We take for granted the fact that medicine is based on the best scientific evidence. In conservation, however, practice has often been based on anecdote and experience. Pioneering work by a Cambridge ecologist is bringing the evidence base to the field of conservation.

Sutherland has provided policy makers and practitioners with a robust way of identifying and prioritising areas of research in conservation

Sutherland’s methodology [has been used] to identify the priority questions required to reduce UK poverty, and the 100 most important questions in international development

From evidence to policy

Over the past 10 years, Professor William Sutherland of the Department of Zoology has brought together hundreds of experts from universities, government, industry and NGOs. By developing and refining a methodology to allow these groups to focus on national and global issues from biodiversity and Antarctic science to food and farming, Sutherland has provided policy makers and practitioners with a robust way of identifying and prioritising areas of research in conservation.

His methodology has been used worldwide raising the profile of evidence-based policy making while the workshops themselves have identified priority research questions in many fields.

Sutherland’s work has fed into the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the UK’s marine science strategy, its key white paper, Making Space for Nature, and the JNCC’s report on climate change and biodiversity in the UK Overseas Territories.

And with funding from NERC and the ESRC, Sutherland set up Conservation Evidence, a free resource to give conservationists access to the best science to support their work.

Body of evidence

The natural environment is one of our most important assets. Through the ecosystem services the environment provides – from food and fuel to clean air and water – the economic value of the UK’s natural resources is more than £15bn. Globally, the economic impact of loss of ecosystem services is around £2-5 trillion a year.

To conserve crucial natural resources, national and international conservation policy and practice need to be based on sound science. For many years, evidence-based medicine has informed the choices clinicians make about our healthcare. In conservation, however, a similar approach has been lacking.

In 2004, while working at UEA, Sutherland identified a worrying lack of evidence-based conservation, with policy often informed more by anecdote and personal experience than scientific evidence. As a result, he suggested that like the Cochrane Reviews that guide medicine, conservation practice should be based on a systematic appraisal of the evidence.

Horizon scanning

For more than a decade –  first at UEA and now at Cambridge – Sutherland has pioneered the concept of evidence-based conservation, developing innovative methods for policy makers and practitioners to identify and prioritise areas of research in conservation.

Beginning in 2006, he led a series of workshops where academics, policy makers, industry and NGOs worked together to articulate future research questions, policy gaps, and emerging issues in conservation. Prior to each workshop, delegates converse with colleagues before submitting their own questions. These are then collated by the organisers and circulated to the participants who score them in advance of the workshop, where they are then discussed and ranked by the group as a whole.

Since 2006, Sutherland has refined this methodology and used it to examine global issues from key questions for biodiversity and agricultural systems to emerging issues in conservation. Similar workshops have been convened to focus on national issues, such as key questions for conservation policy in the UK, USA and Canada, and regional issues including the Southern Ocean science horizon scan.

More recently, 2013 and 2014 saw Sutherland’s methodology and expertise used to identify the priority questions required to reduce UK poverty, and the 100 most important questions in international development.

Future proof

Sutherland’s pioneering approach will continue to have impact on conservation policy, helping to define evidence-based research priorities in the UK and worldwide. And just as conservation has learned from evidence-based medicine, other fields will in future learn from evidence-based conservation.