Guest blog – Conservation Science v Conservation Action by John Burton

John Burton is one of the most experienced and free-thinking of British conservationists. He was a founder and the first chief executive of the World Land Trust. John blogs here.


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?


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17 Replies to “Guest blog – Conservation Science v Conservation Action by John Burton”

  1. The classic example of whether spending on research is worth the money would be to study the history of rat eradication programs and fencing off small (now large) parts of parts of Australia. I think it would be generally informative to see what value the science contributed and at what point. After the initial pioneering efforts when did the scientific approach take over and whether this has been effective compared to more direct "just go in an kill everything that should not be there".

    I realise this kind of "case study" is rather broad in scope and fiendishly difficult. However in the case of rat eradication is started almost by accident with a private individual. So all the scientific input should be quantifiable and it should be possible to come up with a general number that indicated whether "scientific input" increased the effectiveness of the programs and by how much.

  2. I very much agree. Research has its place but it's often the easy option to take (especially when it comes to government funding) and money spent on direct action (based on information already available) would achieve far more for conservation. The never ending industry of conservation strategizing is an even bigger waste of money, constantly recycling what we already know simply to avoid/delay taking action. Even the widely-admired Lawton report (one of the very best of the bunch) concluded that site-based conservation would achieve more if we followed the mantra of 'more, bigger, better and joined up' - hardly news to anyone involved in conservation.

    1. "hardly news to anyone involved in conservation"

      Yeah, you're missing the point that the Lawton Report was never aimed at those involved in conservation - it was aimed at politicians and policy makers. And believe me, it was a revelation to many of them.

      1. We tend to have a low opinion of politicians and policy makers but I think they might already have been aware that more wildlife sites would protect more wildlife, larger sites would support larger amounts of wildlife and better-managed sites would be better for wildlife. It's not the lack of knowledge/research that's the problem in ensuring that sufficient areas are set aside for wildlife, it's the lack of willingness to act on that knowledge.

  3. What we need is a cost benefit analysis undertaken by some research academic on where funds are most effectively spent - or would that be a waste of funding?

  4. In another life, I was a mental health professional for children and got increasingly frustrated at the resources devoted to local surveys, research and 'evidence reviews'. The reality was that in general, we know how we can improve life for children with mental health problems - make their families less poor, increase the range of socialisation and education opportunities etc.

    But the barriers to acting on this knowledge are not so much down to an overly academic approach within mental health services, but the political sensitivity of the required action. No stretched mental health service will spend its budget on financial support for poor families. No social service department will invest in after school clubs for marginalised children when they are under pressure at the acute end of child protection.

    Conservation is similar - we know what is needed are things like radical restrictions on industrialised agriculture, strict no-fish zones in inland fisheries and so on. I don't detect any lack of understanding of this within academia or the conservation sector. But the political power to make these things happen does not lie with us. The NFU, the oil companies, the construction business, meanwhile, are mighty.

    The result is that we are forced to operate on the margins.

  5. Conservation scientists get a rough deal.

    Suggest a course of action and they are asked: "Where is the evidence?"

    Request money for research and they are told: "Money would be better spent on action."

    The truth is that we as a species have a unique capacity to understand our impact on the world, but a remarkably bad record at translating that understanding into changes in our behaviour. Look at climate change! We seem to still need to react to consequences as they happen, like any other animal, or we have to see things for ourselves before we can appreciate their reality.

    Ultimately we need more money for research AND for action. The sums are relatively small, especially when compared to the benefits and other things we spend money on.

    The whole world spends roughly $50 billion on conservation, compared to about $1700 billion on defence. That is our madness as a species. We are too busy fighting each other to stop and protect the world that sustains us all.

    Depressing though that is, at least we in the UK have the vote. If we all voted Green we could change things, in the UK at least. Vote for one of the usual lot and we can't complain when it's business as usual.

  6. Like many others who read this blog, I am interested in raptor persecution and predator control. There are large areas where more research is urgently required. If charities do not help fund this research I am convinced it will not happen, certainly not quickly. Controversial research to get at the truth of raptor persecution and predator control is unlikely to be funded by anyone else. The recent research funded by the Scottish government into satellite tagging of eagles has had a huge impact, but we need more, much more.

