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Episode #5

Hugh Possingham: On Failure & Fun in Science Communications

The chief scientist of Australia's Queensland state (and former chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy) talks about culling koalas, dreary conservationists & his biggest science communications failures.

Show Notes


BOB: This is Science + Story, I’m Bob Lalasz. On today’s show Hugh Possingham, the chief scientist of Australia’s Queensland State, and one of the world’s leading conservation scientists, talks with me about why so few people care about conservation. Spoiler alert: maybe it’s the conservationists.

HUGH (quote): I do love hanging out with conservationists, but sometimes they can be miserable and dull. They can really be miserable and dull, and, you know, very much overanxious about failure and anxious about whether they’re getting anywhere. So it does have to be fun. And maybe that is kind of our communication problem, you know? It shouldn’t just be, “Oh, I need to be worthy and count some birds, and plant some trees, and fix up the water quality,” and I’d have to say most of these conservation groups that I’m a part of don’t spend enough time enjoying conservation. Maybe that is part of the secret to the new conservation.

BOB: Hugh’s a very funny guy. Coming up, he talks with me about his most spectacular science communications failures, why most scientists don’t care about communicating well, and why he prefers taking climate change skeptics on bird walks to arguing with them.

BOB: I read an interview with you, and I think I’m quoting this correctly, where you talked about the three parts of [applied] ecology. One is killing things you don’t like, two is killing things you like to kill, and the third is saving things you like from being killed, which corresponds to conservation. Why has it proven so hard to talk with people about the last one, about saving things you like from being killed?

HUGH: Yeah. I suppose the other two make money. So killing things we want to kill, like fish and deer, you know, we eat them, and so the fish is — the fishing industry is big. And the other one, killing things we don’t like, pests, again, it’s not about making money but we’re saving money. So the agricultural pest industry is huge. So they have businesses. The business model for conservation is I think actually now just (inaudible). Technically in some sense is — it is a public good and has all those public good problems that economists talk about, and nobody really owns it. If any industry were to own it, it would be the tourism industry in Australia particularly, which is our fourth-biggest (inaudible) earning income industry. They don’t pay for at all hardly — they pay a tiny little bit from park entry fees, or the Great Barrier Reef charges people $20 for every visiting (dives) on the Reef. So all those other industries have money. They’re billion-dollar industries, or multi-billion-dollar, trillion-dollar industries. The tourism industry is, but it’s so dispersed and fragmented, and who really (inaudible), it actually even though it is a big global industry doesn’t — we haven’t worked out a mechanism for it to pay for the asset that it uses. And of course the other industry is sort of the mental and physical health and well-being of human beings who love nature, which is ten to twenty percent of the world at least. And we haven’t worked out a way of getting (them to pay) either.

BOB: So the way we talk about conservation has been this ongoing search, as long as I’ve been aware of conservation, for relevance to what people care about. And conservation (has tried) wilderness, and as you’ve talked about, biodiversity in many different forms, including ecotourism and ecosystem services, which is the way it provides us with drinking water and other things that we care about. And none of those has really caught the imagination of a wide enough swath of the public to take conservation into the mainstream. Do you think it’s the concepts that conservation is using or is it the way that conversation has talked about them, or both? And what’s next? What’s the next thing to try?

HUGH: Yeah. And I think your assessment is spot-on and very accurate. We’ve gone from existential (inaudible) to sort of a utilitarian. The ecosystem-services stuff is I find slightly annoyingly utilitarian. So we’ve sort of tried everything. You know, we’ve tried (Paul Ehrlich) saying, “This is the last (rivet) on the airplane, and we pump it out, and that species goes. Could it be the (rivet) that’s holding the wing on?” So it’s — we’ve tried fear, we’ve tried utilitarian mechanisms, we’ve tried the love of nature. I mean, maybe we shouldn’t expect anymore than ten or twenty percent of people to really care. And again, talking about those other industries, those industries that require harvesting of resources like fisheries or… I think we say that five to ten percent of the (bill) will live on those things, maybe fifteen percent in more broadly from the harvesting industry. But that’s not a problem; that industry still works. Fisheries is a massive global industry, and all the associated wildlife harvesting a massive global industry, for better or for worse. So we seem to think that we have to get 100% of people caring about nature to make progress. And, you know, we have made incredible progress on the Great Barrier Reef. If you just ask Australians how many people believe the entire Great Barrier Reef, which is the size of Italy, should be fully protected from any form of resource extractions, ninety-five percent of Australians say, “Yes, fully protect it.” I’m sure if you went global that’d be 98%. Closer to the ports of Queensland and the towns of Queensland it might be more like forty or fifty percent. So in that sense we have won the hearts and souls of almost everybody. We just don’t seem to be able to implement the wishes of the people. It’s one of the places where democracy continuously fails, because almost all people seem to want more conservation, but for various reasons it doesn’t happen.

