Research and monitoring in conservation practice: expensive luxury or vital learning?

The Conservation Learning initiative: sharing evidence-based lessons to improve conservation practices

MAVA’s work throughout the years has covered a variety of geographies, species and ecosystems, using different approaches and involving a number of stakeholders from a diversity of sectors and backgrounds.  This pool of data provides a rare and valuable opportunity to extract evidence-based lessons on conservation.

Which strategies have produced results and which have not worked as well? Does research improve conservation practice? Do people who have participated in trainings implement better strategies and practices?  Does working in partnership lead to better impact? Does flexible funding allow organizations to be more strategic and resilient? Questions such as these are part of the challenges in conservation projects and programmes, and MAVA aims to contribute to finding answers that could be shared with the conservation community.

To achieve that, the foundation commissioned Foundations of Success and Conservation Evidence to investigate and the result of this collective effort is now available on the Conservation Learning Initiative website.  The Initiative presents the findings of the analytical work carried out on the themes of capacity building, partnerships and alliances, research and monitoring, and flexible funding.

MAVA will publish blogs to highlight the findings on these topics as part of the learning outcomes from this important piece of work. Our hope is that these learnings will nourish the work of our fellow practitioners in philanthropy and conservation.

 

By William Morgan, Conservation Evidence, Cambridge

Conservation is a chronically underfunded discipline. Conservationists from across the sector compete for limited pots of funding even though their broad aims are often very closely aligned. It may therefore be unsurprising that serious questions are asked about whether it is worth diverting precious resources away from on-the-ground action. With this in mind, what is the role of further research and monitoring in conservation, and is it a luxury we cannot afford at a time of biodiversity crisis?

To answer this question it may be helpful to ask two more: 1) what kind of on-the-ground conservation action are we talking about? And 2) what kind of research and monitoring?

Let’s start with the question on action. Some conservation actions are obvious: building fences to manage grazing, creating wetlands, or introducing or removing species from landscapes; others less so: consider designating protections for areas or resources, providing payments to encourage certain human behaviours, or building organisational capacity. But are such actions effective? By which we mean, do they take us closer to achieving the goals of conservation?

An obvious first step when deciding on what action to take is to check the existing evidence base, and in some situations this may be enough. For example, there is strong evidence that many over-the-counter painkillers are effective, so if I have a headache I will reach for the paracetamol without much thought. But it is rarely this straightforward in conservation, where there are large gaps in the evidence base (Christie et al., 2020) and the causal chains between action and outcome are often long and complex. It seems clear that to understand the impact of our conservation interventions, and to avoid wasting time and resources on ineffective or harmful actions, some additional research and monitoring is required (particularly where there are gaps in the evidence base).

So, what kind of monitoring should we be doing? There is clearly a lot of conservation research being conducted. Between the years 2000–2015 nearly 13,000 papers were published in the nine leading conservation journals, with the publication rate increasing year on year (Godet & Devictor 2018). Yet the aims of conservation remain as distant as ever as global biodiversity continues to decline.

To shed light on the current role of research and monitoring in the wider conservation landscape we explored this topic as part of the Conservation Learning Initiative. Specifically, we investigated the extent to which conservation practice is aligned with the findings of research, whether utilising those findings leads to better outcomes, and whether investment in research and monitoring is geared towards improving practice.

The full results are now available to explore in detail on the Conservation Learning Initiative website, but some of our key findings are that 1) using relevant research findings to guide actions seems to lead to improved outcomes, but there is still a long way to go before this is standard practice across the conservation sector; and 2) while programs with an integrated research and practice component tend to invest in research that will guide their practices, within the wider field of conservation, research is often poorly aligned with conservation priorities.

So, what do we mean when we say research is poorly aligned with conservation priorities?

In the broadest sense, this means that species and habitats that are the most threatened are often not those receiving the greatest research attention: examples include carnivores (Brooke et al 2014), birds (Buechley et al 2019; Ducatez S & Lefebvre 2014; Murray et al 2015) and forest fragmentation (Deikumah et al. 2014). Beyond this broad view, a detailed exploration of conservation specific publications concluded that too much effort has gone into describing threats and status of species and habitats, and too little into designing, implementing and testing the effectiveness of conservation responses (Williams et al. 2020).

