Using conservation science to solve conservation problems


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The scientific underpinning of conservation – an RSPB perspective

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a UK charity taking action for the conservation of wild birds and the environment. It aims to reverse biodiversity loss and ensure sustainable management of the planet’s natural resources, whilst maintaining a focus on the conservation of biodiversity in general, and bird populations in particular. In pursuit of these aims, the RSPB engages in education and raising public awareness, develops and advocates policy, advises landowners and others on conservation management, and manages an estate of over 200 nature reserves in the United Kingdom, extending to over 140 000 ha. It devotes a gradually increasing proportion of its resources to global conservation, most often working through the BirdLife International Partnership. RSPB directs c. 8% of its conservation expenditure to the scientific underpinning of its work. It hopes that this ensures the effective, efficient, evidence-based use of its charitable resources for conservation. Below, and in Fig. 1, we outline the framework that RSPB uses to guide the science it carries out or commissions to identify, prioritize, diagnose and help solve conservation problems.

Figure 1.

 The evidence-based approach followed by the RSPB to solve conservation problems. Science plays a major role at all of those stages highlighted in black boxes. In practice, the resource allocated to the action phases is substantially greater (ca. 10×) than that allocated to all other phases.

Monitoring is an essential foundation to identify current conservation problems and decide among competing priorities for deployment of limited resources. Such prioritization exercises aim to identify the most threatened species, the most important sites for conservation and the most significant emerging pressures on biodiversity. Monitoring data also have a valuable role in advocacy as, for example, when composite indicators of the status of bird populations (Gregory et al. 2005) were developed to assess progress towards the UK Government’s Public Service Agreement target to halt declines of farmland birds.

Diagnostic research is the usual precursor to recommending and testing solutions to conservation problems. It may focus on the requirements of a single species (Cuthbert et al. 2004) or on drivers of change that affect many (Donald et al. 2006). Such research may identify solutions to species-specific conservation problems, as well as informing understanding of wider ecosystem impacts (Goulson et al. 2011). Where environmental pressures and changes are pervasive and ecosystem-wide, as in the case of climate change, or with the large-scale introduction of new technologies such as renewable energy, we need to predict impacts to mitigate adverse effects on biodiversity. The evidence base may grow from predictive modelling, but should be tested against observed patterns of change (Green et al. 2008).

The development of solutions begins with candidate actions to counteract or compensate for the causes of biodiversity loss. Testing solutions may involve modelling the predicted effects of the intervention at the population level (Green et al. 1997) and experimental interventions to test the size of the response to a proposed treatment, as well as its practical and economic feasibility. Such tests are often critical in generating confidence among decision-makers that the costs of more widespread implementation are justified. Practical delivery usually requires collaboration between scientists, policy makers and land managers. Such interventions have reversed national population declines of some birds, at least for range-restricted species where conservation measures and advice have been targeted to a high proportion of the population (e.g. Wilson, Evans & Grice 2009).

Successful conservation depends not only on science but also its effective translation to inform action by a wide range of users, including policy and parliamentary advocates, policy makers and legislators, planners, land managers and their advisers. RSPB employs many of these end-users of conservation science, but also works in partnership with their counterparts in government, business, landowning and charitable bodies. Its science is thus tested not only by peer review of scientific publications but, critically, by the success or failure of the resulting translation of conservation recommendations into action. For example, Gilbert et al. (2007) elucidated the conservation requirements of bitterns Botaurus stellaris, but also translated this research into successful, large-scale management interventions resulting in an increase from 11 singing males in the United Kingdom in 1997 to 82 by 2009.

Future challenges

The need to understand how to manage ecosystems for multiple services challenges all organizations with biodiversity conservation objectives, including RSPB. Whilst recognizing that the conservation of natural habitats can have huge economic value (Balmford et al. 2002), a focus on the utilitarian role of biodiversity in ecosystem function and service provision should not overwhelm wider aesthetic and moral motivations for the conservation of wild nature. In some cases, these motivations can themselves bring marked economic benefits (Dickie, Hughes & Esteban 2006). Equally, ecosystems managed to yield one service, may do so at the cost of others, as biodiversity loss in intensive agricultural systems attests (Wilson, Evans & Grice 2009). We therefore need to understand the extent to which the delivery of ecosystem services is co-beneficial or in conflict with biodiversity conservation and understand how to resolve conflicts where they arise (Anderson et al. 2009).