BOB: Let’s talk about a failure. Tell me a story about a science-communication effort gone wrong, a failure that you were in the middle of. What happened and what would you have done differently looking back on it?

HUGH: Yeah. My most spectacular failure was — was actually — it was sort of a conservation issue, but it’s also a wildlife-management issue, and it was highly controversial. And that issue was around culling koalas on Kangaroo Island. So that’s a bit of a tongue twister. So — and it was a conservation issue because koalas had been introduced to this very big island, 450,000 hectares. They were destroying the native vegetation. The only sensible process to remove them was culling them. But of course you can’t get people to cull koalas, and it’s just impossible. I actually convinced over a year and a half after 320 interviews, including one day 9 TV interviews, most of the people for south Australia, eighty percent of people who lived in that state, that the only sensible approach to dealing with this overpopulation of this cute and cuddly animal was to cull them. So, I mean, was it a failure? I could never convince the world, I could never convince the politicians. So it seems to me that some issues are so contentious around wildlife that they will arguably almost never be resolved, whether it’s elephants, or sharks, or crocodiles, or koala management. Because so many people have what you’d have to say is just deeply-held fundamental views that they’re (inaudible). So maybe that was an unwinnable communication issue. It was (fun) and distressing at the same time. But I suppose the other standard issue in conservation is people trying to protect something from destruction, you know, and there being sort of successes there and some failures there. I suppose the one where I’ve had first success and then failure was in Queensland, where we did get the Premier to bring in land-cleaning legislation. So Queensland was clearing 400,000 to 500,000 hectares a year of native – of forest. That’s actually pretty horrific. That puts us close to Brazil if (inaudible). We’re the 16th-biggest country in the world, if we’re a country. And the carbon consequences of that were terrible. The wildlife consequences were terrible. A lot of that was causing runoff into the Great Barrier Reef. It made really no sense at all. We did write a declaration. We had a huge campaign; science led that campaign, and we wrote something called the “Brigalow Declaration.” And then the Premier of the day, Peter Beattie, who was a very progressive Premier, said — waved the letter that I had written with (Barry Trow) in public, in front of all the television stations, and said, “We are going to end this. We will clear maybe another million hectares over the next few years, and then it will stop.” So to me that was the greatest conservation victory I’ve ever been involved in, because I (inaudible) basically bought us about two-billion tons of CO2 (inaudible). I mean, it was massive. I can fly around the planet for the rest of my life and I’m still ahead. And the wildlife it saved was literally hundreds of millions of individual vertebrates who have been saved from being killed and destroyed. That said, that same (inaudible) — and I can dine out on that for a few years — we had a change of government about five or seven — six years later, and within weeks that legislation was reserved. And within months land-clearing had returned to those extremely high levels, which again, it’s literally a lose-lose outcome. It’s bad for agriculture — soil loss, water (inaudible) problems — bad for biodiversity, bad — terrible for CO2 emissions. And everybody was powerless to do anything about it.

BOB: What lessons did you learn from those two things, other than don’t mess with iconic furry animals? And I should mention — I should mention that I’ve read that the wildfires cut them down from about 50,000 to 5000 to 10,000 in population, which tragic for the koalas, but seems like a manageable — from what I’ve read — a manageable-size population, sustainable.

HUGH: Exactly. That kangaroo and koala population, which again I’ll say is an introduced population, is not native to that island, the fire has solved the problem temporarily. And if they can get on top of it now with sterilization and translocation they can contain them. Because as you know, exponential growth is a challenging thing, and you can deal with it when there’s a few hundred or low thousands. When you’re dealing with (inaudible) through COVID exponential growth, (inaudible) gets away from you. It’s hard to contain by hands-on management. So in fact we do think a lot of koalas were controlled by the fire or indigenous people. And that’s why they probably (weren’t on) many islands around Australia, because they used to not be controlled by fire and indigenous people on islands, and then they just basically destroyed all the habitat in time. But there are pictures of koalas being put on islands and killing every tree, and then starving. And that’s an interesting sort of ecological situation. In terms of the land-clearing stuff–which is in many senses far more important – not as in-your-face, but far more important–I think what I realize – and it took me a long, long time to realize that you can’t win in conservation until you have bipartisan support. And that is a major problem for the green movement in general, because often in many countries the green movement will back the left wing. You know, it’s true in your country, it’s true across most of Europe and Australia. They’ll back the left wing because they think they’re going to get more out of it. But when the right wing gets in they get punished. And some of the punishment is – from the right wing can just be bloody-minded retribution. They don’t like being campaigned against. So sometimes it’s, like, that’s why I like working for the Nature Conservancy, because they’re completely bipartisan. They were not either left nor right. And some green groups are starting to take that path. And I would say if I want to have long-term success on issues of land management in Australia I should really be going to the right-wing party first and getting them to buy into it. Because if they buy into it, it certainly sticks and it sticks forever. And you just have to (fight) and win that argument. It’s not that (hard argument) because often they’re supported by the rural community, and the rural community also fully understand that poor land management costs them money.

