The cost of being internationally relevant

Are Australian species and ecosystems really that freakishly different from the rest of the world that our work isn’t applicable elsewhere? And are conservation efforts in Australia ultimately losing out because of this?

One seriously unique freaky Australian: the platypus. Image: Stefan Kraft.

I have just returned from Germany, where I had the pleasure of presenting the findings of my Travelling Stock Route-related work to the Institute of Ecology at Leuphana University in Lüneburg. I think the presentation was well-received, and at the end I got asked lots of probing questions from apparently interested people. Now, of course there is a chance that this nice group were just being polite, and taking pity on me with my ridiculous accent and excessive gesticulation. But others I spoke to during the week also seemed to show a genuine interest.

Why did I find this so surprising?

Well, I had also recently gone through the process of preparing a paper for a respected international journal, and found that with every subsequent draft, co-authors gradually removed reference to Australian issues and ecosystems. Finally, you couldn’t really tell at a glance where the research came from, but even then, I found myself wincing as I submitted the paper, anticipating instant rejection. Lo and behold, a week later I was rejected, and it was gently suggested by the editor that I should consider a more regionally-specific journal. ‘Tis a painful dance of constant rejection, reformatting, and resubmitting that PhD students subject themselves to on a daily basis in the fight to be “internationally relevant”.

Now, perhaps we as Australian scientists just need to sell ourselves a bit better, and continue to show the international audience that we are not just a land of deserts, akubras and platypuses (Platypi? Platypodes? Well, whatever the plural is…)

But another potential cause for this apparent disinterest was discussed in this recent blog entry by Joern Fischer. Basically, conservation objectives in Europe and Australia are often very different: Australia is still trying to restore what was recently lost, whilst in Europe, agriculture has dominated the landscape for centuries, so species associated with these modified systems (‘cultural landscapes’) are valued instead. In some ways then, although we have done a pretty efficient and effective job of clearing, ploughing, exterminating, introducing and building on as much as we can in a short space of time, conservation goals in Australia are often better aligned with some developing nations than with Europe. So we are in quite a unique situation: we are trying to restore our ecosystems to resemble something like their original ‘pre-European’ state, yet live a highly developed society, with (comparatively) more funding available to dedicate to conservation, and (relatively) fewer urgent competing demands for essentials such as basic food and housing.

Not so freaky: a lady beetle in a wheat field. If it weren't for the blurry Eucalypts in the background, this could have been taken anywhere. As it happens, it's Ooma, NSW. Image: Pia Lentini

Given that Australia is in this unique situation, I think we need to carefully reconcile the issue of where our research can be applied and in what context. For example, Australian researchers have gone a long way in developing conservation planning tools, but these tools clearly need to be pitched at nations which have the budget for purchasing reserves. Other dominant research themes, such as balancing conservation and agriculture, are perhaps better suited to developing nations. But ultimately, the more we have to talk up the international relevancy and talk down the Australian specifics, the less we as researchers feel compelled to work on Australian issues and case-studies at all. What’s the point if it’s only going to be a huge hassle to publish?

 A case in point can be found at the ANU. I was very generously awarded a grant to go and visit Leuphana University, to establish international connections and collaborations and generally make a name for myself and my school. Because of these kinds of schemes and its international publication record, the ANU is ranked as the best (or second best, depending on the ranking system!) tertiary institution in Australia. However, if I wanted to visit a domestic supervisor, or practitioner, or even go to an Australian conference, to discuss an issue which will probably have much more of a direct impact to on-the-ground management, no such funding is available. Additionally, an alternative format for thesis ‘by publication’ (where your thesis is submitted as a series of journal papers rather than traditional ‘chapters’) is only available to those whose work is published in international journals. The incentives are all off.
I’m afraid that the more this international mentality, which is showing no signs of slowing, is encouraged, the more fine detail we are going to lose from the ecological research conducted in Australia. I’m not saying that larger-scale studies which breach multiple continents and ask the big questions aren’t important: of course they are. But these need to be built on a solid foundation of understanding how our systems are functioning and why, which can only come from the smaller-scale finer-detailed studies.
Let’s stop the craziness for a moment and take stock. Clearly it’s not that people have no interest in Australia, if that nice room of people in Germany is anything to go by. We just need to not cave in to the pressure and better articulate, or should I say, insist that the science from our Australian studies is important, and hopefully not lose the specifics in the process.

About Pia Lentini
Pia Lentini is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the University of Melbourne's Quantitative and Applied Ecology group.

One Response to The cost of being internationally relevant

  1. Nicki Munro says:

    I too, would like to see less push to be internationally relevant. Or rather, I’d like to be locally relevant, and for that to be OK. I’m sick of reading papers that propose to answer global questions with a back yard snail.

    Far from Australia being an oddball, however, I think Western Europe is the real odd one out. Australia’s recent clearing history puts it on the same page as North America, but I think these two big areas are not too disimilar from the rest of the world (bar Western Europe). The European understanding that biodiversity conservation is intrinsically associated with traditional farming practices, doesn’t hold up in most other places of the world. If you look at research from parts of Africa, Central America, India, the highest biodiversity is in areas between the agricultural activity. Sure, there might be high biodiversity in the farming landscape, but at the small scale it’s often in the unfarmed bits. This is just like Australia. It’s mostly only in Europe that the biodiversity is IN the farmed areas (although even there, it’s often in hedgerows and ditches between the farmed patches). So, far from Australia being an odd-ball, I think our work is highly relevant, to probably the majority of the world.


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