Category Archives: New paper

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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

Framing Conservation Messages

the-way-you-say-it-opt

By Alex Kusmanoff

Myself and a number of esteemed colleagues have recently published a paper, Framing the Private Land Conservation Conversation: Strategic framing of the benefits of conservation participation could increase landholder engagement in Environmental Science and Policy. In it we look at how the benefits of private land conservation are currently being framed.It can be found here: http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Sun05Ce0rOEt3

For those of you who don’t have time to read it, I shall provide a synopsis.

First, some context.

Private land is home to some amazing and important species and ecological communities, some of which are only found on private land. And the success of our efforts to conserve nature on private land is intrinsically linked to the engagement of willing landholder participants.

Despite much research the influences on landholder participation, studies show that only a small proportion of landholders tend to participate in private land conservation (PLC) schemes (these include things like management agreements, conservation covenants and stewardship payments). And although there has been widespread implementation of PLC policy instruments, success at engaging rural landholders in conservation initiatives has been mixed.

Presumably, convincing landholders as to why they should participate in private land conservation is an important part of getting more people involved.

So we looked at how contemporary communications from the sector currently communicate the benefits of participation to landholders to see how this was currently done.

We used a value orientation framework to analyse how the participation benefits of Australian PLC schemes are framed. Value orientation refers to the way that people weigh different interests when making decisions. These consist of egoistic, social-altruistic and biospheric orientations.

Egoistically oriented people tend to weigh the cost and benefits to themselves personally; social-altruistically oriented people tend to weigh the costs and benefits to others; and biospherically oriented people tend to weigh the costs and benefits to the biosphere as a whole. Of course people do not act perfectly according to any particular orientation, but in this case it serves as a useful framework to understand what’s currently happening.

By analysing the way benefits of PLC are framed in communications, we can gain insight into the breadth of the audience likely to be engaged. So we analysed the website content of 20 of the most notable Australian PLC schemes and categorised the benefits mentioned on these websites as being either benefits to the landholder, to society, or to the environment (these categories corresponding to the value orientations described above). Although landholders get their information from a range of sources (neighbours, extensions officers, field days), websites are often visited to get more detailed information about specific programs.

Our thinking was if PLC communications are to be relevant and engaging to as broad a range of landholders as possible, these three different kinds of benefits should all be well represented across these websites.

And what did we find?

Our results suggest a heavy reliance on environmentally-themed messages which is unlikely to engage landholders who are more egoistically oriented. This was particularly the case with market-based schemes, that you can imagine ought to appeal to production-focussed landholders and those not already involved in conservation.

So what does this mean, I hear you think.

We argue that perhaps framing the benefits of PLC more broadly (covering the different value orientations) would engage a greater diversity of landholders, aiding PLC recruitment. In particular, increased use of landholder and society benefits may be advantageous in engaging a wider range, and greater number of landholders.

However, we caution that any promised benefits must be achievable; over-promising and under-delivering could be a sure-fire means of permanently deterring the participation of many landholders.

We also need further research about the potential for unintended feedback effects, for example, the potential for motivational crowding in messages that focus on landholder benefits.

This is not a definitive statement on how PLC benefits are framed, or even how they ought to be framed, but a first step in understanding how they might be strategically re-framed for better effect.

As a first step, we simply urge PLC programs to be aware of the value orientation frame implicit in their messages, and to consider whether this is a good match for their audience and their program’s goal. Best practice in any case will be determined by the context.

Reference:

Kusmanoff, A., M., Fidler, F., Hardy, M., Maffey, G., Raymond, C., Reed, M., Fitzsimons, J., and Bekessy, S. (2016) Framing the Private Land Conservation Conversation: Strategic framing of the benefits of conservation participation could increase landholder engagement. Environmental Science and Policy. 61: 124 – 128.

How permanent are conservation covenants?

Stony Rises 1

Conserving the important biodiversity that exists on private land is a growing part of international conservation efforts. In many countries, including Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States, conservation policies often support the implementation of conservation covenants and easements. These are legally binding agreements with private landholders and are registered on the title of the property. These agreements are designed to last forever (‘in perpetuity’), and oblige current and future owners to protect the ecological values on their property. Key to these agreements is that the ecological values be permanent and secure, ensuring that they remain in place through time. For this reason such agreements are designed to be difficult to remove, in most cases requiring authority from multiple parties, including a government Minister. This degree of security is an important element in the formal recognition of conservation covenants and easements as Privately Protected Areas (PPAs) that are counted towards international conservation targets.

