Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Conservation Research Isn’t Happening in the Right Places

By Kerrie Wilson

Conservation research is not being done in the countries where it’s most needed, and this will undermine efforts to preserve global biodiversity.

Biodiversity and the threats to its persistence are not uniformly distributed across the globe, and therefore some areas demand comparatively greater scientific attention. If research is biased away from the most biodiverse areas, this will accentuate the impacts of the global biodiversity crisis and reduce our capacity to protect and manage the natural ecosystems that underpin human well-being.

We have analysed more than 10,000 conservation science papers from more than 1000 journals published since 2014. We then compared the countries where these studies were done (and by whom) with where most of the world’s biodiversity is found. What we found suggested a massive mismatch in terms of need and effort. The countries for which knowledge is sparse coincide with where research is most urgently needed.

For example, the top five countries, ranked according to relative importance for mammal conservation (i.e. Indonesia, Madagascar, Peru, Mexico and Australia), were represented in 11.9% of the publications. However our determination, based on relative importance for investment in mammal conservation, was that these countries should be represented in 37.2% of the publications. We determined that the United States should be represented in approximately 0.5% of the publications yet it was the subject of approximately 17.8% of the publications and was the most studied country overall.

If we consider the broader definition of conservation importance that reflects the richness of vascular plants, endemic species and functional species, then the top five countries (i.e. Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea) are the focus of only 1.6% of publications. On the basis of the proposed level of investment for mammal conservation alone, we would expect these countries to be represented in at least 7.3% of the publications. Comparatively less research is published on the most biodiverse countries.

If you dig a little deeper it gets worse. The science conducted in the countries with the most biodiversity is often led by researchers who aren’t based in those countries. Scientists based in biodiversity-rich countries are also underrepresented in important international forums.

What this adds up to is a widespread bias in the field of conservation science. If research is biased away from the most biodiverse areas then this will accentuate the impacts of the global biodiversity crisis and reduce our capacity to protect and manage the natural ecosystems that underpin human well-being.

Biases in conservation science will also undermine our ability to meet Target 19 of the Convention on Biodiversity. Target 19 states that: “By 2020, knowledge, the science base and technologies relating to biodiversity, its values, functioning, status and trends, and the consequences of its loss, are improved, widely shared and transferred, and applied.” Our comprehensive analysis of publishing trends in conservation science literature suggest we won’t meet this target if these biases aren’t addressed.

Information sharing is also limited by the fact that most of the science being done in the countries with the greatest needs is not being published in open access journals.

What should we do about it? A range of solutions is needed. These include reforming open access publishing policies, enhancing science communication strategies, changing author attribution practices, improving representation in international processes, and strengthening infrastructure and human capacity for research in countries where it is most needed.

Of course, there are massive challenges in attempting to initiate any of these solutions. However, an important starting point is for researchers to examine their own agendas and focus on areas with the greatest need.

One thing we can say for certain is that we won’t change the situation by simply ignoring it.

Kerrie Wilson is the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED). She is based at The University of Queensland.