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

What needs to change to undertake quantitative assessment of biodiversity outcomes in protected areas

I am very happy to announce the final paper from my PhD has now been published!

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Here is a brief outline of the paper:

Protected area management effectiveness (PAME) evaluation is increasingly undertaken to evaluate governance, assess conservation outcomes and inform evidence-based management of protected areas (PAs). Within PAME, quantitative approaches to assess biodiversity outcomes are now emerging, where biological monitoring data are directly assessed against quantitative (numerically defined) condition categories (termed quantitative condition assessments). However, more commonly qualitative condition assessments are employed in PAME, which use descriptive condition categories and are evaluated largely with expert judgement that can be subject to a range of biases, such as linguistic uncertainty and overconfidence.

Despite the benefits of increased transparency and repeatability of evaluations, quantitative condition assessments are rarely used in PAME. To understand why, we interviewed practitioners from all Australian marine protected area (MPA) networks, which have access to long-term biological monitoring data and are developing or conducting PAME evaluations.

Our research revealed that there is a desire within management agencies to implement quantitative condition assessment of biodiversity outcomes in Australian MPAs. However, practitioners report many challenges in transitioning from undertaking qualitative to quantitative condition assessments of biodiversity outcomes, which are hampering progress. Challenges include a lack of agency capacity (staff numbers and money), knowledge gaps, and diminishing public and political support for PAs. We point to opportunities to target strategies that will assist agencies overcome these challenges, including new decision support tools, approaches to better finance conservation efforts, and to promote more management relevant science.

Please follow this open access link to access this paper: authors.elsevier.com/a/1Uyhw14Z6tTFRO

If you’d like to see some of my other PhD research, please click the links below:

Addison P.F.E., Flander L.B., Cook C.N. (2017) Towards quantitative condition assessment of biodiversity outcomes: insights from Australian marine protected areas. Journal of Environmental Management. 198, 183–191.

Addison, P.F.E., Flander, L. B., Cook, C.N. (2015) Are we missing the boat? Current uses of long-term biological monitoring data in the evaluation and management of marine protected areas. Journal of Environmental Management. 149, 148–156.

Addison, P.F.E, de Bie, K., Rumpff, L. (2015) Setting conservation management thresholds using a novel participatory modelling approach. Conservation Biology, 29, 1411–1422.

Addison, P. F. E., Rumpff, L., Bau, S. S., Carey, J. M., Chee, Y. E., Jarrad, F., McBride, M. F., and Burgman, M. A. (2013). Practical solutions for making models indispensable in conservation decision-making. Diversity and Distributions. Special issue on: Perspectives and tools for conservation risk analysis.  19, 490–502.