Surprising and synergistic: A comprehensive global analysis of negative conservation outcomes
Assessing biological conservation outcomes methodically remains difficult without bases for comparison across diverse projects with disparate goals, scopes, methods, and scales. Anecdotally, evidence is accumulating that conservation outcomes are—as with any other major endeavor—a mixed bag of partial successes and failures, a complex assemblage of simultaneously positive and negative feedbacks. Yet aside from a few well-known examples, descriptions of surprising or negative outcomes appear relatively infrequently in the peer-reviewed literature and the extent of so-called “unintended consequences” for biodiversity is unknown. This presentation reports on the construction and analysis of a comprehensive database of conservation projects that exhibit negative feedbacks and other related processes by which project results were substantially altered or diminished from initially expected. Although poor outcomes are frequently seen as resulting from faulty policy, skewed market forces, or miscellaneous “social and political factors,” the database provides evidence that certain scientific research practices themselves consistently are contributing factors. The aim of this research is to provide a rich set of systematically-assembled cases facilitating identification of key processes by which conservation science may inadvertently undermine its own goals. As well, this analysis suggests concrete ways scientists may anticipate and mitigate negative feedbacks in order to improve outcomes.
Out of the quarter million records on negative feedbacks and associated phenomena found in major scientific abstract indexes (Thomson Reuters Web of Science and Elsevier’s Scopus; supplemented with the full-text search capabilities of Google Scholar), over 1,500 paper abstracts were related to biodiversity. Abstracts were manually coded and analyzed to identify mechanisms and processes that contributed to unintended and negative outcomes and the relative prevalence and contributory effect was estimated. (Because measures of “outcomes” are themselves sensitive to research goals and local conditions, the database employs a relative concept of outcome, i.e., case-by-case using the original stated goal or project assessment.) Projects often had more than one process contributing to unintended outcomes and further, these multiple processes were frequently synergistic even though they originated in quite different domains (genetic, epidemiological, economic, social, etc.) As part of a multi-year research effort, the database and its initial analysis provide a systematic and comprehensive account of the mechanisms and processes by which unintended and surprising conservation outcomes occur. In addition, the analysis provides a basis for concrete suggestions to promote coherent and effective upstream anticipation of, and response to, these feedbacks by scientists and managers.