Dr Tatsuya Amano awarded Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Prize

The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) announced late in 2021 that the 18th (FY2021) JSPS Prize has been awarded to CBCS Chief Investigator Dr Tatsuya Amano. The award honours Dr Amano for his work on global biodiversity assessments focusing on bridging gaps in our knowledge caused by language barriers.

The JSPS was founded in 1932 based on an endowment granted by Emperor Showa. Since then, the society has played a central role in promoting science through a wide range of funding opportunities both within Japan and across multiple countries.

The JSPS Prize is one of the most prestigious prizes for mid-career researchers in Japan, established in 2004 to recognise and support scientists with “rich creativity and superlative research ability”. Its past recipients include Professor Shinya Yamanaka, the Nobel Prize laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 2012, and Professor Yuichi Tsuda, who successfully led an asteroid sample-return mission in 2020.

The 18th JSPS Prize recognises Tatsuya’s world-leading contribution to producing and synthesising scientific evidence for conservation and enhancing accessibility to global communities.

Patchy evidence in the face of a crisis

Producing and applying scientific evidence play a key role in tackling the ongoing biodiversity crisis. Since moving from Tokyo to Cambridge, UK, in 2011, first as a JSPS postdoctoral fellow then as a Marie-Curie fellow, Tatsuya has always been intrigued by one seemingly simple question: Why is so much evidence found in some parts of the world and not in others? Some of Tatsuya’s earlier work revealed severe gaps and biases in the availability of scientific evidence over space and taxonomic groups. He has since devoted much of his research to producing new scientific evidence to be used for conservation in evidence-poor regions, focusing in particular on waterbird species. For example, Tatsuya and his colleagues reported on some of the first evidence for the impact of developments in the Yellow Sea on shorebirds in the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, catastrophic waterbird declines in central and western Asia, and the severe threats posed to waterbird species in the tropics by climate change.

Uncovering unknown knowns

When Tatsuya spotted one day that the global distribution of biodiversity information is partly explained by the distribution of English speakers, he realised how potentially enormous the consequences of language barriers could be for conservation science and its applications. Since then, he has been working to reveal the consequences of language barriers in conservation, and more broadly in science. The translatE (transcending language barriers to environmental sciences) project launched by Tatsuya at CBCS in 2019, funded by his ARC Future Fellowship, today represents a world-leading initiative in tackling this important, yet overlooked, issue in science. The project applies scientific approaches to understand the three types of language barriers in science: how ignoring science that is available only in non-English languages affects evidence synthesis; how difficulties in understanding English impede the local use of scientific evidence; and how language barriers disadvantage non-native English speakers in the development of their academic career.

One of the project’s key achievements to date has been the discovery that non-English-language studies – the unknown knowns to international communities – can fill spatial and taxonomic gaps in English-language evidence for conservation. This work, recently published in PLOS Biology, was built on a collaboration with 62 scientists, who, collectively, are native speakers of 17 languages. The project has been vitalised by huge contributions from CBCS’s Violeta Berdejo-Espinola and other CBCS/UQ members. They are now working with over 130 collaborators from every continent of the world, showcasing just how much can be achieved through the nurturing of a culturally diverse academia.

Transcending language barriers for global challenges

Tatsuya’s innovative project and its unique contribution to science have already attracted global attention, and been featured in Nature, Science, and The Economist, to name just a few prestigious publications. Tatsuya and colleagues have also been working on devising solutions to the issue of language barriers. For example, his team recently published Ten tips for overcoming language barriers in science and have started exploring how we can make the best use of machine translation in science. With the translatE project, Tatsuya aims to achieve his ambitious vision of making the best available science, produced by anyone around the world, accessible to anyone across the globe, irrespective of one’s linguistic or socioeconomic background. He firmly believes that achieving this goal will help us tackle many of the global challenges facing humanity today, like the biodiversity crisis.

Project members

Dr Tatsuya Amano

ARC Future Fellow
School of the Environment
Deputy Director – Research
Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science

Violeta Berdejo-Espinola

PhD student and Senior Research Technician
School of the Environment
Fuller Lab Group