Last week I submitted by PhD thesis. It’s been a long, and frequently difficult road, but I made it in the end.

Sincere thanks to each of my supervisors: Karen Hussey, Stephen Dovers, Stuart Whitten, Grace Chiu, and Andrew Macintosh. There are many, many others who have supported me over the last 4.5 years – they know who they are.

I’m sad to leave ANU, but excited about pursuing new challenges. First and foremost, I’ll be working full-time at UQ on the NESP TSR Hub postdoctoral fellowship I started last year. Watch this space for future developments!


My final PhD seminar: Thursday 4th May

Somehow, unbelievably, it’s time for my final PhD seminar. Details below and here – all welcome!

Public policy for biodiversity conservation: evaluating outcomes, opportunities and risks

Thursday, 4 May 2017, 1-2pm Fenner Seminar Room, Megan Evans

The conservation of biodiversity remains a daunting and complex public policy challenge. Over the past three decades, two clear trends have emerged in conservation science, policy and practice: (i) a greater interest and experimentation with market based policy instruments (MBIs), and (ii) increasing concern over the effectiveness of conservation policies.  These two trends are interrelated, as a key driver for rise in prominence of MBIs has been the promise of more effective, efficient and equitable conservation than that which is possible under state-controlled regulation. However, there is scarce evidence available to assess the efficacy of a range of conservation policies, spanning ‘command and control’ regulation, to MBIs promising ‘win-win’ outcomes for biodiversity and society. This research investigates policy responses to deforestation – a major driver of biodiversity loss – and uses an interdisciplinary approach to evaluate the outcomes, opportunities and risks presented by established and emerging conservation policies in Australia. In this seminar, I will focus on a selection of the findings from my 4-year PhD program, including a quantitative evaluation of the impact of regulatory controls on deforestation in Queensland, and a qualitative evaluation of barriers and enablers to effective biodiversity offset policy in Australia.

About the speaker

Megan’s research falls broadly within environmental policy, governance and economics, with a particular interest in biodiversity conservation and natural resource management.  She is an interdisciplinary scientist with expertise in both quantitative and qualitative methods from the social and natural sciences.  The overarching goal of Megan’s research is to achieve better outcomes for the environment and society through an understanding of the policy process: design, implementation and evaluation.

Policy internship at the Australian Academy of Science

Earlier this year, I was very fortunate to join the Australian Academy of Science for a 3 month internship in the Academy’s Science Policy team. The internship was for first of its kind offered by the Academy, and provided me with a unique opportunity to learn about its policy and advocacy work.

I was attracted to the internship as I wanted to develop a much broader appreciation of science policy in Australia, and to gain an understanding of the diversity of issues the science sector as a whole is grappling with. Having worked within the university sector over the entirety of my career so far, I knew there would be a huge benefit in stepping out of that space at least momentarily, and to see to see things from another perspective.

Science is a very active and topical policy issue in Australia at the moment. We are in an election year, science and innovation are firmly on the current Government’s agenda, the Australian Research Council is developing measures of research impact and engagement, and reviews of Australia’s research training system and funding arrangements and have very recently been completed.  On top of all this, equity and diversity in science and Australia’s future capability in climate science are major issues currently in the spotlight.

With all of this activity, you can imagine that the Academy’s Science Policy team has been rather busy! And that’s absolutely the case. As part of my internship, I analysed over 180 policy documents that the Academy has published since 2003. In the last two years alone, over 50 policy relevant submissions, commentaries and report have been released by the Academy, including several pieces authored by the EMCR Forum and the National Committees of Science.

Figure 1. Total policy documents published by the Academy of Science 2003-2015, including submissions to Government inquiries, and other reports, commentaries and statements

Over the years, the Academy has highlighted the crucial role that science plays in underpinning Australia’s economy – now, and even more so in the future. Without a scientifically literate and skilled workforce, we can’t expect to be particularly innovative or agile. A key part of building a knowledge based economy – and obviously I say this with clear self-interest – is to remove unnecessary barriers preventing early and mid-career researchers from remaining in the scientific workforce.

