Research and monitoring
Using relevant research findings to guide action seems to lead to improved conservation outcomes. There is still a way to go before this is standard practice across the conservation sector. (see learning question A)
Conservation initiatives focusing on research and practice tend to invest in research that can guide practice. Research in conservation science is often poorly aligned with conservation priorities. (see learning question B)
Overview of the learning topic
Learn the how-to of this step in the approach: Step 1 – Define the learning topic.
Many conservation organisations do basic research and monitoring. There are numerous reasons why research and monitoring are necessary. Teams frequently feel they need further information to take management decisions. Data on the particular conservation context, the status of conservation targets, the threats, or the implementation of activities are considered most relevant. The logic is: the more we know, the better our decisions.
With the Conservation Standards (CS), the conservation community has established a common practice of adaptive conservation management based on the best available knowledge. The CS also help teams collect the correct data for relevant decisions in the respective conservation context.
However, many teams still struggle. Knowing more is always better. So, where to draw the line? How much research and monitoring effort is sufficient to inform conservation management decisions? How much data is required to ensure intelligent decisions and more conservation impact? That is what we wanted to find out in this learning topic.
Learning questions and assumptions
Learn the how-to of this step in the approach: Step 2 – Develop learning questions.
A core assumption of any research and monitoring strategy is that its efforts build on previously identified information needs. This ensures that research and monitoring are focused on answering critical management questions.
Then suppose the right people can access research and monitoring results at the right time and in a suitable format. In that case, research recommendations can inform good conservation practices.
Over time, data collection during implementation of conservation strategies is crucial to identify more information and research needs and helps establish or improve data libraries that facilitate access to evidence.
Our ambition with this learning topic was to dig into some crucial questions around research and monitoring:
- Does research improve conservation practice and help achieve outcomes and impact? (see learning question A)
- How much research is sufficient for well-founded management decisions and successful conservation initiatives? (see learning question B)
Theory of change diagram (click to view full size):
Evidence and findings
The figure below shows an overview of the main findings. Note that these summary ratings do not represent uncertainty and level of confidence in the evidence appropriately. For the full picture, please review the evidence base and assessment for each assumption.
Learn the how-to of the approach: Step 3 – Collect evidence, Step 4 – Assess evidence, Step 5 – Compile & conclude.
Learning question A: Does research improve conservation practice?
Using relevant research findings to guide action seems to lead to improved conservation outcomes. There is still a way to go before this is standard practice across the conservation sector.
In some cases, evidence is available but is not routinely used. In other cases, relevant evidence either does not exist or is not available in a helpful format for potential users. Initiatives that integrate research with conservation may be particularly well-placed to align their practice with their research findings, especially where there are resources available for rigorously assessing conservation outcomes.
Assumption A1: Conservation practice is aligned with and informed by research findings
The evidence presents a mixed viewof how well conservation practice is aligned with research findings. Two competing narratives emerged from the wider literature:
- that a lack of relevant and accessible research is seriously limiting the ability of conservation managers and decision-makers to make use of research findings; and
- that despite a growing body of conservation-focused research, practitioners and decision-makers are still routinely not using evidence, including evidence from research.
Both of these narratives are at odds with the reports of MAVA grantees, which indicate (albeit from a sample that is potentially not representative of the sector) that research and practice were well aligned. While there seems to be broad agreement that conservation action can be improved by aligning with research findings, there is still a way to go to achieve this aim.
Review the evidence used for this assumption in the evidence capture sheet .
We considered 70 pieces of evidence obtained from different sources to assess this assumption.
An in-depth search of the MAVA grants database provided 38 pieces of evidence from 32 sources that were used to test this assumption. An initial review highlighted 122 grants that were relevant to the topic of basic research and monitoring. These were further screened, and 49 grants that integrated research and conservation practice were retained. Documentation – including progress reports, final reports, technical reports, and MAVA evaluations – was searched in detail for statements or claims that linked conservation practice with research findings.
Exploratory searches of the wider literature found 32 pieces of evidence from 26 sources. Many of these sources were large-scale assessments aimed at detecting links between research efforts and conservation priorities, biases in research effort, or a prevalence of evidence use within particular sectors or disciplines.
