Scientists call for radical change in how conservation research is funded and organised

19/11/2009 Kent, University of

In a paper published on 19 November by the journal Nature, scientists from the University of Kent, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and the University of Stellenbosch have declared that the current system for conservation research and funding is flawed. Consequently, it is failing to help guide biodiversity conservation in developing countries.

Through their opinion piece entitled ‘Let the locals lead’, the University of Kent’s Dr Bob Smith and his colleagues have demonstrated that the current system, where academics and conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs) set the agenda, leads to research that contributes little to local conservation efforts. They argue that conservation practitioners in developing countries need direct funding from donors, as well as more support from academics and NGOs, so that these local agencies can take the lead in conserving their biodiversity. 

The paper focuses on the science of identifying where new national parks and nature reserves should be located. This involves mapping where important habitats and species are found, and then recommending priority areas for their protection. But this is only part of the process. These plans should also account for local conditions and for the needs of the people living there. However, the paper shows that university academics often publish maps that are likely to be ignored because they do not account for these other aspects of conservation planning.

Dr Smith, who is a Research Fellow at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent, said: ‘Academics often work in isolation and so are unaware of the factors that influence conservation decisions. NGOs are much better informed but a lot of their research focuses on broad-scale issues. This causes problems in many developing countries because their governments lack the training and funding to carry out the research they need, but they cannot rely on academics and NGOs to provide relevant help.’

Dr Andrew Knight from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa added: ‘One solution to this problem is for academics, NGOs and local government agencies to form “social learning networks” and work together to identify research priorities. Crucially, it must be the local agencies that lead this process and we need international donors to support these groups and fund their research priorities.’

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