BOB: Do you ever feel conflicted about advocacy in science? A lot of scientists do, and then a lot of scientists try to be advocates and they seem to abandon their scientific identity. So how do you approach – do you feel like it’s a line you’re walking? How do you approach being an effective advocate without losing scientific credibility?

HUGH: Yeah, that’s an interesting… I’ve never actually at all worried about that in any possible sense of the word. I suppose regardless of where I am and who I’m advising, I’m (inaudible) around a lot of government committees. I have written those kind of (census) letters and (inaudible) advocate. In my current job actually I have to be somewhat more reticent of that, what I say publicly, even what I tweet, because I am state government public servant. But as an academic I feel quite comfortable, as long I was telling you about something I knew about. If I was talking about threatened species, if I was talking about wildlife management, I feel as though I should talk about it. And I could advocate on those issues. And I advocated from the basis of just the facts and the consequences of the actions and inactions that we were not, or we were taking. Never had a problem. Very early on in my career when I was doing major advocacy around forests in southern Australia… And that was the big issue of the ’90s in this country, I think it was more the ’80s and ’90s in the western U.S., spotted owl type stuff. We had our own spotted owl, which was (inaudible) (possum) and controversies throughout many species in that space. I did get several older, more conservative scientists telling me to pull my head in, and shut up, and don’t talk about things unless you’re the one expert. I was making very general statements like, “If you destroy quality habitat for species extinction probabilities will go up,” things like that, which I just thought were mathematically just fact, and then they are mathematical.

BOB: Indisputable, right.

HUGH: They’re indisputable facts. But, you know, it’s in the media, media misreport what you say, and they just sort of said, “Well, you’re only 27, Hugh. You’re too young to be speaking out on these things,” basically, “and you’re going to destroy your career.” Well, I (inaudible) did nothing to my career at all. In fact, a lot of that advocacy work led me to get into a position where governments, particularly the federal government of the day, asked me for a lot of advice. So their view was, “This person cares, they know some stuff, what they’ve said it seems moderately reasonable. Let’s bring them into the (tent),” which also is a double-edged sword of course, being people into the (tent). Because once you’re in the (tent)–chairing committees on biodiversity and helping them draft legislation–you are also starting to get more constrained. But bottom line, no, I’ve never had a problem. And I think the world has changed in the last 30 years. So I look at the young people I talk to and they don’t seem to have any qualms about saying what they feel, as long as, again, I just say, “Make sure you’ve got an evidence base for everything you do.”

BOB: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Roger Pielke, Jr, who’s an academic and — at Colorado University in Boulder, but he’s written about the roles of scientists in policy, and he’s postulated four roles. Basically it’s the pure scientist which sort of doesn’t exist, there’s the science arbiter who is providing empirical answers to questions decision makers have using the tools of science, there’s the issue-advocate, and then there’s what he calls the “honest broker of policy alternatives.” And the point of the categorizations is that where you get into trouble, according to Pielke, is when you’re not clear about what your role is. When you’re a stealth-issue advocate, for example, you’re sort of hiding your advocacy behind a façade of science. So do you find that to be true, and how do you make clear to – if so, how do you make clear to your (interlocutor), “This is the role I’m playing right now?”

HUGH: Yeah — yeah. And I think I’ve played all four roles at different points in time, even down to the pure scientist early in my career. And in my current role it’s definitely I’m firmly an honest broker. So I will get – be asked for advice on how to deal with sharks in Queensland, you know? So – and there’ll be investigations into those processes, and my personal opinions shouldn’t come to the fore; I should just lay out the facts. Because my background is in decision-analysis, I’m very comfortable with that, sort of, like, taking a systemic — something like a multi-factor decision-analysis approach where you lay out the options, you lay out the consequence of the options, and you present that to the decision makers. So in general I’m comfortable about that. I think when I’m advocating for something like issues that involve biodiversity or bird conservation–I’m on the board of BirdLife Australia–I’m very clear that I love birds and I like seeing them, and (inaudible) set some value to me, that’s a private value to me, and I don’t want to lose it. And I also am very clear that other people might not hold that value system. And I suppose I do put an argument that as time progresses more and more people will care about nature and we will regret some of the actions we’ve taken in the past. But that is certainly an opinion there’s no — I can’t prove that’s going to be true. I suppose I’m pretty transparent about my value system all the time. And even where I am being an (honest broker) people know where I stand on issues. They also know, for example, I’m not an animal liberationist. I care about animal welfare but I would say animal welfare is way below my concerns about climate change and extinction. So my value system is moderately — is reasonably transparent I suppose. Not that I don’t value animal welfare – and I know that some people put animal welfare above ecosystem services and ecosystem persistence and extinction.

