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Sydney research among most influential of 2019
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17 December 2019
This year's most debated and shared scientific research
Three research papers featuring University of Sydney academics - on the 'insect apocalypse', the birthplace of modern humans and the global climate emergency - have been ranked among the world's most influential scientific studies for 2019.

The annual Altmetric Top 100 list highlights research published in 2019 that has generated significant international online attention and discussion – from patents and public policy documents to mainstream media, blogs, Wikipedia, and social media platforms.

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Dr Francisco Sanchez-Bayo, an honorary associate with the Sydney Institute of Agriculture in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, penned an article that, for the first time, revealed a catastrophic threat exists to 40 percent of insect species over the next 100 years, with butterflies, moths, dragonflies, bees, ants and dung beetles most at risk. 

Dr Sanchez-Bayo and his colleagues found the main drivers for species loss are intensive agriculture, pollution and climate change.

“Because insects constitute the world's most abundant animal group and provide critical services within ecosystems, such an event cannot be ignored and should prompt decisive action to avert a catastrophic collapse of nature's ecosystems,” the report, published in Biological Conservation in February, said.

The research, which ranked as the 13th most influential of the year, caused a worldwide media frenzy, with more than 500 news stories and blogs around the world, including The Guardian, which broke the story, CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera, as well as 5000 tweets and was even discussed in the United Kingdom Parliament.

Speaking to ABC television in Australia, Dr Sanchez-Bayo said: “We are not alarmists, we are realists. We are experiencing the sixth mass extinction on Earth. If we destroy the basis of the ecosystem, which are the insects, then we destroy all the other animals that rely on them for a food source.

“It will collapse altogether and that’s why we think it’s not dramatic, it’s a reality.”

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Professor Vanessa Hayes, from the Faculty of Medicine and Health and Garvan Institute of Medical Research, published a paper in the prestigious journal Nature in October pinpointing the birthplace of modern humans in southern Africa, where they thrived for 70,000 years.

Professor Hayes and her team studied samples of mitochondrial DNA to shine a light on early human explorations, which they believe were triggered by a change in climate and initiated the development of humans’ genetic, ethnic and cultural diversity.

The findings provide a window into the first 100,000 years of modern humans’ history and generated much debate in the media as well as on social media, with more than 260 news stories and 800 Tweets, placing the research as the world’s 67th most influential paper of 2019.

University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence congratulated Professor Hayes and her team on the discovery.

“This is an outstanding result for Australian research, providing fascinating insights into our ancestry,” Dr Spence said.

“This goes to show what can be achieved when people collaborate globally for a shared purpose; it’s also an exemplary example of academic endeavour – a leading genetic expert recognising the potential of the genetic clues in our cells to answer big questions in anthropology and human origin.”

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In November, five biologists outlined data from the past 40 years they said showed without doubt that our planet was enduring a climate emergency caused by human activity. Their paper was endorsed by more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries.

The team of scientists, led by Professor Bill Ripple at Oregon State University, included Dr Thomas Newsome from the University of Sydney's School of Life and Environment Sciences. Together the five biologists warned that “untold human suffering” is unavoidable without deep and lasting shifts in human activities that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and other factors related to climate change.

The paper, published in in BioScience, was ranked by Altimetric as the fourth most impactful paper of the year, with more than 650 news stories and blog posts and upwards of 7,800 Tweets. 

The declaration was based on scientific analysis of more than 40 years of publicly available data covering a broad range of measures, including energy use, surface temperature, population growth, land clearing, deforestation, polar ice mass, fertility rates, gross domestic product and carbon emissions.

“Scientists have a moral obligation to warn humanity of any great threat,” said Dr Newsome. “From the data we have, it is clear we are facing a climate emergency.”

He said: “While things are bad, all is not hopeless.” The paper outlined six steps to address the climate emergency. These include replacing fossil fuels with clean renewables, consuming fewer animal products and restrain massive land clearing.

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