I regularly see comments on the NFU (National Farmers Union) written by conservationists, pointing out that , for instance, they do not represent all Farmers, nor are they a true Union. In fact they are to a large extent simply an agri-business lobby. But I pondered this and then realised that one could actually make the same argument about scientific researchers. In theory scientists are supposed to be neutral, independent, and open minded. But in reality, not only is science subject to fashions, scientists do have their own vested interests.
It is not that long ago that no university in Britain offered degrees in conservation. But by the late 1970s universities were waking up to the fact that there was funding available for conservation research, and degrees began to proliferate, and research started orientating towards endangered species and other conservation issues. At the same time university academics started to play an increasingly important role on the governing bodies of conservation bodies. Once upon a time, the governing bodies of major conservation bodies, such as the Fauna Preservation, Society (now FFI), ICBP (now Birdlife International), World Wildlife Fund (now WWF) and many others comprised mostly of the great and the good, often landed gentry. But rarely professional conservationists attached to universities were members of the boards, and if they were, they were very much in a minority. But by the late 1970s that was changing. Universities, realising there was money in conservation, not only started courses relating to it, but academics started joining the governing bodies as advisors. And as a consequence, funding became increasingly directed to research. And of course ask a scientist what the priority is, and very often it will be ‘more research’. For over a quarter of a century, I have argued that while research is valuable, it is rarely a good use of conservation funds. Conservation research probably absorbs far more funding than conservation action. And by action I mean activities that have a significant and direct impact on saving wildlife. Just like the scientists lobbying conservation bodies for funding their research, I too have a vested interest, since I believe that buying land, acquiring leases, getting land gazetted, is a good conservation tool. Fortunately, there is empirical evidence to support my approach. I would also agree that improved law enforcement is another obviously effective tool (c.f Birds of Prey).
Education is a bit more controversial since there is little doubt that a lot of money has been wasted on ineffectual education programmes. But this is an area that probably needs more research. And that last statement is not a contradiction to what I have been writing. I am not against research, per se. And not against education. But it is whether or not it is the best use of conservation funds. Plenty of funding is available for university research, and students and academics should be encouraged to do research that will help conservation. And I do practice what I preach in this instance, by helping students design projects that will benefit conservation. But I do not believe that conservation funds, donated by the general public should be used to fund academic research. My reasoning is very simple: there are far greater priorities, and more cost effective ways of conserving the world’s endangered wildlife, than funding research. All too often, scientific research’s only value has been confirming what common sense already knew.
Finally I would like to re-emphasise, scientific research can be invaluable, but I really question if charities should be funding it. What do you think?