Today researchers from the University of Cambridge announce a partnership with nature conservation groups, aimed at getting the best science to busy on-the-ground conservationists.
‘Evidence-based conservation’ and ‘evidence-based policy’ have become buzzwords in the last decade, with a 2004 paper entitled ‘The need for evidence-based conservation’ cited over 1000 times. But within nature conservation, studies have shown that many organisations do not have access to scientific papers, and are working in the dark.
The Conservation Evidence Project (ConservationEvidence.com), set up by Professor Bill Sutherland at the University of Cambridge, summarises the scientific evidence on different conservation interventions that people have done all around the world. Their work so far includes the conservation of birds, bees, frogs and forests; they aim to cover all species and habitats in the next few years. Crucially, this information is made available for free, so anyone can read it and see what has worked – and what hasn’t. However, some conservation groups are still not using the available science, meaning they may not be as effective as they could be in conserving nature.
Several leading conservation organisations interested in the Conservation Evidence approach have decided to make it a key part of their decision-making and become Evidence Champions. The Vincent Wildlife Trust, Froglife, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and Oryx have all pledged to check the scientific evidence on ConservationEvidence.com every time they make a conservation decision. They are also keen to embrace the Conservation Evidence Project’s culture of experimental conservation by testing many of the actions they undertake – and researchers from the University of Cambridge will help them to design scientific studies to see how well their projects have worked, and publish the results so others can learn from their work.
Dr Henry Schofield, Conservation Director of The Vincent Wildlife Trust, was instrumental in developing his organisation’s partnership with the Cambridge scientists. ‘We have been leaders in innovations to protect British and Irish mammals, especially the rare horseshoe bats. We have designed bespoke bat houses, predator-proof bat entrances and enhanced major hibernation sites. With the help of the University of Cambridge staff we can measure the impact we have had, and share the results with other conservationists.’
Kathy Wormald, Chief Executive Officer of Froglife, has already arranged for the Conservation Evidence staff from Cambridge to train her team in using the Conservation Evidence website and designing ways to test the impact of their conservation projects. ‘We are committed to delivering the best possible conservation outcomes, and a better understanding of the impacts of our projects will help us to do this. We have seen how much useful information there is on amphibian conservation on the Conservation Evidence website; but the website has also highlighted areas where there is still a lot to learn. We have the expertise to fill those knowledge gaps, and aim to start doing so this year.’
Nida Al-Fulaij, Grants Manager at People’s Trust for Endangered Species, is deploying her considerable influence as a funder to spread the evidence-based conservation message. ‘We’ll be asking all our grantees to check the evidence for their proposed projects on the Conservation Evidence website. This will help us to fund the projects with the highest chance of success. We will also be encouraging the conservationists that we fund to test their work and publish it in Conservation Evidence’s journal, so we can be constantly improving conservation science.’
Martin Fisher, the editor of Oryx (The International Journal of Conservation Fauna & Flora), feels that his journal’s decision to ask contributors to discuss the evidence on ConservationEvidence.com will improve the standard of discussion in papers and even affect how projects are planned. ‘We know that humans have a tendency to cherry pick and discuss the existing literature that supports their views – if they check the totality of evidence collected on the website, this can be avoided. We hope that as authors experience checking the existing evidence they will also start to check it before undertaking conservation interventions – and this may lead to the avoidance of approaches already shown to be unsuccessful.’
For conservation, developing a rigorous, evidence-based culture similar to that seen in medicine could be a game changer. In medicine, careful tests of treatments showed some routinely used methods were ineffective, or even harmful; and this helped develop the effective medical care we enjoy today. Professor Bill Sutherland envisages the same approach revolutionising nature conservation, a typically underfunded discipline.
“Routinely checking the evidence before starting a project is clearly the conservation model of the future. We think conservation can be as science led, experimental and innovative as medicine; we just apply the lessons learned from healing people, to healing the planet”.