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Conservation Science

How the Conservancy Leads with Science

By Peter Kareiva

First, an admission: There is a lot of hubris in the claim that The Nature Conservancy is “leading with science.”

Everyone knows that even the world’s best science cannot move conservation forward without money, public support and enabling governments.

But science does have a special place at the Conservancy. Its centrality to our mission and work means that none of our assumptions go unchallenged. That we look unflinchingly at the world as it really is and will be. And that we solve conservation problems by analysis as opposed to assertion and storytelling.

At the Conservancy, Conservation Science Translates Into Action

And there is something else that brands Conservancy science and our hundreds of staff scientists. Our science is intensely pragmatic, and our scientists push as fast as possible towards real-world actions.

When I was an academic scientist, I routinely published articles that ended by claiming that “this result could be useful…” In fact, my findings and ideas rarely were used.

And when I worked as a scientist for the federal government, I published ideas and analyses that did eventually get used, but typically only after years and years of bureaucracy and agency angst.

But at the Conservancy, science is quickly translated into action that is simultaneously daring and thoughtful -- such as our Development by Design work to help site oil, gas and mining development in places where it does the least ecological harm.

This pragmatism is what I like about the Conservancy's way of practicing science. Science at the Conservancy isn't in the business of making people comfortable. It's in the business of solving problems.

The environmentally facile stance would be a heroic stand against oil and gas exploration, in the spirit of the lone environmentalist who has chained him or herself to a tree.

But oil and gas exploration are coming to many parts of the world, and no amount of activism is going to change that fact. Moreover, energy development is something that people need.

So, given the necessity and reality of additional oil and gas exploration, Conservancy scientists are working with industry partners to steer energy development away from the most vulnerable and biologically precious sites.

And when exploration does cause damage, Conservancy scientists are influencing industry best practices so that the damage is minimized and offset via the protection of off-site areas of comparable conservation value.

Of course this strategy risks charges of green washing and “selling out.” Maintaining credibility in such circumstances requires the use of rigorous science — incorporating unassailable modeling and data — to identify what and where the damage is and how it's occurring.

And the science must also be transparent — which is why Conservancy scientists who developed the computer models for “energy by design” are publishing their efforts in peer-reviewed journals. Indeed, transparency and peer-review are two important marks of the best of the Conservancy's science.

Science Helps Us Find The Unconventional Solutions

No doubt you have heard the story of the lawyer, the fundraiser, the MBA-trained manager and the scientist. 

They were driving across the Mongolian grassland on a road — only to be halted by a large metal gate that was locked and festooned with ominous looking signs in a language that none of the four travelers understood.

The sun was setting and the group would soon be late for an important meeting with a government leader. So the lawyer got out her Blackberry and tried to find out what the sign meant and what were the legal risks for breaking down a gate.

The fundraiser started taking pictures and wondering what story he could make out of this experience to snare that next major donation.

The manager opened up his laptop and started to make a PowerPoint slide sketching a business plan for what to do next, complete with performance plans for everyone in the travel party.

But the scientist started walking back away from the gate, down both sides of the road, looking for tire tracks and options.

She found tracks veering off to the right, and followed them to find they made a detour around the gate but rejoined the main road about 200 meters beyond the barrier. The scientist led the group around the barrier, and they made it to their meeting on time.

And that's how The Nature Conservancy leads with science — because scientists look for data and solutions that are not always obvious, and do not confine themselves to conventional paths.

Peter Kareiva is chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, where he is responsible for developing and helping to implement science-based conservation throughout the organization and for forging new linkages with partners.

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