Interviewed by Ebb January 2014
Gidday Adam, welcome to The Lair, how are you?
‘Pretty good. I don’t think I’ve offended anyone too much in the last few weeks and all my small battles with government agencies finally seem to be bearing fruit’.
I have to ask, what led you to publish your book: ’Kerezsy in the Desert’?
Before I became involved in science I’d never read a science paper but was still interested and read lots of other things. I figured there were other people out there who were similar – curious but not in-deep enough to trawl the literature. All the people I ran into during field trips seemed fairly interested, and so did anglers, but again, they’re not connected with the science world and are unlikely to download a paper. Also I’m lucky because I had plenty of stories, enjoy writing and had a good editor
It must be nice to have a bunch of people read your words as distinct from what seems to happen in science journal world. Any plans for another book?
I think we’re all in the same boat really. Whenever somebody puts a lot of work into a piece of writing and makes it available for public consumption it’s always better if people actually read it. The good thing about a natural history book as opposed to a paper is that it reaches a wider audience. In science departments and agencies there’s a lot of talk about improving science communication, but despite the courses and consultant’s fees I’m not convinced we’re getting that much better at it, so this is my attempt.
With regard to another book, there are certainly ideas floating around but books take ages (a lot longer than a paper) and the publishing industry is pretty depressed, so there’s not a lot of incentive. That said, back in the nineties James Woodford (he’s written books about Wollemi pines and wombats) and I spent two months in complete isolation exploring the Berkeley River in the east Kimberley, and we’re finally getting around to putting that down – not 100% fish-related but a pretty crazy story.
Can you briefly tell us about your main interests in Australian freshwater fish ecology?
I’m pretty basic. Australia’s the driest inhabited continent, and if you look at a map there’s that really big dry section in the middle. How do fish manage to live there when even Homo sapiens have a hard time? That pretty much sums it up – no rocket science, I’m just interested in how the arid zone works.
You came to fish ecological research relatively late in life. How do you think that helps you operate differently, from say someone like me that went almost straight through from school to university to research?
As you’d expect at first it was really intimidating because it involves learning a whole new discipline when you’re over 30. But after you get the degrees and the feelings of inadequacy out of the way it’s good because you realise you have plenty of skills that have been acquired in other areas that can be put to good use. So for me that’s things like photography, writing and presenting. It’s also handy because you end up with what might be termed ‘career security blankets’ – things you’ve done that you know you can go back to if everything stuffs up.
From what I have seen, you have the gift of the gab. Care to elaborate on your experiences with public speaking and communicating fish ecology and specifically fish conservation messages?
Public speaking (and more accurately doing any performance in front of other people) is not easy and I think we all still get nervous before doing a presentation or a lecture – but that’s the way it should be. I’ve been lucky because I’ve had a lot of practice – things like teaching and playing music – and that definitely helps. Also I do a lot of talks to non-science audiences which means keeping everything straight-forward and on-message rather than getting too mired in detail.
I think the formulaic way we (as a group) present at conferences has the potential to be pretty dull, and I’m sure we’ve all seen senior researchers do a crap talk and students do a really good one. Presenting really is a completely different skill or discipline to research and writing, and it has the potential to be far more immediate and powerful. If the universities and agencies want to get messages out there – especially given how competitive news cycles and media in-general is/are nowadays – putting more effort into communications is probably the way to go. The best research in the world means diddley-squat if nobody can understand it.
Given that you were a school-teacher prior to becoming a fish ecologist, would you jump at the opportunity to lecture aquatic ecology at a university?
I’d like to give it a try one day. The best day teaching is about the best work day you’ll ever have. Unfortunately the opposite is also true. But if there’s a theme emerging from these questions it’s definitely the value of communication, and teaching pretty-much epitomises everything to do with it.
Your best, known work is centred on understanding fish populations or assemblages in the context of our desert country. Are there any past or contemporary Australian or overseas based fish ecologists that have influenced your research, and what do you think are some of the next steps in studying fishes in Australian desert systems?
Jim Puckridge’s work is what originally inspired me to work in the desert. He did a great job of looking at the flood-pulse concept – which was basically a northern hemisphere/temperate idea – and picking it apart by pointing out why it didn’t apply in our highly variable and unpredictable inland systems. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I’ve come to know a lot of his colleagues and we often talk about him. To be honest I’m inspired by my other colleagues in the arid country as much as I am by fish people. Jen Silcock is probably the best arid zone botanist our country will ever know, and Max Tischler is the same with terrestrial fauna. Then there’s Angus Emmott, a grazier from south-west of Longreach who’s had about six or seven species named after him. Because there’s comparatively few of us working in the desert we all know each other and often work together rather than being solely fish or bug or plant people – in fact it’s probably not a bad model for other areas. It certainly keeps everything interesting because you keep learning from everyone else.
Next steps for the desert? Take your pick. We’re still way, way back. We have these wonderful systems that are un-regulated and as close to natural as you’ll find anywhere on the planet and we really don’t know much about them. That said, I’m pretty-much fixated on the most immediate arid-zone-fishy management challenge at present, which is trying to stop gambusia wiping out the last few populations of red-finned blue-eye. Getting there, but it’s like taking two steps forward and three back a lot of the time.
Righteo, the questions were never all going to be easy. I’ll soften you up and then hit you hard good sir. One of the things I admire about you is that you speak your mind. What are we doing well in fish ecology in Australia at the moment, and where do you suggest we need to really improve in say the next 5-10 years?
This will sound like a predictable answer given the rest of this interview. Collectively we produce some of the best biology and ecology in the world. I’m sure we’ve all had the same problem of getting our papers back from reviewers when they want more of a global focus and realising that 95% of the work has been done in Australia, and usually by people we know and respect. This is probably why all our best PhDs end up in the US or Scandinavia.
But we’re watching the government sector go into freefall – so there’ll be no jobs, and currently we don’t even have a science minister, so the demand for science jobs is likely to fall rather than rise. So our best PhDs will have no choice but to re-locate to the US and Scandinavia.
So we can sit around blaming the government or the funding bodies or the economy or we can get out there and sell ourselves better, make ourselves visible, and raise our profile. It certainly can’t hurt. Improving our communication and our ability to make our science resonate in wider society is the number one thing we have to do better if we are to retain a vibrant research community.
Many may not know that you are a handy musician, with a surprisingly rich voice. If you ever get to organise an Australian Society for Fish Biology annual conference, which all time act would you have play at the conference dinner, and throw in a support act while your at it.
Don’t know about an act but the best song would be the original version of My Island Home, which (rather ironically) was written by the only white member of the Warumpi Band, Neil Murray. So we could ask Neil along, and for a support act Listy Ellis’s mob from Mildura would have to be a walk-up start given they won some golden-oldies ABC comp recently.
Adam, thanks for taking the time. Look forward to chasing catties with you in a waterhole sometime soon.