Welcome to the family Blog

Three images I’ve looked at today coming out of the family blog. Top is a cute brown thornbill nestling in the thorns at Natural Newstead (see blog 6). Middle is a cartoon relating to academics obsession with quantity being discussed by Ideas for Sustainability (see blog 3). And bottom is an image of an urban silvereye. QAEG scientists have discovered urban silvereyes sing different songs to their country cousins (see blog 4). It’s a bit like different blogs. We sing similar songs in different dialects.

Hello CLEAR-as-Blog readers. Are there any of you still out there? It’s been a long time between drinks.

Pia and Karen posted something last week but before that our last blog was in December 2011. We’ll try to do a bit better from here on. In this instalment, I’d like to introduce you to some of the cousins of CLEAR-as-Blog. The extended family, so to speak. In so doing it becomes apparent that there are many different types of blogs serving different needs and desires.

Here is the list of my family blog. It should be noted that every member of CLEAR-as-Blog would have their own network family. This is mine and much of it relates to the research group of which I am a part (the Environmental Decisions Group). Order does not equal rank.

1. CLEAR as Blog
2. Pannell Discussions
3. Ideas for sustainability
4. Quantitative and Applied Ecology Group
5. The UQ Spatial Ecology cluster
6. Natural Newstead

 1. CLEAR as Blog

First up, a note about our own blog. As you can tell from our header, CLEAR stands for Conservation, Landscape Ecology And Restoration. When we set the blog up in 2011, this title/acronym represented the interests of most of the people who wanted to be part of this blog adventure. We are all based at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University.

We started CLEAR-as-Blog as an experiment. Could we meet the challenge of regularly creating blog entries? Could we get a good return on the investment of our time and effort in creating these blog posts? And, could our blog make a difference?

At this instant, based on our record, it would seem the answer to all three questions is ‘no’. I don’t think we proved to be regular or reliable; our members haven’t benefitted enormously; and I don’t think we’ve made that much of a difference. But we’re not done yet and I think there are lessons we can learn from the other family members described below.

2. Pannell Discussions

Pannell discussions are blogs created by Professor David Pannell, an economist (with an environmental focus) based at the University of Western Australia. David explains Pannell Discussions in his blog number 200. (I note that if CLEAR as Blog creates one blog every six months it will take us a hundred years to make blog number 200!)

“My main motivation for starting Pannell Discussions in 2004 was to communicate economic ideas, principles and theories to a wide audience, in a way that engages people and gets the ideas across clearly. I wanted people to see the relevance and interest of economics, and to dispel myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings about it.

I also wanted to raise awareness about my research that might otherwise have sat relatively unread in academic journals.

Seven years later, judging from the number of readers and the feedback I get, the site has achieved those objectives quite well. There are 600 subscribers, and the more popular articles get read by over 1000 people (or at least loaded onto their computer screens).

I think the benefits have been greater than I anticipated. On the cost side, I aim to spend no more than an hour on each one, so it’s not a big burden. And, anyway, I quite enjoy writing them.”

Comments and lessons: David has made his blog part of his work cycle and specified how much of his time he’s willing to invest in it (about an hour per blog). They come out weekly or sometimes fortnightly. He’s regular and reliable, and presents an interesting array of topics.

Recent blog of interest: Ecological thresholds, uncertainty and decision making

3. Ideas for sustainability

In their words: “This blog is written by Professor Joern Fischer and his collaborators. We use it to share exciting new ideas with the world, and to reflect on issues of sustainability and global change. Our aim is to engage not only your mind, but also your heart — something that is too rare in science!”

Joern was a former researcher at the Fenner School and is well known to most of the CLEAR-as-blog crowd. Many blogs at his site are written by him and they range over papers he’s released and/or planning, events, reflections and, more recently short ‘youtubish’ video clips. He’s been so prolific (both blogging and producing papers) that I asked him where he finds the time. He responded by saying that, like David Pannell, he sees the blog as an excellent return-on-investment for his precious time. I.e., he gets a lot back from the blogging.

Of course, it’s not just Joern blogging at this site. His students and colleagues are encouraged to contribute, and the mix of voices and topics makes for a blog well worth subscribing to.

Comments and lessons: This blogs mix of stories, voices and approaches (some posts are really just extended captions to interesting pics) makes for interesting reading and keeps the audience coming back for more.

Recent blog of interest: Let’s go for a drive: “Hear me rambling about Saxon villages for a couple of minutes.”

