- In a new article, scientists have coined the term “evidence complacency” to highlight the persistence of a culture in which, “despite availability, evidence is not sought or used to make decisions, and the impact of actions is not tested.”
- This complacency can not only lead to a wastage of money, time and opportunities, but also show conservation as an unjustifiable investment, the researchers say.
- Conservation practitioners say that scientists need to collaborate more with decision makers and look at evidence more broadly than just peer-reviewed studies.
How do you save a species or protect a habitat?
For the past few decades, scientists have been calling for an increased use of scientific evidence — carefully controlled, peer-reviewed scientific studies — to make conservation decisions.
However, things don’t seem to have changed much. Despite the rise in peer-reviewed scientific evidence being generated, intuition, personal experience and anecdotes remain at the center of conservation practice, William J. Sutherland and Claire Wordley of the University of Cambridge, U.K., report in a new article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Concerned by this, the authors have coined the term “evidence complacency” to highlight the persistence of a culture in which, “despite availability, evidence is not sought or used to make decisions, and the impact of actions is not tested.”
This complacency can not only lead to a wastage of money, time and opportunities, but also show conservation as an unjustifiable investment, the researchers say. This is worrying because conservation efforts are typically funded by taxpayers, businesses or charities, and justifying the investments is often critical.
“We’ve seen an explosion in published papers in conservation science in the past few decades, both from practitioners and from academics, but it is not having a proportionate impact on conservation practice,” Wordley told Mongabay.
In the U.K., for instance, several bat “gantries” (safe bridges) have been built to help bats fly over roads. These gantries are expensive, amounting to a total cost of around £1 million ($1.3 million). But when scientists looked at the effectiveness of the gantries in reducing bat mortality, they found the safe passageways to be ineffective. Bat gantries continue to be constructed in the U.K., the authors write, despite the evidence.
Sutherland and Wordley suggest that evidence complacency could be stemming from a variety of reasons including conservation practitioners’ insufficient knowledge about existing evidence, inadequate training in using evidence, lack of relevant evidence for the context in which conservation decisions need to be taken, or simply because checking the evidence is too much effort.
Edward Game, the lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC’s) Asia Pacific region, told Mongabay that practitioners are generally keen to use and gather evidence. “But I agree with Sutherland and Wordley that the use of evidence in conservation decision making is neither as effective nor as rigorous as it could be, and that the reasons for this are likely to be a complex mix of the causes they cite and others,” he added.
Using evidence can also be difficult, Wordley said, because a lot of scientific papers are still locked behind paywalls, which means that practitioners cannot read them unless they have institutional access or are willing to pay a large sum of money. Moreover, the language in scientific papers is often technical, dense and jargon-filled. “This can be very off-putting for non-scientists!” she said.
The authors write that the Conservation Evidence Project at the University of Cambridge, conceived by Sutherland, helps conservation practitioners overcome these challenges by providing them with a repository of evidence that is easily accessible and summarized in jargon-free language. To make the evidence more usable, the scientists are also planning to co-produce guidance documents with conservation NGOs by combining scientific evidence and practical advice in the same document, Wordley said.
Louise Glew, Director of Conservation Evidence at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), agreed that scientists need to collaborate more with practitioners and policy makers.
“We need to engage directly with decision-makers — recognizing that they are not one group but many — to understand the types of evidence that are relevant to their decisions, and to pinpoint the critical knowledge gaps,” she said. “Armed with this understanding, scientists and practitioners need to focus their energies on co-generating this evidence and working closely with relevant decision-makers to produce a shared understanding of the science. Conservation practitioners and funders can do more too, by designing their interventions and structuring funding, whenever possible, to create real-world experiments that allow us to test hypotheses about what works and what doesn’t.”
Game added that evidence should be looked at more broadly than just peer-reviewed studies.
“Sutherland and Wordley imply a fairly narrow definition of evidence that largely focuses on experimental or at least quantitative evidence, whereas I would argue that people (expert judgment) are an important form of evidence, but this judgment needs to be used more transparently and robustly than it commonly is,” he said.
“I think a big part of the issue is a general absence of a robust theory of evidence in conservation; by that I mean it is not well-established or well-understood how candidate evidence should be compared and weighed against each other to understand the level of support for a particular conservation action,” Game added.
Banner image of an orangutan at Sepilok by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
- Sutherland W.J. and Wordley C.F.R. (2017) Evidence complacency hampers conservation. Nature Ecology & Evolution. doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0244-1
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