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Conservation Science

A Conversation with Peter Kareiva

Al Gore, Spike Lee, Sandra Day O'Connor...and Peter Kareiva!

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences named Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy's chief scientist, as one of its 2007 Fellows along with Gore, Lee and more than 220 other academics, scientists, artists and other leaders worldwide.

The award is an uncommon one for a conservationist, particularly one based at a nongovernmental organization (NGO). So does that rarity mean that conservation science isn't often recognized as science? Or that conservation needs to be more science-based?

After he received the award, nature.org caught up with Kareiva and asked him about the state of conservation and science today.


Nature.org: First, congratulations. You're one of the relatively few conservation scientists to be honored by the Academy. Does than mean conservationists still struggle to get recognition among the traditional sciences?

Peter Kareiva: I'm not sure we struggle to get recognition. But conservation is a different endeavor than the basic research that earns scientific accolades. Science develops a theoretical understanding of how the world works. Conservation is about results.

When I first left academia and gave lectures at universities about my conservation work, some of my old academic friends snickered and asked me why I'd made the switch from interesting and important theory to conservation. Which made me defensive at first.

But when I get those questions these days, my response is: “I used to do such academic work, and now I do work that's useful and incredibly challenging.” I wouldn't trade my current job for the most prestigious academic position in the world.

Nature.org: But you still worry that conservation in general needs to be more science-based, right?

Peter Kareiva: I don't really worry about whether or not it's science-based — I worry about the way it is science-based. Indeed, the Conservancy is now so science-based that I sometimes long for the days of inspiration and aesthetics.

My concern is with the quality of conservation science. I see conservation making four mistakes when it uses science.

First, science is about identifying the answer for which there is the strongest evidence, which is the “right answer” of the moment. Because consensus can be so important to implementing conservation, conservation science often chases after consensus, and that ends up being the worst possible science.

Fortunately, we are making an effort to get better at this threat analysis - the recent habitat analysis the Conservancy completed in order to identify global priorities included the most impressive data-based threat analysis I have ever seen, and that data base will be a resource for all of conservation.

Second, government agencies and NGOs need to be up-front when they're making decisions based on management or human values instead of primarily on science. Being science-based does not mean everything has to be scientific and reduced to numbers and percentages. We should be perfectly happy about conserving habitats for iconic and inspirational species even though their biodiversity score is low.

The polar bears of the Arctic warrant every bit as much protection as hotspots of endemic plants in the tropics, and North America’s own Yellowstone to Yukon ecosystem is special for being one of the few large places left in the world with an intact vertebrate megafauna (the grizzly bear). I don't downgrade these places on my conservation scorecard because their total number of species is low.

Third, good science does not have to be complicated. Too often I feel like conservation science is all dressed up in complicated indices, algorithms and spreadsheets as though that complexity makes it better science. James Watson and Francis Crick uncovered the mystery of DNA and won the Nobel prize for a little two-page paper — two pages. And island biogeography — which holds that the number of species we see in any place represents a balance between immigration and local extinction — is a simple idea central to a lot of conservation thinking.

Lastly — and most important of all — science-based should mean finding out when we are wrong. If we are not finding out and reporting where we have been wrong, we have not been doing science.

Nature.org: Speaking of doing science, what are you working on now?

Peter Kareiva: With Dr. Michelle Marvier of Santa Clara University, who's a long-time colleague, I have just completed a study of genetically engineered crops and their impacts on beneficial invertebrates. That might not sound like conservation — but agriculture is the world’s major land user, and innovative agricultural technology can be friend or foe to biodiversity.

The coolest part of that research project? We created a database of field evidence that's now a public global resource, and I learned how to build an internet-based public database — something I now want the Conservancy to lead the way on.

My new research concerns ecosystem services and the tradeoffs among them. The Conservancy loves to talk about "win-win" outcomes among all the stakeholders in a given project. But to get those outcomes, you have to be smart enough and know enough about ecology to avoid the "win-lose" tradeoffs that are often the rule of the day.

So I guess I am now in the business of studying tradeoffs among ecosystem services, and among ecosystem services and human welfare. My collaborators on this are Gretchen Daily of Stanford, Taylor Ricketts of WWF, the Conservancy's own Sanjayan, and Michelle Marvier.

Nature.org: As the Conservancy's chief scientist, you also have to be thinking about the big conservation picture. So what are the big scientific issues we — all of us concerned about the Earth and conservation — should be paying attention to?

Peter Kareiva: I'm really not an organization type guy, and I squirm a little at saying this. But I honestly think the major strategies the Conservancy has identified for the next three years — all under the phrase "protecting nature, preserving life" — capture the big science questions for conservation.

World population is increasing by 250,000 every day — so conservation has to be about aligning human activities and human needs with biodiversity. We must learn how to obtain food, fiber and timber sustainably from nature. We must accurately give credit to nature’s ecological assets so that we don't make bad deals that amount to a few more dollars in our pockets at the expense of storm or flood protection and clean water.

Also, we have to be gifted enough as engineers and designers to ensure that our infrastructure is in harmony with nature and not disruptive of nature and biodiversity. And we have to stop thinking of protected areas as “protected from people” and recast protected areas as resources and assets that are “protected for people.”

These are difficult science questions, but they reflect the Conservancy's current major strategies. There has never been a better time to be a conservation scientist than now.

Nature.org: So in the end, it does come back to science after all?

Peter Kareiva: There is no responsible alternative. Values are important, but without science the Conservancy would end up mired in competing values and clashing political views or ideologies. Without science, we couldn't determine what works and does not work — and we'd never understand the why of what works and does not work.

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