Wednesday, June 14, 2006

100 conservation questions

Everyone loves a list, including ecologists. And some of the bigwigs of British conservation have now released one with the snappy title of " 100 ecological questions of high policy relevance in the UK".

The list is grouped by topic rather than importance, which will make the five-hour special on Channel 4 less interesting. There are 14 categories, such as forestry, urban development, and invasive species. Questions include: 21. Why have many woodland birds declined? 32. What are the impacts of recreational activities on biodiversity?, 67. How can soil carbon be retained and further carbon be sequestered in the soil?

The authors acknowledge that these are rather vague. This, they say, is the product of input from policymakers, because policy is typically focussed on quite general questions. The challenge for researchers is to derive meaningful specific research projects to address these (I wonder if framing grant applications in terms of this list will help people get funding) and, conversely, to stress what can be generalized from their own tightly focussed projects.

One hundred questions seems to me rather a lot — a shorter list would have been easier to get one's head around, and so perhaps more galvanizing. But these 100 were boiled down from a longlist of 1,003 (!), so perhaps we should be grateful.

The lead author is Bill Sutherland, of the University of East Anglia, who is working hard to promote what (with reference to medicine) he calls ' evidence-based conservation': i.e., making sure that conservation practices are tested, and that they work, rather than doing things just because they're traditional, or seem like a good idea.

You'd be surprised how little we know about whether conservation strategies work or not. I touched upon this earlier this year in a Nature piece on farmland biodiversity called "How green was my subsidy?" [subscription required].

Billions of euros of EU money are spent each year on agri-environment schemes, but many have no clear goals and are not monitored. When people look at whether they do enhance biodiversity, about half seem to have no effect. It would be a mistake to be down on these subsidies as a whole, though — they take many approaches, and have many goals, and some undoubtedly do work. An international project called AE footprint is currently trying to work out how to evaluate them.

How about a global version of the same list (perhaps there already is)? My guess would be that understanding hotspots and carbon sinks and sources would feature large.

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