Many other conservation challenges pose important scientific questions. For example, to what extent can biodiversity be maintained within high-yielding agricultural systems (Wilson, Evans & Grice 2009) and at what scale should agricultural production be segregated from conservation (Green et al. 2005)? How might the changes in farming and forestry systems required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate, impact upon biodiversity (Bradbury, Stoate & Tallowin 2010)? Do agricultural matrices need to be ‘softened’ to facilitate range shift of species dependent on fragmented semi-natural habitats in response to climate change or are physical corridors or stepping stones of required habitat types needed to improve connectivity (Hodgson et al. 2009)? And what is the future role of protected areas as climate changes and how does their management need to change (Donald et al. 2007)?

Tackling such questions will require a concerted and collaborative effort. Land managers should support rigorously designed, multidisciplinary studies of interventions. For example, at RSPB’s Lake Vyrnwy reserve in Wales, funding for blanket bog restoration has been used to block moorland drains for biodiversity benefit, but the intervention has been delivered across a large moorland catchment in an experimental manner. This has allowed earth science collaborators to test the impacts of this intervention on greenhouse gas fluxes and hydrology (Wilson et al. 2010).

How can applied ecological science have a greater influence on conservation success?

Improving the Status of Problem-Solving Research

We believe that there remains some mismatch between the paradigms of applied conservation scientists and those of the wider field of applied ecology relevant to conservation. Only if applied ecology extends to the translation of principles into explicit support for decision-making and action, is it likely to have the influence on conservation that it should. Unfortunately, such translational research rarely occurs because too many steps are needed and few of them are encouraged by current reward structures for academic scientists. ‘Fire-and-forget’ messages about potential implications for conservation in academic papers remain common. Part of the problem is that the criteria that make a study of high academic impact (e.g. originality and generality of interest within academia) are not necessarily those that ensure impact on solving specific conservation problems. The term ‘impact factor’ as calculated by scientific journals is limited when viewed from the perspective of the land manager or policy maker.

The number of conservation scientists willing to adopt a problem-solving approach currently falls short of the critical mass required for rapid development of problem-solving science as a discipline. Given that the successful application of scientific findings to problem solving is the most stringent test of their validity and utility, this is perhaps surprising. In medicine, problem-solving science has high status because potentially beneficial fundamental research results can be lethal if the details of how to apply them are not taken seriously. Problem-solving science in ecology and conservation seems not yet to have the same status within the academic scientific community, even though human welfare and the persistence of species may depend upon it. Why this should be so is unclear. Perhaps the complexity (many species versus one) and timescales (often long versus short) of application compared with clinical science make a difference. Whatever the reason, we agree with Arlettaz et al. (2010) that the status of problem-solving science needs to be raised by rewarding such research and encouraging its development in universities, institutes and nongovernmental research organizations. Especially important will be stimulating genuine collaboration among academic scientists, problem-solving scientists and practitioners. Perhaps journals, professional societies and research funding agencies could recognize achievement in developing practical solutions to real conservation problems? There would also be merit in developing a metric of a scientific publication’s ‘conservation impact’ if that then influenced scientists’ reward structures, for example through University promotions committees. The emphasis here might lie as much on the utility of the fix and its success as on the elegance of the science.

Improving the Status and Resourcing of Monitoring

Biological and environmental monitoring is a key to evidence-based conservation, yet is often held in low esteem by academics and funding bodies (Nichols & Williams 2006). Whilst we accept that monitoring can be resource hungry (McDonald-Madden et al. 2010), investment in it should be strengthened rather than diminished in a rapidly changing world. Assessments of the state and trends of biodiversity, and the services it supports, will continue to be hampered until this lack of basic data is addressed. Long-term biodiversity data collection can offer great value for money because it can often be delivered wholly or largely by volunteers but, unfortunately, there remains a tendency for academic scientists and their funders to exploit the data provided by enthusiasts and conservationists, rather than working with them to place the funding and design of their collection and stewardship on a sounder footing.

