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Quick Study: Six Common Mistakes in Conservation Planning

April 25, 2013

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Image credit: hockadilly/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.
Image credit: hockadilly/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Quick Study is just what it says — a rapid-fire look at a new conservation science study that might turn some heads.    

Study: Game, E.T., P. Kareiva, and H.P. Possingham. 2013. Six common mistakes in conservation priority setting. Conservation Biology 44(4):1-6.

The Big Question: Environmental problems are big, but resources for conservation are tiny — so conservation groups are constantly prioritizing what they do and recommend so as to allocate those resources better. So why isn’t conservation making more of a dent?

Study Nuts and Bolts: In this think piece, Game and co-authors argue that, while conservation presents its priority setting as science-based, conservation planners too often ignore or misapply decision science — the combination of mathematics, economics, philosophy, and psychology that is used by engineers, health, the military and business to help them make better decisions. And that systemic lack of decision science, the authors say, leads to six big mistakes that blunt conservation’s impact.

The Findings: Here are the six big mistakes (which you might also group under the broad headers “Timidity in Language” and “Fuzzy Math”):

1) not acknowledging conservation plans are in fact prioritizations (and thus recommendations);
2) not being precise about the problem they’re trying to solve;
3) prioritizing not actions, but species, habitats or locations (thus leading to inaction);
4) using arbitrary numerical values to arrive at prioritization arithmetic;
5) allowing look-up tables to hide priority-setting value judgments; and
6) failing to acknowledge the risk of failure for some conservation actions, which leads to skewed cost/benefit analyses.

What’s It All Mean? While Game et al. do say that conservation is generally moving in the right direction in how it sets priorities, most individual planning makes at least one of the above mistakes — leading to misspending and declining public confidence in conservation when the public finds out that those priorities weren’t chosen all that scientifically.  So, time to bone up on those decision science skills, says Game.

“We conservation scientists prioritize a lot — but we’re not typically trained in the formal skills of prioritization that many other fields depend on,” he told me. “That’s a recipe for wasting our precious resources.”


Bob Lalasz

Bob Lalasz is the director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy and the editor of the new Cool Green Science. A long-time editor and writer, he was previously the Conservancy's associate director of digital marketing. He now blogs here about the Conservancy's scientific research and on-the-ground work as well as larger conservation science and science communications issues. More from Bob

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