With the recent commencement of the SAGE initiative, gender equity in science is now receiving a lot of deserved attention. However, statements of policy intent need to be followed by real policy action, and a genuine commitment by research organisations to deal with the institutional and unconscious biases which prevent the full and equal participation in science by diverse individuals.

Continuing reports about a possible oversupply of PhD graduates are also very concerning for the scientific community. There’s a need to rethink and restructure research training in Australia, which is still primarily training PhD students for a career in academia – despite the sector’s worsening issues with job scarcity and insecurity. This is why I’m encouraged by the findings of the research training review led by ACOLA, which recommended that PhD students be provided the opportunity to participate in an industry placement or internship during their candidature. Formalising this process within the university system would help to expose PhD students to a broader range of industries, experiences and networks, and to better equip graduates to excel in careers within all sectors of society.

In addition to my work with the Science Policy team, during my internship I was also fortunate to participate in the launch of the recommendations report from the 2015 Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank. It was really interesting for me to observe the excellent work of the Academy’s media and communications team, and gave me a much greater appreciation of why the Think Tanks are such a great opportunity for EMCRs to participate in (a LOT of potential exposure for your research!). I also took part in the recent Future Earth Australia workshop, which brought together 100 participants from diverse disciplines and professions over two days at the Shine Dome in Canberra.

I learned a lot from my time at the Australian Academy of Science, and I most definitely have a better appreciation of the opportunities and challenges facing science policy in Australia as a result of my internship.

The Academy is now advertising for Policy Internship position starting mid-2016:

Queensland moves to control land clearing: other states need to follow

This article was originally published in The Conversation, and features my new paper published in Pacific Conservation Biology

Queensland’s land clearing has yet again become a national issue. After laws were relaxed under the Liberal-National State government in 2013, land clearing rates tripled, undermining efforts to conserve wildlife and reduce carbon emissions.

Now the current Labor state government wants to re-tighten the laws. The revised legislation is expected to be debated after June 30.

Land clearing is a highly contentious and polarising issue in Queensland.Scientists and environmental groups have voiced concerns about the dramatic increase in land clearing. But some rural landholders are reportedly worried about the prospect of re-tightened regulations and their possible impact on property values and business certainty.

So, what does the big picture suggest?

Then and now

Since the 1980s, all Australian states and territories have introduced laws to protect native vegetation, in response to rising public concern about land degradation, salinity, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions.

The most significant policy reforms have been in Queensland – where the vast majority of land clearing in Australia has occurred over the past four decades – as I show in a new paper published in Pacific Conservation Biology.

Total forest loss due to human activity from 1972 – 2014. Data is sourced from the National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS), Australian Department of the Environment (2015). Image: Evans (2016)

Changes to land clearing laws in 2007 were heralded as the end of broad-scale clearing in Queensland. Clearing of remnant (old-growth) forest was now restricted on freehold land, all remaining clearing permits (issued under a ballot) expired, and A$150 million of compensation was provided to landholders. Further amendments in 2009 placed protections on “high value” (more than 20 years old) regrowth forest.

Fast forward to 2012, and Premier Campbell Newman was elected on a promise to keep Queensland’s land clearing laws in place. Soon afterwards though, Natural Resources Minister Andrew Cripps announced the Government would “take an axe” to tree-clearing laws.*

The 2013 amendments:

  • removed protections on “high value” regrowth forest
  • allowed landholders to self-assess clearing for activities such as fodder harvesting and vegetation thinning
  • allowed clearing of remnant forest for “high value agriculture”
  • changed the onus of proof so that the Queensland government had to prove that land clearing laws had been violated.

The current Labor Queensland Government intends to reverse most of the 2013 amendments to vegetation clearing laws, as well as extending protections on regrowth forest to three additional catchments, to reduce runoff onto Great Barrier Reef.

The laws will also be retrospective, in an effort to prevent panic clearingbefore the changes come in.

How does Queensland compare?

Queensland is not alone in its recent changes to vegetation protection laws.

New South Wales also introduced self-assessment for “low risk” clearing in 2013, and promised to repeal the Native Vegetation Act and replace it with a new Biodiversity Conservation Act. An independent review recommended that these changes occur, but environmental groups remain opposed.

