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[Music plays and text appears: Australia’s biodiversity. Insights from the editors]

[Image changes to show Fiona Brown, CSIRO Communication]

Fiona Brown: CSIRO has published a book called Biodiversity Science and Solutions for Australia. Here to provide some further insights into biodiversity in Australia are the book's Editors, Dr. Andy Sheppard, Dr. Steve Morton and Dr. Mark Lonsdale. So why is biodiversity so important?

[Camera pans over each Editor as they are introduced by Fiona]

[Camera moves to Dr Mark Lonsdale, Editor, Biodiversity: Science and Solutions for Australia]

Dr. Mark Lonsdale: It's our life support system. It's what provides the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink ultimately, so without that we're living on a dead planet.

Dr. Steve Morton: Well, we wouldn't be living on a dead planet.

[Camera moves to Dr Andy Sheppard, Editor, Biodiversity: Science and Solutions for Australia]

Dr. Andy Sheppard: So, while biodiversity, as Mark rightly says, is our life support system there are still big questions out there about how much biodiversity do we need. You know, if you look at the European landscape, most of it's been modified by man, very little is pristine and untouched. Australia is almost the opposite. You know, there is still huge questions to say, well how much biodiversity do we actually need in order to be able to have a life sustaining planet? We know that the more biodiversity there is the more primary production you have on that piece of land, the more that land... that community and that land can be resilient to change and the more ecosystem services that land can provide. But, as human development and disturbance is something we can't escape from, and it’s still a huge question to know, you know, how much is enough and how much can we let go of and not put our life support system at risk.

[Camera moves to Dr Steve Morton, Editor, Biodiversity: Science and Solutions for Australia]

Dr. Steve Morton: And it's not... yes and then there's more again, because it's not just the life support system, there's also several other values that many members of society place upon the natural world, people who obtain spiritual reward from it, people who believe it to be incredibly important for their recreational benefit. So, the ecological life support one is probably primary alongside the economic value that we obtain directly through harvesting native species, but you cannot discount completely those other aspects of value that people read into the natural environment around them. So, balancing all those things that's a challenging task and a really interesting one.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Lonsdale]

Dr. Mark Lonsdale: So, it's a life support system but it's... we don't want to just survive do we? We want... we want to live. We want to experience. We want to experience a country that's vibrant and healthy and in preparing the book someone said to me, you know, “Every...” I think this is an extreme view, but I warm to it, “Every species that we lose diminishes us as Australians”. You know it’s… they're Australians too.

[Camera has moved back to Fiona]

Fiona Brown: And where do you think the future of biodiversity science is heading in Australia? What are some of the new technologies that you think will really change the landscape for us in biodiversity science?

[Camera has moved back to Dr Lonsdale]

Dr. Mark Lonsdale: I think probably things that we really lacked is the capacity to know what's going on out there in enough time to be able to make useful decisions. So, what we're starting to see now is the capturing of... of data from observers on the ground; community groups, catchment groups and so on are able to feed that data into things like the Atlas of Learning Australia. Through things like eco-genomics, you know, which is basically a system of using modern techniques for detecting the presence of genes of particular types of particular species, particular organisms and be able to say “This system is heading in this direction. That system is heading in that direction” based on very rapid detection of the presence and absence of particular species, particular metabolic cycles, so that you can say the ecosystem's functioning well or badly. Those kinds of things are becoming very readily and cheaply available now. Some of the areas that we're working on as well are about being able to... we hear about the use of military drones, you know, those have revolutionised counter-terrorism. We're finding that that kind of technology can be applied in mapping and monitoring biodiversity at quite large scales in a way that previously we've had to do through, you know, trudging through the bush.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Sheppard]

Dr. Andy Sheppard: Yeah, Mark's absolutely right. I mean, to be able to automate the collection of biodiversity data through drones but all through sensor networks which pick up... they can pick up species, but can also pick up all the environmental information, allows you to be able to measure change in real time at extremely low cost.

Fiona Brown: Yeah, wow.

Dr. Andy Sheppard: You know, biodiversity... classic biodiversity research with people on the ground is very expensive, as is the restoration activities, so the more we can automate the way we collect our data through remote sensing, through sensor networks, through automated, unmanned vehicles and so on and all that technology is now just starting to come along - we're only scratching the surface of knowing what it can do – then that will put us in a much stronger place to be able to know what's happening and be able to respond to change.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Morton]

Dr. Steve Morton: Right, so there's one thing though that hasn't been mentioned yet that is really important for the future of biodiversity science and that is to connect the physical understanding, the understanding of what's happening in the natural world to human values and human needs. So, connecting that change that might be... being undergone out there in the natural environment, as it influences us in our social and economic systems and biodiversity science will begin reaching out more and more in future years to these other disciplines to try to understand how we could end up weighing these pluses and minuses. As human society is, this part of the environment for this purpose had this influence on biodiversity and how you judge that and trade it off against some other benefits somewhere else. That'll be a huge part of the future development of the science.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Sheppard]