However, there are threats to these agreements that could affect their longevity and thus the security of the ecological values they protect. Pressures from mining, changes of property ownership, changing economic conditions and alterations in government policy, raise questions about the permanence of conservation agreements on private land. As a result, some conservation stakeholders view these private conservation areas as less secure than public conservation areas.

Collecting data from all 13 major covenanting programs across Australia, we set out to understand just how permanent these agreements actually are. We looked at instances where covenants had been released (taken off title) or breached (where a landholder had not met their obligations to protect the ecological value, but where the covenant had stayed on title), and the reasons behind these. We found that out of the 6,818 multi-party covenants (those that require authority from multiple parties for removal), only 8 had been removed from title. The data on breaches were less clear, mainly because breaches are very difficult for covenanting organisations to identify. However we did find 71 known cases across Australia where covenant obligations had not been met.

Our study suggests that covenants are an important and enduring mechanism for conserving biodiversity on private land. With a focus on private land conservation policy, we use the results from this case study to highlight the importance of monitoring and reporting on releases and breaches to understand why they are occurring and to ensure that PPAs remain effective in their contribution to international conservation efforts into the long-term. We also provide recommendations for covenanting organisations on how to improve their monitoring programs.

Reference (you can download the full article for free!)
Hardy MJ, Fitzsimons JA, Bekessy SA and A Gordon (2016). Exploring the permanence of conservation covenants. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12243 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/conl.12243/abstract

Nature comment on biodiversity offsetting

Some colleagues and I have a Comment piece that has come out today in Nature. The article outlines the risks associated with using offsets to achieve pre-existing commitments, such as those to which nations have committed under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Heritage Convention.

We recommend that while it is often appropriate for offsets to create and manage new protected areas, these outcomes should be accounted for separately from progress towards existing commitments such as the Aichi targets, in order to avoid offsets simply replacing government funding for protected areas. We argue that future international agreements should require separate accounting of conservation gains that were possible only because of equivalent losses, and benefits from the new protected areas funded by offsets should always be reported alongside the losses that triggered their protection.

Here is the link to the article: http://www.nature.com/news/conservation-stop-misuse-of-biodiversity-offsets-1.18010.

Citation: Maron, M., Gordon, A., Mackey, B. G., Possingham, H. P. and Watson, J. E. M. 2015. Stop misuse of biodiversity offsets. Nature 523, 401–403; doi:10.1038/523401a

In addition the ABC has written an article on this topic which you can see here: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2015/07/23/4278534.htm

The conservation value of urban green space habitats for Australian native bee communities

Luis Mata's research

This post is about a new paper titled ‘The conservation value of urban green space habitats for Australian native bee communities’ we have recently published in Biological Conservation that assesses whether networks of urban green spaces can be managed to provide bee habitat in urban landscapes.

We set out to address this question by exploring the distribution patterns of 19 bee species in south-eastern Melbourne (Victoria, Australia), including both native species, such as the short-tongued ground-nesting bees Homalictus sphecodoides and Lasioglossum brunnesetum, and exotic species, such as the European Honeybee Apis mellifera.

Homalictus sphecodoides (Reiner Richter - BowerBird)

Lasioglossum brunnesetum (Reiner Richter - BowerBird)

Apis mellifera The short-tongued ground-nesting native Australian bees Homalictus sphecodoides (Top) and Lasioglossum brunnesetum (Middle), and the exotic European Honeybee Apis mellifera (Bottom). Photos by Reiner Richter (top and middle) and myself (bottom). Native species identified by Ken Walker.

We found that providing resources critical to diverse bee communities (eg, native plants) can assist in maintaining…

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Could perverse incentives undermine biodiversity offset policies?

We’ve just had a published in Journal of Applied Ecology that examines potential perverse incentives resulting from biodiversity offsetting. We outline some of the ways in which even best-practice offsetting could end up being bad for biodiversity, and discuss how to reduce the risks of perverse outcomes.

The paper is available here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.12398/abstract