Managing biodiversity demands a multidisciplinary approach that reconciles ecological, social and economic dimensions.

The ICON Science Research Group examines these diverse drivers of change, particularly in urban and semi-rural environments. Our aim is to address the gap between conservation theory and real world practice in complex planning environments.

Research themes

Market based instruments
Market-based instruments (MBI) are a class of environmental policy tool that create financial motivation for landowners to alter environmental management practices on their land. Recently, an abundance of new tools has emerged, with two broad objectives: (1) providing incentive for improved environmental management (eg. payment for ecosystem services and reverse auctions) and (2) reducing vegetation loss via biodiversity banking and offset schemes. MBIs are fast becoming the policy instruments of choice for biodiversity management in Australia and around the world. The policy imperative together with the challenging social, economic and ecological issues encountered when implementing MBIs offers a rich field of scientific investigation.

ICON Science is involved in numerous projects investigating ecological, social and philosophical aspects of market-based instruments for managing the environment. Examples include:

An Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery grant (Gordon A, Bekessy SA) focused on biodiversity offsets titled ‘Evaluating environment policy that has immediate costs but long-term gains’;

An ARC Future Fellowship project (Bekessy SA) investigating the use of computational social science to improve the design of MBIs for conserving biodiversity;

Numerous PhD projects investigating the use of MBIs to engage private landholders in conservation activities;

Some research around the ethics of offsetting nature (eg, Ives CD, Bekessy SA. The ethics of offsetting biodiversity, in review).


Urban conservation, planning and management
Urban biodiversity weaves through the fragmented landscapes of our towns and cities. Biodiversity is inherently important and a key contributor to human and environmental health. Yet urbanisation is a major driver of biodiversity loss.

At ICON Science we work toward building a better understanding of urban socio-ecosystems, their dynamics, and opportunities to improve their health. We study the human-nature interface to evaluate and develop strategies for the conservation of urban biodiversity and enrichment of human life through involvement with nature. We focus on ways to contribute to environmental decision-making, planning and community engagement.

ICON Science is involved in several projects that relate to this research theme. Examples include:

The National Environmental Science Programme – Clean Air and Urban Landscapes hub (NESP-CAUL),  a long-term commitment to environment and climate research from the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment.

A Myer Foundation grant titled ‘Reimaging the Suburb: Planning for biodiversity in the urban fringe’ that seeks to identify methods for improving prospects for grassland conservation within housing developments whilst investigating urban development scenarios that mitigate impacts on existing grasslands and at the same time lead to greener, more sustainable suburbs.

A City of Melbourne – RMIT University co-funded project titled ‘The little things that run the city’ that aims to document and map the insect and spider biodiversity of public urban green spaces within the boundaries of a highly urbanised and populated inner city jurisdiction (The City of Melbourne) whilst assessing the ecosystem services they provide to people.


Human behaviour and values in conservation
To be most effective, conservation decisions and action need to take into account people’s values, biases and behaviour.

ICON Science is interested in measuring environmental values, attitudes and biases in a reliable way that allows for their inclusion in quantitative decision models. This is interdisciplinary research, where social psychology and behavioural economics meet ecological modeling and conservation decision analysis.

Examples of research questions we’re working on:

Will accounting for people’s often-perverse reactions to financial incentives improve the predictive accuracy of models that forecast outcomes of conservation schemes (e.g., market-based instruments)?

Question framing can dramatically alter measures of environmental values: how do we best interpret and apply that knowledge?

Are there unforeseen implications of the current Ecosystem Services approach to conservation?Might an economic frame eventually ‘crowd out’ more intrinsic and lasting motivations for behaviour change?


Environmental decisions analysis
The goal of environmental decision science is to drive more efficient environmental management, for example, determining how to best distribute finite environmental budgets. The discipline of environmental decision science has matured rapidly over the past decade, with Australia establishing global leadership, through the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and other centres.

Our decision science research has a significant impact on practice in governments and NGOs. Of course, there are many more national and international environmental policy and management decisions to come and these will demand increased investments in decision science research.


Private land conservation
Conserving species and ecosystems on private land is increasingly recognised as important not only for its ecological benefits, but also for economic and social reasons. The key to private land conservation is motivating and enabling private landholders to get involved in conservation activities, and keeping them involved over time, in ways that benefit nature. Our research takes an interdisciplinary approach to understand the interactions between the ecological, social and economic factors that deliver conservation on private land.


Education for sustainability
School and community-based environmental education programs are important for promoting knowledge, behaviour and attitudes towards conservation. Yet measuring the outcomes from these programs is difficult, as they typically incorporate both tangible and intangible benefits, and thus how environmental education actually contributes to the conservation of biodiversity is not well understood. Our research takes an interdisciplinary approach to understand the effectiveness of these programs with a focus on improving their future implementation.

Find out more about ICON Science.

Acknowledgement of Country

We at ICON Science acknowledge the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct our research, teaching and service. We respectfully acknowledge Ancestors and Elders past, present and emerging who have always been caring for Country. We pay our respects to Country, the lifeworld that sustains us all.

Our research, education and service is already in a relationship with Country and the people of Country, here and in all the places we undertake our business. As mostly non-Indigenous people, we acknowledge our obligation in this relationship: to uphold the ngarn-ga [understanding] of Bundjil and practice respect for community and culture. Though there is much we still need to learn, especially about ourselves, we affirm our dhumbali [commitment] to that work. We hold as central to our business dhumbali to a shared future with Indigenous peoples everywhere and especially Kulin Country and peoples


The Little Things that Run the City


How do Melbourne’s green spaces support insect biodiversity and promote ecosystem health?

New statistical approaches for analysing foodwebs and species distributions


A new generation of Bayesian species distribution models will provide improved predictions of species occurrence in the landscape.

Evaluating environment policy that has immediate costs but long-term gains

2016 (ongoing)

Evaluating environment policy that has immediate costs but long-term gains.

New statistical approaches for analysing foodwebs and species distributions

2016 (ongoing)

A new generation of Bayesian species distribution models will provide improved predictions of species occurrence in the landscape.

Sustainable, biodiverse mid-rise development for Fishermans Bend


Creating sustainable cities that are good for people and good for nature.

Onsets not offsets for real biodiversity gains


This project will make conceptual and methodological advancements required to develop a working approach for onsets. Case studies in urban development and agriculture will highlight how the approach work s in practice.

Key People

Lead researcher

Professor Sarah Bekessy

Professor Sarah Bekessy

Professor, Sustainability & Urban Planning

Program Researchers

Research Students

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Past Events

Living in a climate of change: Shaping cities to adapt to uncertain futures

19 February 2020, 5:30PM-7:00PM

Join RMIT lecturers and researchers to discuss how we can shape the future of our cities