Brighter Social scientist spearheading reef research

Social scientist spearheading reef research

Social scientist spearheading reef research

A JCU Professor is combining social science methodology with ecological study to better understand one of the world’s most pressing climate-change related issues – the survival of coral reef ecosystems and the human populations they support.

“If you have ever seen a bleached reef… it just leaves you with an eerie feeling,” said Professor Joshua Cinner, who witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of mass coral bleaching events in 1998 and 2016.

“Knowing how dependent people in many parts of the world are on coral reefs, it made me really want to study how people are likely to be affected by events like that, and what they can do to adapt and respond to the changes that are very likely.

“Even if we curbed carbon emissions tomorrow, we’ve already committed as a society to very substantial changes in the ecosystem.”

For the past five years, Prof Cinner has been leading a group of 40 scientists as part of the interdisciplinary Social Ecological Research Frontiers team.

The team has put together the world’s largest database of social, environmental and ecological drivers of coral reef fish degradation, which provides a global-scale look at what is often a locally-investigated and managed issue.

“Understanding the resilience of systems is absolutely critical in supporting the persistence of coral reefs and the well-being of the millions of people that depend on them,” Prof Cinner said.

“We’ve had some really surprising results, which have helped shape my research direction.  We found that, contrary to popular belief, market proximity or market integration is the strongest driver of fish degradation and not human population.

“I’ve just started working with a behavioural economist and we’re running economic experiments in coastal fishing villages to try and understand how the very presence of markets actually change certain types of human behaviours.”

In 2016, Prof Cinner’s work led to, ‘Bright spots among the world’s coral reefs’ appearing on the cover of Nature. It went on to feature in more than 100 news publications and broadcasts including The Atlantic, LA Times, BBC, Washington Post and the Daily Mail.

Bright spots or ‘positive deviants’ are coral reefs found to be performing better than expected given the adverse conditions they are being exposed to.

“This type of bright spots approach has been used in social science fields such as human development and even business to uncover strategies that work in a context of widespread failure,” Prof Cinner said.

“We injected this idea at a time when coral reefs are facing multiple threats on various scales. A lot of news about coral reefs is very dire and disappointing, so it’s nice to have this positive news about these places that are doing better than expected.”

Prof Joshua Cinner in Papua New Guinea in 2016. PHOTO: Courtesy Michele Barnes

Professor Joshua Cinner conducting field work for coral reef bright spots on Karkar Island, Papua New Guinea in 2016. PHOTO: Courtesy Michele Barnes

Prof Cinner first joined JCU while undertaking research in 29 coastal communities across Papua New Guinea as part of his PhD from 2002 to 2006. Soon after, he joined the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, which undertakes world-best integrated research for sustainable use and management of coral reefs based at JCU.

“JCU was the natural choice… it’s the university of the tropics,” Prof Cinner said. “It is pretty difficult to beat the research environment not just at JCU, but within the Centre itself.

“It is an exceptional place for the type of research I do. I have a team of emerging scientists who are really top in their field and doing some exciting work.”

In September, Prof Cinner received the highest recognition one can get from their peers, being elected a Fellow to the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

“It’s particularly exciting because I’m a social scientist by training, but a lot of the work I do is in the interdisciplinary space linking social science and ecology,” Prof Cinner said. “So, it is very nice that my work is recognised as meaningful and impactful to the core social sciences as well as in that interdisciplinary space.

“To nerds like me, it is akin to getting inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.”

The Academy of the Social Sciences Australia represents more than 600 leading academics shaping Australian policy.

A total of 36 new Fellows of the Academy will be formally welcomed and inducted at the Academy’s General Meeting and Annual Symposium in Canberra from 12 to 14 November 2018.

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Published 10 May 2019