Overall, the evidence neither supports nor refutes the assumption. Evidence supporting the assumption was found more often in the MAVA grant database. In contrast, evidence refuting the assumption was found more often in the wider literature.
Evidence from the wider literature suggests that conservation practice is frequently not aligned with broader research findings. The problem can be expressed through several scenarios:
- technical guidance or best practices are available but not followed when actions are implemented on the ground46, 55, 61;
- guidance or best practices are followed, but monitoring is inadequate for assessing outcomes52, 61;
- guidance or best practices are not developed using the findings of relevant research62, 64, 66, with some measures being ineffective or even harmful40;
- relevant evidence for particular actions, locations, or contexts either does not exist, or is not available in a useful format59, 71.
More broadly, many authors have highlighted a “science-practice” gap in the field of conservation41. There are problems at all stages, from knowledge generation to knowledge communication and knowledge use63.
Several other sources present a more mixed view. For example, one study suggests that businesses may seek to align their biodiversity initiatives with the available evidence48. But they rely on best practices, certifications, and guidance rather than directly engaging with the research49. Another study found that conservation managers often sought research to guide their decision-making. Still, managers suggested that a lack of relevant and applicable evidence sources was a severe limitation59.
Other studies presented a broad conception of the types of evidence that were used to support conservation action plans. The sources included published studies, experience, expert and in-house knowledge, and indigenous and local knowledge. However, the studies still found that around a quarter of the claims in management plans were unsupported by any source of evidence71.
In contrast to the wider literature, MAVA grantee reports highlight a number of cases where research and practice were well aligned.
“The data produced during the first phase of the project has been analysed and used to edit the first National Action Plan (PAN) project for all the islands […].”MAVA-G14 2019
Even within MAVA grants, there was sometimes a lack of clear information to link research and practice.
Two sources of potential bias for the MAVA grant reports are worth highlighting. Firstly, grants were initially screened to include only those that integrated research and conservation practice. Therefore, the grants selected for detailed review were the most likely to align their strategies with their research findings.
The second and more general source of bias is that grantees may be more likely to report cases in which they have applied their research findings, but less likely to report when research findings were not used or when the research was unhelpful for guiding action. Similar biases for positive reporting have been discussed in the broader conservation literature.
Assumption A2: Utilising research findings in conservation practice improves the conservation outcome/impact
Based on the limited available evidence, there is some support for the assumption that using research findings can improve conservation outcomes. For projects that integrate research and action, assessing how the use of research findings influenced conservation outcomes is a significant challenge, particularly over the typically short timescales of grant funding.
To progress on this issue, conservation project proposals should articulate how their intended actions will achieve the desired outcomes. They should refer to best available evidence to support any claims, and investment should ideally span a period long enough that impacts can be rigorously assessed.
Review the evidence used for this assumption in the evidence capture sheet .
To assess this assumption, we considered 16 pieces of evidence obtained from different sources.
An in-depth search of the MAVA grants database provided ten pieces of evidence from 49 sources that were used to test this assumption. An initial review highlighted 122 grants that were relevant to the topic of basic research and monitoring. These were further screened, and only grants that integrated research and conservation practice were retained. Documentation – including progress reports, final reports, technical reports, and MAVA evaluations – was searched in detail for statements or claims that linked research findings with conservation outcomes.
Exploratory searches of the wider literature found six pieces of evidence from five sources. Only a few studies were found that directly addressed this assumption, particularly within the conservation sector.
The small amount of evidence that was found provides some support for the assumption.
Overall, evidence from the MAVA grants database provided some support for the assumption. However, there was no evidence of direct link between the use of research findings and improved conservation outcomes. For example, one of the strongest pieces of evidence reported strengthened protection for key habitats and species but stopped short of assessing whether this resulted in improved status or a reduction in threats:
“The policy work (using the research findings) resulted in a significant increase in protected island wetlands. Out of 805 wetlands (mapped), 565 (70%) are now under protection with a strict legal framework. The policy work succeeded in the incorporation of the project’s scientific documentation into the […] legislative framework.”MAVA-G22 2013
The ability to assess impacts on conservation status or threats may be limited by the short timeframe of most grants, which is typically three years.
