Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

To Monitor or Not to Monitor

By Eve-McDonald-Madden

At its heart, good environmental monitoring needs a clear justification for acquiring information in the first place. What we strive to know should be driven by what we need to know.

If you were to ask a room full of managers, policy-makers and even scientists if they should be monitoring the outcomes of their conservation actions, the answer from most would be a resounding yes! The argument being that if we don’t understand the benefits of our investment, how can we possibly know if we are doing the right thing and if our investment is worth it!

But in a resource-constrained world it’s worth taking a moment to consider what it is you’re hoping to achieve. When we did this and attempted to formalise the logic behind when to monitor it quickly became clear there are many situations where monitoring is not appropriate.

Essentially, we do not have enough money to manage all the threatened biodiversity we care about. We need to make good decisions about where we spend our limited resources.

The same is true for monitoring. Also important is that biodiversity loss waits for no man (or no monitoring) – we may not actually have time to gain information to improve our decision-making before we lose what we are trying to protect.

That’s not to say that those who answer “yes” to monitoring are not thinking about money. In fact, one of the most common questions I get asked is how much of our program budget should we be spending on monitoring? Is there a set percentage you can tell us to put aside to monitor our conservation actions?

It was these questions that led The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the world’s largest conservation non-government organisation, to contact us. Unfortunately, the answer to their question was: “No, there is no generic benchmark for monitoring. It’s situation-dependent.”

Determining how much to spend on monitoring depends heavily on the problem at hand, and even with a well-defined problem, finding the answer is not trivial. That is not a satisfying answer for those, like TNC, who make daily decisions about their investment in monitoring.

But while we may not be able to give one magic number, we can provide a framework that enables better decision-making about “when to invest in monitoring” and “what type of monitoring to undertake”.

So, to flesh out this framework we sat down with some of the TNC’s key monitoring scientists and constructed a simple decision tree that guides managers through a series of basic questions. The answers led to an explicit and transparent decision regarding their investment in monitoring to improve management. There are five main elements to the decision tree.

1. Specifying the objective of the program. What are we hoping to achieve in our conservation endeavours? Without an objective we do not have a benchmark by which to evaluate our actions.

2. Understanding the threat. Once our objective is defined it’s crucial to ask what the threats to the system are. From there we can construct a list of potential conservation actions we might implement.

3. Assessing our reasons for monitoring. Once we have a set of plausible management alternatives we can begin to consider whether monitoring to improve management is necessary.

4. Assessing our ability to implement adaptive management. If it is not clear what management action is the best to implement we will need to assess our ability to implement adaptive management.

5. Other reasons to monitor. Of course, there are other reasons to monitor where the purpose is not to improve outcomes. It might be a legal or audit requirement, or it might be for publicity.

There has been a surge in research looking at the design of monitoring programs in recent years, as well as a growing number of calls for the establishment of long-term biodiversity monitoring studies. At its heart, however, good monitoring rests fundamentally on a clear justification for acquiring information in the first place.

What we strive to know should be driven by what we need to know. And, if we take a structured approach to decisions about monitoring, we find that the answer to whether we should monitor is not always yes – there are actually times when monitoring is a waste of time and money.

Dr Eve Macdonald-Madden is a Key Researcher with the National Environmental Research Program Environmental Decisions Hub (NERP ED). NERP is funded by the Australian Government. NERP ED forms part of the Environmental Decisions Group.