Some basic tips for PhD students for giving effective conference presentations

One of the advantages of working in a relatively small, non-research intensive institution such as the University of Northampton is that events such as yesterday’s Annual Postgraduate Research Conference expose staff and research students to a diversity of topics and approaches, beyond the narrow silos of our own disciplines.  I spent the day listening to talks as varied as 21st century Gothic fiction, sediment sources in an English river; automating traffic control systems; and the role of younger grandmothers in raising their grandchildren.

It was a great day, very stimulating. However it struck me that whilst the research was sound, in some cases (certainly not all) the presentation of the research could have been improved.  I’m writing this in the spirit of a recent discussion over at Dynamic Ecology about the “advice” posts that they present and why they are so popular.  It seems like the consensus in the discussion is that often supervisors (or advisors as they are called in North America) often neglect to give some basic advice to their graduate students, assuming that they already know those “basics”, and focus instead on very detailed, technical advice.

Conference presentation skills are one such set of basics which, although covered by many universities in their training programmes (Northampton included) need to be reinforced by supervisors and by practice.  In my opinion, the following advice applies to all disciplines, not just the sciences:

1.  Always use a visual aid, such as PowerPoint, even if you think you don’t need it. Even a single slide with your name and the title of your presentation provides a context and focus for your talk.  Better still would be some information about the structure of your talk  on a second slide – “free-form” talks rarely work unless you’re an exceptional presenter.

2.  On PowerPoint, etc. use an absolute minimum text size of 18pt, preferably larger.  This includes graphs, tables, figure legends, screen shots, etc.  Anything smaller is not going to be visible beyond the third row of the audience unless you’re projecting onto a giant screen.  And do you know for certain that the venue has a big screen?

3.  Related to that, use the full width and height of your slides, don’t cram text and figures into the middle.

4.  Keep text to a minimum – just bullet points to give you a prompt as to what you’re going to say.  These bullet points don’t need to make complete sense to the audience as long as they give you that prompt: you’re talking, not reading.

5.  Ask someone (a friend, your supervisor) to double-check all your spelling, grammar, spacing, formatting, etc.  It’s well known that we read what we think is there, not what is actually there.

6.  A good rule of thumb for most presentations is to use more-or-less one slide per minute.  So if your allotted time is 10 minutes, use about 10 slides; if it’s 30 minutes, use about 30 (not including introduction and acknowledgements slides).  Do not try to fit 15 minutes worth of material into a 10 minute talk, it will irritate your audience and your conclusions at the end will be garbled and unclear as you rush to finish.  You can ALWAYS effectively summarise your research into the time allotted – don’t complain that you can’t.

7.  PowerPoint etc. provide all sorts of fancy backgrounds for slides, wonderful fonts, including shading and 3D, tricksy text animations, etc.  Don’t use any of them.  Keep your backgrounds a plain neutral colour, your font a basic sans serif (Trebuchet is my personal favourite), and don’t use animations unless they are really adding to what you’re saying, or building suspense by introducing elements one at a time.

8.  Tell a story.  Start with a broad introduction, take the audience on a journey through your work in logical order, and sum up at the end.  Then let your audience know that you’ve finished by saying something like: “Thanks for your attention, I’d be happy to answer any questions”.  Don’t just stop talking and stare at the audience.

9.  Stay focused and relevant to what you’re presenting.

10.  Enjoy yourself.  It’s hard the first few times but it gets easier.

Finally I should add that I’ve seen mid- and late-career researchers make these kinds of errors, it’s not just PhD students! Feel free to share your own tips, or to disagree with any of these.

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A University of Northampton student interview about bees and pollinator declines

A few weeks ago I was approached by Kady Middleton, a first year undergraduate student studying journalism at the University of Northampton, to be interviewed for a short radio-interview style report that she was putting together as one of her assignments.

