Virtual Issue: Conservation evidence, decision-making and the role of scientific publications

Edited by Nathalie Pettorelli
October 2014

Very few conservation scientists and environmental managers can have missed the recent headlines following the release of the latest Living planet report: our planet has lost half of its wildlife in the past 40 years. Yet problems did not begin in the seventies: it has been argued that humans have triggered in the past 500 years a wave of extinctions that may be comparable in both rate and magnitude with the five previous mass extinctions of Earth’s history (Barnosky et al. 2011).
So how do we tackle this accelerating Anthropocene defaunation (Dirzo et al. 2014)? A growing number of researchers and practitioners believe that solutions to prevent further loss and restore global biodiversity are about aligning our thinking with thought processes used in medicine, where rigorous, objective analysis of evidence has contributed to widespread improvements in medical outcomes (Adams & Sandbrook 2013). The idea is, in theory, pretty straightforward, consisting of promoting the ongoing systematic collation of evidence relating to all possible environmental policy options; evaluating such studies for evidence quality and synthesizing the outcomes into systematic reviews; and finally condensing this information into synopses to support decision making at the policy level (Dicks et al. 2013).

In practice, there are potential issues relating to the type and sources of evidence that can be used, as well as variability in how these syntheses are conducted and framed, potentially undermining their value to decision-makers (Adams & Sandbrook 2013; Woodcock et al. 2014). For example, policy options can be assessed in terms of performance (which focuses on progress toward desired levels of specific activities, outputs, and outcomes), impact (which focuses on measuring the intended and unintended causal effects of policy options) or management (which focuses on measuring management inputs, activities, and outputs); these types of assessments do have commonalities, yet represent different and complementary axes to accessing an holistic overview of the pros and cons associated with a given option (Mascia et al. 2014). Without a thorough consideration and appreciation for these different axes, biases can appear in terms of information presented at the systematic review and synopsis stages. On top of these considerations, the lack of incentives for researchers to coordinate efforts and undertake lengthy and systematic data collection over investment in less-applied pursuits can limit the uptake of evidence-based approaches. Research institutions and funding agencies are indeed still more committed to theoretical science than they are to applied science, reducing the appeal to invest time, energy and resources for collating the required evidence.

Despite these potential shortcomings, it is clear that limited resources and rapid loss of biodiversity call for cost-effective management actions to be prioritized; however, such prioritization cannot happen without the collection of relevant data and the critical evaluation of available information. For this to occur there needs to be strong communication channels to promote coordination and collaboration among all parties who hold stakes in environmental management (from practitioners to researchers and policy-makers). Although not fully appreciated by all, peer-reviewed journals can actually play a role in supporting the development of these channels and the coordination of data collection exercises by publishing studies providing the much needed conservation evidence, but also by highlighting current data gaps and new methodologies. Importantly, journals can also provide a platform for individuals involved in hands-on management of ecological resources to pinpoint issues related to insuring effective take-up of potentially key management actions (see e.g. Ewen et al. 2013 in this Virtual Issue).

With this Virtual Issue, the aim is to illustrate the plethora of opportunities for researchers to contribute to strengthening an evidence-based approach to environmental management without compromising on the quality and generality of their produced research. While tackling pressing issues such as invasive alien species management or land use optimization for species conservation under climate change, this selection of contributions also highlights the challenges associated with the production of high-quality evidence, and demonstrates how developments in data analysis approaches are intrinsically linked to the identification of future data collection priorities. Finally, this compilation exemplifies how the successful pathways from research to implementation likely involves a coordinated use of various skills drawn from a distinctively diverse array of backgrounds, brought together by a common willingness to overcome traditional barriers to communication and collaboration for the benefit of environmental management. Altogether, the hope is that this Virtual Issue will be of interest to a variety of stakeholders engaging in the challenge to conciliate biodiversity conservation and human development in a changing world.

Biodiversity conservation in dynamic landscapes: trade-offs between number, connectivity and turnover of habitat patches
Johst, K; Drechsler, M; van Teeffelen, AJA; Hartig, F; Vos, CC; Wissel, S; Watzold, F; Opdam, P

Shifting protected areas: scheduling spatial priorities under climate change
Alagador, D; Cerdeira, JO; Araujo, MB

Climate change, connectivity and conservation decision making: back to basics
Hodgson, JA; Thomas, CD; Wintle, BA; Moilanen, A

Connectivity, dispersal behaviour and conservation under climate change: a response to Hodgson et al.
Doerr, VAJ; Barrett, T; Doerr, ED

REVIEW: Managing urban ecosystems for goods and services
Gaston, KJ; Avila-Jimenez, ML; Edmondson, JL

Issues with modelling the current and future distribution of invasive pathogens
Murray, KA; Retallick, RWR; Puschendorf, R; Skerratt, LF; Rosauer, D; McCallum, HI; Berger, L; Speare, R; VanDerWal, J

The impact of proxy-based methods on mapping the distribution of ecosystem services
Eigenbrod, F; Armsworth, PR; Anderson, BJ; Heinemeyer, A; Gillings, S; Roy, DB; Thomas, CD; Gaston, KJ

On the limitations of graph-theoretic connectivity in spatial ecology and conservation
Moilanen, A

The biodiversity audit approach challenges regional priorities and identifies a mismatch in conservation
Dolman, PM; Panter, CJ; Mossman, HL

Living in risky landscapes: delineating management units in multithreat environments for effective species conservation
Olea, PP; Mateo-Tomas, P

Engineering a future for amphibians under climate change
Shoo, LP; Olson, DH; McMenamin, SK; Murray, KA; Van Sluys, M; Donnelly, MA; Stratford, D; Terhivuo, J; Merino-Viteri, A; Herbert, SM; Bishop, PJ; Corn, PS; Dovey, L; Griffiths, RA; Lowe, K; Mahony, M; McCallum, H; Shuker, JD; Simpkins, C; Skerratt, LF; Williams, SE; Hero, JM

Improving the surrogacy effectiveness of charismatic megafauna with well- surveyed taxonomic groups and habitat types
Di Minin, E; Moilanen, A

New Zealand Species Recovery Groups and their role in evidence-based conservation
Ewen, JG; Adams, L; Renwick, R

Exploring the mesofilter as a novel operational scale in conservation planning
Crous, CJ; Samways, MJ; Pryke, JS

Optimizing regional conservation planning for forest birds
Beaudry, F; Pidgeon, AM; Mladenoff, DJ; Howe, RW; Bartelt, GA; Radeloff, VC

Securing the future of the natural environment: using scenarios to anticipate challenges to biodiversity, landscapes and public engagement with nature
Kass, GS; Shaw, RF; Tew, T; Macdonald, DW


Adams, W.M. & Sandbrook, C. (2013) Conservation, evidence and policy. Oryx 47: 329-335.
Barnosky, A.D., Matzke, N., Tomiya, S., Wogan, G.O.U., Swartz, B., Quental, T.B., Marshall C., McGuire, J.L., et al. (2011) Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature 471: 51–57.
Dicks, L.V., Hodge, I., Randall, N.P., Scharlemann, J.P.W., Siriwardena, G.M., Smith, H.G., Smith, R.K. & Sutherland, W.J. (2014) A Transparent Process for “Evidence-Informed” Policy Making. Conservation Letters 7: 119-125.
Dirzo, R., Young, H.S., Galetti, M., Ceballos, G., Isaac, N.J.B. & Collen, B. (2014) Defaunation in the Anthropocene. Science 345: 401-406.
Ewen, J.G., Adams, L. & Renwick, R. (2013) New Zealand Species Recovery Groups and their role in evidence-based conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology 50: 281-285. 




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