Mismatches between biodiversity research and policy needs – how can anyone compete with climate change?

If you would conduct a quick poll among the next twenty people you meet and ask them what they think the most important cause of global biodiversity loss is, there’s a good chance you would get a lot of the same two-word answer: climate change. In the English-speaking world today, there are few anthropogenic threats that appear in the news as often as often as climate change. While climate change is undeniably an important driver of biodiversity changes worldwide, there’s a risk that other equally important drivers have ended up too far from the scientific spotlight.

Fig. 1. Left: Scientists surveying lichens, which are important indicators of pollution and climate change effects. Photo credit: National Park Service (J. Walton). R: A meeting at the UN Biodiversity Conference COP13 in Mexico 2016. Photo credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana, Flickr.
The use of all this research

Science is all about building knowledge, so no knowledge acquired from scientific study can ever be useless or redundant. But given limitations of funding and time, in certain applied research disciplines it’s crucial that scientific efforts prioritize the most urgent knowledge demands to some degree. Within the scope of global change ecology, one important aspect of this task is to provide a solid knowledge base for policymakers to create conservation policies. In other words: what is it we know, and what do we still need to figure out in order to meet the environmental and conservation targets that we set as a global community?

All eyes on climate change

With this in mind, a group of post-docs at CSIRO, the Australian government research agency, set out to investigate the research efforts targeting different drivers of biodiversity loss during the past 10 years. The researchers wanted to compare the research efforts for each driver with its assessed impact, as established by experts. The idea came from coffee-break chats about what factors that most severely affected biodiversity in different ecosystems, since these researchers all worked in different scientific fields.

The researchers looked at two global policy documents – the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, from 2005, and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, from 2015 – and compared the reports’ conclusions with more than 44,000 journal publications about drivers of biodiversity loss, published between 2006 and 2016. What they found was a clear dominance of climate-change-related research, which appeared in 40 % of the publications. The team also found that the amount of research on climate change increased every year. The researchers suggest that this is because

Fig. 2. Percentages of scientific papers (published 2006-2016) addressing climate change, habitat change, invasive species, overexploitation and pollution in different ecosystems. Source: Mazor et al. 2018.

of the status of climate change as a high-profile global issue, with funding opportunities recently increasing. Meanwhile, some other drivers that can have equally severe impacts on biodiversity have received comparatively little attention in the past decade. An example of this is pollution, which was only addressed in 5 % of the papers despite being identified by experts as a major concern, on par with climate change. Additionally, the research efforts varied a lot among different study systems; for example, pollution had been relatively well-studied in freshwater systems, but very little in terrestrial systems.

No such thing as an isolated driver?

Another issue the researchers uncovered was that very few of the articles considered more than one driver simultaneously. Why is this important? Well, consider nature’s general refusal to be boxed into neat categories, despite how hard we may try. In nature, there is rarely only one process acting alone on an ecosystem, and we need to understand more about how different drivers might exacerbate or mitigate one another’s impacts. For example, would the effects of pollution be worse in a warmer or drier climate? In the past decade, only one in ten articles have considered such multiple, simultaneous drivers of change when investigating biodiversity loss.

The study exemplifies how useful it can be for the scientific community to regularly take a moment to evaluate its joint output, and the need to strive for alignment between research efforts and the knowledge needs of society. It’s also a reminder to everyone that it’s important to leave your computer every now and then, take coffee and lunch breaks, and have informal chats with your colleagues: who knows what sort of interesting work can come out of it?

References

Mazor et al. 2018. Global mismatch of policy and research on drivers of biodiversity loss. Nature Ecology and Evolution https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0563-x

Mazor, T. & Doropoulos, C. 2018. “Behind the paper: A decade of science on global drivers of biodiversity loss.” Nature Ecology and Evolution website.

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Pernilla Borgstrom

Pernilla Borgstrom

I recently finished my PhD in ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). In my PhD research, I investigated the role insect herbivores might play in mediating nitrogen eutrophication effects on grassland ecosystems. I'm especially interested in interactions between plants and insects, but not too picky about which plants or which insects.

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