BOB: So a lot of conservationists – traditionally conservationists are – have been romantic about wilderness. And that implies–or some people are explicit about it–that it’s beyond calculation, it’s beyond value. You bring a decision-science perspective, an expertise to conservation planning and decision making. And when we were emailing back and forth before the conservation you told me you get a lot of questions on species triage. You also get a lot of questions about bringing math and economics into conservation decision making and outcomes, which — and I see the two linked–if we think about the koalas those two things are linked. Right, so how do you talk about math, how do you talk about economics that gets people who normally think about nature in terms of love or affection to open up to the quantification of nature?

HUGH: Yeah. And I think there’s two parts of that question. Certainly when we talk about costs and benefits it’s very quick for some people to think that I’m going to put a dollar-value benefit on wilderness or the existence of a species. And I don’t like doing that. I think that valuation mechanism that some economists are fond of is flawed pretty much; it’s quite weak. At best they can come up with a lower (inaudible) on the value of nature. And that’s why I’m not a super big fan of ecosystem services. What I am a fan of is I suppose if we have a set of resources, how to (deploy) them most cost-effectively. And therefore the benefit (inaudible) doesn’t have to be put into money; it’s benefit divided by costs. And the benefit does have to however be quantified. So it’s numbers of species saved, (inaudible) extent and quality of habitat, they are quantifiable things; we can put numbers on them. And then we try to use our resources to deliver the biggest number of species or the biggest amount of quality habitat we can within the resources. Of course that cost-effectiveness approach, that’s easy, and that’s how a lot of our work is played out. The question then is who decided the budget, and what — how much money do you – how many resources do you have for national parks? How much money do you spend on threatened species? We already know that in countries like Australia that’s about one-tenth of what we need to deliver the outcomes we need to deliver. And I would say that’s not probably something I can say much about. We just point out to the government of Australia repeatedly, “You are spending about a tenth of what you need to on nature to stabilize the extinction crisis. And we’ve done those analyses multiple times. We –that’s all we can tell you.” And it’s up now to the Australian people and the political process to balance expenditure on nature and conservation against expenditure on defense, on health, on all those other things, transport, that people value. And to be honest, that’s where this gets back to that first question, is how do we get that ten or twenty percent of people who think nature is the most important thing up to thirty or forty percent where that expenditure would start to follow? Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of that yet happening. I don’t see the continually increasing interest in climate change, nature, the environment, species extinction. I don’t see yet that being translated into budget allocations, which is puzzling, because it is a big sector. The green vote in Australia is often around ten percent, and (inaudible) the green vote in Europe is around ten or fifteen percent. So why is that not — why is our expenditure on environment so small? I don’t fully understand that.

BOB: You wrote a paper — you were an author on a paper that came out I think recently in Nature Communications about flagship species. So for me this paper sort of crystalizes this “let’s be more rational” point of view. And then it’s trying to balance it with the affection people have already for iconic species So you were listing what’s a flagship species. It’s — the description I read: hundreds of mammals, birds, and reptiles that are themselves charismatic. There’s the secretary bird, the Gila monster, which is familiar to us in the United States, the Andean Bird. So they’re charismatic but they’re often overlooked. If we conserved them we’d get a lot more bang for our buck than we would conserving some of the other charismatic species that we care about, maybe wolves, or lions, or pandas. That’s an exercise in ROI rationality, and then trying to communicate that to people and say, you know, “Designate these species.” It felt to me like it leaves out the affection that people have for species. Do you think, do you have evidence that people could transfer affection to these other species to build some constituency for them?

HUGH: I think we have. And yeah, you’re right, there are some species whose needs are so specific that if you meet them you don’t do anything for anything else. So they’re not good on (inaudible) flagship species and there’s other species if you conserve them many other species come along. And that was what the paper was about can you transfer affections? Yes, I think you can. We actually have some other interesting work with a Polish colleague of mine, and she’s looked at memes and around. She was looking at (inaudible) obsession with Proboscis monkeys. So there was a meme around a cartoon-y type character that was a Proboscis monkey, and thousands – hundreds of thousands of people in Poland suddenly was transferring this meme. And everybody had become obsessed with Proboscis monkeys, which is not typically an icon or a flagship; it is a somewhat vulnerable species. It would be a great flagship. It was just a matter of the packaging of the species and the cute story around it. And it’s an ugly species; it’s an intriguing species. It’s not your panda, koala type thing. So I think you can create those loves with good science communication. And it doesn’t just have to be the immediate visual image; it can be the intriguing story. I think the blobfish is another one that people love now, which is just, like, one of the ugliest animals in the world. So it’s intriguing (inaudible) extremely weird sexual behavior, all those things can gather a following remarkably quickly, particularly in this world of Twitter and Facebook.