Dr. Andy Sheppard: Science also informs policy too. So in other words, when you have a broader understanding in the community and the Government knows which ways it wants to go, science can also inform, you know, what are the instruments or mechanisms that we can develop to try and encourage more participation and encourage the investments into this space just don't come out of the public purse. You know, one of our major projects that we've been involved in recently is trying to understand the population dynamics of fruit bats, flying foxes around Australia and we've been trialling small radio receptors on the backs of foxes that allow not only to understand where the foxes are moving, but who they're interacting with, how much time they're spending in a what's it called, a bat...?

Fiona Brown: Roost.

Dr. Andy Sheppard: Roost, versus how much time they're spending on the wing and it can down… the interceptor can download the information in real time through the network the moment it comes in contact with the network. So, all the information is coming in without anybody actually having to be out there with binoculars doing the counting.

Fiona Brown: Yeah. So, in the future we might have a problem of too much information rather than (laughs)...

Dr. Andy Sheppard: I think too much information is one of the big challenges, yes, yeah.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Lonsdale]

Dr Mark Lonsdale: So we talk about big data and I think you're right, one of the future trends will be the emergence of people able to absorb, synthesise and draw conclusions from vast bodies of data downloaded from these kinds of sensor networks, as well as from, what I'm hoping and expecting to see, a citizenry that is turned on to science and is uploading data all the time.

[Camera has moved back to Fiona]

Fiona Brown: Yeah, so is that, kind of, a example from the Atlas of Living Australia app?

Text appears Atlas of Living Australia

I've seen the app that people have on their phones and so they can actually contribute data; is that what people are hoping will happen?

[Camera has moved back to Dr Lonsdale]

Dr. Mark Lonsdale: Yeah, yeah, very much so. So, don't be worried about sending us too much data. You can send us the data and then we'll work out how to use it.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Sheppard]

Dr. Andy Sheppard: But let's bear in mind that the Atlas of Living Australia app provides data back to the user, so it's not just for scientists. The individuals themselves can access all the data, they can access all the tools the scientists can and if they're interested and motivated, they can carry out their own analyses around their own communities without having to wait for us boring old scientists to do it (laughs).

[Camera has moved back to Dr Lonsdale]

Dr. Mark Lonsdale: Well you may actually indeed... well indeed, the idea of citizen science is that there's less of a... there isn't a divide between a professional scientist and the citizenry. People are actually becoming scientists in their own right.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Morton]

Dr. Steve Morton: Do it well. And of all the fields of science where that ought to be the case it's in biodiversity science, because, you know, we've emphasised over and over again that it's human perception which is going to drive our future, because it's human perception which will cause us to weigh certain things in certain... in favour of certain types of resource use and against others. So citizen science in biodiversity, it’s both a godsend and a natural, isn't it?

Dr. Mark Lonsdale: Yeah.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Sheppard]

Dr. Andy Sheppard: I think just, Mark mentioned genomics; I'll just give one other example of how it can be applied in a very effective way. So, if there's any major development activity, being a mine or a new suburb on a city, you need to know before you start what's already out there, what's out there in that particular patch of land that may be of value that needs to be protected that may be unique and up till now it's been ecologists going around with clipboards based on, you know, fairly, in many cases fairly poorly documented lists of what occurs in those communities and trying to come up with more complete lists. Expensive, primitive; doesn't really generate complete lists.

Dr. Steve Morton: But hang on, that's what I used to do.

[Laughter can be heard off screen]

Dr. Andy Sheppard: Well, exactly. If you were a scientist now doing biodiversity, Steve, there would be many more tools available to you and the advantage of...

Dr. Mark Lonsdale: You are expensive (indistinct – 10.15)...

Dr. Andy Sheppard: And the beauty of genomics is that it… you can rapidly sequence genomes from any specimen you might go out and collect very, very quickly and understand what's out there. It does generate a lot of data but there are tool now to analyse them. So, for example, you can collect insect in traps, you can pick up samples that are coming in the wind. You can pick up dung from animals; you can process this really quickly and very quickly get a much broader understanding in-depth, right down to microorganisms as to what's out in those communities before you start any action. So, you have a good baseline data on whether to assess the damage that might happen and where in a particular landscape you can minimise damage, but also to evaluate as you go through how your activities might be changing that landscape. And this is one of the reasons why in the book we were so positive, because these new technologies will change the face of biodiversity science and what we're capable of doing and the way in which we can monitor change over time.

[Camera has moved back to Fiona]

Fiona Brown: Fantastic. And what are some of the other, kind of, key challenges or outcomes that you think biodiversity science needs to address in order to ensure that we have, you know, strong biodiversity into the future?

