Stop the hypocrisy in ecology and academia

I am increasingly frustrated with academia. I’m an active twitter user and I think that this is amplifying my frustration. Not a month goes by when I do not see ecologists, in particular, tweeting about attending another conference or meeting. Most of them, if not all, are flying long distances to attend largely useless events. Then, they also tweet about conservation and the impact of humans on the planet, especially climate change.

I am utterly disgusted and angry about the hypocrisy. Yeah, it’s exciting to visit new places and experience differnt environments and cultures, see new ecosystems and the animals and plants they contain. But, let’s get real. Energy intensive travel and transport in general is one of the major contributors to climate change. Adding to the problem because we have an opportunity is not acceptable. We all need to change our behaviour.

So what about me? I suspect that I have a HUGE lifetime carbon footprint. Absolutely fucking huge. My work requires me travel internationally, but I’m not making that excuse. I chose to apply for the job I have and I need to deal with the consequences. For example, I constantly battle against myself about whether it socially just that I consume a lot more than others who have virtually nothing, just so that I can live a semmingly richer academic life? I never win that battle and it’s a constant struggle. What do you say?

The Sydeny Swans are charting a path away from the rest of the AFL, but where are they going?

Disclaimer. I am a big supporter of the Sydney Swans. They are my team and I’m still hurting from another grand final loss. I’ve followed them since they were the worst team in the league for many years in a row during the early 1990s.

Sydney has now lost two grand finals in three years, one of them in a bloodbath against the Hawthorn Hawks. I’ve now watched them lose four grand finals – 1996, 2006, 2014, 2016. It does not get easier. But, I am lucky to see them have so many chances at winning the league. Some teams have no such enjoyment.

I am happy for this years champions, the Western Bulldogs. They are an exceptionally well-coached team, whose players displayed unbeleivable discipline throughout the finals. Their backline is superb, and their midfield devestating in their intensity on the ball. The Bulldogs were just a better team.

So, what is Sydney doing, and where are they going? This is not such an easy question to answer. Our recent published work on evolution of game-play in the AFL gives a clue about the direction Sydney is going (Woods et al 2016), but we are not entirely sure what the destination is. Let’s take a look at the data, summarised in this figure:


This graphic shows the variability in multivariate dispersion of a set of performance indicators for all AFL teams from 2001-2015. This type of analysis is frequently used in ecological studies of species distributions, especially in the field of biogeography, when analysing the turnover of species across space. In our case the species are the performance indicators, the species abundances are the values of the performance indicators, and the turnover is examined by team and by the season of AFL competition.

We take the median value over all teams and years and then calculate the distance each team is away from this median, each year. So higher values for ‘Distance’ means that a team is further away from the 15 year median – somewhat analogous to the average type of game-play.

What is interesting about this graphic is the blue line: the Sydney Swans. Clearly they are heading away from all other teams in the way they play. They are moving away from the average, while all other teams are hovering around the same distance from the long-term average. Teams that are similar distances from the average do not necessarilly occupy the same game space. They could have the same distance but occupy completely opposite positions in the (multivariate) game space.

What is interesting to ask is: Are the Sydeny Swans leading the league to a new game space, or are they charting a course to nowhere? Only time will tell.




The evolution of Australian football 2001-2015.


Australian football is a very popular game in Australia but is largely unheard of internationally. It’s a strange game played with a rugby-shaped ball. There is no offside rule, players carry and bounce the ball, and scoring involves kicking the ball between very tall white poles – six points for a goal and one point for a ‘behind’.

The game was born more than 100 years ago and the actual origins of the game are contested (Coventry 2015). The Australian National Film and Sound Archive has a film from 1909 showing the oldest known footage of an Australian Football game: the Victorian Football League Grand Final between South Melbourne* and Carlton. Watching this film makes me realise how much Australian football has changed since then. That’s one of the great characteristics of the game. It constantly evolves.



During the first month of this year’s Australian Football League season I was watching a game, streamed live from Australia, and thought how different the game style looked compared to the previous year. I shot a quick message to a friend and colleague back in Australia, something like “Interesting game styles this year!”. We got chatting and wondered if we could get some data to test our ideas. Soon, this turned into an exciting project.

This week, that project was published in the Journal of Sports Science. So what did we do and, more importantly, what did we find? We accessed data covering 15 years of the AFL competition. The data had game metrics for every game over those 15 seasons of competition, things like kicks, handballs, stops in play, tackles etc. They basically represent the style of game because they reflect the tactics and strategies of teams, although no comprehensively.

