Conservation Science and NGOs


  • Gustavo A. B. Da Fonseca

    1. Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International, 1919 M Street NW Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20036, U.S.A., email and Departamento de Zoologia, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Avenida Antonio Carlos 6627, Belo Horizonte, MG 31275-000 Brazil.
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Academic institutions and, to a lesser degree, government research agencies have for years formed the basis of the conservation research enterprise. More recently, national and international nongovernmental organizations (  NGOs ) have become significant employers of conservation scientists. Birdlife, Conservation International, Flora and Fauna International, The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund together house a sizeable army of professional scientists. In developing countries, where national academic institutions tend to be weaker in conservation-related disciplines, NGO-led research is dominant. Consequently, for some years now, a good volume of conservation science is being generated by the NGO sector, adding to the body of work produced by scientists in museums, universities, and research institutions. Arguably, today much of the new and exciting research is being generated by NGOs, not only strengthening conservation science but also improving the soundness of their own operations.

This new role of NGOs is, however, not without controversy. Parallels can be drawn to the expansion of biomedical research into private companies, a trend accompanied by a number of challenges. The first and most obvious of these is whether results coming from profit-seeking operations can be trusted, given the potential competing financial interests of the scientists and companies involved. Are we facing the same set of issues as NGOs become an increasingly significant force in conservation science? Are scientists who work for NGOs in full control of their studies and data, and how impartial can we expect them to be?

These are hot questions, spurred in large part by the proliferation of priority-setting approaches for conservation over the past decade. Deciding where to focus action within a virtually unlimited host of locations is vital for the development of an NGO's internal strategies, structures, and staffing, and this decision will ultimately determine the resulting portfolio of its activities and projects. This is probably the most fundamental problem NGOs face when interacting with their constituents and potential funders.

Unlike the days before the emergence of conservation biology as a scientific discipline, succeeding in the highly competitive nonprofit biodiversity conservation market increasingly requires credible strategies and specific, quantifiable outcomes, along with sound scientific underpinnings. As is now the case in the dot-com world, potential donors require much more from NGOs than a blind call to trust their experience in this business. Few funders will now pay credence to a new and exciting idea without a detailed business plan complete with assumptions and expected deliverables. Furthermore, although NGOs are adaptable entities, they are under tight evolutionary constraints dictated by their origin, age, mission, governance, constituency, and funding base. As such, sets of beliefs and values may take precedence over the objective investigation of problems and the identification of sound, science-based solutions.

The combination of these factors makes the constellation of conservation NGOs a highly diverse cosmos. They may cluster together around a particular set of challenges, but they often find themselves bitterly separated by intrinsic aspects of their organization and their chosen overarching strategy, determined in large part by the urgent nature of their mission and the ever-present quest for financial resources. Competition for limited resources leads to market segmentation, each segment eventually sizing up an organization's ability to convince donors of its superior method, to be assessed by a set of measurable outcomes. This process demands effective marketing and communication of the approaches adopted by the organization.

Though organizations might aspire to do the right thing, common wisdom holds that some approaches are more “marketable” than others. Scientists within organizations strive to develop technically superior strategies for the best delivery of their respective and varied outcomes. Their fund raisers are then expected to “sell” these to the market, resulting in a potential bias toward approaches that resonate best with the donor community. Given such pitfalls, some would argue that science should be left to independent academics as the best arbiters of the final word in the production of such vital methodologies.

However, many NGOs continue to employ scientists and engage in original research, instead of commissioning it out. Critics of this trend argue that science in NGOs takes money away from the end goal of conservation. Therefore, NGOs should be consumers rather than producers of science. There is also the supposition that independent academics have an additional appeal of not being influenced by such competing pressures, even though funding sources for similarly competitive academic research operate under their own sets of particular assumptions and biases, as do the academics themselves.

The main perceived drawback to leaving research entirely to the academics is that there are too few of them, and many are too removed from the crisis of biodiversity conservation to effectively address the most relevant problems. In addition, the rewards system at academic institutions favors short-term research and rapid dissemination of results in the scientific literature. This system dissuades university scientists from doing research that is not experimental in nature and clearly makes it difficult for academics to follow even the most applied research through to achieving conservation outcomes. For these and other reasons, NGOs are no longer comfortable just seeking advice and ad hoc input on methods and strategies from university-based scientists. For better or worse, many organizations are coming to perceive scientific research as an integral, ever-present aspect of their operation, even if it is only to survive in a very competitive market. A portion of biomedical research has also migrated from academia to corporations seeking more directly applicable and tangible results. Although some of the original conflicts of interest remain, safeguards and consistent standards have been put in place to ensure the integrity of the research. In general, this move into the private sector has resulted in more biomedical research being done without affecting the strength and productivity of university-based investigation.

