Rigorous, Solution-Oriented Research is Critical for Saving Wildlife – And It’s Not Happening Enough

Wednesday, Jun 24, 2020
by Keely Swan

As a Ph.D student in Zoology at University of Cambridge, David Williams was working on his doctoral dissertation on the trade-offs between food production, biodiversity, and ecosystems. Pouring through articles by other natural scientists in prestigious science journals, it struck him as odd that so many of the articles failed to address the underlying issues that were causing declines in wildlife around the world.

“There seems to be a lot of research saying that everything is dying, but not a lot of research really getting into the depths of why that’s happening or actually trying to find appropriate responses,” Williams said. He realized that this impression was shared by other scientists in his field. So, after his dissertation was complete, he decided to take on an extensive, data-driven analysis of conservation publications to see whether there was evidence to support this impression.

Williams (University of Leeds) and his co-authors Andrew Balmford (University of Cambridge) and David Wilcove (Princeton University) recently published their findings in a new paper. For this study, they reviewed more than 950 articles from 20 years across 20 different conservation journals. They found that, of this research, almost half (43%) failed to link the observed status of wildlife (e.g. declining shorebird populations) with any factors that might be contributing to the harm the species were facing (e.g. fishing nets, degraded beach habitats, etc.). Overall, only 10% of studies linked the situation to underlying structural causes or drivers of change (e.g. poor regulation of coastal development). And very few studies went on to test actual ways to address those drivers of change.

“Monitoring the state of biodiversity is definitely important; we’re not saying we should ditch it completely. But I think if we want to set ourselves up to solve these problems, then we need to change how we’re working so that we can actually try to solve these problems,” said Williams.

The researchers suggest a number of possible explanations for why solutions-oriented research is not more common. These include the complexity and difficulty of implementing this type of research (interdisciplinary, systemic, and multi-year); lack of leadership support and incentives in academia; and potentially low acceptance by funders and prestigious publications.

Many conservation researchers have been trained in ecology, biology, or zoology. But, said Williams, “Once you begin doing conservation research, you come to realize that most of these issues are human issues, and the reason that biodiversity is declining is not necessarily a fundamental ecological problem, but rather a human problem.”

To conduct rigorous and effective conservation research, scientists also need to understand people’s motivations and behaviors and how these decisions affect the natural world. This type of interdisciplinary approach requires contributions from economics, political science, psychology, sociology, and other disciplines. Interdisciplinary research collaborations require training and a supportive, diverse academic environment, and involve learning to work across methodological differences, state the authors.

waved albatross flying in blue sky

Photo credit: David Wilcove. A Waved Albatross in the Galapagos Islands.

“Since one of the primary goals of my research group is to find realistic solutions to the problems facing wildlife, I really encourage this sort of interdisciplinary research, notwithstanding the greater challenges associated with working across disciplines,” said David Wilcove, co-author and core faculty member of the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment.

While conservation science is normative (meaning it presumes a desirable outcome, in this case protecting the diversity of life on Earth), scientists are well positioned to conduct rigorous, scientific research on the relationship between threats and outcomes. The authors promote creating more space for applied research that builds on fundamental research. One way to do this is by asking research questions that are relevant to real-world problems.

Anecdotally, the authors said, universities are increasingly asking for information about the impact of their faculty and researchers’ work, but there remain few incentives in traditional academia to encourage this type of engaged research. For example, academics who conduct more applied or practically-oriented research may be perceived as doing less prestigious, less scientifically rigorous research than those who take a more theoretical approach. The article cites prior studies that have documented how interdisciplinary research may be perceived as less helpful for securing promotions and academic recognition compared to more traditional, single-discipline research.

Solutions to conservation problems are necessarily tied to a specific place or ecosystem, and therefore individual studies may lack the kind of widely generalizable conclusions that many high-profile publications and funders gravitate towards. The authors conclude with a challenge to funders, institutions, journals, and researchers to help bridge gaps between research and practice, and to look closely at the role they can play to safeguard biodiversity.

And ultimately, Williams said, “The article is also a challenge to ourselves, as well: to be self-reflective about our research, our goals, and the value of our efforts to the wildlife we are trying to protect.” As Wilcove notes, “A lot of the young ecologists I meet are working hard to truly make a difference in the world – beyond simply publishing yet another paper. Solutions-oriented research is one way to save two birds with one stone.”

The paper, “The past and future role of conservation science in saving biodiversity,” appears in Conservation Letters on April 15, 2020.

This research has also been covered by Monica Evans in a piece on Mongabay, posted June 15, 2020.