Allocating monitoring effort in the face of unknown unknowns


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Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 1325–1337


There is a growing view that to make efficient use of resources, ecological monitoring should be hypothesis-driven and targeted to address specific management questions. ‘Targeted’ monitoring has been contrasted with other approaches in which a range of quantities are monitored in case they exhibit an alarming trend or provide ad hoc ecological insights. The second form of monitoring, described as surveillance, has been criticized because it does not usually aim to discern between competing hypotheses, and its benefits are harder to identify a priori. The alternative view is that the existence of surveillance data may enable rapid corroboration of emerging hypotheses or help to detect important ‘unknown unknowns’ that, if undetected, could lead to catastrophic outcomes or missed opportunities. We derive a model to evaluate and compare the efficiency of investments in surveillance and targeted monitoring. We find that a decision to invest in surveillance monitoring may be defensible if: (1) the surveillance design is more likely to discover or corroborate previously unknown phenomena than a targeted design and (2) the expected benefits (or avoided costs) arising from discovery are substantially higher than those arising from a well-planned targeted design. Our examination highlights the importance of being explicit about the objectives, costs and expected benefits of monitoring in a decision analytic framework.