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Revealing the one-sided nature of research into biodiversity loss

By Laura Methorst

May 30, 2018

IF the question, ‘Name the most researched subject on biodiversity loss?’ came up at the next quiz night, what would you answer? If your first instinct is to yell ‘climate change’, you would be well on your way to quiz-night glory.

It’s a well-scoring answer with 40 per cent of research over the past decade into biodiversity loss focusing on climate change. And it is a statistic that makes sense. However, it leaves other research drivers a little less understood.

The four other drivers are: Over-exploitation (for example, over fishing of a river system); habitat change; invasive species and pollution. These drivers affect all systems – freshwater, saltwater and on land.

The effect of climate change on biodiversity makes up just over 40 per cent of biodiversity research in the past decade. It has been a fast-expanding research field, growing at a rate of 10 per cent per annum.

These statistics are spelled out in the Nature Ecology and Evolution paper “Global mismatch of policy and research on drivers of biodiversity loss” which has a survey system a little more rigorous than any quiz show.

Research audit

The paper team, formed by CSIRO scientists, conducted an analysis of more than 44,000 papers from 21 prominent ecological and conservation journals. In a process that took around 12 months, the analysis resulted in some interesting statistics, and some surprises for our researchers.

Dr Christopher Doropoulos, CSIRO lead author, says the team was not sure exactly how much research over the past decade had focussed on climate change.                                                                                                                

 

“From knowing the literature, and that a lot of climate change research had been undertaken in the past 10 years, we had assumptions that climate change would be the most researched driver,” Doropoulos says.

“But we didn’t expect the others would be so relatively low.”

While climate change was researched across freshwater, marine and land systems, pollution was highly researched in some systems and not in others.

“Historically, pollution is quite well researched in fresh water systems. Often cities are centred around fresh water systems, like London and the Thames or Melbourne and the Yarra river.”

Another surprise to the research team was that the majority of papers only investigated one driver, as lead author Dr Tessa Mazor explains:

“Our analysis found that only 12 per cent of the papers that were classified into a driver actually looked at multiple drivers,” Mazor says. “Research is really lacking here and I was quite surprised.”

Research v policy, which comes first?

While the research provides a thorough snapshot of this point in time, it is the publication of two global policy documents that allows the research to be so relevant. The first publication was in 2005 with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. A collaboration among 95 countries, this report identified baselines and trends in drivers of biodiversity loss.

The second came out a decade later. In 2015, the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development called for urgent action to reduce biodiversity loss.

By comparing these two reports and more than 44,000 papers published between 2006 and 2016, the researchers formed a clear picture of what research has taken place, and what it has focussed on. This analysis shows that research and policy priorities do not match, though all research, whether it is a policy priority or not, contributes to the greater scientific understanding of our world.

So why don’t policy and research always align? It’s a difficult balance to achieve as both policy and research need to inform one another.

“It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation – the policy and the research,” says Mazor.

“But they both have to be connected. For example, policy is saying there needs to be more effort to combat the problem of pollution, but research is not focussed on that as yet.”

But there are ways to better join research and policy. The paper makes four calls to action relevant to all present and future researchers and policy makers.

The first is to place greater emphasis on drivers like pollution that have been identified as a major concern, yet are underrepresented in research.

The second is to cross analyse research done in different systems. For example, comparing overexploitation research done on land with that done in freshwater systems may bring benefits.

The third is for more studies to address multiple drivers. Multiple drivers work together to accelerate biodiversity loss, which needs to be taken into account.

And the fourth focuses more on solutions than research. “There is an abundance of research going on at the moment focusing on the problem,” Doropoulos says. “We also need to know what is working and what is not working in specific systems – an overview into the effectiveness of solutions.”

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