BOB: Have you gotten any interest from either NGOs or governments about taking up some of these animals and putting some marketing weight behind them?

HUGH: Yeah, definitely. I mean, a lot of — that work was done for an NGO called “WildArk.” The Wildlife Conservation Society has looked at it and thought about how they could use it. I haven’t gone out of my way to (inaudible) it. That’s another thing — I mean, it was work we did before I started working with the Nature Conservancy but released afterwards. It’s not a typical nature conservancy thing to build things around individual animals, but it’s a bit more – some of the other NGOs like (inaudible) could pick it up.

I mean, you know, that I would say is — if you (inaudible) pick on Hugh’s multiple failings of life, as having co-authored 651 of these stupid scientific papers, you know, I think relatively to a lot of scientists, a lot of them had a huge impact. I mean, our special planning work has built the reserve systems in the planet, and the software we’ve developed. But then too often we just go on to the next paper and we don’t fully realize the full benefits of some of the science we do. And this is a criticism of myself and many of my colleagues–we just don’t spend the time explaining and translating the science we do in all the ways it has to be done to actually allow it to have good impact. The number of times governments and NGOs come to me and say, “Hugh, why hasn’t somebody done that?” and I say, “Well, they have. You know, X did that 17 years ago. Our group did that 12 years ago,” and they can’t find it [LAUGHTER]. And we didn’t explain it, and we didn’t (package) it and we didn’t make it understandable to anybody. So just kind of what you do and the kind of work that — we really need more translators and knowledge brokers in conservation.

BOB: The way you said it — I read in an interview a couple years back, you said, “Science, the way it normally plays out, is read in three years, seen as important in ten years, and seen as useful after twenty,” which felt a little stretched to me but you were making the point. And then you said, “But good communications accelerates that timeframe. Why is it so hard for science to absorb this lesson that communications catalyzes impact? Is it because the incentive structure is still screwed up?

HUGH: Yes.

BOB: Yeah, go ahead.

HUGH: Yeah, exactly. The incentive structure doesn’t incentivize. Most of this is still coming out of universities from a conservation sector, and the incentive structure is just to keep writing more papers in bigger and bigger journals. And the impact side and the communications side doesn’t work.

So you are well aware that scientists in some sense (inaudible) in universities, although the general public think we sit in this ivory tower protected from the realities of the world. They are evaluated quantitatively in a ruthless fashion. So every single person at the University of Queensland, or any university, their boss knows their papers, their citations, their PhD completions, their grant incomes. And they’re all numbers, and they can all be ranked. And so, you know, who else is subjected to that amount of quantification of performance other than maybe athletes? And they are the things they will then pursue, those four things. The things that we’re talking about, which is did you change the way the world works, we haven’t worked out how to turn that into a number. We have stories, and we – in many countries–United Kingdom and Australia–have repeatedly tried to work out the impact of science, and even try and quantify it.

But we still don’t have a citation number, an H index. You know, the dollars you bring into the university is a very clear number. But we don’t have a number for impact; we have stories. It works a bit. People – you know, many of the most highly-regarded scientists in universities have solid track records, but they’re well-known for having impact. But then that also means that they have to have people around them to sell and (inaudible) those stories, and make sure everybody knows those stories exist. And that’s also not in (an) academics. People – you know, Australia is a country of Tall Poppy Syndrome. People get (cut) down if they run around telling everybody what they’ve achieved. So there’s not a lot of incentive to do that either. You know, you’re just (big-noting) yourself if you run around telling everybody what you’ve done. So it would be nice if we could eventually get some idea of how to quantify and (disseminate impact). So it was part of the incentive system structure you’re talking about that would actually draw scientists to disseminate the information much more quickly.

BOB: Okay. And you’ve also explained, for me at least, where the Tall Poppy Award comes from. That’s I think given out annually, right, to young scientists?

HUGH: That’s right.

BOB: Right. [CROSSTALK] You don’t want to be cut down; you want to keep those poppies growing tall.

HUGH: Well, yeah. And so Australia has a history of being anti-tall poppies. And so we are very different culturally from the United States, as anybody who appears to be putting themselves above others is really victimized and picked on. It’s an odd thing, as partly British, and so that’s why… You know, we’ve got to reverse that. And it’s not a matter of being arrogant or obnoxious about your achievements, but we shouldn’t be just continually hiding them and assuming (inaudible) discovered long after we’re dead.

BOB: So now as the chief scientist of Queensland you’ve got a number of responsibilities – actually three key responsibilities. You’re going to – you are leading science strategy across the government. But then the other two are about engagement of the Queensland community in science-based activities, and then promoting Queensland science. And I read somewhere that a survey was done recently and four in five people in Queensland couldn’t name a Queensland scientist or a scientific discovery. And then it was, like, forty percent was given a list of those people and things and couldn’t recognize them. So how are you going to – first of all, why is that important? Because in America if we talked about that on the state level, like, “I was born in Wisconsin; let’s name some Wisconsin scie-” that would not be relevant to growing up in Wisconsin. But it seems like it’s a point of pride in Queensland. And then secondly, how are you trying to break through to build this kind of engagement?

