This edited volume assembles some of the most intriguing voices in modern conservation biology. Collectively they highlight many of the most challenging questions being asked in conservation science today, each of which will benefit from new experiments, new data, and new analyses. Effective Conservation Science's principal aim is to inspire readers to tackle these uncomfortable issues head-on. A second goal is to be reflective and consider how the field has reacted to challenges, and to what extent these challenges advance conservation science. A concluding chapter will synthesize common themes that emerge from the experiences of the authors in these debates and discuss how best to guard against confirmation bias. The hope is that Effective Conservation Science will lead to greater conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity by harnessing the engine of constructive scientific scepticism in service of better results.
"The book tackles the philosophical and scientific issues that have divided the field of conservation biology in recent years."
– Keith Kloor, Slate
Reproducibility, bias, and objectivity in conservation science
1: Uncomfortable questions and inconvenient data in conservation science, Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier
2: The thin ice of simplicity in environmental and conservation assessments, Moana McClellan and Ian Davies
Challenges to foundational premises in conservation
3: The value of ecosystem services: What is the evidence?, Linus Blomqvist and R. David Simpson
4: Are local losses of biodiversity causing degraded ecosystem function?, Mark Vellend
5: Forty years of bias in habitat fragmentation research, Lenore Fahrig
6: Introduced species are not always the enemy of conservation, Martin A. Schlaepfer
7: Novel ecosystems: Can't we just pretend they're not there?, Richard J. Hobbs
8: What is the evidence for planetary tipping points?, Barry W. Brook, Erle C. Ellis, and Jessie C. Buettel
9: Adaptability: As important in conservation organizations as it is in species, Paul R. Armsworth, Eric R. Larson, and Alison G. Boyer
10: Food webs with humans: In name only?, Emma Fuller
Iconic conservation tales: Sorting truth from fiction
11: Global agricultural expansion - The sky isn't falling (yet), Jonathan R. B. Fisher
12: A good story: Media bias in trophic cascade research in Yellowstone National Park, Emma Marris
13: From Silent Spring to the Frog of War: the forgotten role of natural history in conservation science, David K. Skelly
14: How a mistaken ecological narrative could be undermining orangutan conservation, Erik Meijaard
15: Fealty to symbolism is no way to save salmon, Peter Kareiva and Valerie Carranza
16: Genetically-modified crops: Frankenfood or environmental boon?, Michelle Marvier
17: When "sustainable" fishing isn't, Kristin N. Marshall and Phillip S. Levin
18: Science communication is receiving a lot of attention, but we are not getting much better at it, Yuta J. Masuda and Tim Scharks
Questioning accepted strategies and interventions
19: Overfishing: can we provide food from the sea and protect biodiversity?, Ray Hilborn
20: Rehabilitating sea otters: feeling good versus being effective, James A. Estes and M. Tim Tinker
21: Planning for climate change without climate projections?, Joshua J. Lawler and Julia Michalak
22: Is 'no net loss of biodiversity' a good idea?, Martine Maron
23: Replacing underperforming nature reserves, Richard A. Fuller and James E. M. Watson
24: Conservation in the real world: Pragmatism does not equal surrender, Joseph M. Kiesecker, Kei Sochi, Jeff Evans, Michael Heiner, Christina M. Kennedy, and James R. Oakleaf
25: Are payments for ecosystem services benefiting ecosystems and people?, Paul J. Ferraro
26: Corporations valuing nature: It's not all about the win-wins, Jennifer L. Molnar
27: Business as usual leads to underperformance in coastal restoration, Brian Silliman, Brent B. Hughes, Y. Stacy Zhang, Qiang He
28: If you remember anything from this book, remember this..., Brian Silliman and Stephanie Wear
Following hot on the heels of Cambridge’s Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, Oxford University Press has just published the edited collection Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma. Whereas the former title was careful about courting controversy, a quick scan of the chapter titles of this book suggest it is seeking out hot-button issues sure to upset some people (“Uncomfortable questions and inconvenient data in conservation science”, “Introduced species are not always the enemy of conservation”, or “Rehabilitating sea otters: feeling good versus being effective”). Together, these two books form an excellent combination of a philosophical and pragmatic examination of biodiversity conservation, and how we could do better.
