Dividing lines in conservation

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 11.51.47 amAs members of an interdisciplinary lab, I initially thought our views of conservation would be a little more divergent. But, after taking the Future of Conservation Survey (like a personality test for conservationists), it seems we collectively straddle the left-hand side of the Conservation and Capitalism x-axis; meaning that we view natural and social systems as inseparable and intertwined. We fell into the New Conservationists or Critical Social Science groupings (for a comprehensive breakdown of the groupings visit the description page).

Where we differ and only just slightly, are in our views the roles that market-based mechanisms, ecosystem services and corporations play in conservation. Our group is made up of wayward physicists, ecologists, political scientists, and practitioners whose epistemologies for the most part reflect pragmatism rather than strict ideologies and I guess this pragmatism is the reason why we were all mostly aligned.

As you can see from my red dot on the graph I fall in the upper left quadrant, the New Conservation “camp”, but only just so. There were certain statements in the questionnaire such as “Economic arguments for conservation are risky because they can lead to unintended negative conservation outcomes” that I think most conservationists agree with even if they, as I do, support the limited use of financial instruments or economic case for the conservation of biodiversity. Economic incentives can work but they often do not (Lim et al. 2017, Selinske et al. 2017)—context matters.

At least from the snapshot of other’s results that took the test before me, it seems that most would agree with Georgina Mace’s Science editorial Whose Conservation? in which she posits that we are currently in a People and Nature framing of conservation, celebrating interdisciplinarity, both social and ecological sciences and concepts of change such as resilience and adaptability; rejecting a nature for people and “Half-Earth” framing of conservation. The debates that mark conservation—new conservation vs. traditional conservation; land-sparing vs. land sharing—are not black or white and it is likely that many conservationists have nuanced views of conservation, and fall across the spectrum.

Debates are a fixture of conservation science, because we are passionate about our work and the direction of conservation as evidenced by our recent disagreement with an article published by Peter Karieva and Emma Fuller. Conservation practice emerged as a ‘big tent’ movement encompassing the divergent views of visionaries such as Muir, Pinchot, and Leopold, and this continued diversity in conservation science should be supported, critiqued and embraced as the conservation community for some time will remain an assemblage of philosophies and approaches to conservation policy and implementation.

Wildlife gardening for conservation in cities

by Laura Mumaw

Eastern spinebill in a Victorian garden (Photo by Patrick Kavanagh)

In this article we explore how the Knox Gardens for Wildlife program, a collaboration between a municipality (Knox City Council) and community group (Knox Environment Society) in greater Melbourne involves residents in gardening to help conserve indigenous biodiversity. We used semi-structured interviews and Council survey data to identify key program features that engaged and supported members to modify their gardening: on site garden assessment; community nursery; communication hubs; a framework that fosters experiential learning and community linkages; and endorsement of each garden’s potential contribution. We discuss the implications for managing urban landscapes for biodiversity conservation.

Click here for the full article or feel free to email me at laura.mumaw@rmit.edu.au for a copy.

Citation:

Mumaw L, Bekessy S. (Online) Wildlife gardening for collaborative public–private biodiversity conservation. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management.

Why politics and context matter in conservation policy

By Florence Damiens

Politics and context matter for conservation policy. That is why our research group, in collaboration with Brian Coffey and Lauren Rickards from RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research, has just published a collective reply to Peter Kareiva and Emma Fuller’s article in Global Policy.

In brief, we argue that Kareiva’s and Fuller’s proposal does not sufficiently consider the core challenges faced by biodiversity conservation researchers and practitioners in this time of dramatic change, for people and nature. Conservation issues are context-dependent: ecological, economic, social, ethical and political. Embracing and responding to this complexity is a necessity when conceiving potential solutions for the future of conservation, humans and the biosphere.

While some of the approaches the authors promote may work in particular situations, we believe their proposal risks unintended and detrimental social and ecological consequences by presenting them as global solutions to complex problems that are context-dependent. In particular, their proposal does not address some of the key causes of biodiversity loss, i.e. over-exploitation of natural resources, intensive agricultural activity, urban development, and pollution. These causes are accepted as fait accompli and their mitigation as potential conservation strategies is not considered. New technologies and ‘managing for evolution’ are presented as guiding principles for any context, which is problematic. Moreover, the questions around what should be conserved, the processes by which biodiversity is valued, and who has the legitimacy to value it are not addressed. Lastly, we argue that a one-size-fits-all utilitarian approach and a neoliberal governance model, as proposed by Kareiva and Fuller, risks poor involvement or opposition from communities and societies and may undermine their traditional structures and relationships with nature.

See our full reply here: Damiens et al. (Online, 13 March 2017)

If you can’t access the paper using this link please send me an e-mail (florence.damiens@rmit.edu.au) and I will send you the pdf directly – thanks!

New publication: Metaresearch for Evaluating Reproducibility in Ecology and Evolution

Over the last few years we have learned a lot about the reliability of scientific evidence in a range of fields through large scale ‘meta-research’ projects. Such projects take a scientific approach to studying science itself, and can help shed light on whether science is progressing in the cumulative fashion we might hope for.