The evidence from the wider literature also provided some support for the assumption, although there are not many relevant studies. The most compelling case was a hospital that found better patient outcomes in an evidence-based unit compared to a standard practice unit11. Other studies found improved outcomes for some restoration projects14, 15 and certification schemes16 when research findings were used to guide practice.
Learning question B: When is research on sufficient level to allow for successful conservation effort?
Some conservation initiatives invest strategically in research so that it can guide their decisions and practice. More broadly, however, the research effort within conservation science is often poorly aligned with conservation priorities.
Assumption B1: Conservation initiatives invest in research assuming that it is going to be useful in conservation practice
Many conservation initiatives clearly show good intentions regarding using research findings in guiding conservation action. However, within the wider field of conservation science, research effort seems to be poorly aligned with conservation priorities. Simply describing the state of nature and critical threats is not sufficient to deliver on biodiversity conservation. Greater efforts must be directed toward delivering solutions for the most pressing conservation challenges.
Review the evidence used for this assumption in the evidence capture sheet .
We considered 40 pieces of evidence obtained from different sources to assess this assumption.
An in-depth search of the MAVA grants database provided 30 pieces of evidence from 38 sources that were used to test this assumption. An initial review highlighted 140 grants that were relevant to the topic of basic research and monitoring. These were further screened, and only grants that integrated research and conservation practice, with conservation organisations as main implementers, were retained. Documentation – including full project proposals and evaluations of those proposals – was searched in detail for statements or claims about the intended use of research findings.
Exploratory searches of the wider literature found ten pieces of evidence from ten sources. Many of these sources were large-scale assessments aimed at detecting trends in conservation research or links between research effort and conservation priorities.
Overall, the evidence neither supports nor refutes the assumption. While evidence from the MAVA database provided some support, evidence from the wider literature tended to refute the assumption
Evidence from the MAVA grant proposals highlighted that projects with an integrated research and conservation component intended to use their research findings to inform their action. For example:
“Strategy 1 will focus on conducting in-depth research (distribution, abundance, density, threats, etc.) as well as regular monitoring of the pilot sites to allow the parallel development of ecological studies and socio-economic values of seagrass ecosystems. The main findings will directly inform site management plans and conservation actions, as well as feed in to advocacy and raising awareness activities.”MAVA-G12 2020
All evidence from MAVA grant proposals supported the assumption, which may be explained in part by how the evidence was gathered. Only those grants with an integrated research and conservation component were searched in detail. It therefore follows that such projects will be very likely to propose a research component that will inform their later conservation action. Indeed, proposals that did not make that link explicit may not have been awarded funding.
Furthermore, proposals that were purely research-focused, with no on-the-ground conservation component, were not searched for evidence. It remains how useful the research suggested in these cases will have been for conservation practice.
The wider literature suggests that research and conservation priorities are often not well aligned. For example, most of the research effort has targeted other species and landscapes than the most threatened ones31, 33, 36, 37, 39. In addition, there are persistent biases in geography and taxonomy. These biases in research efforts may often be explained by a lack of funding and capacity, as well as logistical challenges.
However, another study suggests that despite some notable examples, conservation science as a whole has spent too much effort describing threats and status of species and habitats and too little time designing, implementing and testing the effectiveness of conservation responses38.
Join the learning
With this starting point based on best available evidence, we hope to spark discussion and to invite practitioners and organisations to learn about key conservation strategies.
If you are contemplating taking a similar approach for another strategy or would like to contribute with your evidence and insights, please contact us.
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Watch the webinar recording
Learn about the need for using evidence in conservation, our practical five-step approach, and the key insights on the topic of capacity-building.
More learning topics
- Conservation Learning Initiative (PDF, 18 MB)
- Research and monitoring theory of change – Interactive theory of change in the Conservation Actions and Measures Library (CAML) on Miradi Share
- Evidence capture sheet – This sheet contains the collected evidence used to explore this learning topic