Don’t Shoot the Messenger

By Jon Christensen

Conservationists often complain about other people’s priorities. It’s a shame, for instance, that the environment basically dropped off the radar screen as a priority in this year’s U.S. presidential election. But why should we care about conservation priorities when they don’t matter much anyway?

That’s one reading of a controversial paper presented by a group of post-docs known as the Smith Conservation Fellows at the Society for Conservation Biology’s meeting in New York City this summer. The paper analyzed conservation spending and compared it to stated global priorities for preserving biodiversity. Their finding: priorities did not explain spending patterns-i.e., there was no statistically significant correlation between priorities and spending.

It’s not hard to understand why this was the subject of many urgent sotto voce conversations at a gathering of people who have dedicated their lives to the practical science of conservation biology and spent many years debating and refining priority-setting schemes. Now comes a study showing their work has been for naught. So what was their reaction?

Why on earth was such a study done in the first place? Who allowed it to happen? Those were the kinds of questions most often directed not at the authors but at their patrons.

Smith Fellows enjoy a kind of utopia for post-docs. They’re free to pursue research independent of any conservation organization. And the research doesn’t have to be part of an academic program in an adviser’s lab. For a spell, they are free to think outside those boxes.

The best of all possible worlds, you might think, for a young researcher-and a good thing for conservation. On the other hand, it could be a kind of never-never-land between the worlds of science and practice. But beware the third rail. Well, being curious, the Smith Fellows touched the third rail. And the sparks flew.

It started innocently enough. They heard about a meeting that the CEOs of major conservation groups had held to consider collaborating internationally. As a prelude to the meeting, the CEOs agreed to share data about their spending worldwide so they could look for overlap or gaps between programs. Good idea.

The Smith Fellows asked to see the data. They got the data and compared it to three of the most popular and widely respected priority schemes worldwide: Conservation International’s Biodiversity Hotspots, the World Wildlife Fund’s Global 200 priority ecoregions, and BirdLife International’s Important Bird Areas.

What did they find? Well, I can’t tell you. When the conservation groups saw the results, some withdrew their data, saying it wasn’t accurate enough to analyze in this way. Good enough for CEOs to use for planning, but not for researchers to compare priorities and spending.

So the Fellows analyzed what they were left with: data from the World Bank and its Global Environment Facility Program, The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Conservation Union. Unfortunately, that didn’t include the organizations that set the priorities. Still, those are priorities that most conservationists agree on, especially where they overlap.

But there was no correlation between those consensus priority areas and spending by the organizations that allowed their data to be analyzed, even after adjusting for purchasing power in different countries.

That’s interesting. But what is telling here is how quickly the Smith Fellows had to learn to negotiate the minefields around transparency and criticism within the conservation community. Clearly, the answer to this problem is not so simple as one of the paper’s suggestions: transferring money from conservation in the U.S. to Peru. But neither is shooting the messenger.

The Uneasy Chair is named in honor of Bernard DeVoto, who, from 1935 to 1955 wrote “The Editor’s Easy Chair” column for Harper’s magazine-a perch from which he often sallied forth in defense of conservation. Wallace Stegner’s biography of DeVoto was more aptly titled The Uneasy Chair (Doubleday, 1974), from which this column takes its name and its challenge.

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