Victoria’s vegetation laws were also changed in 2013, including the removal of the “net gain” target in vegetation extent and quality that had been in place since 2003. The current Labor Victorian government is now undertaking another review of the state’s regulations.

Laws have also been relaxed in Western Australia, where landholders may now clear up to 5 hectare per year on individual properties without requiring a permit (an increase from 1 ha per year).

From state to self-regulation

Within ten years of looked like the end of broad-scale land clearing in Australia, most state vegetation laws across the country have been relaxed.

Government regulation of native vegetation is generally unpopular with landholders , and so maintaining these policies has proven to be politically unpalatable. At this stage, only Queensland is looking to re-strengthen land clearing laws – and even so, self-assessment for some clearing activities will remain.

What does this all mean for native vegetation in Australia? This is actually a difficult question to answer.

Many factors influence land clearing: rainfall, the price of key agricultural commodities, and the amount of land available to clear. This complexity means it’s difficult to know what impact (if any) changes in policy has on the rate of land clearing.

Trends in national-scale deforestation and key macroeconomic variables. Plots are total deforestation versus: a) Year, b) Extent of primary forest remaining, c) Log-transformed total rainfall, d) Gross domestic product per capita (current USD) , e) Agriculture, value added (% total GDP) f) Farmer’s terms of trade. Image: Evans (2016)

It’s quite clear that the relaxation of Queensland’s clearing laws was followed by a sharp increase in vegetation clearing, but it’s not yet apparent whether this has happened in other states.

A big issue is a lack of reliable data. There’s no consistent reporting of vegetation clearing across Australia, and some states like New South Wales only publish information on the amount of clearing permitted by regulation.

As reported last week, total vegetation clearing in New South Wale is much higher than official data shows as most clearing is exempt from regulation, or illegal.

Better policy needed

If we’re serious about protecting Australia’s native vegetation for the sake of soil health, biodiversity and the climate, we need to use all the tools we have available to achieve this goal.

Using a mixture of government regulation, self-regulation and genuine economic incentives, such as carbon farming, is the best approach.

But no matter which policies we use, they all need to be monitored and evaluated to be effective. Otherwise, we have no idea whether all the time and money devoted to designing and implementing new policies has been worthwhile.

The inconsistency between the Federal government’s Direct Action policy, and the relaxation of State restrictions on vegetation clearing is a big problem. Landholders need a clear and consistent message from all levels of government if they are to adapt and make long term business decisions.

Interestingly, around 75% of the recent clearing in Queensland has occurred in the Brigalow Belt and Mulga – areas where we’ve found that carbon farming could be more profitable than cattle grazing.

If only the price, and the policies, were right.

*This sentence was amended on May 10 2016 to clarify that land clearing laws were originally to be maintained.

Future Earth Australia workshop #FutureEarthOz

Since February, I’ve been spending time at the Australian Academy of Science as an intern in their Science Policy team. As part of this role I recently had the privilege of attending  the Future Earth Australia workshop. Below is a summary of the event – also posted as a Storify (with tweets and images): 


Over 28-29th April 2016, over 100 participants from diverse disciplines and professions came together at the Shine Dome in Canberra, to discuss how to translate the global Future Earth program into a regional initiative: Future Earth Australia.

Future Earth is a global research platform designed to provide the knowledge needed to support transformations towards sustainability. It is a ‘federation’ of projects and other initiatives related to Global Environmental Change, and will contribute to achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Future Earth Australia aims to develop a strategic and business plan for an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable Australia. The workshop, hosted by the Australian Academy of Science, was an opportunity for scholars from the natural and social sciences, humanities and the arts to come together with business leaders, sustainability practitioners, NGO representatives, policymakers and members of the arts community to develop a roadmap for Future Earth Australia.

I was there in my role as a policy intern for the Australian Academy of Science, and my job was to tweet, tweet, tweet!

The workshop was designed to stimulate ideas and constructive debate, and so formal presentations on day one were short and punchy, with the aim of stimulating dialogue and discussions during break-out sessions, and on all of day two.