HUGH: It’s tough, and I wish I had a really clever answer to that. But, I mean, why is it important? Again, Australia has had a little bit of an anti-intellectual sort of feel about it over the last – you know, since its inception. I suppose, as a (inaudible) country, science isn’t the kind of thing that people get excited about. People get excited generally about sport and various recreation activities. Scientists are not venerated nearly as much as they are in the United States or the United Kingdom, for example. So a lot of it is just to try and raise the profile of science and get kids excited about it (as the view) that if they see role models then they will pursue more scientific subjects. And (maths) is another important area in that space. How do we do it is really tricky. So it’s nice that my office, well before I joined, was gathering this information and asking these questions. And it’s suddenly making people realize (inaudible), you know, nobody really knows a scientist I think. Ian Frazer, who created Gardasil, which is a global product, he is pretty well the only well-known scientist in the state that he’s produced a product that’s made hundreds of millions of dollars, and has protected millions and millions of people against cervical cancer. So that’s an enormous outcome and it’s a reasonably simple story. How do we get more of those stories, that people are just talking about it over the dinner table that they’re seeing on the news, these exciting discoveries of science that have a real impact and a beneficial impact to people? We’re sort of pushing through the citizen science route at the moment, which I think is one option; it’s not the only option. So we hand out a lot of grants to citizen science groups to try and get people engaged with counting butterflies or birds, or measuring water quality, those sorts of activities, hands-on activities, to teach people about how science – citizen science particularly can be used to help (broader) management and policy questions. So engagement like that. Queensland is an interesting state. Australia’s interesting in that most states there’s a capital city and almost everybody lives there. So from where I come from Adelaide is a million people, and the next biggest city is 60,000 – a million to 60,000. It’s a huge gap, whereas the U.S. is a lot of middle-sized cities. Queensland’s the only state where most people don’t live in the capital city. So we have a big state but we have substantial cities like Townsville. And so one of my other tasks is actually also to try and make sure that we (equivalently) give science opportunities across the entire state. And to me that’s exciting because I think with COVID there’s this notion that we will decentralize a lot of our industry, a lot of our manufacturing, a lot of our science. We have strong regional universities. So I’m excited about the prospect of promoting science in rural communities and regional communities throughout the state, so it’s a much more balanced thing. We have this terrible problem, is that people think all the science and all the white-collar jobs (inaudible) in the capital city, and that’s where the big university is, University of Queensland, Sydney University, Melbourne University and that’s where you have to go to be an intellectual. We really need to now, as people (inaudible) in a more distributive fashion, as we can be more dispersed, and communicate over Zoom and Skype, that we can actually have centers of scientific excellence scattered all across the state, which would be an exciting thing.

BOB: How do you approach conversations with people who don’t believe or trust scientific evidence that you’re promoting to inform a decision?

HUGH: Well, that’s challenging and it’s interesting because we do live in – whether it’s in the University or the Nature Conservancy, I lived in a closeted world where 99% of people believe everything you believe in, and you don’t have to convince anybody of anything. And then occasionally – of course they’re the people you’re working with, and they’re all over the planet. Then you just talk to your neighbor, and they don’t believe the highly-educated, intelligent people that live twenty meters from you. And we’re all friends. My wife has a book club that runs across the street. So great local community.

But (inaudible) are very skeptical about issues of climate change. I suppose I generally don’t go in with a very conflictual or attacking approach. I just ask them whether they believe the weather reports, go to the Bureau of Meteorology website and look at the sea-level-rise issues, look at the number of storms that have happened in Queensland, look at the temperature records. So I just – I appeal to the very basic rule of data and then of extinction rates. Of course (that is appalling). Australia’s basically losing one mammal and one bird per decade over 200 years. And then I say, “Well, you know that – you realize that (if that were gone) in a linear fashion, which is not going to happen, then we’re basically going to make everything extinct in 2000 years.” There will be nothing left. That’s not going to happen. But these rates are unsustainable. So that’s what I say.

I would have to say I don’t get a lot of victories out of those discussions. I don’t think I necessarily challenge people’s minds. In many ways where I have more joy is running local bird walks. So I’m the patron of the local park and another friend’s group, and I just run bird walks with them, and I just… I feel as though I get more impact in converting individual people by just talking about the joy of nature, and listening to birds, and point out how beautiful they are, and talking about the mistletoe, and how the mistletoe bird disperses the mistletoe. That to me is where I get sort of victories in terms of converting people to the green side, not on a discussion about climate change.

