Sounds Crazy #10 | Pest control means getting on with it

DeerFeral animals are pests in large parts of rural Australia. The list of culprits is long with foxes, cats, feral dogs, goats, rabbits, pigs, deer, and camels all causing problems for farmers and conservationists alike. In production terms the cost is estimated at billions of dollars a year.

Not surprisingly there are pest control programs all over the country with poison baits, mustering, hunting, trapping and a host of other control tactics in place.

In 2005 some scientists became curious to see if any of these control programs actually made a difference.

They interviewed as many of the pest control organisers as they could in all the states and territories for control programs that had a conservation focus. They established that the majority of over a thousand programs they identified, 68% in fact, had no form of monitoring in place at all. The pest control teams did not know how many pests they had removed or what had happened to the species or habitats the pests were affecting.

In short they were operating blind.

Now a pilot in Papua New Guinea on a stormy afternoon, if he had any sense, wouldn’t take off. Flying blind is dangerous.

Except that the only immediate danger in pest control is to the pests. The operators simply get on with control. Indeed the researchers found that there was some monitoring of person days spent tracking, numbers of baits released, and helicopter logbooks full of hours mustering sufficient to show that the job was being done — but nothing on the outcome.

After habitat loss, pests and weeds are the next most significant threat to biodiversity in Australia. In many places they are the main cause of biodiversity loss and attempts at control make sense.

What is crazy is to have no idea if control measures have made a difference. We have no idea if they are worth all the effort.

Perhaps it is that distinctly human trait where being seen to do the right thing is just as important as doing it.

Sounds crazy to me.

Google Scholar can link you to the original research

Reddiex B, et al (2006) Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. I. Patterns of control and monitoring. Wildlife Research 33, 691–709

Reddiex B. & Forsyth D.M. (2006) Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. II. Reliability of knowledge Wildlife Research 33, 711–717

Sounds Crazy #9 | Bandwidth

Back in my academic days we were not allowed to spend any University money on coffee and tea. I would ask politely why I couldn’t create a more convivial workplace by providing free beverages for my postgrad students and research assistants only to be told it was not allowed. Even in the department tearoom there was an honesty box to cover the cost of the milk.

I never understood this and used to think it was just the system being stingy. And being me, I railed, often taking my team out for coffee even though we had a perfectly suitable coffee room next to the labs. The first thing that happened when I converted our research into a company was the purchase of a kettle followed swiftly by a water cooler.

What upset me back then was the assumption that productivity was all about the number of hours at the desk and how expertly one counted beans. It obviously had nothing to do with how happy people were at work.

Research is repetitive stuff. In our case there were many hours of routine sample processing every day. This meant taking regular breaks was essential to our sanity. The irony is that these days we would be instructed by the OH&S officer to stop peering down the microscope and go to yoga class — but I digress.

What got my goat recently was a report on the front page of the weekend paper telling us that the new Australian prime minister has decreed that all travel by politicians and Federal bureaucrats must have permission.

Mr Abbot requires that government ministers sign off on travel requests from civil servants and that he himself must agree to any travel that costs more than $50,000.

Now I don’t know about you, but I always thought that members of parliament and the senior staff that support their efforts were there to develop, debate, design and implement public policy.

Instead Mr Abbot wants them to be travel agents.

I would rather have the finite daily energy allocation to the brains of national leaders and their staff to be used furthering the public good.

I want them thinking about policy and figuring out the endless machinations of delivering it effectively. Not wasting valuable mental bandwidth as travel police.

Next they will be buying their own coffee.

Sounds crazy because it is.