The Future Earth Australia workshop was opened by Prof Andrew Holmes, President of the Australian Academy of Science. Prof Holmes described Future Earth as an exciting and important global initiative, that has the potential to make a huge impact in Australia and in the surrounding region if we grab the opportunity. He argued that we must harness the full range of talent – from the sciences, humanities and arts – to meet the potential of Future Earth.

Prof Xuemei Bai from the Australian National University (and member of the Future Earth scientific committee) introduced the Future Earth global framework, including the Knowledge-Action Networks, Open Networks and the opportunities available for early and mid-career researchers. More than 20 international research projects, 7 regional centres and 5 global hubs make up the architecture of Future Earth.

Dr John Finnigan, Chair of the Future Earth Australia expert working group, described Future Earth as a platform for international, collaborative research to deliver local & regional outcomes. Ultimately, Future Earth aims to enable communities to thrive in the future amidst massive global change. He argued that if we are to identify long term solutions for sustainability, we need everyone to be involved – business, civil society, government, researchers and the arts.

The first series of presentations focused on people in a sustainable society, and featured contributions from a number of scholars. Prof Freya Matthews from La Trobe University discussed the ethical dimensions of sustainable development, and questioned whether anthropocentrism is an appropriate ethical lens through which to make decisions around sustainability and biodiversity loss. A/Prof Linda Williams from RMIT outlined how the arts & humanities can contribute to Future Earth, and told us that the arts have power to change people’s hearts and minds about environmental issues – but this can be intangible and hard to measure.

Andrew Petersen from Sustainable Business Australia described how the business community can play a crucial role in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. He argued that there is no way business can ignore the SDGs because of the risks and opportunities they present. Future Earth has a key role in developing tools that businesses can use to implement the SDGs, and in return business will be a massive incubator for achieving these goals in collaboration with researchers and the wider community.

In the first breakout session, participants joined discussion groups based on the topics raised in the morning presentations. This session featured a lot of introductions, as everyone was offered the opportunity to tell the group what interests them and why they wanted to discuss a topic. This initial (rather large!) investment of time proved very useful for the remainder of the workshop – as it then became easy for participants identify others with common interests, and develop an understanding of what skills and expertise they brought to the table.

Theme 2 was on the economy and a sustainable society, and featured presentations by Dr Imran Habib (ANU) on green growth, Dr Stephen Bygraves from Beyond Zero Emissions, and Professor Bob Costanza from the ANU.

Zoe Piper provided a fascinating example of how businesses can develop innovative, profitable products that also make a positive impact on the environment and human health. Ecolour takes waste engine oil and turns it into non-toxic paint – creating a useful product from waste, and one that is safer to use.

Theme 3 focused on the environment and a sustainable society. Professor Stuart Bunn from Griffith University described how water is strongly linked with the SDGs and is key to finding solutions for sustainable development. The Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University hosts the secretariat for the Sustainable Water Future Program, which is supported by Future Earth.

Dr Pep Canadell from CSIRO described the Global Carbon Project of global Future Earth, and pointed out that a climate future which limits warming to 2 degrees is unlikely without a social transformation – in which he argued Future Earth had a key role to play. Prof Karen Hussey from the University of Queensland somehow managed to summarise 40 years of governance research into 5 minutes. She argued that integration across disciplines and sectors remains the most urgent and yet most difficult challenge for sustainability.

During the next break-out session, Prof Glenda Wardle from the University of Sydney made what I thought was a crucial, yet so far neglected point. Amidst all of our discussion about the future, she reminded us that it is in fact a luxury to be thinking about the future, when for many communities across the world (including many of our regional neighbours) resource scarcity and climate disruption is happening right now. This highlighted the need for Future Earth Australia to have a regional focus, and to ensure that solutions for sustainability don’t have perverse outcomes or lead to “leakage” of unsustainable impacts elsewhere.

The final session focused on links, feedbacks and actions, and the relationships between the first three themes. Dr Jenny Gordon from the Productivity Commission argued that investment in the right kind of human and physical capital is crucial for the future, Prof David Griggs from the Monash Sustainability Institute questioned whether it would be possible to implement the SDGs in Australia (and if not here, where?), and Kate Harris closed by asking us to consider how we can all use our power and potential to drive transformational change.