It turns out that the AFL game style has undergone a dramatic shift during the past 15 years (See picture below). This graph is a bit crazy but let me explain. Each point on the graph is a whole year of data for one team. The further away two teams (points) are on the graph the more different they played during that season (or thereabouts). Each coloured polygon surrounds all the teams for one season. Finally, the green and red lines represent the winning and losing teams of the grand final – the game that decides the champion team for that year. The year 2001 – when the data begins – is in the bottom left corner and the 2015 season data is the right side.


At the beginning of 2000s most games were similar. In about 2004 things started to change across the whole league and continued changing until about 2010, after which the games became very similar between seasons. We were stunned at how the whole league changed simultaneously over these 15 years.

This finding got me thinking about the history of the game and led me to a great book by James Coventry, sport editor at the ABC Australia, “Time and Space: the tactics that shaped Australian Rules – and the players and coaches who mastered them” The book covers the birth of the game to the modern day. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it. Coventry describes the innovations and evolution of the early game and how those dynamics continued, punctuated by periods of rapid change, through more than 100 years.

In the modern game Coventry highlights one tactic that he thinks has changed the game forever: the interchange of players through a game. During the 1990s the AFL administrators decided to increase the number of reserve players. These players could be ‘rotated’ on and off the ground an unlimited number of times during a match. This rule, Coventry explains, wasn’t really exploited until the early 2000s: the same period where we see rapid change of game styles.

Enter Chris Connolly, head coach of the Fremantle Football Club. He was the first coach to implement a higher rate of player interchange through a game. I think an average interchange number was about 20 per match. Connolly’s training and conditioning staff thought that periods of high intensity running followed by rest periods on the bench would give his not-so-talented roster a greater chance of winning matches. Observers of the game hated it, and so did other coaches. Players who scored a goal would be rested immediately much to the dismay of fans – why rest a player who just scored?

A few years later nearly all teams used this tactic and it’s now ubiquitous throughout the league. Interchanges grew to a staggering 120 per match! Only recently has the AFL administrators restricted the number of interchanges allowed during a game – a maximum of 80. We speculate that this tactic, amongst others, probably contributed to the rapid league-wide change in game-play in the League. Australian Football is constantly changing, for better or for worse.

If you would like to read the full paper please direct message me on Twitter at @monsoontrader, supplying an email address, and I will happily send you a copy. Or, leave a comment. I really must thank James Coventry for writing this book and giving up some time to chat with me about Australian Football.

Woods, C.T., Robertson, S., French Collier, N. Evolution of game play in the Australian Football League 2001-2015. Journal of Sports Sciences.

Coventry, J (2015). “Time and Space: the tactics that shaped Australian Rules – and the players and coaches who mastered them”

* The South Melbourne Football Club (The Bloods, The Blood Stained Angels) moved from Melbourne, Victoria, to Sydney in New South Wales in 1982 and were re-named The Sydney Swans. They happen to be the team that I have followed since 1993. Go The Bloods!

** I wrote this post before the 2016 Grand Final which featured The Sydney Swans (my team) and The Western Bulldogs. The Bulldogs won. My colleague and co-author Sam Robertson works with the Western bulldogs – congratulations to him and the club.

Other figures from the paper




Revival of landscape-scale research?

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

It’s easy to by cynical about the state of the world, and the state of academia. A recent commentary in Nature suggested that “current trajectories threaten science with drowning in the noise of its own productivity”. Leading journals are full of technocratic formulas for how to fix the world; while the deeper questions underpinning our sustainability crisis remain unaddressed. But every now and then, there’s a glimmer of hope.

I’ve recently been hopeful about a possible revival of landscape-scale research. To me, conservation science went a bit like this: general principles were being established in the 1960; reserves were advocated in the 1970s; reserve planning was perfected in the 80s and 90s; the “matrix” outside protected areas attracted attention in the 1990s, along with a rise in landscape ecology; ecosystem services arose as a new field of enquiry in the 2000s; and protected areas…

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(Mis-)Framing for Impact

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

In our recent review of papers on the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation, we showed that there was a “biophysical-technical” branch of work. This branch talks about food security, when actually, it’s largely about food production. A recent paper in Nature Communications provides a perfect example of some of the most widespread (mis-)framings in a food security context currently prevalent among scientists (especially natural scientists).