The topic was urban bee diversity and pollinators declines – Kady had seen my blog post about urban bees in Northampton.  I was very happy to oblige and I think that Kady’s done a great job; it’s a nice example of how very different university departments can cooperate and collaborate.  You can listen to Kady’s report here:

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A plant-pollinator walk-and-talk, Bradlaugh Fields, 14th June

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Yesterday afternoon I spent an enjoyable couple of hours leading a group of over 30 people around the nature reserves of Bradlaugh Fields in the centre of Northampton.  The participants were a combination of members of the Northants Natural History Society and local residents who regularly use the park.

We discussed the ecology of the area, focussing on the plants and how they are pollinated.  It was great to see such a range of ages on the walk, and a pleasure to tell them some interesting stories and answer their questions.  Over at the Bradlaugh Fields Visitor blog, Serena (who took the picture above and who organised the event) has a fuller account of the day.

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Plantlife’s road verge advice could negatively affect pollinators

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Did anyone else hear the item on Radio 4 this morning about Plantlife’s road verge campaign and associated petition?  I listened carefully to the discussion and am broadly supportive of what they are trying to achieve.  But I was immediately struck by a comment that local councils should cut the verges “from mid July onwards” because most plants will have set seed by then.  I’ve seen this advice given before and whilst it might be an appropriate option for plants, it could severely impact local pollinator populations.

The printed advice that Plantlife is offering (which can be found here) states that if it’s only possible to cut a verge once a year:

“Cut the full width of the verge….between mid July and September. This allows plants to flower and, importantly, gives time for seed to be set.”

This misses a vital point: between mid-July and September there is still an abundance of flower-visiting insects that require these flowers to provide resources for their nesting and egg laying activities, or to build up reserves of energy to allow them to hibernate, particularly newly-mated queen bumblebees.

Where’s the evidence to support my assertion?  It’s been demonstrated by a number of studies, but I’ll point you in the direction of a paper that came out of the PhD work of one of my former students, Dr Sam Tarrant, who now works with RSPB.  If you look at Figure 4 of this paper, you’ll see that on restored landfill sites the abundance of pollinators in autumn surveys (conducted September-October) was just as high as for summer surveys.  On nature reserves, which are routinely cut from mid-July onwards (see Figure 2), this was not the case.

Climate change means that flower-visiting insects are now active in the UK for a much longer period of time than was previously the case, up to at least November in the south of the country.  I agree with Plantlife that road verges are important habitats for plants and other wildlife.  But advice that suggests cutting floral resources at a key time of the year for these insects is simply misguided.  A cut between October and December would be much more appropriate.

I don’t use Twitter so if anyone could point this at Plantlife’s account I’d be interested to see what their reaction is.

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How good is the evidence base for pollinator declines? A comment on the recent Ghazoul and Goulson Science correspondence

In a recent issue of the journal Science, Dave Goulson and colleagues presented a review entitled “Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers”.  This stimulated Jaboury Ghazoul to submit a letter to Science criticising the Goulson et al. paper from a number of perspectives, but particularly the paucity of the evidence base for pollinator declines. Dave and his co-authors robustly responded to that letter, as you might imagine. In some respects this was an unsatisfactory exchange, however, as the focus was largely on agricultural pollinators, rather than pollinators of all plants (including the majority non-cultivated species) and I think that (perhaps with more space?) Dave could have outlined the evidence in more depth.

The most striking statement in Jaboury’s letter was that the “evidence for pollinator declines is almost entirely confined to honeybees and bumblebees in Europe and North America”.

Now, even given the fact that Jaboury was possibly referring specifically to agricultural pollinators, that is a very extreme statement to make. Underlying it is the suggestion that global concerns about declining pollinator biodiversity (a subject I’ve discussed repeatedly on this blog) is underpinned by a taxonomically and geographically thin evidence base. Is that really true? I don’t believe so and I think it’s worth presenting a brief overview of the evidence, not least because Dave’s review and the resulting correspondence is pay-walled at the Science site (though if you Google the titles you might, just might, find copies posted on the web…)

Let me state from the outset that I have considerable respect for both Jaboury and Dave, as individuals and as scientists. I’ve known Dave since we were postgrads together in the early 1990s, and have had occasional contact with Jaboury through conferences and via email. So this isn’t meant to be a criticism of either of them.  But I do believe that the evidence for pollinator declines is considerably more robust than Jaboury acknowledges, and even more wide ranging than Dave and colleagues describe in their response (though in fairness, most of the bee evidence was cited in their original review).

