Biodiversity is being lost at an ever increasing rate (Butchart et al., 2010), leading to the degradation of ecosystems services to levels that threaten human well-being. There are significant global efforts to address this situation: spending on conservation in 2006 by major international organizations and non-governmental organizations was, for example, estimated to reach $2 billion per annum (Halpern et al., 2006), a level that has likely to have increased since that study was published. Yet, this is a drop in the ocean as compared to the requirement of over $76 billion per annum to protect threaten species and the sites they occupy (McCarthy et al., 2012). Given that we cannot continue to unsustainably use natural resources as we have in the past (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2003), better ways of protecting biodiversity have to be found, and quickly. In particular, there is clear consensus that better informed decisions are urgently needed about what needs to be conserved; where, how and why. The answer to all of these questions requires evidence; science is the source of much of that evidence.
Global policy makers understand that science is required to support management and policy decisions; to quote from the main page of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) – ‘To achieve this [the adoption and implementation of adequate policies to protect biodiversity and ecosystem services], decision makers need scientifically credible and independent information that takes into account the complex relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem services, and people. They also need effective methods to interpret this scientific information in order to make informed decisions’ (http://www.ipbes.net/about-ipbes.html). The type of research relevant to conservation that is published in scientific journals such as Animal Conservation should, therefore, be fundamental to informing the decisions that are made about how biodiversity is protected and how conservation funding is allocated.
Conservation science addresses the biology of populations, species, communities and ecosystems that are perturbed, either directly or indirectly, by human activities or other agents (Soulé, 1985) and provides understanding and advice about how these can be managed. It is at its foundation, an applied science, seeking to provide information that makes a difference to the planet's biodiversity (Meine, Soulé & Noss, 2006). Conservation scientists want to have their research put into practice through, for example, changes in management or policy that support or legislate for changes in behaviours, investment or practices. Their research should, therefore, align with the needs of those who use the information, knowledge and innovation that derive from the endeavours of conservation scientists. The track record is not great, however (Whitten, Holmes & MacKinnon, 2001; Arlettaz et al., 2010). Several authors have suggested that the continued loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services exposes an implementation gap between the theory and practice of conservation science (e.g. Knight et al., 2008). In many cases, scientists do not engage in planning for the implementation or dissemination of their research and even those that do plan often have little impact upon practice.
The first step on the journey to improve the impact of their science is for conservation scientists to more precisely identify what conservation practitioners are worried about, what information they need and how they feel that science can be more closely engaged with the front line of conservation. Not only will this help make researchers understand the value of their science, but it will allow them to enhance the relevance of their work. Impact is high on the agenda of funding agencies and is being incorporated into reporting procedures at institutional and governmental levels; producing high-impact science has, therefore, become a researcher's priority. So how do scientists increase the impact of their research? Research that makes a difference in the real world provides answers to questions that practitioners are asking rather than solely addressing the academic interests of researchers. Fundamentally, those involved in all levels of conservation have to work more closely to achieve the best outcomes for biodiversity through knowledge exchange and co-construction of research agendas. This requires a dialogue between conservation scientists and conservation practitioners such that practitioners' voices are heard by scientists. By better understanding the issues faced by practitioners, conservation scientists will be more able to provide the evidence to support more efficient and effective decision making.
With this new addition to Animal Conservation, ‘Letter from the Conservation Front Line’, we ask leading conservation practitioners and policy makers to tell us what information they need from scientists to help them make a difference in the real world. To facilitate a dialogue between scientists and practitioners, we will collate formal responses to the Letter (see Guidelines for Authors) and publish these, plus a response from the original author(s), online. Ultimately, our aim is to achieve better outcomes for biodiversity by scientists and practitioners linking hands and working together. Biodiversity needs us both; by working apart, we fail the planet.