Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Where’s the Evidence for Adaptive Management?

By Martin Westgate

Everyone talks about how important adaptive management is but few are actually doing it.

Adaptive management is everywhere. Google it and you’ll get more than five million hits, while academic search engines can return more than 20,000 articles. These articles discuss a huge range of topics – from ecology and conservation biology through to epidemiology, medicine and even construction. And more are being written all the time.

Adaptive management receives so much attention because it is intuitive, broadly applicable and conceptually appealing. Its basic premise is that as management proceeds, information is collected that improves knowledge of the system being managed. This knowledge is then used to improve future management practice in an iterative process sometimes described as “learning by doing”. Consequently, adaptive management should be a good way to manage systems that are poorly understood.

Unfortunately, this simple overview masks a large amount of controversy in the academic literature. For example, some proponents have advocated that adaptive management be applied to nearly all environmental problems. Conversely, detractors have argued that adaptive management is merely a corporate buzzword that is sometimes used to justify the continuation of flawed policies. Despite this diversity of opinion, quantitative evidence describing the pros and cons of adaptive management is difficult to find.

Working with David Lindenmayer and Gene Likens, I recently assessed the current state of the science of adaptive management in ecology, with the aim of quantifying the usefulness of the concept. We did this by finding science articles whose authors stated that they were part of an adaptive management project, then looked for similarities and differences between these projects. We found several unusual results.

First, we quantified just how rare the actual application of adaptive management was in the academic literature. In a series of stages, we narrowed down our original 1336 articles to 61 that explicitly claimed to enact adaptive management. Put differently, more than 95% of articles that discuss adaptive management don’t test it.

Second, there is a notable lack of empiricism in the adaptive management literature. The articles that we identified related to 54 separate projects, but most were only discussed in a qualitative manner, usually as part of a broad review. Only 13 projects were supported by published monitoring data.

Finally, few projects were able to sustain the effort to complete the adaptive management cycle. Most papers that claimed to be starting adaptive management projects were recent (58 articles with a mean age of 4.8 years). Only four of the 13 adaptive management projects that we identified lasted longer than 10 years.

Correspondingly, the number of projects that met adaptive management criteria decreased as we included criteria describing successively later stages of the adaptive management cycle. More specifically, all 13 projects described their management goals, ten of which tested more than one management intervention, but only five projects altered management in response to new information.

On the basis of our results, it is fair to say that the term “adaptive management” is rife in the peer-reviewed literature. However, only a small but increasing number of projects have been able to effectively apply adaptive management to complex problems.

This number can be increased through better collaboration between scientists and representatives from resource-extracting industries; better communication of the risks of not doing adaptive management; and by ensuring that adaptive management projects “pass the test of management relevance”.

I think we did a good job summarising the adaptive management literature, but I also think the adaptive management concept could be improved by addressing a couple of core concepts.

First, despite some very useful guides, the term “adaptive management” still means different things to different people. This is a problem because it means there is very little prospect that a practitioner could understand adaptive management from the academic literature, still less aim to use adaptive management to solve on-ground problems.

Second, our review focused on published literature, but it is likely that most management is carried out by people who have very little time or incentive to publish their findings, so we probably missed a lot of very exciting adaptive management projects. If we could somehow harvest some of this experience it’s likely our capacity to implement adaptive management effectively would be improved.

The bottom line is that despite the enormous literature on adaptive management, articles describing adaptive management projects are extremely rare. This means many of the outcomes of past interventions have not been appropriately evaluated. Application and monitoring of management interventions has been inadequate, limiting our understanding of important ecological processes necessary for effectively managing biological systems.

Martin Westgate carried out this review as a researcher with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions while based at the Australian National University.