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Conservation science tackles a perplexing subject: people

Editor’s note: This week, the Society for Conservation Biology — the pre-eminent professional society for conservation science — is hosting its biennial International Congress for Conservation Biology in Cartagena, Colombia. As the newly elected president of the society and the first social scientist to lead the network in its 32-year history, Mike Mascia of Conservation International (CI) represents an evolution for a discipline that has long focused on the natural sciences. In this Q&A, Mascia — senior director for social science at CI — talks to Human Nature about why conservation science still matters and what role scientists can play in a time of political upheaval.

Question: What does conservation science look like on the ground? Why should we care about it?

Answer: Conservation science takes many forms, from interviewing local subsistence hunters in remote forests, to running high-tech analyses of global satellite data, to volunteer bird counts. Conservation science is an interdisciplinary field that draws upon ecology and anthropology, psychology and political science, economics and hydrology, information science and genetics, and more.

Effectively conserving biodiversity requires an understanding of how the world works and how our actions contribute to sustaining or degrading nature. Conservation science provides the evidence for smarter decisions by governments, corporations, nonprofit organizations and individuals. It works with individuals and organizations to act in ways that are consistent with their values and their aspirations. Through science, we can identify issues that we need to address, explore options, tailor solutions to local conditions, measure progress, refine our approach and take successes to scale.

Q: How has your research informed conservation actions?

A: All my work is designed to inform decisions, advance policy solutions and conserve ecosystems for both wildlife and the people who depend upon it. The work that colleagues and I have done in Indonesia to evaluate the impacts of marine protected areas (MPAs) has been used to refine MPA boundaries and to inform government policies. For example, the government assumed that people living on remote islands were primarily fishermen, but our data showed they were farmers first and fishers second. As a result, the government started focusing its efforts on helping people with their crops.

I first highlighted widespread legal rollbacks to protected areas and coined the term PADDD (protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement) to describe it, which is now widely recognized and is reframing how we view protected areas. In the old days, we saw protected area establishment as the goal — with the need for enforcement and management to follow, of course — but establishment was viewed as the hard part. Now we realize that the hard work is just beginning with establishment, and that — in addition to management and preventing illegal activities — sustaining the legal integrity of protected areas — in both size and regulation — is an ongoing challenge.

We have examples of PADDD happening right now, as the administration in the United States reviews protected area designations, Australian proposals to weaken their national system of marine protected areas, and widespread PADDD that is chipping away at the Brazilian system of protected areas. Legal changes to protected areas aren’t inherently bad, of course, but we need to study and understand the implications of PADDD for both people and nature.

So while I can’t point to a specific chunk of land or water and say that it is protected because of my research, my efforts have hopefully shaped how people think and act regarding conservation science and conservation more generally. We now see social science as a fundamental, integral component of conservation science, and we now think differently about protected areas and about the social consequences of conservation.

Q: What about social science is important for making change?

A: We live on a human-dominated planet. People are defining what the future will look like, for better or for worse. Thus, conservation is an inherently social process with social implications. It’s not just what we conserve but how we conserve it that matters. Accordingly, social science — the study of people and their interactions with the environment — is critical. Social science allows us to connect nature to people, ensuring that our conservation investments advance human well-being, or at least do no harm. Social science can tell us where to work, the most effective strategies to use, how to expand what works, and the consequences of action and inaction.

Q: How is putting social science front and center a big deal for the Society of Conservation Biology?

A: Since its origins, the society has recognized the insights that diverse disciplines can provide to advance its mission, which is to advance the science and practice of conserving Earth’s biological diversity. And, over time, social science has had a growing presence within the society. My election to serve as president of the board is a culmination of this evolution. So symbolically it is a big deal, but social science is nothing new to the society. And I am leading the whole society, striving to advance our mission along with the new executive director, Dr. Debborah Luke, to take the society — and conservation science — to a new level.

Q: What made you want to take on this leadership role? What about this moment is important for this discipline?

A: The conservation community is at a crossroads. Debates rage over the future of biodiversity, the rationales for conserving it and the means by which to do so. Globalization and technological innovations are reshaping how conservation science is produced and consumed — and by whom. The role of scientific professional societies is in flux. And assaults on science and the environment — in the U.S. and elsewhere — present perhaps unprecedented challenges.

Amid this uncertainty, the society’s mission is a constant: advancing the science and practice of conserving Earth’s biological diversity. This mission is not terrestrial, marine or freshwater, but encompasses all biomes. It is neither natural science nor social science, but engages all disciplines — often in interdisciplinary combinations. It is not tied to a single conservation strategy, but works with the entire conservation toolbox.

For the society to succeed, we must build bridges across traditional boundaries and create strategic partnerships to answer the most critical, policy-relevant scientific questions. We must ensure that scientific capacity is held by those who need it, and we must foster evidence-based decision-making. As a global organization, the society is well positioned to inform and advance cooperation on international environmental agreements — the Paris Agreement, U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, the next generation of the Convention on Biological Diversity — through evidence and through science.

Today’s political context just makes our work all the more important. Facts exist and they matter. Without science, we wave a white flag of surrender. In facing the realities of climate change and extinction, science is critical. These are hard challenges, and without science and its insights, we will be lost. My job is to help the society mobilize those insights and shape the future of our planet for the better — in any way that I can.

Mike Mascia is CI’s senior director of social science. Jamey Anderson is a senior writer for Conservation International.

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