Inspiring the Next Generation of Conservation Researchers: Q&A with David Edwards

Jan. 30, 2020

David Edwards is Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Sheffield. From 2010-2011, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School, working with Prof. David Wilcove. Last fall he returned to campus to give one of the David Bradford Seminars on Energy and Environmental Policy, organized by the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment (C-PREE).

Edwards presented his current research on farming systems and agricultural land management and its impact on biodiversity. In particular, he studies how palm oil production affects species richness. Using an economic cost analysis, Edwards suggested models that allow for more sustainable forest development, carbon recovery, and protection of biodiversity.

What research were you working on when you started at the Woodrow Wilson School?

When I began working with David [Wilcove], my first research interests were solely around understanding how logging in Southeast Asia affected biodiversity in the forests there. A lot of land was being converted for growing oil palm. Coming in as more of a pure ecologist, I viewed the research questions in isolation of the larger policy levers that were at work. I was more interested in questions around the prevalence of certain species and their ability to persist or adapt after logging occurred. It was absolutely David who encouraged me to think about the policies that were at play – in this case, looking at the role of REDD+ in identifying areas for tropical forest protection.

REDD+ is shorthand for countries’ efforts to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, plus foster conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.

How did your time at C-PREE influence your career and research trajectory?

My time here was incredibly transformative. Until I started my postdoc at the Woodrow Wilson School, I was a biologist. I thought about my research very deeply within this box. After I began working here, I was able to get out of the constraints of disciplinary thinking to explore more inter- and cross-disciplinary research.

My time at the Woodrow Wilson School introduced me to the whole gamut of issues connected to conservation. I added a valuable economics approach while I was here and started to realize that I couldn’t solve the problems that I cared most about solely through understanding the ecology. At C-PREE, I was able to do rigorous research on biological diversity in tropical forests, and then I expanded this with a policy framework to consider how to encourage conservation efforts that would protect invaluable land and habitats. It’s a perspective that I now share with my own students.

The vast majority of students in my research group are thinking about big conservation issues. The big takeaway is how policy-relevant research alters your initial research questions. It’s not just “How is logging affecting biodiversity in tropical forests?” but also “What actions can we take to better protect biodiversity there? What will it cost? What stakeholders should we involve?”

What are some strategies you have used to get your research into the hands of people who can utilize it?

Some of what I learned here was around the importance of telling a story about your research in a way that is interesting and appealing for policymakers and anyone else who could play a role in making a change. However, there’s also a fundamentally different way of approaching research, where you think about asking a question that seeks to answer or address an issue that NGOs or policymakers are already concerned about. This helps drive the research in a direction that could have a tangible, more direct impact on important environmental debates.

I’ve been trying to engage more end users at the beginning of my research design, although it’s not always easy to do. I’ve found that if you are able to engage a particular policy maker or NGO up front, co-design the research questions with them, and keep them updated along the way, they’ll be much more invested and engaged in hearing the outcome of the research. This can be a very beneficial way to get scientific research into the hands of people who will use it to make decisions.

One of my students, for example, is researching sustainable rubber production and working with GPSNR [Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber], which is incorporating our findings as the organization evolves. In other cases it’s more difficult to identify a key organization up front. Another student is looking at the issue of mining in Africa, and his research is at a regional scale, so we might determine stakeholders further down the road as the research narrows. I just want to encourage my students to begin thinking early on in their research, “Why does this matter?”

What distinguishes the research that happens here at C-PREE?

This center supports research entirely focused on highly relevant, socially important, environmental and energy questions. It frames these research questions in ways that are directly linked to policy. In my experience, I’ve found that this approach is invaluable and there are few other centers that explicitly make this type of interdisciplinary, policy-driven research their mission.

What are some of the most pressing issues that you think the next generation of postdocs and students should focus on? 

I think the most important issue for the next generation of researchers is going to be negative emissions technologies – both environmental and energy solutions – to help slow climate change. Some of this might involve technological fixes that have yet to be developed, but it’s also about natural solutions. Although a lot of the conversation focuses on growing more trees, we can also study how things like soil, wetlands, and land-use play a role. Researchers can also study the societal changes that will be required, such as reducing consumption, adopting electric cars, eating less meat, and also thinking about how to motivate behavior changes and make people want to get involved in these changes.

There are so many ways that researchers can have an impact – getting involved in the science and research, or the policymaking, or working with the funders, corporations, or other groups that can support societal change.