In conservation, however, it is already possible to perceive the tremors of an emerging schism, rather than the marked enthusiasm one would expect to accompany the emergence of exciting new research from NGOs. Pressing conservation issues are coming to be addressed by the academic community within the confines of scientific societies and academies, institutions that tend to exclude NGOs on the principle of independence. The example of choice for such a presumed lack of independence is the proliferation of different NGO-driven priority-setting approaches, most accused of cutting corners, of not being fully scientific, and of promoting a wasteful duplication of effort. Obviously, the peer-reviewed literature should be the appropriate forum for this debate to take place and for approaches to be improved, modified, or substituted entirely. Furthermore, we should not be worried about perceived duplication of effort because diverse competing approaches can only promote the emergence of the more effective strategies. But there are some who believe that NGOs should not be allowed to play the game, rejecting their participation from the outset.

Ironically, this schism comes at a time when NGO scientists are increasingly putting their work to the test in the standard peer-reviewed journals rather than restricting themselves to the gray literature. Academics did not seem troubled when NGO strategies were confined to in-house printouts and were not losing much sleep over whether these held water, despite the fact that many were being widely adopted and used throughout the world by governments and funding agencies. Now some are voicing their worry about NGOs spending ( and influencing others to spend ) money on the wrong set of priorities, arguing that they embrace methods of their own that lack scientific rigor and that are motivated by objectives guided by internal financial and organizational logic rather than by the best scientific data.

As a community, we should begin to develop ways of handling these thorny issues, as biomedical researchers and journals have done before us. Our problems are not so much about having monetary gains linked to specific research outputs ( even though it is always possible to get fired—or not—over a particular issue ) as they are about research being potentially controlled by higher organizational echelons or by funders. Because individual NGO scientists hold no real financial stakes in studies done under the auspices of their employers, the principal issues remaining are those of organizational control of research agendas and the tweaking of research results. The first is not really a tractable problem because research agendas are based on discretionary decisions made by individual researchers, institutions, or funding agencies, across all the different sectors, including academia. The second should be addressed through editorial policies of peer-reviewed publications. Editors may wish to entice authors to disclose details of their studies and demand to know whether any constraints or filters were imposed in the free dissemination of results.

I have spent years in both academia and the NGO world, and I strongly believe that NGO science is inherently no less reliable or biased than that from any university. In addition, having in-house research capability is very healthy for the organizations themselves, even given the problems already described. Many fail to recognize that NGO-led science is done in close collaboration with scientists in universities and research centers and seldom, if ever, in isolation or under a blanket of secrecy. With organizations employing a high-quality cadre of conservation scientists, the same rules should apply because these scientists bring with them a well-proven set of scientific values, methods, and practices. Finally, by being part of these organizations, scientists are also more likely to influence their strategies and approaches than by shouting from the outside. If we believe that NGOs must abide by the best scientific guidance available, the end result of this trend will prove beneficial. Individual supporters, donor foundations, and other funding agencies should naturally reward organizations that dedicate a portion of their budget to scientific research, as additional insurance for the conservation return on investment.

The field of conservation biology needs more rather than less research. Effective conservation is a two-way street: neither party to this debate should be allowed to be a passive recipient of the other's menus or recipes. Academics need to listen closely to NGOs to help focus their research agendas, and NGOs must actively seek to engage in their efforts the scientific expertise residing in universities, research centers, and museums. As NGOs themselves are learning to come together and struggling to engage in collaborative science and project implementation, another most welcoming trend, they cannot afford to have the academic world turn its back on them. Retreating to the ivory tower and shutting the door behind is likely to be much more damaging than a healthy intellectual miscegenation under commonly accepted scientific practices. Nongovernmental organizations must be supported to continue developing the capacity for intelligent and pioneering analysis and synthesis: combining, adapting, researching, and applying innovative conservation principles, methods, and practices to the many threats to biodiversity. It will be good for science and it will be better for conservation.