Here’s a summary of where I see the evidence base at the moment; it’s not meant to be a full review, by any means, but rather to give a flavour of the taxonomic and geographical breadth and depth of the evidence as it currently stands:

Wild bees (including bumblebees, and solitary and primitively eusocial bees) – significant reduction of abundance and diversity at local, regional and country-levels documented in Britain (Biesmeijer et al. 2006, Ollerton et al. 2014), Holland (Biesmeijer et al. 2006), Europe as a whole (Kosier et al. 2007, the recent IUCN Red List by Nieto et al 2014), North America (Grixti et al. 2007, Cameron et al. 2011, Burkle et al. 2013), South America (Morales et al. 2013; Schmid-Hempel et al. 2013), China and Japan (Xie et al. 2008; Williams et al. 2009; Matsumura et al. 2004; Inoue et al. 2008), and South Africa (Pauw 2007).

Honey bees – colony declines documented in Europe and North America (see reviews by NRC 2007, Potts et al. 2010) and evidence that global demand for honey bee pollination services is outstripping supply (Aizen and Harder 2009).

Hoverflies (Syrphidae) – diversity declines documented in Holland and Britain (Biesmeijer et al. 2006).

Butterflies and moths – diversity and abundance of Lepidoptera has declined in the UK (Gonzalez-Megias et al. 2008, Fox 2013), whilst in North America some 50 species are IUCN criteria Red Listed and there is particular concern about the iconic Monarch butterfly.  Likewise a significant fraction of butterflies in other parts of the world are of conservation concern, e.g. Southern Africa, Australia, and Europe.

Flower-visiting wasps – reduction in country-level diversity in Britain (Ollerton et al. 2014).

Birds and mammals – the major vertebrate pollinators have recently been assessed at a global level by Regan et al. (2015) using IUCN Red List criteria.  They concluded that: “overall, pollinating bird and mammal species are deteriorating in status, with more species moving toward extinction than away from it. On average, 2.5 species per year have moved one Red List category toward extinction in recent decades, representing a substantial increase in the extinction risk across this set of species”.

Of course a number of the studies cited above have shown that some species are doing better than others and a proportion of the taxa they have assessed are stable or even increasing in abundance (including managed honey bee colonies in some parts of the world). But the current evidence base, as I see it, is pointing towards significant declines in pollinator abundance and diversity at multiple spatial scales across all regions that have so-far been assessed with any rigour, for a wide range of taxa.

I’m happy to receive comments on this topic, particularly pointing me to major sources of evidence that I’ve not covered, or if you disagree with my conclusions.

References

Aizen and Harder (2009) The global stock of domesticated honeybees is growing slower than agricultural demand for pollination. Current Biology 19: 915–918.

Biesmeijer et al. (2006) Parallel declines in pollinators and insect-pollinated plants in Britain and the Netherlands. Science 313: 351–354.

Burkle et al. (2013) Plant-pollinator interactions over 120 years: Loss of species, co-occurrence, and function. Science 339, 1611–161.

Cameron et al. (2011) Patterns of widespread decline in North American bumble bees. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 108: 662–667.

Fox (2013) The decline of moths in Great Britain: a review of possible causes. Insect Conservation and Diversity 6: 5–19.

Gonzalez-Megias, A. et al. (2008) Changes in the composition of British butterfly assemblages over two decades. Global Change Biology, 14: 1464-1474.

Grixti (2009) Decline of bumble bees (Bombus) in the North American Midwest. Biol. Conserv. 142, 75–84 (2009).

Inoue et al. (2008). Displacement of Japanese native bumblebees by the recently introduced Bombus terrestris (L.) (Hymenoptera: Apidae). J. Insect Conserv. 12: 135–146.

Kosior (2007) The decline of the bumble bees and cuckoo bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Bombini) of Western and Central Europe. Oryx 41, 79–88.