    1. I am not convinced that more research is needed. Action on law enforcement is what is really needed. I would argue that satellite tagging in this instance is acually a conservation action, with research as a byproduct. And what is needed is follow up to the action.

      1. Let us look at the 2 items I mentioned.
        Raptor persecution. The data on tagging of raptors in England has been hidden by Natural England for years. The publishing of the paper on the data has never materialised, although said to be almost ready by NE. It is clear to me, at least, that this is to prevent publishing of the research, which is necessary to assist in forcing law enforcement. Contrast that with Scotland.
        Predator control. In Scotland, the supposed lack of research led to the present debacle over Raven slaughter to help waders. More published papers could have quelled the notion that Ravens are in any way responsible, if that is truly the case. The present work by the RSPB on Curlews, using predator control and other means will be years before final publication, although very welcome.

        1. Why then is the largest concentration of breeding waders found on the richest ground in Iceland? Do we need a Rocket scientist to tell us the answer especially as Iceland has 2500 pairs of Raven feeding in the whole country with flocks of 100s of non breeders as well! RSPB did this work in the 1980s finding that richer ground produced more young than pure acid moorland. Predation never came into the answer with Great Skuas and GBBs lurking close by.

  7. It's a great question.

    At a time when much of the world is adopting an increasingly agile approach to developing solutions, conservation processes often look unduly bureaucratic and pedantic. The conventions around the need for published, peer reviewed approval can hamper intelligent action based on commonsense analysis. The conservation sector shows little sign of embracing a more agile approach to strategy, or a more iterative and creative approach to designing solutions.

    Buying and managing land is proven to put bums on nests. Education, research, advocacy and campaigning all feel important, but often prove more hopeful than impactful. I feel the need for further research to determine the right balance...

  8. An interesting thought provoking blog post, John. Which is why I have liked it. But don’t entirely agree with you.
    The agreement is totally with your view that “…buying land, acquiring leases, getting land gazetted, is a good conservation tool… [and] that improved law enforcement is another obviously effective tool (c.f Birds of Prey).” But by the same token I’ve also seen research as a tool to provide funding to buy and lease land to ensure its protection, here and overseas. I’ve also worked with students and academics whose research funding has delivered everything from funding for nest boxes, fencing, stock, and the management and protection of large areas of land. But that alone does not encapsulate conservation.
    Conservation is a VERY broad church and it does not automatically equate to direct action on the ground. Conservation can be lobbying and influencing decision makers, at every level, etc to ensure the right action, policies, legislation etc are in place. Or that, those that currently exist, are properly enforced. And for that you need evidence. Or at least, it should be based in evidence.
    Yes, some research can seem frivolous and sometimes makes you think “hmm, really...?” in terms of its potential impact on the ground. However, what should be remembered is that looking past the initial reaction, reveals more. Sometimes we just need to understand a system better to get to grips with what is going on, to conserve its, else we make the wrong decisions.
    As for “what common sense tell us”…. I have seen both time and money wasted, and poor judgement exercised on what folk have called a common sense approach. Without the evidence, and that is what research provides, then many conservation projects, whoever they are undertaken by, would just be throwing good money after bad. Common sense would say putting up nest boxes to help a species in decline is a good idea – what if a policy or agri-scheme is put in place that just advocates that action because it’s a “common sense” approach but that species is in decline because of over-winter survival? The action its largely redundant because the species would continue to decline as its wintering needs weren’t met. Common sense is only as good as the knowledge that is behind it. But, as someone is both camps, I completely understand the frustration of someone proposing a few more years of data collection/research when a species/habitat doesn’t have those years. Sometimes we must make a leap of faith with the evidence (all forms!) we have at hand. We should ask the question “do we know enough?”. The world is rarely black and white though.
    I don’t subscribe to the view that farmers know best because they know/work the land. Equally I don’t subscribe to the view that a university education means you know best. As I said above, conservation is a very broad church and its delivery requires a very broad set of skills. Skills that not every single individual has. I’ve also come across both academics and farmers that I wish oversaw more land than they do. But I have come across both academics and farmers that I wouldn’t trust to tend a window box, let alone a landscape. But!
    As for whether charities should fund research – yes. Yes they should. Because research is part of conservation, its not a separate entity. It’s part and parcel of the whole thing. But I agree we do need more practioners to be involved with framing research questions, to guide what is practical, and perhaps to show where their research money could deliver on the ground benefits as well. I’m glad you are part of that move.

