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Mapping the evidence: Researchers urge use of new tools to better understand impacts of conservation and sustainability programs

  • Researchers affiliated with the Science for Nature and People (SNAP) Partnership say that a new tool called an “evidence map” can help change the fact that most literature on impacts of conservation and sustainability programs is never read.
  • To demonstrate how useful the technique can be, the team looked at over 1,000 research documents and prepared an evidence map that compiles existing studies and analyses of environmental conservation efforts’ impacts on human health and wellbeing.
  • “We contend that evidence mapping should be applied to sustainable development much more broadly,” the researchers wrote in a recent Nature article.

Every year, tens of thousands of systematic reviews, impact evaluations and other documents are prepared that assess the efficacy of sustainability policies and programs.

These documents contain vital information that could help guide policy makers and conservationists as they seek to balance the need to protect key species and ecosystems we all rely on to maintain a healthy and functioning global environment with the need for economic development projects to lift people in developing countries out of poverty.

For instance, as forest countries start to ramp up so-called payments for ecosystem services schemes as part of efforts to reduce emissions associated with deforestation — exactly the type of market-based initiative encouraged under the REDD+ program that was enshrined in the Paris Climate Agreement — they can rely on the body of evidence compiled by researchers who have evaluated REDD+ pilot programs launched over the past decade.

The biggest problem? Most studies of how effective those pilot programs were might never be read, leaving their findings out of the conversation altogether, according to the authors of an article published in Nature.

The authors, all affiliated with the Science for Nature and People (SNAP) Partnership, a working group that includes researchers from Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, UCLA, the University of Exeter Medical School, University of Illinois and the World Bank, say that a new tool called an “evidence map” can help change this situation.

“We contend that evidence mapping should be applied to sustainable development much more broadly,” they write.

To demonstrate how useful the technique can be, the team looked at over 1,000 research documents and prepared an evidence map that compiles existing studies and analyses of environmental conservation efforts’ impacts on human health and wellbeing.

“The current evidence on the impacts and effectiveness of conservation policies is scattered, unfocused and inaccessible to those who need it,” Dr. Madeleine McKinnon, senior director of monitoring and evaluation at Conservation International and the lead author of the Nature article, said in a statement.

“The map provides researchers and policymakers a picture of what has and has not been studied in regard to the connection between conservation and human well-being.”

The map shows the number of studies that focused on initiatives such as protected areas and resource management and the subsequent effects on things like education and social capital. The full dataset is currently under review, according to McKinnon, and will hopefully be available to the public in early 2016.

A graphical “evidence map” illustrates the extent and distribution of empirical evidence that document the impact of nature conservation on human well-being in low and middle income countries. Image via SNAP.

The researchers, experts in the fields of conservation, evidence synthesis and international development, say the evidence mapping technique is especially effective for identifying areas that have received little attention and are in need of more research. After compiling their example evidence map, they found that human health concerns and cultural values are among the least-studied impacts of conservation initiatives.

The authors found that there have been some very real consequences stemming from the fact that the wealth of information researchers have compiled over the years is not more widely available.

“For example, conducting a systematic review in the 1960s of the available data on cot death (instead of waiting until the 1990s) could have led to earlier recognition of risk factors associated with infant sleeping positions and prevented an estimated 10,000 infant deaths in the United Kingdom alone,” they write.

Lack of access can also lead to erroneous assumptions about where it’s best to invest resources, they argue, citing a synthesis of several sanitation interventions to combat diarrhoeal disease compiled in 2012 that found prioritizing behavioral changes like hand washing can confer the same health benefits at a lower cost than introducing a new water supply.

Other times, people simply assume there is ample justification for a particular conservation effort, yet a more thorough appraisal of the available evidence — were that possible — would show that not to be the case.

They write that, while establishing and maintaining national parks and other protected areas is one of the most prevalent conservation approaches used today, “a 2013 systematic review of qualitative and quantitative assessments of protected areas worldwide shows that many of the broad assumptions that underlie their creation — that protected areas have positive social impacts, say, or provide economic benefits through tourism — are not reliably supported.”

Deforestation near Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area in Laos. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Such systematic reviews of multiple studies can not only help researchers assess the quality of available evidence but also help them make predictions about the effectiveness of a program, the authors say. But the documents needed for that are often inaccessible — “hidden behind paywalls, or buried in hard drives and filing cabinets in field offices” — so even compiling them in order to conduct a systematic review is costly and time-consuming.

And yet, less than five percent of a conservation project’s budget, on average, is dedicated to monitoring and evaluation, which the researchers argue is insufficient to satisfy the demand from policymakers for better evidence of the impacts of conservation and sustainable development projects.

“There are increasing numbers of studies and reports on environmental initiatives and policy, but these can be hard to locate and it may be difficult to establish the best ones to use,” Ruth Garside, Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, said in a statement.

“By identifying and categorizing existing evidence and presenting it in a concise form, those who need it can rapidly find and use it; so to better target and coordinate research and practice.”

The authors write in the article that they “urge policymakers and researchers working in sustainability to develop similar tools to enable researchers, donors and practitioners to rapidly find and assess the information relevant to them.”