For its 100th birthday bash last summer, the British Ecological Society invited the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, to present a talk on how science is used in conservation today. Which inevitably meant Kareiva had to look back on just how much conservation science has changed in the six-decade history of the Conservancy — a lot.
The paper that came out of Kareiva’s talk — published this week in the Journal of Applied Ecology — tracks a stunning acceleration of that evolution over the past 10-15 years. And the change is echoed across the field of conservation science in many large and small NGOs, as well as academic departments and centers. Even Silicon Valley might be impressed.
“The thing that’s really striking about the paper is that it just brings into the foreground how rapidly conservation has evolved in what really amounts to a very short time span,” says David Skelly, associate dean for research at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
“You can put this timeline up against the IT sector and I don’t think that this sector is moving along any slower than the realm of the economy that we think is moving the fastest.”
The Scientific Questions Are Much More Complicated Than Just Preserving Nature
The Conservancy was founded in 1951 by scientists — not with the goal of preserving nature for nature’s sake — but because they had begun to worry there would be nowhere truly natural left to study. From today’s perspective, that concern seems prescient.
In the past half-century, humanity’s influence has become pervasive. Population has nearly tripled – from 2.5 billion to over 7 billion people. Direct and local insults, such as littering, housing and retail expansion, and industrial discharges into rivers have been overtaken by indirect channels of influence. Climate change, ocean acidification, competition for water, redistribution of nutrients, global trade, and transport of invasive species and diseases produce consequences at great distance from the original actions.
As the challenges have changed, so has the nature of the science required to confront them. In the early years, science at the Conservancy focused on documenting the distribution of rare plants, animals and communities and devising approaches for prioritizing preservation efforts.
“What we were doing before was easy compared to what we’re doing now,” says Kareiva. “When we were mainly about purchasing land or getting land protected – that was an end unto itself, but it’s clear that the scientific questions are much more complicated. It’s clear that you can’t just preserve nature.”
Decisions about whether to preserve this piece of land or that piece of land require lots of high quality information, but are — by and large — apples-to-apples comparisons. As conservation science embraced multi-objective conservation in the 21st century, choices became more complicated and trade-offs murkier.
Was it possible to improve fisheries catches and marine habitat and also leave space for oil and gas development, paddling, and surfing all at the same time? Or accommodate enough agriculture to feed 7 billion people while preserving chunks of forest or grassland big enough to support large predators? And what would we need to know to do so?
Equally important, what are the ways that nature supports human society? Clean water, flood protection, pollination, and carbon dioxide regulation matter to people, whether they ever set foot on a nature reserve or not.
“We needed to think more and more broadly, because just setting aside little protected areas wasn’t enough,” says Michelle Marvier, a co-author of the paper and chair of the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University.
“You start thinking about the context, the matrix around those protected areas,” Marvier adds. “When you start thinking about connectivity, when you start thinking about activities outside of protected areas, like in working landscapes, I think that really reflects the evolution of the whole discipline, not just of science at TNC.”
Multidisciplinary Science That ‘Goes Upstream’ to Deal with the Sources of Challenges
Protecting these ecosystem services requires broader and more sophisticated science than was needed in earlier eras. It takes the ability to model hydrology and connect it on the one hand to energy demands and on the other to fish ecology. Or to identify just how forests might reduce smog and calculate what that could be worth to a corporation.
“Just in the last decade or so,” says Skelly, “The Nature Conservancy has gone from a focus on physical land conservation as a really prominent activity, to where people are moving — metaphorically and physically — upstream, to deal with the sources of the challenges.”
Conservation science is still a long way from understanding all aspects of the complex — and sometimes chaotic — natural systems on which humanity relies. But the effort to do so is helping to clarify tradeoffs, anticipate perverse consequences, and uncover opportunities to improve ecosystem functioning and human welfare at the same time.
With each new advance, however, come new challenges. The need to incorporate so many fields of study drives a desire to connect with academic researchers and other conservation organizations.
“Tomorrow’s conservation science will not be today’s conservation science,” says Kareiva. “It’s always going to change. Because it’s so complicated, no NGO has the capacity to do it alone.”
At the Conservancy, two recently added programs highlight this new brand of connected science. The Science for Nature and People (SNAP) program assembles groups of practitioners, policymakers and researchers to develop science-based solutions to “wicked” problems and to fast-track implementation.
NatureNet Fellows are early-career researchers working with academic scientists and conservation professionals to investigate a scientific question with significant implications for conservation.
Looking to the future, Marvier says, “there’s this recognition that it’s not the knowledge of ecological sciences that is limiting our success in conservation. It’s more understanding of how to get people to change their behavior.”
“There is going to be a broadening from ecology and genetics, which are the core, founding sciences of conservation, to really embrace the social sciences — economics, behavioral psychology, those kinds of fields.”