Matsumura et al. (2004) Invasion status and potential ecological impacts of an invasive alien bumblebee, Bombus terrestris L. (Hymenoptera: Apidae) naturalized in Southern Hokkaido, Japan. Glob. Environ. Res. 8, 51–66.

National Resource Council (2007) Status of Pollinators in North America.  National Academies Press, Washington, DC.

Nieto et al. (2014) European Red List of Bees.  Publication Office of the European Union.

Ollerton et al. (2014) Extinction of aculeate pollinators in Britain and the role of large-scale agricultural changes.  Science 346: 1360-1362.

Pauw (2007) Collapse of a pollination web in small conservation areas. Ecology 88: 1759-1769.

Potts et al. (2010) Declines of managed honey bees and beekeepers in Europe. Journal of Apicultural Research 49: 15–22.

Regan et al. (2015) Global Trends in the Status of Bird and Mammal Pollinators. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12162

Schmid-Hempel et al. (2013) The invasion of southern South America by imported bumblebees and associated parasites. Journal of Animal Ecology 83: 823–837.

Williams et al. (2009) The bumblebees of Sichuan (Hymenoptera: Apidae, Bombini). Syst. Biodivers. 7: 101–189.

Xie et al. (2008) The effect of grazing on bumblebees in the high rangelands of the eastern Tibetan Plateau of Sichuan. Journal of Insect Conservation 12: 695–703 (2008).

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Our nature conservation laws need to be defended, not weakened

If you’ve not already heard, there’s a proposal going forward in the European Parliament to review (=weaken) the current EU Nature Directives.  If this happens some of the most important wildlife sites, as well as vulnerable species, could be at risk in the UK and the rest of Europe.

If you have any strong feelings about nature conservation, or if you simply want more information about what’s happening, then I’d urge you to visit the RSPB’s page where you can watch a video about the issue and/or complete a short form to add your voice to the consultation process.

This is important.

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Worm sex

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This morning I woke early and slipped quietly outside to enjoy the bird song and to let the chickens out of their coop.  The air was cool and the garden fresh and damp.  Slugs were scattered across the lawn heading back to their dark crevices after a night of scoffing our plants, so I decided to round up as many as I could find as a snack for the chickens.

I’d collected about 30 when I spotted something glistening with mucus that was clearly not a slug: two common European earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) were engaged in some hermaphrodite sex, male/female to male/female.  It was a personal, intimate moment that I felt I should not be witnessing, but I had to watch.  It’s an event that usually takes place under the cover of darkness and one sees it so infrequently; these lovers were clearly caught up in the moment and oblivious to the daylight.  Like a paparazzo who can’t believe what he’s stumbled across, I rushed inside to grab the camera.

Worm sex is quite a complex process involving the mutual transfer of sperm between individuals, which I think may be within that white, milky fluid you can see in the close-up below.

Suddenly the worms sensed I was there and they rapidly separated and slipped back into their respective holes, perhaps to replay the passion tonight?  I hope so: the garden needs as many worms as possible to aerate and turn the soil, and take leaves and other organic matter down into the depths.  They are incredibly important in traditional agricultural systems: Darwin famously wrote a two-volume treatise on earthworms and concluded that: “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures”.

There you have it, worm sex for the weekend.  Amazing things happen in our gardens.

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Something for the weekend #7 – mangroves, El Nino, the relationship between business and nature, and more

The latest in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week:

  • Weather around the globe could get very unpredictable later this year if the forecasted “substantial El Nino event” occurs.  Worth keeping an eye on this, some areas could experience extreme weather and the resulting impacts on habitats.
  • For his championing of the cause of pollinator conservation, my friend and colleague Professor Dave Goulson has been named one of the Top 50 “conservation heroes” by the BBC Wildlife Magazine, alongside luminaries such as Sir David Attenborough.  Well done Dave, very well deserved!

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related items.

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How does a scientist’s h-index change over time?

Since its introduction a decade ago the h-index has rapidly become the most frequently used measure of research productivity and citation impact amongst scientists.  It’s far from perfect and has been criticised from a number of perspectives, particularly when used as a blunt tool for assessing a scientist’s “quality”.  Nonetheless it’s a useful measure that allows some comparison within research fields and (I think more importantly) gives individuals one method, amongst any number, of assessing the influence their work is having on their discipline.