The paper is by Sattari et al. It’s on global phosphorus budgets, and it’s an interesting read. I see nothing wrong with the research as such, but I found its Abstract irritating. I’ll copy parts of it here, with the “offending” bits highlighted:

“Grasslands provide grass and fodder to sustain the growing need for ruminant meat and milk. Soil nutrients in grasslands are removed through withdrawal in these livestock products and through animal manure that originates from grasslands and is spread in…

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This paper about feral cat foraging behaviour in response to landscape scale fires has just been printed. It’s an interesting paper. While reading it I was drawn to one of the figures in the results section. Here is a screenshot of the original:

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 11.52.15 PM

I am really bothered by poor data analyses, and data visualisation, in scientific papers. I’m not perfect – made loads of mistakes – but when data is presented in one of the highest ranking journals in the world, it kind of annoys me. So, what about this figure? Any model fit done in Excel automatically raises an alarm for me, but that’s not what raised my concern about the figure. It seems obvious that the fitted line does not fit the data very well. So, I digitized the figure to extract estimates of the data and then plotted the data in Excel (as per the Methods description). As a first guess I chose to fit the built-in functions to the data: the first function, logarithmic – looked about right. I then also fitted a power function to the data, which explained more of the variance. Here is the figure (without axis labels because I couldn’t figure out how to use this stupid software – Use R!):


The logarithmic function (blue line) explains 39% of the variance in the data. The power function (green line) explains about 18% more variance compared to the logarithmic function. Even the linear fit (not shown) explains more variance than the logarithmic fit (R2 = 0.45).

None of this really matters because the paper has been published and it’s a small problem. Although, I think it’s important to identify these these problems because of the assumed high quality of papers in such journals – always be diligent when reading papers, no matter how high the impact factor.

A colleague also tried to fit a better model to the data and produced an interesting result – He’s an economist.


Hierarchy and respect

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Every now and then, I’m given reasons by the German university system to seriously doubt if I can handle it in the long term. Overly complicated administrative processes aside, my biggest issue with the German university system is the explicit and implicit reinforcement of unhelpful hierarchies, particularly with respect to early career researchers.

Early career researchers (ECRs) — especially postdocs, but often also PhD students — are the future of academia. They are the powerhouses of productivity, the social backbone of departments, and the people who rescue students who have been neglected by their professors. Depending on where you look, their treatment in the German system varies from unhelpful to disgraceful.

Here are some of my “favourite” things that are wrong in the German system:

  • Many funding agencies do not allow ECRs to independently apply for money. Rather the grant needs to be submitted by a professor. As a result, every year…

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Grasping hope

Last weekend I celebrated a friend’s birthday in Witzenhausen. We arrived on a Friday night in Göttingen about 6 pm. We hopped on a local train for the final 20 minutes of the trip. We sat down and started drinking a couple of beers we bought at the station. A man approached us clutching a bunch of papers and hauling a few bags of luggage. He mumbled some broken English; asking if he was on the train to Kassel. We reassured him he was on the right train, but that didn’t console him. He kept asking and we kept reassuring him. He held on to those papers like one holds on to life. For the rest of the 15-minute trip he just held those papers and stared at them. The papers were his ticket to Kassel, but also a ticket to a better life.


He was from Gambia. He said he had been travelling for 3 days: Gambia, Libya, by boat to Italy and then by train to Hamburg. He arrived in Hamburg and was told to go to Kassel immediately for processing. Germany has mobilized its resources to deal with the crisis: one million people in one year was the mantra from Merkel’s government.

I held little hope for his expectations of asylum, but what did I know?. I’m just a desktop foreign policy, global politics, ‘the world is fukt’ wonk. I don’t know his story. I don’t know whether it fits the global narrative of who deserves asylum and who doesn’t. I do know that he is just like everyone else: looking for peace.

Adventures in West Papua

The island of New Guinea is rich in biodiversity, culture, and language. It is the ideal place for researchers interested in the complex interaction between humans and nature. Many years ago I was fortunate to visit Papua, an Indonesian province on the western side of New Guinea. It was a short trip of about ten days to scope a project run by the IUCN. We arrived in Jayapura, the provincial capital, and then took a short flight to the Baliem Valley in the highlands of central New Guinea.

The Baliem Valley is a vast landscape inhabited by approximately 300,000 people knitted together in a mosaic of tribes. Wamena, the major city of the region is relatively modern, albeit only reachable by air because there are no roads connecting it and Jayapura, the regional capital. Almost everything is imported to Wamena by aeroplane – even chicken eggs! These galleries are some of the photos I took during the fieldtrip.


Adventures in West Papua: the feast.

The only time I have ever regretted being a vegetarian was during this trip to Papua. After a successful fieldtrip to the Baliem Valley our project leader decided that we should share food with the people who had helped us understand their situation in gaining land rights and sustainable livelihoods in the face of government intervention in the landscape. The leader of the group we were consulting suggested that we buy two pigs as the centrepiece of the celebration, and their people would supply potatoes, yams and ferns – yes delicious steamed ferns. One of our Indonesian colleagues negotiated the purchase and paid for the two pigs: five million Indonesian Rupiah. Cinq Million! our group leader exclaimed. About $500 Australian dollars. He’s not French so I was curious about why he exclaimed in French. Anyway, here are some photos from the preparation, cooking and eating of the feast. If you are interested I only ate the vegetables with local spicy sauces. Delicious. But I should have tried the pork.