Changing conservation priorities: are we addressing the crises or are we chasing the money?

The upwithclimate team has just published a new paper entitled, “Is conservation money being spent wisely? Changing trends in conservation research priorities” in the Journal of Nature Conservation.  In this short article, we examine how conservation research priorities have changed through time by looking at the changing frequency of certain topics, or “buzzwords”, in the scientific literature.  For example, we tallied the percentage of conservation article that discuss deforestation vs. global warming – a full list of buzzwords is in the table below.  These analyses reveal several striking trends. Perhaps most notably, the percentage of studies addressing habitat fragmentation increased rapidly from 1990 to 1998, remained constant from 1998 till 2005 and then began decreasing.  Likewise, the percentage of studies addressing habitat loss and deforestation increased till 2005 and has since stabilized.  In sharp contrast, the proportion of articles looking at invasive species and climate change have increased exponentially through time.  In fact, there are now more articles looking at climate change than at deforestation and habitat loss and roughly the same number of studies looking at climate change as looking at habitat fragmentation.  We argue that these shifts in research priorities, or at least publishing priorities, are not consistent with actual conservation needs.  For example, habitat loss and fragmentation have not decreased as a problem and if anything have increased.  Instead, the research priorities appear to be driven at least in part by funding trends.  For a long time, the US NSF has awarded more grants and more money for climate change research than it does for research of habitat loss and deforestation and it now awards more grants and more money for climate change research than for studies of habitat fragmentation.  The increased spending and research on climate change is obviously not a bad thing, but we must be careful to not neglect other conservation needs that still have the potential to drive many many species to extinction.

Is conservation research money being spent wisely? Changing trends in conservation research priorities
J.T. Stroud, E. Rehm, M. Ladd, P. Olivas, K.J. Feeley
Journal for Nature Conservation
Volume 22, Issue 5, October 2014, Pages 471–473

Abstract
Conservation biology is often defined as a “mission driven crisis discipline”, and as such research priorities should ideally parallel the relative importance of different conservation threats. Conservation research has increased exponentially over the last 22 years, rising from <150 articles in 1990 to >4000 articles in 2012. However, this growth has not and may not necessarily reflect changes in research needs. Consequently, it remains uncertain if growth and prioritization have been consistent between research themes, or subdisciplines. In other words, it is unknown if conservation priorities change in relation to research needs, or if instead to shifts in funding, which may or may not correspond to true research needs. Future conservation research priorities should ideally be based on conservation needs alone and must account for threats at both the immediate and long-term scales

Table 1 (not included in original article). List of topics and search terms included in the study “Is conservation money being spent wisely? Changing trends in conservation research priorities”.  The total number of articles between 1990 and 2010 including the different search terms and total NSF funding over the same period is indicated.

Topic Search term(s) No. of articles  NSF funding
Habitat fragmentation fragment*, edge effect* 5,174 $1,099,087,000
Climate change climate change*, global warming 2,166 $984,038,200
Habitat loss habitat loss, deforest* 1,985 $412,923,900
Invasive species invasi*, exotic species 1,423 $332,661,200
Fire fire* 1,402
Pollution pollut* 1,250
Hunting hunt* 1,117
Disease diseas* 863
Logging logg* 813

Fig 1. The percent of conservation articles published per year for selected research topics. Black, habitat fragmentation; Blue, climate change; red, deforestation/habitat loss; green, invasive species; dashed grey, disease; pink, hunting; grey, fire; brown, logging.

Fig. 2. The total number of new awards granted by the US NSF’s DEB for different conservation related research topics from 1990 to 2011. Black, habitat fragmentation; Blue, climate change; red, deforestation/habitat loss; green, invasive species.

Fig. 3. The total amount of funds granted through new awards by the NSF’s DEB (millions of $USD) for different conservation related research topics from 1990 to 2011. black, habitat fragmentation; blue, climate change; red, deforestation/habitat loss; green, invasive species.

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