Evidence-based conservation: more complex than you might think

Dietmar Temps / AdobeStock
12 October 2017

It is hard to argue with the desire for conservation policy and practice to be based on the best available evidence. Evidence is critical to develop actions and strategies that are more likely to lead to desirable outcomes for people and for nature. It is also important to ensure that precious dollars invested in conservation are well spent.

Scientific journals and literature produced by government and non-governmental organisations are full of insights on what works and what doesn’t work in conservation. Why then is evidence-based conservation so difficult to achieve?

In collaboration with the Luc Hoffmann Institute, researchers from the University of Queensland, the Australian National University and Pace University explored this apparent paradox in a commentary published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The commentary is a response to an earlier article by researchers at the University of Cambridge that attributes the problem to ‘evidence complacency’ within conservation. Those authors suggest that evidence is not routinely sought in or used in conservation for several reasons including: a lack of awareness that evidence would help in a given situation; that it is too much effort to check for evidence; that it is easier to talk to a person than read a journal article, or that policymakers and practitioners have inadequate training in using evidence. The solutions proposed by the authors include providing evidence in more accessible formats, creating a culture of evidence use, and increasing exchanges between researchers and decision-makers.

Manage trade-offs

While these ideas are all well-intentioned, they miss some of the critical insights from social scientists who study the use of knowledge and evidence in decision-making. This literature – which spans decades and multiple disciplines – shows us that there are many different types of knowledge, beliefs, norms and evidence that are drawn on by people making decisions in policy and practice. Moreover, making decisions in conservation often involves trade-offs between different objectives, values and perspectives which are best understood through a non-linear model of knowledge exchange, in which dialogue and negotiation flow in two directions. Otherwise, far from resolving discord, two completely contradictory bodies of evidence could be drawn on to justify an intervention or to prevent it.

A simple example of this is when creating a new protected area. Evidence provided through ecology could identify the ideal location based on the distribution of an iconic species. At the same time, evidence from studies of political ecology could show that this location would have a detrimental impact on the natural resources available to people living in the area, which could in turn result in larger pressures on the species under threat. Which evidence should a policymaker base their decision on? These types of decisions can, and should be, informed by different types of evidence, but ultimately it is a question of weighing trade-offs between multiple perspectives on the future of a particular place, and the people and species living there.

Embrace complexity

Improving the use of knowledge and evidence should be at the forefront of our efforts in conservation. It is vitally important that we accept the inherent complexity of doing so. It isn’t productive to blame busy practitioners or policymakers for failing to account for evidence, nor does it help to suggest that scientists should double down on producing evidence without understanding the complexities of policy processes. The different demands of each sector create challenges and constraints that inevitably prevent productive dialogues between decision-makers and researchers. Effective conservation is about managing trade-offs and expectations. Doing so will require systems that enable the use of different types of knowledge and evidence to create sustainable futures.

By Carina Wyborn, Luc Hoffmann Institute, Megan Evans, University of Queensland, Federico Davila, Australian National University and Anne Toomey, Pace University.

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