Put simply, an individual’s h-index is calculated by ranking their publications by number of citations; the point at which the rank position of a publication is at least equal to the number of citations for that publication is the h-index.  For example, if a scientist has 18 papers all with at least 18 citations, their h-index is 18.  As soon as another publication reaches 19 citations, their h-index will go up to 19, and so forth.

That’s an important point about the h-index (and indeed all other measures of success/impact/whatever) – they are not static and they change over time.  As the Wikipedia entry that I linked to above notes, the originator of the index, Jorge Hirsch, suggested that 20 years after their first publication the h-index of a “successful scientist” will be 20; that of an “outstanding scientist” would be 40; and a “truly unique” scientist would have an h-index of 60. However, this will vary between different fields, so any comparisons are best done within a discipline.

One question that I’ve not seen widely discussed is how an individual’s h-index changes over time (though see Alex Bateman’s old blog post about “Why I love the h-index“, where he refers to the “h-trajectory”).  Does the “successful scientist” typically accrue those 20 h-index points regularly, 1 point per year, over the 20 years?  Or are there years when the h-index remains static and others when it increases by more than the average of 1 point per year?  If the latter, what’s the largest annual leap in an h-index that one could reasonably expect?  Finally, if we were to plot up the h-index over time, what shape curve can we expect from the graph?

On one level these are purely academic questions, the result of some musing and window gazing during a bus ride between campuses a couple of weeks ago.  But there’s also a practical aspect to it, if scientists wish to track this measure of their career progression.  For an early career scientist starting out with their first few publications, it’s easy to record their h-index as it changes over time from this point forward.  But what about a mid- or late-career scientist who started publishing long before the h-index was even thought of?  How do they reconstruct the way in which their h-index has evolved over time, should they be so inclined?

As far as I know there’s no simple, automatic way to do it (but please correct me if I’m wrong).  Indexing and citation systems such as Web of Science and Google Scholar give the current h-index and no indication of past history, you have to work it out for yourself.  Which is what I’ve done, and the procedure below is (I think) the most straightforward* way of reconstructing the evolution of an h-index.

So, pour yourself a cup of coffee** and settle in for a bit of academic archaeology.

I’m going to demonstrate the process using Web of Science (WoS)***, but it should be identical in overall procedure, if not in detail, in Google Scholar, Scopus, etc.  However be aware that Google Scholar is much less conservative in what it counts as a citation, hence h-indexes from that source are typically significantly higher than from others.

The first thing to do after you’ve logged on to WoS is to perform a Basic Search by author name, across all years; I’ve done this for All Databases as some of my**** publications (specifically peer-reviewed book chapters) are not listed in the WoS Core Collection database (the default selection):

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Perform the search then select Create Citation Report.  This will return a pair of graphs showing number of publications per year and number of citations per year, plus a table with some metrics about average citations per year, etc., and a value for the current h-index of that author:

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Below that is a list of publications for Ollerton, J ranked by number of times cited:

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As you can see, WoS indicates that the h-index of Ollerton, J is 23.  That’s incorrect, it’s actually 22 (i.e. a not-quite-successful scientist) because despite having a relatively uncommon name, there are other people called Ollerton, J who publish (including my cousin Janice).  However it’s a simple matter to remove any publications that are not your own using the check boxes against each publication and the “Go” button.  Ignore any publications that are ranked lower than your h-index.

Once you have a clean list, use the drop-down menu underneath the page to save your list as either a text or Excel file; again, just save the publications that are contributing to your h-index by choosing the number of records that corresponds to your h-index [UPDATE: however see Vera van Noort’s comment below about the possible influence of early publications that were only cited once or twice on your early h-index.  UPDATE x 2:  see also the later comments by Alex Bateman and Vera – later publications can drop out of the h-index list too.  This wasn’t an issue for my set of publications, but it’s worth checking if you’re following this procedure].

