World Wildlife Fund Science Driven

WWF-Peru staff and GPS reading, Peru

What Does 'Science-Based' Mean for Conservation?

  • Date: 31 May 2013
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

"Science-based." The phrase is like conservation's version of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. But what does it mean for conservation?

Science is the most powerful tool for making conservation happen bigger, better and faster.

And it happens through two complementary approaches that I call Big Science and Timely Tech.

Big Science focuses on critical questions and problems that limit the pace and scale of conservation. When successful, Big Science yields breakthrough innovations that put conservation on a whole new trajectory.

For example, when I started in conservation science 20 years ago, conservation was being done on a place-by-place, species-by-species basis. It was locally effective, but clearly not sufficient considering the rapid rate of habitat loss and extinction around the world.

In the late 1990s, teams of scientists led by WWF started to delineate the world's ecoregions—natural neighborhoods—and revealed a new map of life on Earth.

It was a breakthrough for conservation that put place-based and species-based conservation into a regional and even global context. The ecoregion concept catalyzed development of new strategies for conserving entire landscapes, and enabled prioritization of conservation actions at a global scale.

Today, one of the most promising Big Science topics is mapping and quantifying ecosystem services. In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment documented the many ways in which nature contributes to human well-being—and how those benefits were being lost because of environmental degradation. Soon after, WWF joined forces with Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, and the University of Minnesota to start the Natural Capital Project, affectionately known as "Nat Cap."

Nat Cap's Big Science mission is to create tools that enable decision-makers to see how business and development choices will affect ecosystem services that they care about. The hope is that decision-makers will recognize the value of nature and help to protect it.

Timely Tech focuses on tools and information that make conservation as effective and efficient as possible. Done well, Timely Tech steers conservation toward results that maximize our conservation "bang for the buck."

Consider the challenge of monitoring logging, mining and other development in critical ecosystems—someone might observe activity, but how do they know if it is legal, and how can they notify proper authorities? Recognizing a need, some of my colleagues at WWF developed a geo-"wiki" application called Moabi that uses crowd-sourcing and collaborative mapping to create a transparent system for gathering and sharing information. Moabi has been used to gather information about logging and mining activities in the Congo and is now being adapted to track proposed mining activities near Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Another example of Timely Tech is impact evaluation. Impact evaluation is widely used in the health sector as a means to validate the efficacy of interventions and to inform "evidence-based medicine." Conservation is finally starting to embrace the practice too. In the coming years, I expect that impact evaluations will yield critical insights into how to improve everything from the social and ecological benefits of marine protected areas to the environmental performance of forest product certification.

While my examples may seem disparate, Big Science and Timely Tech are closely linked and reinforce one another. Timely Tech helps advance Big Science by identifying persistent problems and providing a means to test new approaches. Big Science innovations, in turn, help to improve Timely Tech with knowledge and approaches that make conservation even more effective and efficient.

Together, they propel science-based conservation, making it happen bigger, better, and faster.