Is Conservation Biology Ready to Fail?


By many measures, Conservation Biology can be regarded as a success. The quantity of literature has grown, its scientific impact has risen, and the discipline the journal represents is now regarded as fully fledged by its scholarly peers (Meffe et al. 2006). Successful conservation initiatives are also reported between its covers. Somebody reading our journal for the first time could well believe our discipline, reflected through our journal, is a roaring success.

Nevertheless, there is a vast difference between being successful and being effective (Zedler 2007), particularly in a mission-driven discipline such as conservation biology. In reality, a significant number of the initiatives attempting to translate conservation science into activities that actually ensure the persistence of species, habitats, and the ecological processes that sustain them are part, or complete, failures (e.g., Knight 2006; Beier 2008). Given the complexity and dynamism of social-ecological systems, perhaps this is to be expected.

Failure, however, is not all bad. On the contrary, it has many benefits if one embraces and acknowledges it: improved learning, enhanced innovation, increased humility of conservation professionals producing growing trust between colleagues and stakeholders, an understanding that promotes adaptive management, and so ultimately greater conservation effectiveness. Given that failure is unavoidable in our work, is prevailingly common, and is the vehicle through which we can learn to do what we do better, why are so few people documenting failures?

In the first issue of Restoration Ecology for 2009, the editor announced that documenting failures is so important that he is initiating a new section, Set-backs and Surprises. The aim is to “provide authors with the opportunity to present results from projects and studies that ostensibly failed.” His belief is that “it is time to allow news of failures (partial or total, perceived or real) to be viewed positively and as an opportunity to talk about what did not work and why: this is just as important as hearing about what did work.” This is a courageous and visionary step being taken by Restoration Ecology and is a real attempt to make their science more relevant to society. But is the field of conservation biology ready to embrace failure too? The gauntlet has been thrown down.

Accounts of failed conservation initiatives are welcomed by our journal (see Editor's Note p. 1312 of Knight 2006), yet are rarely submitted for publication. Perhaps the perceived professional risks appear too great (see Hobbs 2009). So, strengthened by the courage and innovation shown by our disciplinary cousins in Restoration Ecology in embracing their failures, I wish to reiterate Redford and Taber's (2000) stirring call for conservation professionals to document failures to promote a “safe-fail” learning culture in conservation. I call upon readers and contributors to Conservation Biology to embrace the opportunity for learning provided by our failures and to publish accounts of how their experiments or actions didn't turn out quite as planned and of the lessons they learned from the experience. The journal welcomes such contributions under the category “Conservation in Practice.” Those looking for specific accounts of documented failures are referred to Knight (2006) and Beier (2008).

If we are to be effective, not simply successful, conservation biologists, then we must consciously haul ourselves out of our collective comfort zones and adopt new approaches for practicing conservation biology (Meffe et al. 2006). Our unwillingness to document our failures leaves us trapped in our own success.