Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Evidence-based Conservation Could Be NICE

By Hugh Possingham

Conservationists need to take some cues from evidence-based medicine to determine the most appropriate strategies.

Evidence-based conservation, like evidence-based medicine, sounds like a no-brainer – of course our conservation actions should be based on evidence of what actually works. But just because an action is demonstrated to work it doesn’t mean it is the most appropriate management option for a particular species or place. For evidence-based conservation to better inform management it needs to factor in cost.

Evidence-based conservation is where existing information from relevant and rigorous research is compiled and analysed in a systematic manner to inform conservation actions. The approach is based on the success of evidence-based medicine.

In recent decades there has been a strong shift towards evidence-based medicine. In 1993, the Cochrane Collaboration was established as a clearing house for information on the effectiveness of different medical treatments. Conservation biology has followed this lead.

However, a group of us at the University of Queensland have argued recently in Conservation Biology that validating the evidence is only part of the process. To make a real difference to conservation we need a mechanism to incorporate the growing evidence base into decision frameworks, and decision frameworks need information about the cost of actions.

Systematic reviews should be underpinned by questions relevant to practitioners and policy-makers. In medicine the question might be whether garlic cures the common cold and in conservation whether marine-protected areas protect fish stocks. Garlic may be used to treat the common cold, but is it the best treatment? Similarly, a marine-protected area may protect fish stocks but it does not necessarily follow that its establishment is the most reliable, acceptable or cost-effective action.

This repeats a theme I’ve been banging on about for a long time. Finding evidence for an intervention is only half the story – working out whether that is the most cost-effective thing to do within social and economic constraints is the key. It’s a concept that still hasn’t fully penetrated the psyche of conservation practitioners and scientists.

Just as medicine gave us the lead on evidence-based approaches, that discipline is also taking this message to heart. In addition to the organisations that compile reviews of evidence, a second set of institutions are responsible for synthesising information for decision-making. These institutions consider the effectiveness of a given intervention and the effect on the patient and society of not acting.

A good example of this is the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in England. NICE was established in 1999 to provide guidance on the cost-effective promotion of good health and treatment. It sets an example for how conservation professionals could integrate conservation evidence into guidance for decision-making.

Consider what NICE’s process might mean for the treatment of colds with garlic. Before examining evidence on garlic’s ability to treat a cold, the NICE scoping phase first frames the question in its larger objective: treating the common cold. By specifying that objective, alternative interventions to meet that objective can be identified. These alternatives serve as comparators for assessing the effectiveness, cost and other factors associated with each intervention. By comparing evidence related to alternative interventions, the process generates guidance on achieving the objective: in this case treating the common cold.

Likewise the question of whether marine protected areas protect declining fish stocks would be framed within the larger objective of protecting fish stocks. Then, alternatives for securing fish stocks could be identified. The context of the question can then be explored by examining the social and ecological effects of the declining stocks and the possible interventions.

Like the garlic example, the objective-based approach develops the context for interpreting the results in a management framework focused on meeting the objective, protecting fish stocks, instead of evaluating one intervention, marine-protected areas.

In addition to more cost-effective conservation outcomes, if guidance on actions is transparent and derived from evidence-based response models, then guidance on the amount of a conservation budget could also be provided.

In England, transparent medical guidance has provided the public with the opportunity to comment on and lobby for additional investment in treatments when interventions have not been deemed cost effective. A similar opportunity is not currently possible in conservation because many institutions do not allocate conservation funds transparently, which perpetuates the gaps between science, policy, and the public.

Professor Hugh Possingham is Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions.