How can we translate conservation research into actual conservation?

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the mammoth time, effort, and money spent on scientific research actually does have a point. We hope, as we engage in all that work, that it will actually yield results that we can, you know, use. But one tiny branch of research has shown in the past that people whose job is to engage in environmental management very rarely actually listen to the advice of the scientists working in their fields. There is a disconnect, it seems, between research and real-world application.

A new study, published this month in Conservation Biology, looked a bit deeper into that disconnect. Researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology conducted a survey of 92 conservation managers from 26 countries (though mostly in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand), to find out how they use or would use scientific evidence to reduce predation on birds.

The participants first answered questions about 28 management interventions that are designed to reduce predation on birds by invasive or problematic species; these ranged from the use of electric fencing and artificial nests to “cat curfews” and predator translocation, among many others. Afterward, they were asked to answer more questions about these conservation practices, only this time while reading parts of the Bird Conservation Evidence Synopsis, a free tool summarizing research on all the various practices the managers were asked about. The average respondent had heard of 57.1 percent of the 28 interventions, and had actually implemented 18.5 percent. Encouragingly, there was a positive correlation between what research has shown to be an actually effective intervention and the number of people who used it—which suggests that the evidence is, to some extent, making its way into the right hands.

However, 85 of the 92 participants did say they would change their view of a given intervention after reading how effective they are in the Synopsis. In other words, they simply didn’t know, beforehand, that someone had done some research and proven one way or another that a certain technique worked or didn’t. All it took was seeing the evidence to change a mind.

Survey respondents who said they were not likely to change their current practices for protecting birds did tend to have more experience in the field… which sounds great, until you realize that those with more experience were no more aware of existing scientific literature than less experienced people. However, the more experienced folks had also simply used more of the interventions in the past, and specifically more of the effective ones.

The issue underlying this study is so simple as to sound ridiculous when laid out in front of us: “One reason for conservation science to be funded and conducted is so that it can be used by practitioners,” the authors write. But they often don’t use it, and the biggest reason, the authors claim, is that the vast bulk of scientific research is stuck behind paywalls and huge subscription fees. (This very study we’re discussing is currently one of 10 “open access” papers on Conservation Biology‘s Early View page—out of 70 total papers, reviews, and commentaries.) As in this study, just putting the evidence in front of the faces of those who might use it to save birds or for any other conservation issue may be enough to move the needle.

In other fields, there may be less distance between scientific enquiry and practice. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are heavily engaged in the search for new drugs, both at their own labs and at universities and institutes everywhere. Because conservation science is a much more distributed field, with individuals and groups at a huge variety of scales engaged in it, we may need to work harder to get the hard-earned evidence out into the world where it belongs. – Dave Levitan | August 19, 2014

Source: Walsh JC, Dicks LV, Sutherland WJ (2014). The effect of scientific evidence on conservation practitioners’ management decisions, Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12370

Image:, vector photo video