One well known meta-research example is The Reproducibility Project in Psychology. A group of 270 psychological scientists embarked on a worldwide collaboration to undertake a full direct replication of  100 published studies, in order to test the average reliability of findings. Results showed over half of those 100 replications failed to produce the same results as the original. Similar studies have been conducted in other fields too—biomedicine, economics —with equally disappointing results.

It’s tempting to think that this kind of replication happens all the time. But it doesn’t. Studies of other disciplines tell us that only 1 in every 1,000 papers published is a true direct replication of previous research. The vast majority of published findings never face the challenge of replication.

As yet, there have not been any meta-research projects in ecology and evolution, so we don’t know whether the same low reproducibility rates plague our own discipline. In fact, it’s not just that the meta-research hasn’t been done yet, it is quite unlikely to ever happen, at least in the form of direct replication discussed above. This is because the spatial and temporal dependencies of ecological processes, the long time frames and other intrinsic features make direct replication attempts difficult at best, and often impossible.

But there are real reasons to be concerned about what that meta-research would show, if it was possible. The aspects of the scientific culture and practice that have been identified as direct causes of the reproducibility crisis in other disciplines exist in ecology and evolution too. For example, there’s a strong bias towards only publishing novel, original research which automatically pushes replication studies out of the publication cycle. The pragmatic difficulties of experimental and field research mean that the statistical power of those studies is often low, and yet there are a disproportionate number of ‘positive’ or ‘significant’ studies in the literature—another kind of publication bias towards ‘significant’ results. The rate of full data and material sharing in many journals is still low, despite this being one of the easiest and most obvious solutions to reproducibility problems.

In our paper, we argue that the pragmatic difficulties with direct replication projects shouldn’t scare ecologists and evolutionary biologists off the idea of meta-research projects altogether. We discuss other approaches that could be used for replicating ecological research. We also propose several specific projects that could serve as ‘proxies’ or indicator measures of the likely reproducibility of the ecological evidence base. Finally, we argue that it’s particularly important for the discipline to take measure to safe guard against the known causes of reproducibility problems, in order to maintain public confidence in the discipline, and the important evidence base it provides for important environmental and conservation decisions.

Paper citation:

Fidler F., Chee Y.E., Wintle B.C., Burgman M.A., McCarthy M.A., Gordon A. (2017) Meta-research for Evaluating Reproducibility in Ecology and Evolution. Bioscience. doi: 10.1093/biosci/biw159l available at https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biw159

ICSRG at the Banksia Awards

Last week, I attended the Banksia Awards dinner in Sydney, hopeful of bringing home the Sustainable Cities Award for our entry Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design.

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ICSRG Researcher Georgia Garrard at the Banksia Awards

Unfortunately, we didn’t win – the gong was taken by 202020 Vision, who have been working towards a target of 20% more green space in Australian cities by 2020. But I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some of the benefits of the experience, which lies outside of the day-to-day experiences of most researchers.

First, it was fun! We got to dress up in cocktail/lounge wear, which is otherwise pretty much non-existent for conservation researchers.

But jokes aside, although Awards like this are not necessarily recognised by the reward structures we are used to, a number of potential benefits became pretty obvious very early on.  The Banksia Awards are held in very high regard by industry and local government.  Winning one (and perhaps even being a finalist, as we were) could be very helpful when trying to secure industry partners for research grants. In addition to (or perhaps BECAUSE of) this, recognition by the Banksia Foundation is an indication of the relevance of research beyond academia and therefore helpful in demonstrating research impact. And finally, the Awards attract a large number of applicants and I found it to be a great way of learning about what is going on in my own field OUTSIDE of academia. And there’s a LOT. The Awards dinner was a great opportunity to engage with a different group of people who are potential collaborators, stakeholders and end-users of our research.

Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design by ICSRG researchers Georgia Garrard and Sarah Bekessy was a Finalist in the Banksia Sustainable Cities Award.  We’d like to acknowledge the great work done by other finalists and winners, as highlighted here.  We’d also like to thank The Myer Foundation and RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research for supporting our research and application.

How satisfied and motivated are landholders with conservation covenants?

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Landholders who have a conservation covenant on the title of their property (sometimes known as “covenantors”) have taken on the responsibility of managing their land for nature.

As with many things, the enthusiasm of landholders to continually manage their land in ways that benefit biodiversity is driven in large part by why they got involved in the first place, and stay involved (their motivations) and how satisfied they are with participating (satisfaction).

Following a similar study in South Africa, our group has helped develop and send out a survey on motivations and satisfaction to covenantors across Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania, in conjunction with members of the Australian Land Conservation Alliance. It is part of a broader initiative to better understand how landholders feel about participating in private land conservation initatives, and will help guide the development of these programmes.

A summary of the results will be made available early next year, so stay tuned…

Oh, and if you are a covenantor in NSW, Victoria or Tasmania and you have been sent a link to the survey, we politely urge you to fill it out and have your say!