IPBES: Opportunities and Challenges for SCB and Other Learned Societies


The global nature of the biodiversity crisis, and the failures of prior international agreements to reverse it, has led to the formation of a new Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) as a means to bridge the gap between biodiversity science and policy (www.ipbes.net). The IPBES offers an important opportunity for the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) and other learned societies to provide decision makers with objective, peer-reviewed information and to participate in forming policies that affect biodiversity. The SCB and its members have participated in related consultations and plenary sessions that led to the establishment of IPBES, and will undoubtedly contribute further, but additional challenges lay ahead in making IPBES a successful endeavor.


After several years of preliminary negotiations involving governmental and nongovernmental entities, the United Nations General Assembly supported the Busan Outcome of June 2010 recommending the establishment of IPBES as a body that will provide policy-relevant knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Two plenary negotiations, involving over 100 nations and dozens of interested organizations including SCB, were convened to determine the institutional arrangements for IPBES, the first in Nairobi, Kenya (October 2011), and the second in Panama City, Panama (April 2012). These meetings culminated in the formal establishment of the IPBES on 21 April 2012, and the first meeting of the Platform's Plenary (IPBES-1) took place in Bonn, Germany (21–26 January 2013), where IPBES's secretariat is to be located.

Challenges for IPBES

Systems and processes to collate available knowledge, inform policy-makers, and promote active science-policy dialogues on conservation issues, do not yet meet the demand for rapid and credible knowledge to better inform decision makers. The establishment of IPBES is therefore expected to result in a pivotal change in the global interface between conservation science and policy, somewhat similar to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. It is envisioned that IPBES will increase effectiveness in conserving biodiversity and ecosystem services through its ability to quickly develop new research themes on emerging issues and by having a structured process to accept and respond to questions from both governmental and nongovernmental organizations, as well as the public. If IPBES develops as intended, experts will be able to participate in a structured process where they can provide decision makers with policy-relevant knowledge about biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as interventions to protect them. However, IPBES will have to deal with the challenge of covering a wider range of scales and topics than IPCC does. Global threats to biodiversity include habitat destruction, overharvesting, invasive species, and climate change. More specific issues may include land-use conflicts in cultural landscapes, genetically modified organisms, and biofuel production and their effects on species, habitats, and ecosystems at local, regional, or global scales.

Because of the tight links between ecosystems, human societies, and economies, conservation science must build a knowledge base that stems from a wide variety of knowledge holders, including various scientific disciplines and practical and traditional knowledge (Turnhout et al. 2012). The delegates therefore agreed that IPBES should not only conduct assessments (as IPCC does) but should also provide policy-relevant tools and methodologies; identify and prioritize key scientific information needed for policy makers; and build the capacity to support these efforts. Initial discussions on the IPBES work program took place at the IPBES plenary session in January 2013. Ongoing intersessional activities will further specify the work program and provide SCB and other learned societies with another opportunity to contribute.

For IPBES to be relevant for policy and to ensure its credibility, the quality of its assessment reports and other products must undergo a rigorous and transparent peer review. To meet its broad mandate, IPBES must allow participation of experts from research and educational institutions, conservation organizations, indigenous peoples, government agencies, business and industry representatives, and scientific societies such as SCB. It will be the task of the multidisciplinary expert panel (MEP), with its 25 members (5 from each United Nations region), to oversee the scientific and technical aspects of the platform. How the MEP can ensure such broad participation of knowledge holders across all IPBES processes is one of the main challenges to be resolved.

How SCB Could Foster an Effective Contribution to IPBES

The IPBES will require knowledge hubs, both thematic and regional, to enable the most efficient inputs of information (EPBRS 2009). In this context, among the many learned societies that cover different areas of expertise, SCB clearly stands out. With thousands of members worldwide, including experts from the biological and social sciences, as well as policy, management and law, SCB offers a wide and diverse range of expertise across all geographic regions. Through its working groups, policy task forces, and chapters, SCB and its regional sections can facilitate communication and dissemination of conservation-related knowledge and increase the application of science to management and policy at all levels from the local to the global. Members of SCB participated in consultations related to IPBES and its predecessors (e.g., IMoSEB, the International Mechanism of Scientific Expertise on Biodiversity [IMoSEB]), and in 2009 SCB established an ad hoc committee for IPBES. The SCB contributed detailed comments on the draft rules of procedure and work plan and as accredited observers submitted position papers at the plenary meetings leading to IPBES establishment. Likely, many SCB members will further be involved in IPBES through their respective governments or organizations, but questions remain on how these activities can be integrated and facilitated by SCB. In the following sections we suggest several ways in which learned societies in general, and SCB in particular, can increase their involvement in science-policy interfaces and especially in IPBES.

First, learned societies should support responsive, responsible, and efficient mechanisms that would enhance engagement of their members in policy. At the SCB, this should begin by ensuring that members are fully aware of the opportunities offered by SCB's policy committees, the ad hoc IPBES committee, local chapters, and policy task forces launched over the past few years. The SCB should further update and use its expert database to map the knowledge and expertise of its members in accordance with IPBES's structure and work needs (e.g., thematic and geographic division), thereby facilitating identification of SCB members who can contribute to IPBES as consultants, report authors, or reviewers.

Second, learned societies must identify ways to address issues of scale. Global threats to biodiversity can be regarded as the cumulative outcomes of various processes and drivers acting at different ecological and administrative scales (Henle et al. 2010). Cases that appear to be of local or regional priority therefore contain important lessons for other parts of the world and were indeed decided to be of relevance for IPBES. The SCB strives to strengthen its visibility on the global policy arena, but its regional sections and chapters vary in size and capacity, with some being very active in addressing regional and local policy concerns. Therefore, SCB must continue strengthening regional sections and chapters, seeking ways to enhance local and regional policy activities, and encouraging even greater policy contributions across regions and scales.

Finally, standards and mechanisms must be developed to address gaps or uncertainty in scientific knowledge. Where conservation science meets policy, decisions must be made despite potential contradictions, controversies, and uncertainties. Science often thrives on controversy and feeds on uncertainty in an attempt to reduce it, whereas policy makers expect clear answers as a basis for decisions (Pielke 2007). Evidence-based conservation can resolve cases where knowledge is scattered and “merely” needs to be gathered (Pullin & Knight 2009). But when knowledge is lacking or incomplete, experience-based knowledge may be the only form available. Here, it is worth keeping in mind the implications of cautionary silence versus a precautionary approach. The former means avoiding involvement due to uncertainty, whereas the latter means avoiding the risks of uninformed actions while explicitly acknowledging gaps in knowledge. The SCB thus encourages IPBES to incorporate the precautionary approach in its analyses and recommendations. The SCB will continue proposing that IPBES adopt effective procedures through which reports cover not only the majority or consensus opinion, but also cover concurring and minority opinions and provide the corresponding scientific support. The SCB could follow similar procedures when appropriate and thereby be true to its own heterogeneity.

The IPBES offers unique opportunities for SCB and other learned societies to contribute to the formation of policies that affect biodiversity and ecosystems at all levels. To this effort, SCB and its members must pledge their full support.