America’s Top 40: Research Priorities for Biodiversity Conservation and Management

America’s Top 40:
Research Priorities for Biodiversity Conservation and Management

April 11, 2011

Integration of natural science and social sciences research is necessary to meet the needs of natural resource decision makers according to priority-setting exercises involving policymakers, managers and scientists.

The cover story of the April issue of BioScience, contains the results of a process in which 35 scientists and decisionmakers met during a major snowstorm (the “snowpocalypse”) in Washington D.C. in February 2010 to synthesize “America’s Top 40” research questions for biodiversity conservation and natural resource management.

The workshop organizers and participants began with a set of questions submitted by 375 individuals who are involved with natural resource policy, management, or study. The questions were further defined by organizers based on interviews with senior current and former federal policymakers and science advisors. The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) was one of the organizers of the study, and many of the initial questions were generated through the NCSE listserve.

According to project director Erica Fleishman, “The questions focus on assessing trade-offs among economic, social, and ecological issues.” She noted that it is important to determine how to encourage communication among the generators of information about natural resources and the users of that information. “We created a mechanism where decision makers said to scientists, ‘This is what we need to address society’s priorities for natural resources.’ ” Dr. Fleishman described the endeavor as a means to facilitate collaboration, and more of a starting point than an ending.

The un-ranked questions, which highlight a wide array of environmental issues, include:

What quantity and quality of surface and groundwater will be necessary to sustain U.S. populations and ecosystem resilience during the next 100 years?

How do different strategies for growing and harvesting biomass or biofuel affect ecosystems and associated social and economic systems?

How do different agricultural practices and technologies affect water availability and quality?

How will changes in land use and climate affect the effectiveness of terrestrial and marine protected areas?

“America’s incredibly diverse natural resources are under increasing pressure, and policy makers often lack scientific information to make informed decisions about how to conserve them,” said co-author Michael Mascia, social scientist with the World Wildlife Fund. “These 40 questions can help guide research priorities and ultimately give society the information needed to conserve the environment we all depend upon.”

The authors expect that the 40 questions, if answered, will increase effectiveness of policies related to conservation and management of natural resources. They are meeting with research and management leaders in federal natural resource and science agencies to brief them about the results of the study and to discuss the concordance of the study findings with their priorities.

The study was based on a priority setting process in the United Kingdom, discussed by co-author William Sutherland during the opening plenary session in NCSE’s December 2008 national conference Biodiversity in a Rapidly Changing World. Co-author Murray Rudd is leading a concurrent process in Canada.

The first author is Erica Fleishman, a researcher with UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management and the John Muir Institute of the Environment at UC Davis. She and six colleagues –– David Blockstein, National Council for Science and the Environment, (NCSE) Washington, D.C.; John Hall, U.S. Department of Defense, Arlington, Va.; Michael Mascia, World Wildlife Fund; Murray Rudd, Environment Department, University of York, Britain; J. Michael Scott, U.S. Geological Survey; and William Sutherland, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Britain –– led the effort with a grant from the Kresge Foundation. Twenty-eight of the workshop participants are listed as co-authors.

NCSE’s involvement is part of its continuing effort to advance the ideas generated in its 9th national conference on science, policy and the environment and is consistent with its mission to improve the scientific basis of environmental decisionmaking. See www.NCSEonline.org/biodiversity . Questions and comments can be directed to David Blockstein [email protected]