[Camera has moved back to Dr Morton]

Dr. Steve Morton: Yes, so can I have a first go at this one? But for me, the answer to that question is monitoring. Now we've just been talking a lot about new technologies for monitoring but the fact of the matter is that most monitoring doesn't work because it's not conducted regularly, systematically, methodically through time. Monitoring is only of use if we continue to do it year after year and it's only of use if the results of the monitoring are easily and concisely expressed in such a way that anyone can see what's going on. If it's too complex then people get a bit tired of it and their attention drifts on to something else and the monitoring stops. Monitoring’s got to be workable and consistent and indefinite and that for me is really the biggest challenge of all, because at the moment we don't have any regular methodical such system for biodiversity monitoring in Australia. It's partly as a result of scientists not coming through with concise, measurable, understandable parameters. Partly it's immaturity of our perceptions as a society about how important this is going to be in the future.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Sheppard]

Dr. Andy Sheppard: I mean there are big programs that have started up in Australia, like the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, with that in mind, so we're starting to see a change. But Steve's absolutely right, it's the lack of good monitoring data which is an extreme handicap when it comes to deciding what you need to do.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Morton]

Dr. Steve Morton: And why is all that so important? It is because biodiversity is not stable out there, independent of human activities. It's constantly fluctuating according to climate and disturbance and.. and long standing changes running across the landscape. It's fluctuating so the monitoring is so vitally important because the task is to separate natural dips and curves from human induced changes. Monitoring in any social, economic and natural system is vital and you know, I applaud the developments that have taken place, Andy, they're so important, but we're not there yet and that for me is a big gap.

[Camera has moved back to Fiona]

Fiona Brown: We've heard a bit about what's happening in Australian biodiversity science and things CSIRO is doing but what about on the international level?

[Camera has moved back to Dr Lonsdale]

Dr. Mark Lonsdale: Internationally biodiversity is really, it seems to be moving up the political agenda, so last year a whole bunch of Governments, I think about a hundred Governments, got together to form a new platform to bring science and biodiversity policy together, a science policy platform as it's called, a bit like the I.P.C.C that's done so much over the last 20 years to understand and categorise and quantify what's going on with our climate and package that in a way that policy makers can respond. So, we've created something similar around biodiversity and ecosystem services and so that's going to, over the next few years, attempt as we were saying earlier to synthesise trends, how things are going and then project forward and say “If we do this, what will happen? If we do that, what will happen?” and provide some guidance to decision makers to, we hope, produce better outcomes for the world. I think, tell the truth, I think Australia's well ahead of that game. It doesn't need this platform as much as some countries do, but a lot of the world's biodiversity is in countries that just don't have Australia's planning and resourcing capacities and this platform will help them to make better decisions for the future.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Sheppard]

Dr. Andy Sheppard: And Mark, the platform has a strong social and indigenous element to it too, so it's not just western science.

[Camera has moved back to Dr Lonsdale]

Dr. Mark Lonsdale: That's absolutely right, Andy, so it's attempting to bridge that gulf that currently exists that we've tried to tackle in our book, to bring indigenous knowledge to bear and integrate it with classic western science and what that’s telling us and when I say classic western science, too, it's, as Andy says, it's not just about the natural sciences, but it's also saying, what are the social sciences, what have they got to tell us about the decisions that we make and how do we understand and value different aspects of biodiversity. So, it's quite an exciting agenda and a very ambitious agenda and Australia's committed to it. Be interesting to see in 20 years’ time how much progress we've made. I hope we've made, we've set some significant policy agendas for the world through this process.

[Camera has moved back to Fiona]

Fiona Brown: Well, thank you gentlemen. I've certainly learnt a lot and if you'd like to learn more about biodiversity science in Australia I'd encourage you to download your free copy of the biodiversity book from

[Text appears:]

[Music plays and CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here]

Watch a panel discussion with the book's editors (16:55)

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The cultural and scientific values of Australia’s biodiversity are globally significant. Despite its rapid and ongoing decline, we remain optimistic about the way forward for biodiversity in Australia.

Chapter overview

Three challenges stand out to the authors:

  • science is still wrestling with the effective measurement of biodiversity
  • the undeniable evidence of significant biodiversity loss demands actions
  • managing biodiversity requires compromise because of the varied values that humans bring to their decisions.

Based on their experiences working in biodiversity science, the authors present their five top potential advances that seem to offer the greatest promise for the future of biodiversity in Australia:

  • fill key gaps in our scientific knowledge of Australia’s biodiversity
  • build community involvement in managing biodiversity
  • build national consensus on biodiversity priorities and establish performance measures for these in Australia’s national accounts
  • institute a national program of biodiversity monitoring
  • focus on creating resilience in our biodiversity.

Download the chapter or the whole book [PDF and EPUB versions available]

Chapter authors

Steve Morton and Andy Sheppard

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