Conservation science leader: from global to local

Dr Natasha Robinson is a Principal Scientist in the Conservation and Restoration Science Branch. We recently sat down with Natasha to talk about her global connections and inspiring work with a range of research partners and collaborators. (And learned she's even done a stand-up comedy gig about climate change, quolls and other things).

Dr Natasha Robinson

Tell us about your current role

My role is to lead and do conservation science across the department. I also manage a team specifically looking after the research to support the Saving our Species Program. This program is one of the biggest conservation commitments ever undertaken in New South Wales.

What does a regular day look like?

A regular day involves a lot of talking with people and working on various research projects. Being a government scientist is very different to being an academic, or a scientist in an academic institution. There's a lot more engagement as my team and I are always working to ensure our research meets the needs of the organisation and the people on the ground who are the ultimate end users of the research outputs. So, in that sense. I talk a lot with people.

When it comes to the research side, I might be doing mapping with ArcGIS to select sites for projects or looking at data and thinking about how I'm going to analyse it. Or I might be writing a report or (hopefully) doing field work (the icing on the cake).

"One of the interesting things with research is that once you have a public profile, and you start putting research out there, for example by posting on social media, people start to reach out to you with ideas or wanting to collaborate or talk more about your research. I've done some fun television, podcast and radio interviews over the years."

"What I want is to make sure my research is useful, by connecting it back to the practitioners, the end users. I think it's also important to communicate in a way that non-scientists can understand. That often means thinking beyond the publication to other more engaging ways such as presentations in team meetings, or community days or even stand-up comedy."

Go on, tell us a fun fact about you

I took up paragliding during the first COVID lockdown period.

What's your favourite thing about working with the department?

I really like that the research my team and I does is well connected to the needs of the organisation and the people on the ground managing conservation areas and landscapes. It's rewarding addressing questions that are crucially important to improving the conservation of threatened species in New South Wales. For example, understanding the threats or how effective different management strategies are.

What sparked your interest in science?

Australia's remarkable biodiversity and unique species and ecosystems, found nowhere else in the world. I'm passionate about our environments and conserving or improving them. As we all know, we're facing a dire extinction crisis, with ongoing climate change and lots of other threats in the landscape like introduced pests and weeds, land clearing and changes to fire regimes. I want to contribute my energy to better managing our natural environment and wonderful species.

You've done research around the world, is that right?

Through my science career I've been lucky to work with amazing people around the world. Probably one of the most fun projects has been the WORLDCLIMB research project. A former colleague knew that I'm a rock climber and an ornithologist (a bird scientist) and they put me in touch with researchers in Spain. They'd won a National Geographic research grant to look at how rock climbing impacts native vegetation, animals and the cliffs. We did some really fun fieldwork on various rock crags around Australia, linking in with research in other Mediterranean regions around the world.

What problem are you trying to solve right now for New South Wales?

Understanding how gliding marsupials respond to fires, working with department staff and also Aboriginal communities. We're engaging with traditional custodians of the land to understand their needs and interests around conserving the species. We're also sharing knowledge and sharing skills; learning from each other.

What are the broader challenges that you're trying to address?

Making sure that our research improves knowledge of native species, their ecology, their habitat, the threats to their persistence and how we improve management of these species. It's really about making sure that our research is useful to conservation practitioners.

What are the greatest benefits from working on diverse research partnerships?

There are many benefits but the key ones would be inclusion of diverse perspectives and being able to meet different objectives.

Working with a range of partners and stakeholders allows for different ideas and ways of looking at the issue. It also allows for different outcomes to be achieved. This can sometimes make project planning very challenging but the results are worth it. Collectively, we all have a better understanding of different values, better communication, improved relationships, and better outcomes that are typically broader than species conservation. For example, working with NGOs and zoos, they often want to have a high public profile – this is important for engaging the general public in these important issues. Whereas, Indigenous communities, usually have needs that are much broader than specific conservation goals.

It's a privilege to be able to work with different people and organisations who value conservation, sometimes for different reasons. It's important to collaborate if we want lasting conservation outcomes.

What skills or attributes would you say are most important for a good partnership?

Good communication, trust and respect. Sometimes building good trusting relationships can take time. It's important to allow time to chat, to develop a common understanding and how best to work together, and what each partner wants to get out of the partnership. Sometimes you might need to involve people with existing relationships with communities, to initiate a connection. Sometimes it might be necessary to involve social researchers to understand needs of stakeholders. Knowledge brokers are also extremely useful for helping communicate messages and make partnerships work.

What are you most excited about right now?

I think there's a big shift that's happening now in the way we manage land. There's greater awareness around what knowledge can be and the benefits of traditional Indigenous ecological knowledge. I hope that in five years' time we have traditional knowledge better integrated into public land management and we're even more actively working alongside traditional custodians to learn from them and build some important research partnerships.

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