International Day of Biological Diversity: Celebrating the great research from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science

Happy International Day of Biological Diversity! I am a lucky conservation scientist who is working at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science at the University of Oxford. I spend a lot of time working with business and government decision-makers to help them understand and manage environmental impacts, by using conservation science. This is all done with my ultimate aim of helping to balance sustainable development with the conservation of biodiversity.

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ICCS members and colleagues at the 2016 Interdisciplinary Conservation Network workshop at the University of Oxford. Including featured authors: Sam Lloyd, Joe Bull, and E.J. Milner-Gulland.
To celebrate International day of Biological Diversity, I thought I’d highlight some of the amazing ICCS research that focuses on dealing with uncertainty in understanding and managing nature. These are just a few papers from this year that I think are critically relevant to ongoing work to conserve biodiversity:

E.J. Milner-Gulland: embracing uncertainty in environmental monitoring and management

E.J. and Katriona Shea recently provided a great commentary on how applied ecologists and conservation scientists can and should embrace uncertainty. They used some neat conservation examples from around the world to illustrate some of the common traps that applied ecologists can fall into. These include ignoring uncertainty all together, putting too much faith in their models, and failing to set clear objectives for monitoring and management. To overcome these uncertainty traps they point to a range of practical approaches to help practitioners, such as: using decision theory to frame the purpose of ecological monitoring and management more carefully, using virtual experiments to explore critical uncertainties prior to undertaking monitoring and management, and using a wider suite of models that account for uncertainty.

This paper is really relevant for conservation scientists developing models and helping support conservation decision-making. You can read their paper here.

Mike Burgass: navigating uncertainty in composite indicators

Mike and his co-authors (Ben Halpern, Emily Nicholson, and E.J. Milner-Gulland) undertook a comprehensive review of the use of composite indicators that are used to measure and track environmental systems (just like the Ocean Health Index, which is used to measure how healthy our oceans are around the world). They illustrated how uncertainty can creep into composite indicators in many different ways. There is the uncertainty associated with the monitoring data used to inform an indicator value, the construction of composite indicators (aggregating lots of individual indicators), and in post-development in the way that composite indicators are communicated. They provide a suite of solutions to help address uncertainty in composite indicators to ensure they can be used more confidently in environmental management.

This paper is really relevant for conservation scientists developing composite indicators for applied purposes. This is also incredibly relevant to businesses seeking to develop biodiversity metrics, which will often end up being a composite metric of multiple attributes of biodiversity (e.g., combining species and ecosystem information). You can read their paper here.

Joe Bull and Sam Lloyd: uncertainty and multipliers in sustainable development

In the world of sustainable development, goals like ‘no net loss’ and ‘net gain’ of biodiversity are being set to ensure that biodiversity losses from development are compensated with gains through the application of the mitigation hierarchy. To deal with uncertainty (e.g., in natural systems, and the data and models used to estimate biodiversity gains and losses), multipliers are used in the calculation of biodiversity mitigation measures. The more uncertain the ecological outcome, the greater the multiplier, and thus the greater the mitigation measure should be. In their review paper, Joe, Sam and their colleague Neils Strange explore the gap that exists between the theory of how multipliers should be used and what the reality is in practice. Multiplier values should theoretically be set at the tens or hundreds when considering ecological uncertainties. But multipliers used in offset and biodiversity policies and projects around the world are often less than ten. Joe and his colleagues recommend that there will be many occasions where larger multipliers should be used in practice, and these relate not only to ecological considerations, but also social, ethical and governance considerations.

This paper is relevant to all businesses considering commitments like ‘no net loss’ and ‘net gain’ of biodiversity, as it explains how uncertainty in natural systems is commonly underestimated. If uncertainty is not addressed systematically by practitioners and businesses implementing biodiversity ‘no net loss’ and ‘net gain’ projects then there will be a substantial undermining of biodiversity conservation efforts globally. You can read their paper here.

Papers cited in this blog:

Bull, J.W., Lloyd, S.P., Strange, N. (2017) Implementation gap between the theory and practice of biodiversity offset multipliers. Conservation Letters, DOI: 10.1111/conl.12335

Burgass, M., Halpern, B., Nicholson, E., Milner-Gulland, E.J. (2017) Exposing and navigating uncertainty in composite indicators. Ecological Indicators, 75, 268-278

Milner-Gulland, E. J. and Shea, K. (2017), Embracing uncertainty in applied ecology. Journal of Applied Ecology. doi:10.1111/1365-2664.12887

Valuing Nature Business Impact School – bringing scientists and businesses together

Recently I had the unique opportunity to attend the Valuing Nature Business Impact School in London. The school brought together early career scientists and business representatives, who share a common interest in valuing nature both for its’ intrinsic environmental value and to understand its’ benefits to business, government and broader society.

