Living Data: <br> Inclusion

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned
that this program contains images and voices of deceased persons.

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Living Data:
Inclusion

2018 Conversations

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Diversity at the table can mean we make better decisions.

I work in Antarctica and not many people get to go to Antarctica. So it's really important to have artists and other people help us to communicate - to bring Antarctica to people. And often with species as well - tiny little species that nobody knows anything about. I can write a paper, I can do a bit of media, but if an artist can bring that species to life and reach a bigger audience, to bring an ecosystem to life, that's a really powerful thing and that's why we need the interaction of arts and science.

Dr Justine Shaw, Canberra 2018

Dr Justine Shaw explains some of the surprising and predicted outcomes from the 2018 Boden conference she convened with Dr Dana Bergstrom: 'Ecological Surprises and Rapid Collapse of Ecosystems in a Changing World'.

 

On Friday 11th May I speak with Justine after the 2-day workshop that followed the conference.

Lisa:
Did anything shift in your understanding of why you're doing what you're doing, and why we're here and where we're going?

Justine
I think what shifted for me was the magnitude of the problem and how common it is in our world. So, I've worked a lot at the species level, because that's where the legislation protects where you can actually act, but I think I hadn't expected - and I'm looking at a species - a koala, or a Tasmanian devil - and we see the same problems playing out in all species around Australia, and it's the same threats impacting them - I think what I was a bit blown away about is that it's happening at an ecosystem level. And we're starting to think about that now. And that's even more the scale of the problem in terms of human well-being, it's much bigger if we're talking about ecosystem collapsing. Not just species going extinct, but whole ecosystems collapsing. And that I think for me drives how much of an issue it is for human well-being.

.

If the orange-bellied parrot went extinct would be a little bit sad, but not everyone will, but if we lose entire kelp forests or if we lose whole mountain ash forests, we lose our fresh water, we lose our marine resources. So I think for me a take home from the conference has been that everyone [at the conference] is seeing ecosystems collapse all over Australia, and even more broadly. And it happens really rapidly.

People aren't surprised though. And so I think that tells us that we know what the problems are, we just have to fix them.

So I've been involved in these kinds of workshops and think tanks for a long time and one of the things I was really keen to ensure was that everybody had a voice, and that everybody felt comfortable about using their voice. And one of the ways that we ensured that would happen was we had diversity at the table, which is what you observed. And the way we had to capture that diversity was to pro-actively try and create it. So we ensured that we invited young people working in this space, and that we had enough young people so that they felt comfortable. So my experience today has been that when you're a junior person and you go into a room full of senior, experienced, credentialed people, you're quite scare to speak up, 'cause you think, you know, I don't really know enough. But if you see other people around you speaking up, then you feel confident to also speak up.

By design we also ensured that we had a really good gender make-up. And so, again, in the Life Sciences, it's a male-dominated field at senior levels and we really need to actively try and change that. And people with different genders and different backgrounds have different approaches, and so in terms of coming up with solutions, I think having diversity at the table in gender, age, discipline, it means that you make better decisions, and you come to more creative and robust conclusions.

So by design, we had to actively ensure that we had gender, and younger people, and older people. We wanted the wisdom and we wanted the enthusiasm and innovation. So we ensured we had diversity to try and get that.

By listening to each other - and there was no turf-warring in our conversation - it was just - I think this, I think that,... but feeling confident that you had a voice and were listened to, and then hearing all the voices, I was learning the whole time. And that was really exciting. And it's nice to know that in that space you're teaching other people. You've got an audience but you're also - you're learning, they're learning, so it's an exchange of knowledge so that's really exciting I think.

Lisa:
How important to you think that is, for people to witness the process as well as the products that are going to come out of this?

Justine:
Yeah, so it's not something I've thought about, because I assume people understand the process and obviously they don't. So I guess, yeah, it's important that people understand that we do exchange knowledge, that it's not just, oh, here's the facts, swallow it, deal with it. There are complex problems and we get confused. And we have to nut out the complexities. But I think the solutions are often simple. Once you work out what the problem is, often it's pretty straightforward what you need to do, if that makes sense. And so for people to watch the process and understand how we exchange knowledge... I think maybe for an observer at times it would have looked like we were in disagreement and we couldn't agree on something, but actually it's kind of part of the process. Science is that - you know, I challenge you, you prove it to me, where's the evidence, what do I do with that information, what do you do with that information, and do we both come up with the same outcome with the same data?