Perhaps more than any other discipline, conservation science arouses strong feelings of righteousness, of fighting the good cause. Critical questions or results that run counter to the narrative of nature-in-decline are unwelcome, often out of fear that policy makers and the media will misinterpret such findings, leading to drastic reduction in support for conservation efforts. Though understandable, Effective Conservation Science is a collection of 26 cautionary tales of the dangers of such thinking.
It goes without saying that the editors of this book, and all of the contributors, are firm supporters of wildlife conservation. But, emotion-laden as this topic is, we must keep our collective cool and continue to think and act rationally. The dangers of not doing this are many. One of the most obvious ones is credibility. If we cry wolf too many times by predicting extinction or imminent ecosystem collapse, the discipline as a whole will rapidly lose support. More insidious are misdiagnosed problems or ineffective strategies that do little good. Budgets for conservation science are slim, and are constantly being revisited and weighed against competing demands. Conservationists therefore have to ensure that the limited funds available are spent wisely and do the most good (see The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less for more on how to do this).
Without wanting to discuss each chapter, there are some remarkable examples here of authors challenging current orthodoxy, such as the idea that biodiversity is uniformly in decline (globally yes, but at more local scales biodiversity is increasing), that habitat fragmentation is bad for biodiversity (fragmentation can have both positive and negative effects, but there is a large publication bias highlighting negative effects), and that introduced species are bad (disastrous examples are well known, but we rarely look at the benefits of so-called invasive alien species – Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction is an excellent read in this context that has a thing or two to say about invasive species). The problem that many authors highlight is that of confirmation bias; researchers are happy to uncritically accept outcomes that are in line with their established views of nature-in-decline, but are very resistant to accept findings that run counter to this narrative. Many authors in this book mention reviewers rejecting papers out of fear of the implications of such findings becoming public knowledge. And that, of course, is bad science.
Similarly, conservationists fall prey to simplistic stories too. Probably the most famous is the story of the fantastic effects that wolf reintroduction had in Yellowstone National Park, with a YouTube clip narrated by George Monbiot pretty much having gone viral over the years. Dig into the data, and it quickly becomes apparent that the story isn’t all that simple, and the role of wolves is limited. Similarly, orangutans are typically presented as a vulnerable species in need of undisturbed rainforest. The facts, however, show that they do just fine in palm oil plantations and that hunting is by far the greater threat.
And then there are ineffective conservation strategies. Rehabilitating sea otters (either after an oil spill, or the rescue of pups abandoned by their mothers) is sure to tug heart strings. But it also turns out to be an incredibly expensive exercise with little to no benefit to otter populations (except for certain scenarios). Establishment of nature reserves is something that has happened quite haphazardly in the past, resulting in a network that fails to protect vulnerable species. The authors of this particular chapter propose we should consider de-listing certain underperfoming areas and replace them with other areas that achieve more in conservation terms. And the idea of biodiversity offsetting – whereby corporations invest in conservation efforts to compensate for the damage they do in the process of going about their, well, business – would lead to no net loss of biodiversity. But what does that really mean in practice? The way it is currently being practised can have some really counterproductive outcomes.
Virtually all chapters are short, often 6-10 pages only, which makes the book an easy read. And, as you can judge from the above, it covers a wide variety of topics (I haven’t even mentioned chapters dealing with agriculture, overfishing or evidence for planetary tipping points). The overall message of the book, that we need to follow the data – even when it runs counter to what we thought, even when it is politically inconvenient – is an incredibly important one. The editors, to their credit, point out that just because you are contrarian, does not mean you are automatically right. But so as to build our conservation efforts on a basis of robust data, we need keep on scrutinising everything in the process. This book should be on the shelf of every researcher involved in conservation and would make great source material for coursework. I would especially recommend it to those who feel offended, who feel this kind of skepticism is dangerous, or who think that bringing up these topics is reason to doubt someone’s allegiance to the cause of biodiversity conservation. Effective Conservation Science is bristling with reasons why clear-headed, rational thinking is of the utmost necessity it we are to face the challenges ahead. Both the publisher and the editors are to be commended for pushing this topic on the agenda.