In the evening, we were treated to a series of performances in the New Acton precinct. Visceral Communications helped to stimulate our thinking about what our future may look like, provided some incisive critiques of the barriers to sustainability, as well as hope for what we could achieve by working collaboratively towards a shared vision.

Day Two of the workshop was devoted to consolidating and further developing the ideas generated by discussion on the first day. Everyone was given the opportunity to pitch questions or projects in the “Open Space”. The day’s agenda was then mapped out from the ideas generated during this session.

By the end of the day, 14 projects were identified by participants as having potential to contribute to sustainable futures for Australia and our region, that also align with the goals of Future Earth globally. These projects will be included as part of an initial portfolio for Future Earth Australia and will form part of a final plan for the initiative, to be delivered in May 2016.

Overall, the Future Earth Australia workshop was a fantastic opportunity to connect with a diverse group of people, to “think big”, and to consider innovative & collaborative approaches for sustainable development. The key now will of course be to keep the momentum going, and translate the ideas into implementation. Although sustainability can often seem like a daunting, unachievable goal, I think it can sometimes be closer than we think. Connecting with people across disciplines, sectors and cultures can be a challenge in a world full of silos – but if given the opportunity, it’s possible to make these connections and identify “leverage points” for positive change. Future Earth Australia might just be this opportunity for change. So, let’s get to work!

Support for Future Earth Australia has been provided by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) and the Australian Academy of Science.

Bias incognito: gender equity in science presentation at ANU

The video of the event can be found here (the presentation starts at 15:00)

A summary of the online discussion is here:

Over 50% of early career scientists in Australian universities and research institutes are women, but among senior academics, this number drops to just 17%.  The loss of women through the “leaky pipeline” represents a serious loss to science: a waste of talent, expertise and investment. A major barrier to the careers of women and minorities in science is unconscious bias : the biases we hold which affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  Even those who consciously support gender equality can be unconsciously biased in their behaviours, speech or decisions.

In recognition of this issue, early career researchers Claire Foster, Steph Pulsford and Megan Evans from the Australian National University recently organized a public seminar on unconscious bias, as part of their involvement in the CEED Early Career Leadership program. The presentation by prominent gender equity expert Deborah May was attended by over 80 people from across the ANU and federal government departments, and broadcast live to many more watching online.

Deborah May speaking at CEED event on unconscious bias at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

“The most significant barrier to full, equal contribution, participation and progression of women in corporate life and science is unconscious bias”, Deborah argued. Importantly, both men and women hold unconscious biases. Deborah highlighted a study where faculty members were provided with identical application materials, yet both men and women ranked male students as more competent, hireable, and more suitable for mentoring than female students

The cumulative effects of unconscious bias cause many women to leave science, resulting in lost productivity and lost intellect. Deborah emphasised that it is possible to tackle unconscious bias by being mindful of our own biases, paying attention to how we are viewing, judging and assessing, and correcting our actions and behaviours. Other actions we can take to address or counteract bias include:

  • Call out inappropriate comments or behaviours that perpetuate bias.
  • Provide career development, mentoring, coaching and sponsorship opportunities for women, knowing that the system is stacked against them.
  • Ensure there is equal access to information and resources so that all can participate equally.
  • Provide unconscious bias training across institutions
  • Demonstrate inclusive leadership.
  • Ensure work flexibility is available at no penalty.
  • Evaluate research outputs commensurate with opportunity and access.
  • Consider new approaches that account for biases, e.g. blind recruitment promotion and recruitment processes.
  • Encourage institutions to show leadership, and be transparent and accountable. e.g. through programs such as the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Pilot, which CEED nodes the Australian National University, University of Queensland, University of Melbourne and University of Western Australia are all participants in.

This event and the discussion that followed encouraged all of us to challenge our assumptions about ourselves, and about others.  The event was supported by CEED, and hosted by the Fenner Gender Equity in the Sciences group, the Fenner School of Environment and Society, and the College of Medicine, Biology and Environment (CMBE) Gender Equity Committee.

