In the lead up to the announcement of Australia’s most prestigious science honours, the AM Eureka Prizes team sat down with some of this year's science stars.
Who: Professor Joshua Cinner, James Cook University, team leader of Social-Ecological Research Frontiers
Finalist: UNSW Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research
What: Comprised of scientists from seven different institutions across Australia, the Social-Ecological Research Frontiers team studies coral reefs that are thriving, despite climate change, over-fishing and pollution. By looking at these “bright spots”, the team tells us, we can create new solutions for the reefs that are in decline.
So Josh, how did you get into science?
For me, my journey into science is one of serendipity and a touch of irony. I grew up in Massachusetts, USA, and when my parents got divorced in the mid-1980s, my dad decided that we could start SCUBA diving together as a way to do some bonding. That was great in theory, but I was a scrawny little kid, the water in New England is bloody cold, and my dad thought he could save a little money by buying me a wetsuit in a size too big. Needless to say, I gave it up reasonably quickly.
A decade later, I joined the US Peace Corps. I’d listed my SCUBA diving qualifications on my application, and because of that they assigned me to a coral reef marine park in Jamaica, where I not only fell in love with coral reefs, but also with the science that could help save them. My journey into science has led me to Tropical Queensland – the best place in the world to study reefs. So ironically, the thing that my dad did to get close to me as a teenager is what led to me living on the exact opposite side of the planet from him.
Coral reefs are in crisis, and we’re not going to get out of this crisis by doing more of the same. We need to think outside the box about novel solutions.
Why is the work of the Social-Ecological Research Frontiers team important?
Coral reefs are in crisis, and we’re not going to get out of this crisis by doing more of the same. We need to think outside the box about novel solutions. We wanted to learn from places that were doing things differently and uncover why they were able to withstand the pressures that caused other places to collapse, so that lessons from these places could inform reef conservation in other areas.
Who is your biggest science inspiration and why?
My wife! We’re both social scientists, but my background is in geography and hers is in economics and sociology, which means we’re very different species. So working closely with her really inspires me to push myself out of my comfort zone.
What does the next year hold for the Social-Ecological Research Frontiers team?
Using the same technique of studying the best-case scenarios instead of the worst, we’re going to be digging into how the COVID-19 crisis has affected coral reefs. The pandemic has disrupted food systems and many people are now relying on reef fisheries even more. We’re launching an interdisciplinary project to investigate the “exceptional responders” – the places that have responded best to the crisis to see why they are successful.
The Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research is presented by UNSW