4. Quantitative & Applied Ecology Group (University of Melbourne) or QAEG

This is a subset of researchers from the School of Botany at Melbourne Uni. They describe them self thus: “We’re a diverse bunch of ecologists who work across a wide spectrum of taxa and environments from frogs to flowers and deserts to desktops. As a group, our research foci include environmental decision making, ecosystem management, and conservation biology, but we won’t shy away from attacking bread and butter topics like community and population ecology, and ecophysiology.”

This is more of a formal workhorse blog for researcher group. Most entries are signed ‘qaecology’ (which means nothing to me) and briefly describe news and opportunities happening in around the group. I know many members associated with QAEG and the site is important to me for tid bits of news and clues on new and up and coming papers (for Decision Point, for example). However, for outsiders I think this style of blog is of limited value. The posts are also irregular, sometime a couple in a week, then nothing for a month and a half.

However, I note that the QAEG home page also carries posts from all the qeacologists. Members of this lab are all encouraged to set up their own word press sites and feed notices of posts to the mother QAEG site. This might be a model for us CLEAR as bloggers.

Comments: Not all blogs are about longer reflective stories, some are more electronic notice boards designed to share and archive events and papers as they happen.

Recent blog of interest: Adaptive Management of Malleefowl

5. The UQ cluster

Wilson Conservation Ecology Lab

Buckley Plant Ecology Lab

economical ecology

The headquarters of the Environmental Decisions Group is the University of Queensland, but UQ doesn’t have a single group hierarchy or blog. Rather, it’s a cluster of research groups, all with strong interconnections with the EDG.

Two of EDG’s core researchers are Dr Kerrie Wilson and Dr Yvonne Buckley, and each has their own blog. However these blogs are even more formal than the QAEG blog at UMelb. Indeed, they are closer to websites than blogsites, serving as contact points, archives, news sites and, occasionally, they present discussions in plain(er) English on science papers coming out to the group.

By way of comparison, Megan Evans, a member of the Wilson Lab, runs her own blog, economical ecology which is more of a web diary or log of her own activities and reflections (which is closer to the origins of blog, short for web log) most of which are in the realm of conservation science.

Comments: I mention Megan’s website here because I think it highlights the difference between an individual’s blog where you can be as individual and ‘crazy’ as you like and a lab’s blog where more care is required to keep balance and not besmirch the good name of the lab you’re a part of. Unfortunately, in being ‘responsible’ the interest level is lower and the site gravitates more to being a static website than a dynamic forum of emerging ideas.

Recent blog of interest: Bimblebox the documentary

6. Natural Newstead

I’d like to finish with one of my favourite blogs, Natural Newstead. The subtitle of this beautiful little blog is ‘Observations of flora, fauna and landscape in central Victoria’, and that’s exactly what it is, though most of the pics and observations are about birds.

It’s set up and largely produced by Geoff Park who is an extended member of EDG and an associate of David Pannell. Geoff lives in Newstead, just outside of Bendigo in Victoria, and his blog presents images that he (and sometimes colleagues of his) capture of the natural history in their neighbourhood. Posts are every few days, sometimes daily, and consist of an image with one or two paras discussing what we’re looking at.

I subscribe to this site. At first I was wondering how long I would let my subscription stand because, like everyone, I’m drowning in too many emails. However, I’ve discovered that posts from Natural Newstead reduce the load on me rather than adding to it. They only take a few seconds to absorb, and they always take me away from the daily grind.

I’m not a birdo but, thanks to this blog, I’m starting to be very interested in the rich array of birdlife on Geoff’s rural landscape, a landscape not that dissimilar to what we have around Canberra.

Comments: This blog demonstrates that you don’t have to produce long and clever essays to create a compelling blog. A few words with an elegant picture will do. Regularity is important, too. Because the posts are so regular, you begin to gain an appreciation of the cycles our landscapes are going through.

Recent blog of interest: Bellbird encounter

General comments: So, that’s my family of blogs. It’s not a big family yet it still displays considerable diversity. Lessons I take out of it are that good blogs are dynamic blogs, dynamic blogs are regularly refreshed, interesting blogs contain personal insights. Good blogs don’t have to be long and don’t even have to be based on words. Good blogs take a bit of time to create but that investment can yield a high return.

Now, if I can only take some of this inspiration and galvanise the CLEAR as Blog site…

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About David Salt
David is a science writer based at the Australian National University in Canberra. He is the editor of Decision Point.

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