(L to R): Stephanie Pulsford, Megan Evans, Stephen Dovers (Director of the Fenner School), Claire Foster and Deborah May.
(L to R): Stephanie Pulsford, Megan Evans, Stephen Dovers (Director of the Fenner School), Claire Foster and Deborah May.

Science Leadership Training Not Just For Professors

CEED Leaders Megan Evans, Stephanie Pulsford, and Claire Foster (via Skype) during our recent celebratory end-of-program video chat.
CEED Leaders Megan Evans, Stephanie Pulsford, and Claire Foster (via Skype) during our recent celebratory end-of-program video chat.

Re-post from CEED Early Career Leaders Blog

Throughout this year, those of us in the CEED leadership program have had many discussions about leadership: what it is, who is (or can be) a leader, and how “leadership” is a set of skills that can be learned, rather than something that a person obtains through authority or privilege.

We perhaps have not fully appreciated until recently that the CEED leadership program is quite unique, in that it has an explicit focus on developing leaders early in their career. As we saw in the recent Conservation Leadership symposium at the 27th International Congress for Conservation Biology, many of the other existing conservation leadership programs are tailored for Masters students, and particularly those who are interested in pursuing a career in the NGO sector. Although we are all based at research institutions at the moment, the skills we are gaining through the program are transferable to a range of other sectors. We are being trained to become leaders in whatever career we choose to pursue in the future.

Leadership in science seems to be most often associated with a scientist’s career stage – that is, academic or faculty members who lead research groups are generally regarded as those in “leadership” positions. For example, this recent piece by Leiserson and McVinny in Nature argued that “Science professors need leadership training”:

Education does not stop. Professors must update and develop their technical skills throughout their careers. But as they progress, few take the time — or are offered the opportunity — to become educated in how to be an effective leader. […]

Leaders should inspire others to achieve clearly articulated, shared goals. Professors head research teams and manage teaching staff. They lead intellectually, charting directions for advances in engineering and science that benefit society.

And the importance of these leadership skills grows as scientists gain in seniority.

While we certainly agree with the need for ongoing training and professional development in science, Leiserson and McVinny’s definition of who are scientific “leaders” (i.e. professors) doesn’t resonate with what we’ve learned in the CEED program. We also couldn’t find any other articles in Nature or elsewhere which highlighted the benefits of leadership training for those early in their careers (apart from this piece by Kvaskoff and McKay, but here the discussion was again limited to academia only).

So, we thought we would write a response to Leiserson and McVinny, and submitted a Correspondence to Nature. Unfortunately, since #rejectionistherule, we weren’t successful in getting it published. But thanks to the internet (and this blog – thanks Matt!), we can publish it here for all to see.

Although we didn’t get it into Nature, writing this piece together was a great experience, as it generated a lot of discussion amongst our group and helped to crystalise our thoughts on what “leadership” really means in science.


Leiserson and McVinny advocate for leadership training to assist senior scientists to effectively manage research teams. While important at senior levels, this “lifelong learning” is particularly relevant for Early Career Researchers (ECRs): graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. As ECRs engaged in a year-long leadership training program, funded in part by an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence, we attest to its importance for our ongoing professional development.

Leadership development for ECRs offers immediate benefits for individuals and provides a foundation for building a successful and fulfilling career. It also strengthens collaborative partnerships. Consider Leiserson and McVinny’s example where the professor uses leadership skills to “up the game” of her research group by being attuned to her student’s preferences. If her students and postdocs were also trained in leadership skills, such as listening, flexible thinking, problem-solving and conflict management, the relationship between the research group and professor would be more collaborative, less hierarchical, and likely more productive.

The ECR phase of a scientific career is also the entry point for more equitable access to leadership training. Science is plagued by an uneven gender balance in senior roles, and offering leadership training only at a senior levelreinforces gender biases in opportunities for career advancement. Providing leadership training to ECRs is therefore an important step towards redressing the uneven gender balance in senior academic roles.

The benefits of making ECR leadership training a priority extend beyond academia, as the vast majority of science graduates are finding careers in industry, government and non-government organisations. Training at the ECR level will ensure that graduates have the potential to become strong leaders in all sectors of society.

With a number of calls to update graduate training, dedicated leadership training for ECRs must be considered a high priority.