The school was run by the Valuing Nature Programme and was held in two contrasting venues: in the heart of London’s business district, and in Windsor Great Park. These settings stimulated some great discussion around how scientists and businesses can work together to effectively value nature, through approaches such as estimating ecosystem services, biodiversity and natural capital. There is a great Storify blog that summarises a lively Twitter discussion during the school.

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The Valuing Nature Business Impact School’s contrasting venues: the heart of London’s business district (the view from Willis Towers Watson building) and Windsor Great Park.

Having recently commenced a NERC knowledge exchange fellowship working with businesses on their corporate biodiversity strategies, the school was a perfect forum for me to learn from other scientists and businesses working in this field. There are so many things I learnt from the Business Impact School, but here are the top four lessons that resonated with me:

1) Why scientists value nature

In his welcoming speech, Michael Winter articulated why scientists should get involved in valuing nature. He summarised the negative response to valuing nature from parts of the scientific and conservation community, who claim that the scientists working in this area have ‘sold out’ to business. But the reality is that businesses and governments are keenly interested in pursuing ways to understand and value nature, and are pushing ahead with this agenda regardless of scientists’ involvement. By acknowledging this reality, scientists have an opportunity to work with business to develop evidence-based, scientifically rigorous approaches to improve the way that nature is valued by businesses. Why should scientists do this? So that we can factor the environment into effective decision-making in the future!

2) Why businesses value nature

As a conservation scientist who has recently begun working with businesses, it’s been a steep learning curve for me to understand what motivates businesses to value nature in the first place. Some interesting perspectives were shared at the school, and with some further reading I feel I’m starting to get my head around these motivations. At the end of the day businesses need to make a profit and a return for their owners/shareholders. So what financial benefits can businesses gain from working with nature? The World Resources Institute outline the financial incentives for businesses to work with nature as:

Operational – investing in environmental initiatives to support more efficient operations.

Regulatory & legal – demonstrating environmental leadership to influence the development of policies & regulations, that could in turn provide ecosystem services that a business relies on.

Reputational – communicate environmental initiatives for differentiation from competitors, and to connect with staff, shareholders, customers and broader society.

Market & product – brand differentiation, by offering eco-labelled products or more sustainable services to reduce environmental impacts.

Financing – gaining access to favorable loan terms from banks who support businesses engaged with positive environmental initiatives.

3) How can scientists work effectively with businesses to value nature?

One thing that struck me during the school is that many scientists are conducting research that could be really beneficial to businesses. But many scientists are yet to connect with specific individuals in businesses to ensure that their science is applied to address business needs. We discussed this briefly at the school, and that a vital initial step is to identify who are the ‘end users’ of your science in order to begin to work with businesses. Often we need to identify the champions within a business, who are passionate about the environment and your science, who can facilitate your research having a real impact in the business world. So how can scientists identify these businesses and individual champions?

Fortunately, Mark Reed and his colleagues have done a lot of research in this area, and have some great tips on the art of knowledge exchange and how to achieve impact in your research. He also has a great online online course available, which guides scientists through designing their research to achieve impact,  identifying the end users of research, and recommending ways to engage with these end users.

4) A top tip for communicating with business

Let’s face it, scientists have a pretty special way of communicating, which is full of technical jargon that often only other scientists can understand. Peter Young, the chair of Valuing Nature’s Business Interest Group, gave a very simple piece of advice for scientists wanting to communicate effectively with business: learn the language of business by looking at their websites. Just mirror their language back to them when explaining your science. Simple!

Thanks Valuing Nature Business Impact School!

I’d like to thank the Valuing Nature Programme for organising the Valuing Nature Business Impact School. This program offered fully funded places to 25 PhD and early career scientists, and was a fantastic learning and networking opportunity for all attendees. This was the first year of the school, and I’m sure there will be many great years of the school to come. For those early career scientists keen to join the next Business Impact School, you should join the Valuing Nature Network!