    1. Thanks for this. It is just the sort of response I hope to provoke. It is pretty obvious that I was presently a fairly simplistic argument, and in fact, on a day to day basis, much of my own work is far more nuanced. But what I wanted to do, and to a limited extent have achieved, is get a far more serious dialogue. I am certainly not against research per se, but I still think there are plenty of sources of funds for most of it, and that conservation dollars and pounds and euros can be more effective in other ways. But sometimes research into research failings may be needed, as has been pointed out. But thank you to everyone who has 'liked' this blog and thanks to everyone who has added their comments.

  9. Is research needed? 'It depends'.

    On the one hand, look at the 2+ decades of farmland bird research funded by the UK government, RSPB and GWCT. We now know just about all there is to know about the ecology of most UK farmland birds, we've diagnosed reliably what the drivers of decline were/are (sometimes not what 'common sense' would pinpoint). And how has the farmland bird population responded......precipitous decline with little indication of any recovery! Two decades ago, a head-strong RSPB Conservation Manager (Leigh Lock) decided to get stuck in and put in place advisors to get the habitat right for cirl buntings. And the response: dramatic recovery! Leigh did this as research was on-going. To him the answer was pretty obvious and the research that then began to trickle in confirmed his ideas. The science added detail and demonstrated to decision makers (MAFF, DETR, Defra) that action on the ground was likely to work. And it did.

    We now have more farmland bird 'science' than a farmland bird advisor could possibly hope to absorb over a lifetime. And very few farmland birds left. Even fewer advisors. Yet the RSPB, GWCT etc continue farmland bird research.

    Contrary to this, a huge body of excellent science has been used at public inquiries to ensure development pressures on the Dorset and Thames Basin Heaths, and various protected estuaries, either does not go ahead or is mitigated. Without robust science on whether or not woodlarks, nightjars and wintering estuary birds are susceptible to disturbance, we'd have seen unmitigated development pressure ratchet up around these heaths and estuaries.

    Basic research is often essential to uncover the real cause of a problem, and make a defensible case against damage; too much research on a well-known subject area can be useful displacement activity.

  10. Of course you are right that there is a danger that demanding 'more research' can be a form of institutional procrastination and there is certainly no merit in finding out more and more about populations that are disappearing before our eyes without attempting concrete actions to arrest that decline. The flip side though is that we don't always know why a species is declining so the appropriate action to take is not necessarily obvious and - as has been pointed out above - 'common sense' can sometimes be very misleading and money and other resources can be wasted on futile or worse still, damaging actions if we are not careful.

    I would cautiously suggest therefore that it is appropriate for conservation charities to undertake and/or fund some research aimed at providing information that will help ensure the 'direct action' is as effective as possible. Part of the objectives of the governance of these organisations is to try and ensure that the right balance is struck so that the organisation neither charges off spending its money ineffectively on prescriptions that don't work nor gets bogged down seeking ever more evidence before committing itself to action. I am sure that most people would agree that the correct 'balance' will involve the organisation devoting substantially more of its resources overall on 'action' rather than on research and equally that it is better to act in time with less than perfect knowledge rather than too late with perfect knowledge.

    The points made in Claire Wordley's recent blog on this site, about conservation evidence and 'what works' are rather interesting in the context of your comments here. It is important that we try to ensure that conservation action does reflect reliable evidence of what is genuinely effective and, as Claire's blog made clear, there is a growing body of evidence on this available in the literature and which Claire and her colleagues are collating through the Conservation Evidence Project. This body of knowledge is there to be exploited and it is vital that conservation managers use it both in order to avoid doing research that has already been done and to avoid repeating errors others have made.

  11. Great post and much how i've felt for several years. We pretty much know what the overarching problems are for conservation, maybe it's just time to lobby and implement the solutions in the wider landscape. Research can help but only where it leads to positive action to manage the landscape more sustainably and deliver on the ground for species, not just for a phd. So for once It's just time for us all to stand up and deliver on the ground before it's gone .


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