Science is built currently on this foundation of peer review, where I review as a peer, what you're saying and I hold it up to scrutiny. So that's probably a process that isn't apparent to people.

So the thing about climate change is that 95-98% of scientists are actually in agreeance that it's happening. We're not arguing that it's happening. We know it's happening.

The issues that we're dealing with - we are still trying to work out terms and conditions. We all understand that ecosystems are at threat and are collapsing. And we unpack the nuances - Is it collapsed, is it irreversible? Can we still do something for this ecosystem? And I think at times in that process it might look like we're arguing but really we're teasing out and getting down to the facts. A lot of it is also nested in definitions. I think one of the beauties of science is we understand about definitions. And so once we understand that we're using the same language, then it really plays out as to what we're talking about. One of the really hard things, as a scientist, is the way the non-scientific community interprets the language. And the message gets lost. And I think that's a challenge.

Lisa:
How important do you think it is for people in the arts and humanities to interact with scientists, and listen to scientists? And vice versa?

Justine:
I think it's really important for people in the arts and humanities to interact with scientists because we struggle to get our message out and our messages are really important. We are also trained to be data driven, fact driven, and to stay within the confines and within the confidence boundaries, and we're also trained to be succinct and to get the point across in a very factual- it's an institutionalised structured way we deliver information. So I think the beauty of working with people in the humanities and arts listening to us, is they can hear our message but they can do much more creatively, and reach people in a different way than we do.

When artists come to me, or people in the humanities, I think what's a really good lesson for me is to [ask], what is my message, what's the big message. Not the detail, not the nuances, but what's the simplified version - not saying that arts are simplistic - but if you're trying to communicate science in difference forums, different spaces, or mediums, or audiences, you really need to know what your message is. And so if you're talking to scientists all the time you can kind of waffle on for ages and they understand what you're talking about, but if you're dealing with other disciplines in an interdisciplinary way, you need to be strong and understand what your message is.

One of the reasons scientists should interact more with artists is that it can be really rewarding. It can be really exciting to watch another person's interpretation of what you study all the time. So I might study a plant, and I've been studying it for ten years, and I think it's really beautiful, but in my opinion it's about the size of its leaves, its growth rate, how many seeds does it produce. And then to watch what that plant means to an artist, it can be something completely difference but equally as valuable and beautiful and valid.

Lisa:
Has an artist ever revealed to you aspects of your species to consider from a scientific point of view? Have they opened up new questions for you to ask as a scientist? Or have you ever looked at a plant from a more objective perspective perhaps, that's opened up ... I'm interested in the creative process of science, and I think this is part of it.

Justine:
Yes. I often study species at a species level. I look at the traits - you know, why does this plant grow here and often when I'm doing that I think in a very science-structured rigorous way, but then watching what artists can do - they can see one plant and another plant, and draw them with the same leaf shape, but to me one's from one genetic lineage and this one's from another, so one's from a million year-old plant and one's half a million, but the artist has seen similarities in shape and form, which to me informs their function. So yes, and I also think it's interesting with animals and sound. Like sounds that I hear I have a reaction to, and to watch what that sound can mean to someone who's an artist or a musician, it becomes] a completely different sound. ]

And then also with landscapes, what I see in a landscape is incredibly different to what a lot of other more creative artistic people see. So I can often look at a landscape and I see destruction or recovery of species, but I love seeing how it's interpreted by an artist.

I work in Antarctica and not many people get to go to Antarctica. So it's really important to have artists and other people help us to communicate - to bring Antarctica to people. And often with species as well - tiny little species that nobody knows anything about. I can write a paper, I can do a bit of media, but if an artist can bring that species to life and reach a bigger audience, to bring an ecosystem to life, that's a really powerful thing and that's why we need the interaction of arts and science.