Improving Communication Between Scientists and the Users of Science

We applaud recent moves in the United Kingdom to better engage end-users, including dedicated knowledge-exchange funding streams, training and advice at the interface between science and policy making communities, and increasing involvement of end-users in peer review of funding bids. The ‘Impact Plan’ recently introduced by UK Research Councils as a component of grant applications is an important step forward, as is the inclusion of research impact in the UK’s forthcoming Research Excellence Framework that will assess research quality in its Higher Education Institutes. Research assessment exercises that include impact have similarly been developed in Australia, and implemented in the Netherlands, and across federal research programmes in the United States (Grant et al. 2009). Despite this, impact still needs to weigh more heavily alongside scientific innovation and quality in reaching funding and assessment decisions. RSPB’s continuing experience of eleventh-hour requests from academic scientists for testimonials as to the practical utility of previously unseen research bids suggests that only lip service is being paid to engagement with end-users in too many cases. There is a risk that well-intentioned steps to improve the links between research and application become no more than a ‘greenwash’ and do not achieve their intended goal. We strongly recommend involving end-users closely in the design and application of research at the outset, as this markedly improves the likelihood that the knowledge obtained will inform conservation action. When the end-user is also the funding body, as in the cases of a statutory conservation agency or Government department, this link is often strong. Where this is not the case, for example, where funding is provided by a Research Council, the link is less often made.

At the other end of the research pipeline, few ecological journals design their content to be accessible to those responsible for acting on the management or conservation recommendations that papers may contain (Goulson et al. 2011; Hulme 2011). Most rely on intermediaries to translate the scientific language of the journal into outputs accessible to end-users. Perhaps Journal of Applied Ecology and others could consider ‘practitioners’ briefings’, setting out a readers’ digest of the conservation relevance of published papers in jargon-free language, and made available as online material either alongside the paper or on a dedicated part of their website? Existing models include Conservation Magazine’s Journal Watch (, and the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy alert service (

Promoting Integration of Research and Practice

The conservation community, too, can do more to ensure that applied ecology has a greater influence on the effectiveness of conservation action. Experimental design and monitoring of outcomes should be part of conservation interventions whenever possible, leading to a virtuous circle of adaptive management in which conservation actions inform their own improvement over time. At a strategic level, one step to integrating research and practice more thoroughly would be to encourage ‘operational research’, in which the existing, established actions of a conservation organization could be observed, their effectiveness measured, and actions refined accordingly. For example, one might compare the effectiveness for biodiversity conservation of influencing government agricultural policy versus buying and managing nature reserves or assess the problem-solving effectiveness of major research initiatives that have been designed to better integrate research and practice. Comparative studies of the benefits and costs of different approaches to solving conservation problems and to what extent they complement each other are informative (Ausden & Hirons 2002), but are rarely undertaken.

Concluding remarks

Successful biodiversity conservation depends on high quality, problem-solving conservation science, but this has low status in academia. This lack of recognition and engagement restricts funding, training and recruitment of applied ecologists to tackle pressing conservation problems. Progress can be made, but it would be faster and more effective if measures of success and reward structures in the academic community encouraged a fuller contribution to problem-solving conservation science.


We thank Philip Hulme for the invitation to write this perspective, and Malcolm Ausden, Andy Evans, Richard Gregory, Richard Bradbury, Will Peach, Jane Reid, Juliet Vickery and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.


David Gibbons, Jeremy Wilson and Rhys Green together have more than fifty years of experience at the RSPB helping oversee its conservation science programme, leading a wide range of individual monitoring, diagnostic and solution-testing research projects, and assisting in the translation of the scientific outputs into conservation action. Green and Wilson hold personal Chairs at the Universities of Cambridge and Stirling, respectively.