A Vision of Transformed Conservation Practice

© 2022 William J. Sutherland, CC BY-NC 4.0

The title of this book and preface are not exaggerations: we are serious about the need for delivering transformative change. We believe the processes outlined will deliver a better planet. Chapter 1 describes how conservation efforts are often far less effective than they could be. The consequences include wasting money, eroding public and political support, under-delivering the protection of species or habitats for a given budget, and deterring potential investments in conservation. The subsequent chapters describe how evidence can be used to make more effective decisions.

Fundamental strategic and cultural shifts are required. The strategic shift is to ensure evidence is available when and as needed and that decision makers have the necessary skills and tools to use evidence. The cultural shift is for it to be unacceptable to make decisions that ignore available evidence or effective decision-making processes.

Medicine has taken a strategic approach in which a doctor can access synthesised evidence or guidance in minutes. Similarly, if conservation science was to invest in synthesising evidence comprehensively, and embedding it in standards, policy, certifications, and guidelines, then decision makers could be assured that their actions were justified, based on the best available evidence. The cost of this is trivial in relation to the likely savings but it needs leadership to make the strategic investment.

The cultural shift refers to the need to be convinced and passionate about improving practice so that evidence use is expected and routinely delivered. Not using evidence would then be seen as being unprofessional and inefficient. Once transparent evidence use becomes the norm, many of the procedures described in this book would become routine.

The transition to evidence-based decision making will require new skills: finding and synthesising evidence; interpreting, evaluating and combining evidence; using experts efficiently; working appropriately with diverse communities of practitioners and stakeholders in co-assessing and co-designing practice; making effective decisions incorporating values and costs; embedding evidence in plans and guidance; and creating effective tests to improve the evidence base (Kadykalo 2021). Downey et al. (2021) provide some resources for training future generations to acquire those skills, but more is needed.

The good news is that this transition has begun. The fields of medicine and aviation safety have shown that such strategic and cultural transformation is possible and hugely beneficial. Increasingly, society expects decisions to be underpinned by evidence and some conservation organisations, such as the eight described in Chapter 11, have already placed evidence at their heart and are harnessing the benefits.

The measures in this book are not only likely to provide more cost effective delivery of policy and practice but they also provide confidence that the processes are responsible and the suggestions sensible. Improving credibility makes many aspects of project delivery easier, not least the attraction to funders.

We also anticipate that moves to evidence-based decisions will be self reinforcing. As practitioners, policy makers, businesses, and funders routinely ask why the suggested project or action is considered to be the best strategy, this will drive demand for the production, collation, and integration of evidence. To be most effective, evidence-based conservation needs to become the norm, where recipients expect to be asked to produce transparently collated evidence when applying for funds, funders expect to be shown the evidence and to contribute to funding it, and society at large demands the use of evidence in decision making and the improvement of the evidence base where it is lacking.

The most likely, and most effective, means of transforming conservation is for funders to ask whether their money is likely to be spent effectively (Chapter 9) and to support the embedding of learning within projects. Once multiple influential funders require the consideration of the evidence, the effect could be rapid and substantial.

Recently, philanthropists and funding bodies have made two major commitments to improving effectiveness. Twenty-five funders now ask their applicants to reflect on the evidence underpinning their applications (Parks et al., 2022). A range of funders has also agreed to ensure there is some funding for testing with a range of practitioner organisations committing to test an action annually (Tinsley-Marshall et al., 2022).

Most of the authors of this book are environmental scientists or practitioners and thus the examples we give relate to environmental practices. We are especially keen to continue the transformation of conservation practice so that it is more effective and so that conservation is more attractive to funders. However, the processes described here can be applied widely when deciding policies and practices. This book will examine these methods and their application across all fields, rather than discussing conservation specifically. The agenda described here equally apply to many other environmental areas, including agriculture, fisheries or energy production, as well as a wide range of other subjects that would gain from greater integration of science and policy, such as architecture, education, organisational management, overseas aid, philanthropy, policing, research funding, town planning or traffic management.


Downey, H., Amano, T., Cadotte, M., et al. 2021. Training future generations to deliver evidence-based conservation and ecosystem management. Ecological Solutions and Evidence 2(1): e121032,

Kadykalo, A. N., Buxton, R. T., Morrison, P., et al. 2021. Bridging research and practice in conservation. Conservation Biology 35: 1725–37,

Parks, D., Al-Fulaij, N., Brook, C., et al. 2022. Funding evidence-based conservation. Conservation Biology, 36, e13991.

Tinsley-Marshall, P., Downey, H., Adum, G., et al. 2022. Funding and delivering the routine testing of management interventions to improve conservation effectiveness. Journal for Nature Conservation 67: 126184,

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