intention to action. One strategy for providing this push is a small financial disincentive, like Ireland’s famous “plastax” on single-use plastic bags. Many cafés also offer discount coffees to reward bringing reusable cups.

We can also encourage retailers to “change the default”. Japan increased the refusal rate of plastic bags to 40% after six months of cashiers simply asking people if they wanted a bag.

This approach could be used for other products too. For example, imagine your drink not coming with a straw unless you specifically ask for it. This would cut down on waste, while also avoiding the unintended consequences of banning a product that is important for people with a disability.

Given that there is already strong support for reducing our reliance on single-use plastics, another simple solution would be to provide prompts in key locations, like carparks and workplaces, to remind people to bring their reusables.

While we may have the best of intentions to carry reusables, our old habits can often get in the way. Defaults and prompts can help to bring our good intentions in line with our actual behaviours.

Consumer demand also encourages manufacturers to make more convenient reusable options, like collapsible coffee cups and metal keychain straws. Businesses can also make reusables more accessible by introducing product-sharing schemes like the Freiburg Cup in Germany or Boomerang Bags in Australia.

No ‘one size fits all’ solution

Different situations need different solutions. Product sharing or reusable coffee cups might work in an office or café where the same customers return regularly, but would be impractical at a gallery or museum where customers vary each day.

For societal-level change multiple approaches are more effective than any one initiative alone. For example, if we wanted to phase out plastic cutlery nationally, we could start with an awareness campaign that encourages people to carry reusable alternatives. Then, once the community is on board, implement a small fee with some reminder prompts, and finally move to a ban once the majority have already changed their behaviour.




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Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want to save the oceans


The ConversationThe key to successfully phasing out our reliance on single-use plastic products is to change the norm. The more we talk about the problem and the solutions, the more businesses will seek out and offer alternatives, and the more likely we are to mobilise together.

Kim Borg, Doctoral Candidate & Research Officer at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.