BOB: Are you ever tempted to get into arguments with people?

HUGH: No, because I don’t think it works. I think it’s a bit like, you know, a Catholic trying to convert a Jew. I mean, is that going to work? [LAUGHTER] When I was, you know, 18 I was a rabid atheist. I’m still a rabid atheist, and I did try and convert people. And that was entertaining and caused lots of drunken arguments. But of course it was entirely useless.

BOB: I’ll try the other side. In a sense communication today stresses dialogue. We used to stress clarity a lot, and then we found out that clarity alone doesn’t really work. You actually have to have a conversation with people and listen to people. How far do you let dialogue go in these instances where people are clearly not interested in, or have conspiratorial thinking about climate change or biodiversity, etc.?

HUGH: Yeah. Well, I mean, yeah, the conspiratorial thinking, I mean, when people say to me they just don’t believe in the Bureau of Meteorology’s actual data from the machines, is that’s challenging, it’s confronting. Because if that’s true then it underpins almost all the factual knowledge on which we (inaudible). I mean, do they believe the stock market index? Do they believe the (inaudible)? Do they believe the interest rate process? They have to suffer the consequences of those things. I mean, I think I – I’m happy to listen to those views, and I suppose I’m old and I’m much calmer, and I’ve heard lots of whacky things in my life. I do happily engage in the dialogue for a long time with those people who don’t believe. I probably start to come back to just their personal experiences and how they feel about what they’re seeing in the natural world in terms of the diversities they see around them, the changes they see around them. And I also point out some good things. So I would say in the city – most Australian cities the diversity of birds in people’s back yards has gone up. So the suburb I lived in, live in now, was (flat through) agriculture. It was (inaudible) (denoted), it was beautiful (inaudible) (rainforests) with huge diversity, was flattened. And now people are planting trees, and those trees are getting old, and we’re getting birds returning. So I’m also happy to point out I think, like, people (like to hear) some good stories, and they’d like to hear some stories about how habitat restoration does work. The (re-wilding) thing I think is actually capturing the imagination of so many people around the world. People are getting very excited about it here in Australia, and now they’re excited about it particularly in Europe. And so I think you have to show them something that they can do, so – and get them excited about a practical activity. Because just complaining about the side of government funding and burning of coal, they can’t do anything about it. So it’s almost – sometimes I wonder what’s the point of having a discussion. Let’s talk about what they can do at a local level. And then – it’s not unlike my transition from a 12-year-old birdwatcher to writing letters to the newspaper. It took me ten years to become a green-y, having (fallen in love with) nature. So – and it was very much personal activities of growing trees and watching birds. So I think that’s the way — that’s the pathway to success. It’s slow, and it’s not like — it’s not Saint Paul having an epiphany on the road to Damascus. It’s not there. And I think to expect that is (impossible), that it’s a ten-year process.

BOB: Yeah — yeah. So you’re white and a male — I’m stating the obvious — and that is what — kind of what conservation has looked like since it began. And conservation stories have usually been about the guy, usually white, going out and encountering strange wildlife and coming back and living to tell about it. It’s not exactly inclusive. It makes for some decent TV. And then science obviously has its own diversity issues.

HUGH: Yeah.

BOB: So, you know, we can attack diversity and science, but how do we attack this diversity problem in how conservation looks and who represents conservation, while also retaining the expertise that we have in people like you? What are your thoughts about that?

HUGH: Yeah. I mean, I think we are making progress and there are conscious efforts. The Nature Conservancy has a huge diversity program that I think is (inaudible) to their results. The male thing I think we’ve made major progress there. The majority of my PhDs and post-docs were female, and those people are progressing through the ranks. And I think they’re progressing at a reasonable pace. I think there’s more options in terms of part-time work and more understanding of what we call “(Relative to Opportunity)” awards, so there’s a lot of female (on the) awards. When you get grants in Australia from the research councils you have to state how many (inaudible) you have had of research time, and you can take away (caring) of various kinds, and child-rearing, and so forth.

The white thing I think is a much bigger problem, and particularly even though… Well, I just gave a talk to about 40 students last night about careers in the NGO sector from the University of Queensland, and they’re a mixture of (inaudible) and PhD students. And the majority would’ve been women. And ten years ago I would’ve said that would’ve been 95% Caucasian. Now actually they’re not. They’re about – only about 50% to 60% Caucasian, as far as I can judge. So I think we are getting diversity. We don’t have a lot of role models at the top end showing ethnic diversity. We particularly – Australia has a big Asian population, and we are particularly short of – I mean, of Asian people being very visible in the conservation world. And in that sense I think progress is happening. I mean, the International Conservation Biology Conference was held in Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. We are trying to internationalize activities, do more things in Africa and Asia. Latin America I think has actually always been very strong in conservation and there are many leaders and role models from Latin American countries. Bottom line, it’s slow, it’s not as fast as anybody would like, but as long as the progress is positive that’s good. And I think we just need to put in more incentives to make that progress.