The Excel***** file is easiest to work with: it provides you with the two graphs shown on the WoS citation report plus details of the publications, average citations and so forth, and all the raw data on number of citations per year back to 1950 (click on each image for a larger view):

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To make the spreadsheet easier to work with I advise deleting all the stuff you don’t need, including the figures and the columns from 1950 up to the date of your first publication.

You now have to calculate cumulative number of citations over time for each publication using the Sum function (I’ll not go into details, should be straightforward if you know your way around Excel).

Next, copy all of the data and paste-special onto another sheet, selecting “values” (to just paste the data, not the formulae) and “transpose” (to turn the data 90 degrees) from the paste-special options.  Remove the original data to just leave the cumulative citations and then select all of the data and use the Custom Sort function to order the rows by by date of publication:

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Now it’s a matter of going along the columns and recording the number of publications that exceed the h-index for the previous column; I’ve colour-coded this below to make it easier to see:

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Finally, graph up the data:

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The results are interesting (or at least I think so).  In relation to the questions I posed above its clear that there are periods when the h-index doesn’t increase for a couple of years; more periods when the h-index increases by one each year; and a couple of years when the h-index increases by 2 points.  But that’s the maximum and I suspect that increasing by 3 or more index points in a year would be very unusual indeed (though see my second point below).

Although there’s a clear “lag phase” in the first five years when the h-index hardly changes, there are also periods when there’s no increase in h-index much later, e.g. 2013/14, so this stasis is not restricted to the beginning of my career.

Some final points:

1.  Make sure your citation data on Web of Science is accurate.  I have found LOTS of mis-citations of my publications over the years, by  authors who include incorrect dates, volume numbers, page numbers, even authors, in the references they cite.  WoS has a facility for correcting these mis-citations, but you have to let them know, it’s not automatic.

2.  How representative are my results for the population of ecologists or scientists more generally?  I have no idea but I hope others go through the same procedure so that we can begin to build up a picture of how the h-index evolves.

*No doubt this could be automated in some way and perhaps this will stimulate some competent programmer or app developer to do so, but doing it by hand is so straightforward that I’m not sure it’s worth the effort of constructing a working system.  Certainly the Excel part of the procedure could be done more elegantly in R.

**Other beverages are available.

***Other indexing and citation systems are available.

****Other scientists are available :-)  But it doesn’t seem fair to use someone else as an example.  In any case, consider this another post reflecting on my life and career in my 50th year on this planet!

*****Other spreadsheets are available.  That’s the last one, promise.

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Something for the weekend #6 – eco-gentrification, neonicotinoid pesticides, bees, birds, and bacteria

The latest in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week:

  • One of the unintended (and sometimes intended) consequences of greening our cities may be “eco-gentrification”, as property prices increase and low income families are displaced – this interesting article from The Guardian discusses the phenomenon and its possible solutions.
  • The evidence against neonicotinoid pesticides, and specifically their effect on bee populations, continues to mount.  In this recent blog post, Philip Strange provides a very useful summary of the findings of some recent studies.  The latest research was also covered on the BBC News website and I was struck by this quote from Nick von Westenholz, CEO of the Crop Protection Association, which represents the firms that produce neonicotinoid pesticides:  “The latest studies in Nature must be seen in the context of ongoing campaign to discredit neonicotinoid pesticides, regardless of what the real evidence shows.”  As if that’s how science actually works! All of us scientists gang together to discredit things.  Clueless, and clearly fighting a desperate rear-guard action.  There was also some interesting expert reaction on the Science Media website that’s worth reading.
  • The tree of life just got more complex: a newly discovered phylum of prokaryotic microbes has genetic features in common with the eukaryotic domains (animals, plants, fungi, etc.) and provides clues as to how complex, multicellular life may have evolved.  Here’s links to the abstract of the original paper and to a summary on the BBC News website.
  • Finally, as I write this, the results of the General Election are coming in and it looks very likely that the UK will have a majority Conservative government for the next five years.  What that means for controversial, large scale developments such as HS2, and for wildlife, biodiversity, and the state of the UK’s ecosystems more generally, remains to be seen.  It could be a bumpy few years.

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related items.

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