But even when research and monitoring efforts are targeted in the right direction, how do we ensure that the right data is being gathered to provide conservationists with the information they need the most? One approach is to consider the causal chain linking the action that is carried out (e.g. fund artificial island creation), the initial outputs following implementation (islands are created), the direct outcomes that emerge (birds nest on newly-created islands), and the subsequent change in the overall conservation target (increased sea bird populations) (Ockendon et al. in press). Data can be collected throughout the causal chain, and while all may have their uses, only some types of data can reveal whether our actions are having the desired impact. According to Mascia et al. (2014), conservation projects are good at some things: monitoring changes in ambient social/ecological conditions; recording the number of actions taken, or the number of outputs produced; and assessing progress towards particular project goals. However, conservationists are less good at systematically measuring the causal effects of different conservation interventions (Mascia et al. 2014). Such “impact evaluation” – which seeks to understand the outcomes that particular actions have by comparing changes observed during a project to changes in a “control”, where no action was taken (White 2010) – is vital if we are to understand the successes and failures of different conservation projects.

So, what does this mean for the future of research and monitoring in conservation practice? At Conservation Evidence we collate existing evidence to make it accessible (which also highlights gaps) and are advocating for a greater focus on testing the effectiveness of actions through well designed experiments (as well as natural or quasi-experiments) and embedding these methods within conservation practice. Elements of well-designed experiments include randomisation, including controls or comparisons, collecting data before and after an intervention, replication, and pre-registration (Crawley et al. 2015); Ockendon et al. (in press) describe each of these elements in more detail. We also recognise that not all projects or actions lend themselves well to experimental testing, but there is still much to be gained from carefully considering the range of other factors, in addition to project actions, that might influence your outcomes of interest.

It may often feel like conservation is in a constant state of crisis, where there is no time (or resource) to waste from implementing vital, on-the-ground actions that might help to bend the curve of biodiversity declines. Under such circumstances can we really afford to spend precious funds on further research and monitoring? But to flip the question on its head, can we really afford to invest in actions that at best are ineffective and at worst harmful? It is probably true that the goals of conservation are unlikely to be achieved through ever more monitoring of species and habitat status, and the various threats that assail them, but focussed research that is carefully designed to shed light on the causal links between the actions we take and the outcomes we care about is essential  in moving us closer towards our shared conservation goals.

 

References

Brooke Z.M., Bielby J., Nambiar K. et al. (2014) Correlates of research effort in carnivores: body size, range size and diet matter. PloSONE, 9, e93195.

Buechley E.R., Santangeli A., Girardello M. et al. (2019) Global raptor research and conservation priorities: Tropical raptors fall prey to knowledge gaps. Diversity and Distributions, 25, 856-869.

Christie A.P., Amano T., Martin P.A., et al. (2020) Poor availability of context-specific evidence hampers decision-making in conservation. Biological Conservation 248: 108666.

Crawley M.J. (2015) Statistics: An introduction using R (2nd ed.) (Chicester: John Wiley & Sons).

Deikumah J.P., Mcalpine C.A. & Maron M. (2014) Biogeographical and taxonomic biases in tropical forest fragmentation research. Conservation Biology, 28, 1522-1531.

Ducatez S. & Lefebvre L. (2014) Patterns of research effort in birds. PLoS One, 9, e89955.

Godet L. & Devictor V. (2018) What conservation does. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 33, 720-730

Mascia M.B., Pailler S., Thieme M.L. et al. (2014) Commonalities and complementarities among approaches to conservation monitoring and evaluation. Biological Conservation 169: 258-267.

Murray H.J., Green E.J., Williams D.R. et al. (2015) Is research effort associated with the conservation status of European bird species? Endangered Species Research, 27, 193–206.

Ockendon N., Cadotte M.W., Eklund J. et al. (In press) How Conservation Practice Can Generate Evidence. In: Sutherland, W.J. (eds.) Transforming conservation: A practical guide to evidence and decision making. Open books.

White H. (2010) A contribution to current debates in impact evaluation. Evaluation 16: 153-164.

Williams D.R., Balmford A. & Wilcove D.S. (2020) The past and future role of conservation science in saving biodiversity. Conservation Letters, 13:e12720.

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