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Thursday, 14 March 2013

Conservation by conservation scientists?

By Irina Herzon

One more workshop on conservation approaches. One more time a chance to discuss what conservation science is about. And once again to ponder on how much space is there, in our science, for conservation.

It is certainly true and correct that scientific work is our major professional duty and providing evidence is its chief output. Regardless of scientific field, it is so. Amount of evidence is further what is rewarded by the employment system. And yet here we are people who came to conservation biology because of the genuine concern for conservation. If we are driven only by curiosity to understand the world or ambitions in publishing, then we might just remain biologists without “conservation”. If we chose to do just that, to stay aside from any conservation acting remaining in this “evidence gathering” state, we can hardly complain about not being heard or lament about biodiversity decline unravelling despite all the evidence. We trick ourselves into thinking that even more evidence will do the job of conservation.

If we acknowledge that conservation is more than evidence gathering, we have to find opportunities to take that next logical step and find better ways of really making ourselves heard. One has to step forward in defence of something that one considers important, dear and right. Biodiversity conservation is not much different from any other "better world" issues such as human rights. One can only wonder how much Martin Luther King Jr would have achieved if people around him had been thinking: "fighting slavery is not my job". Whose job is to stop biodiversity demise then?

True, it is a serious obstacle that our professional academic system does not reward us for anything else except the number of publications. I hear this often being used as an excuse for focusing only on publications. But think of it, if we who are aware of the problem best and are concerned about it, keep only providing evidence, we are behaving exactly like farmers who do something for biodiversity only and as long as they are paid for it. Nor care about the end result. They need to survive as farmers and generate as much income from land as possible
we need to survive as scientists and generate as many publications as possible. No-one to blame!

A conservation biologist doesn't have to be a professional advocate for conservation, but should be an advocate for conservation nonetheless. If true concern is there, we should actively search collaboration with advocates, authorities, media, land-users, or public. Collaborating by actively bringing out the evidence to them in a form that can be understood by them. If this activity is not supported by our job providers, then we should try to change this attitude at our workplaces.  Or use more of our personal time. But not to hide behind the words: "not my job".

Actually many researchers in conservation biology do carry out a lot of active conservation. We just often restrain ourselves from speaking about this aloud, from sharing this kind of activity, its challenges, victories and failures. I would say, for a conservation biologist, it is as much a professional activity as doing science. Are we afraid of compromising our scientific credibility by engaging with society, or we are too shy to present this kind of work, beyond statistical testing, as meaningful? I think we should not! We should take pride in it and praise each other for it, and learn from each other on how to succeed best in “beyond evidence-gathering”. Maybe a session on Conservation by Conservation Biologists at the next ECCB?


Nuria Selva said...

Brilliant reflexion Irina! Congratulations for putting on the paper so nicely and clear what is probably the "eternal" discussion among conservation biologists, and which keeps us penduling between the two positions

Unknown said...

An eye opener article, well done!!

Sheyka said...

Thank you, Irina. It indeed is truly an eye opener. I've been working with an NGO eventhough I haven't yet graduated from school (I'm still an undergraduate), and thankfully I've had the privilege to know how the NGO works to communicate the findings and eidences to the public, especially the local community (because that NGO believes that every conservation should start from the most basic level of community that engages with the object that is conserved).
Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting thought-provoking stuff. I read similar arguments before, even at the past ECCB; wasn't it pretty much the motto of the meeting?

Anyway, althouh I share quite a lot of the feeling, I keep questioning who's gonna do the biology needed in conservation while we become, at least partly, outreach people?

Really not sure...

Anonymous said...

Quevedomario: "I keep questioning who's gonna do the biology needed in conservation while we become, at least partly, outreach people?"

Really? This concerns me very little, for one practical reason and one philosophical/quasi-empirical one.

The practical reason not to worry is that there is essentially no chance that all academic conservation biologists will decide to convert, even partially, to outreach. There is little chance that a majority will. But if many more do so, and indeed if doing so becomes a respected and rewarded and "normed" option for academic conservation biologists, we'll be that much the better for it, while effort remains in study at the same time. (Besides which, even if we all *partly* convert to outreach, there would still be a huge research infrastructure based on our lessened, but still present research efforts.)

The second reason is that a lack of biological knowledge is incredibly rarely the issue for environmental problems. See Judith Layzer's textbook "The Environmental Case"; Jasanoff's work on science & technology studies, or this piece by Hagerman et al.: "historical research has shown that “scientific proof is rarely what is at stake in a contested environmental....issue.” And that in environmental policy, there is “no need to wait for proof, no need to demand it and no basis to expect it” (Oreskes 2004)."

That seems like it can't be true, but Vatn and Bromley make a similar point about economic valuation in "Choices without prices without apologies": "Evidence would suggest that a great many "enlightened" choices concerning the environment have been taken in the absence of pricing. Early efforts at disease control through water purification in major urban centers of Europe and America certainly come to mind. Similarly, air pollution programs in these same cities did not await decisive evidence that the citizenry was prepared to pay an aggregate sum in excess of the anticipated "costs" imposed on those whose actions were to be modified. The dedication of large tracts of the American continent as public domain lands for the eternal enjoyment of all-regardless of their economic situation-is yet another reminder of the historical irrelevance of pricing and valuing of the sort that now seems de rigueur." I propose that what they say of pricing may be true of "more biology" more broadly. I would be particularly interested in empirical counter-evidence; of cases where lack of biological theory was the core problem (and not lack of use of existing biological data, or foreseeably inappropriate use of biological theory). While knowing an optimum reserve size is important, it is rare that knowing this number (or range of numbers) is what enables action, and it certainly seems the case that a lack of more sophisticated theoretical development (which itself would be provisional in every case, anyway) need not stop effective implementation and monitoring.

And sorry to belabor it, but a very effective form of outreach is collaborative research & citizen science, which would arguably increase with a change in focus. Indeed, monitoring & adaptive management may be effective as outreach, coalition-building (which is necessary if we want to conserve anything or get any particular policy implemented!), *and* data collection upon which to build future theory.