BOB: So we’re almost at time. I wanted to ask you about maps. So you have had a rich career in conservation, highly-decorated. You’re associated though in a lot of conservationists’ minds, first and foremost, with the invention of Marxan, which is a mapping software that has been used in over 150 countries. And I read somewhere that it’s (built) half the protected area systems on the planet. What makes a map a good vehicle for communication – science communication or just communication? What are the principles? What makes a map special where it opens up a conversation, or it opens up someone’s mind that another way of communicating doesn’t?

HUGH: Yeah, I don’t know [LAUGHTER]. You tell me. Because you’re right though, people love maps. I love maps. I can’t tell you how much I love maps. If was sitting in a bar and there was (inaudible) of the television on, and there were maps, I’d be looking at the map; I wouldn’t be looking at the television. I can’t actually sit in rooms with maps and have conversation with people, because I just want to walk up to the map and look at it (inaudible). So yeah, they’re great. They’re also evil actually. I mean, you know, [CROSSTALK] you can lie with maps as much as anything. So – and I’ve talked a lot about how people will be mapping things, and then using them to – and then heavily misinterpreted. Yeah, maps are the species (inaudible) used to be 40 years ago. Here’s a map of. And people say, “Oh, that’s where we should do conservation. No (inaudible) we should do conservation. That’s part of the information about where you should do conservation. So what I don’t like is maps that don’t – maps that do deliberately try and confuse people and push them in a direction without explaining all the areas in the maps, where the data comes from. So that’s one of the things that we should be working on more is making sure that (a map) is no better than any other set of data. It’s no better than any story — it’s filled with uncertainty and we should be clear about our uncertainty. It’s filled with data, some of which is – a fraction of which is going to be wrong. And you should look at it, but you don’t necessarily think it’s the answer because you don’t even know what the question is. So I have some misgivings about maps. But you’re right, I mean, I think the most spectacular example I have seen about the use of maps is the Nature Conservancy often use – build three-dimensional models of local communities in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and they get the community to build their 3-dimensional map. And then they point out what’s important to them, where that (inaudible), where particular species are. And that is such an engaging process. And I’ve actually seen that happen here more in Queensland now. They take literally – they make a map the size of half of a basketball court and they bring the whole community in, and people start saying what they care about–farmers, miners, local community members, school teachers. So yeah, I think the use of maps – when you build a map with a community it’s even more powerful, and potentially one of the ways we can do one of the things I really care about, which is better regional planning. Why build towns where there’s high-value agricultural land? Why put solar farms on some of the best forests? We’re doing all those things now. We’re making really bad decisions on land allocation because people don’t realize that they’re taking away future options. And regardless of who you talk to the economists may start convincing you that many resources are unlimited. The one thing I do know is the surface area of the planet is finite. So planning is far more important than the general public realize. Because what we do with every square meter on the earth is ridiculously important.

BOB: Last question. In 2009 you proposed devoting a proportionate fraction of gambling revenues to saving an endangered species to be selected by a random drawing shown on television before the Melbourne Cup. You were also in a great debate two years ago as part of Australia’s National Science Week, and the debate topic was the “greatest discovery ever made.” I’d like to know what this discovery was. But the question is, how do we get more scientists to be playful like this? It seems to me like you really enjoy having fun, and you – even though you’re one of the world’s most-recognized conservation scientists you don’t take yourself so seriously that you won’t appear in a great debate, or you won’t make a proposal like that to solve a problem.

HUGH: Yeah. And it does have to be fun. And I suppose I do give a lot of public talks. And I love panels where you can bounce off a variety of interesting people. And some of the panel discussions we’ve had here in around the world on these topics are – you know, people (spark) off each other and interesting stuff happens. And if – to be honest, I mean, though I shouldn’t really say this, but sometimes I do love hanging out with conservationists, but sometimes they can be miserable and dull. They can really be miserable and dull, and, you know, very much over-anxious about failure, and anxious about whether they’re getting anywhere. So it does have to be fun. And maybe that is part of our communication problem. You know, it shouldn’t just be, “Oh, I need to be worthy, and count some birds, and plant some trees, and fix up the water quality.” And I’d have to say most of these conservation groups that I’m a part of don’t spend enough time enjoying themselves. And maybe that is part of the secret to the new conservation. That’s why I think some of the (re-wilding) stuff is — it’s not quite so — it’s a vision of something that hasn’t happened that’s going to be more exciting.


BOB: You can find show notes for my chat with Hugh, a transcript, and more at our website If you like the episode please rate or review us and tell a friend. And if you have a suggestion for a future guest or topics email me at Resonate Recordings produces Science + Story. Mikhail Porro composed the theme music. I’m Bob Lalasz, thanks for listening.