Peter Kareiva has taught at multiple universities (including Brown, University of Washington, UC Santa Barbara, Stanford, UCLA, Santa Clara University and University of Virginia). He has worked as a private consultant and led a NOAA research group at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center on Conservation Biology. He spent over ten years as a Lead, and then Chief Scientist at The Nature Conservancy. He is a member of the National Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. With Michelle Marvier he has co-authored a textbook in conservation science. He now directs an interdisciplinary program in Environmental Science at UCLA, where an emphasis is placed on the importance of narratives in promoting environmental values.
Michelle Marvier is a professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University. She received her PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz and was a NSF postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington. Michelle has worked for NOAA Fisheries on salmon conservation and has applied evidence-based risk analysis to understand the environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops. She has published over 40 articles, and she currently serves on the editorial board of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. With Peter Kareiva, Michelle coauthored the textbook, Conservation Science: Balancing the Needs of People and Nature.
Brian Silliman is the Rachel Carson Associate Professor of Marine Conservation Biology at Duke University. He was named a Smith Conservation Fellow in 2004, a Visiting Professor with the Royal Netherlands Society of Sciences in 2011, and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2016. He has also received a Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Naturalists (2006) and NSF Career Grant Award (2011). Dr Silliman has published two co-edited books and over 130 journal articles. His teaching and research are focused on community ecology, conservation and restoration, and ecological consequences of positive interactions.
Paul R. Armsworth - University of Tennessee, USA
Linus Blomqvist - The Breakthrough Institute, USA
Alison G. Boyer - Oak Ridge National Laboratory, USA
Barry W. Brook - University of Tasmania, Australia
Jessie C. Buettel - University of Tasmania, Australia
Valerie Carranza - University of California, USA
Ian Davies - University of Washington, USA
Erle C. Ellis - University of Maryland, USA
James A. Estes - University of California, USA
Jeff Evans - The Nature Conservancy, USA
Lenore Fahrig - Carleton University, Canada
Paul J. Ferraro - Johns Hopkins University, USA
Jonathan R. B. Fisher - The Nature Conservancy, USA
Emma Fuller - Data Science, Granular, Inc. USA
Richard A. Fuller - The University of Queensland, Australia
Qiang He - Duke University, USA
Michael Heiner - The Nature Conservancy, USA
Ray Hilborn - University of Washington, USA
Richard J. Hobbs - The University of Western Australia, Australia
Brent B. Hughes - Duke University, USA
Peter Kareiva - University of California, USA
Christina M. Kennedy - The Nature Conservancy, USA
Joseph M. Kiesecker - The Nature Conservancy, USA
Eric R. Larson - University of Illinois, USA
Joshua J. Lawler - University of Washington, USA
Phillip S. Levin - The Nature Conservancy, USA
Martine Maron - The University of Queensland, Australia
Emma Marris - Oregon, USA
Kristin N. Marshall - Cascade Ecology, USA
Michelle Marvier - Santa Clara University, USA
Yuta J. Masuda - The Nature Conservancy, USA
Moana McClellan - University of California, USA
Erik Meijaard - University of Queensland, Australia
Julia Michalak - University of Washington, USA
Jennifer L. Molnar - The Nature Conservancy, USA
James R. Oakleaf - The Nature Conservancy, USA
Tim Scharks - University of Washington, USA
Martin A. Schlaepfer - University of Geneva, Switzerland
Brian Silliman - Duke University, USA
R. David Simpson - National Center for Environmental Economics, USA
David K. Skelly - Yale University, USA
Kei Sochi - The Nature Conservancy, USA
M. Tim Tinker - U. S. Geological Survey, USA
Mark Vellend - Université de Sherbrooke, Canada
James E. M. Watson - The University of Queensland, Australia & Wildlife Conservation Society, USA
Stephanie Wear - The Nature Conservancy, USA
Y. Stacy Zhang - Duke University, USA