It’s not every day you get to meet someone who has been cited more times than The Origin of Species. But at the recent Oikos conference in Trondheim, Norway, Kate Layton-Mattthews and I had the privilege of talking to renowned conservation biologist and author of The Conservation Handbook, Professor William Sutherland.
With Bill giving a keynote speech at the conference about making ecological decisions in a post-truth world, we took the chance to grill him about global conservation progress and science in the world of Trump and Brexit.
Sam Perrin (SP): You started at Oxford around 1980. Since then, how would you say that the landscape for ecologists has changed over the last 30-40 years?
Bill Sutherland (BS): I was really lucky in that I witnessed two big waves of intellectual change.
The first was Bob May’s book on Theoretical Ecology, which came out in ‘76, and that was just fantastically exciting. It completely changed ecology for me, gave it an exciting, dynamic, vibrant feel. The second was when behavioural ecology started taking off, for example optimal foraging theory was introduced, and there was a raft of confidence and new ideas, which was also brilliant.
Of course since then we’ve become more mature, a little bit more cynical, we’ve realised that things are more complicated. The flush of a new subject means a flush of confidence, followed by the realisation everything’s a bit more complex. So I think we’ve gotten more mature, we study bigger topics. A lot of us focus has shifted to conservation, and that’s where a lot of the excitement is at the moment, which is great.
SP: In 2014 you wrote a paper with Tatsuya Amano, in which you talked about how a country’s wealth is often correlated with data availability. As ecologists, do you think we have a responsibility to help poorer countries in this area?
BS: I know we need to make data available. Tatsuya and I have done another study showing that 35% of scientific literature isn’t in English, and we just ignore that. We need to make that information available to people. We want to know what the Chinese are doing, the Russians. Can we make their information available all around the world, in the same way that happens with English? That’s something I’ve been committed to for a long time.
When books were the main source of information, I produced a book called The Conservation Handbook, discovered that the price to print more was the same as the royalties. So the publishers gave me books instead of royalties, and we gave them away all over the world, to libraries, conservationists and young students. We just posted them a copy and said ‘enjoy’. It was incredibly satisfying. We expanded this, to produce the Gratis Book Scheme, which has given away a couple of thousand copies of other books.
Nowadays everything is done through access to the internet. So we need to make sure that information is readily available to practitioners and bright young scientists and break those information barriers down in any way we can.
Kate Layton-Mathews (KLM): You created the Conservation Evidence website, which seems like a great tool. Is it working as well as you’d hoped? Is your user base mainly in Europe, or is it being used worldwide?
BS: It’s being used worldwide, more in Britain than elsewhere, but it’s used widely in Europe and North America, Australia, India etc. But we want to get to a point whereby it is used routinely by enormous numbers of people globally. We want to overcome an issue we call evidence complacency, which is not being bothered to find out what’s going on elsewhere. That’s a serious barrier at the moment.
KLM: Do you see lack of evidence base as the big problem, or is it the next stage of people not implementing policy properly irregardless of the evidence base?
BS: We wrote a paper on evidence-based conservation in 2004, and back then the publicly available search engines were useless. Web of Science you’d need a subscription for, most papers were behind paywalls. Conservation evidence hadn’t started yet, so it was almost impossible to find information. And that was a serious problem. That’s changed a lot, so that information is now increasingly available, and now the problem is that people decide not to use it. I would like to change that.
KLM: So we should be looking at interacting more globally, rather than focussing on our own regions?
BS: Exactly. And we’re trying to do that, we’ve done a little bit of that, but we need to be doing it a lot more, to sort of take the Conservation Evidence approach, then apply it to agriculture or food production, starting with say, cassava in Africa. We ask what we can learn about cassava production around the world, how can we share that advice? If you look at the countries where cassava is grown, they have no idea what the science says. They just do what they’ve always been doing.
Some think there’s going to be a silver bullet, this one piece of technology and then everything’s going to be great. I suspect that might well not be the case, and that we instead need to reduce demand, waste, fuel, population size, increase production and make wins all the way along.
KLM: At the moment agriculture is taking a path of intensification. Do you see solutions to sustainable agriculture within current practices, or do we need to radically change these practices?
BS: I think that technology is going to help a lot here, in particular robotics. At the moment we plant on a large scale because we use large machinery, with robotics we can do this on a much wider scale. Tricks like being able to recognise individual weeds and kill them with concentrated herbicide, then taking that off a herbicide budget for that bit of land.
Yet the same issue we have in conservation – not using global advice – is what we have in agriculture. For instance how do we stop rats from eating raw produce? We’re not learning from the rest of the globe. We need to be experimenting and innovating and learning.
SP: There are a lot of species and ecosystems around the world that are under threat in countries where the history of Western interference has not been fantastic. In a recent paper you hypothesize that “conservation outcomes will be less durable when conservationists assert their interests to the detriment of others”. In some of the aforementioned countries, is there a way we can step in and help out with conservation efforts without acting to the detriment of those ecosystems?
BS: Well I think we need to find areas where there are solutions. Sometimes those solutions might be providing funding to specific projects. Saying “we really care about this, and we’ll fund accordingly”. But very often, what we’re talking about is maintaining entire ecosystems, be it forests, corals, wetlands, which are of interest to society as a whole. So there are numerous wins there, but it’s about finding ways of preserving those systems that’s the challenge.
SP: Another quote from a recent paper of yours – “Political institutions are keen to use the best available scientific knowledge in decision making”. I think it’s fair to say that with the rise of figures like Trump, that’s not the case in some parts of the world at the moment. Do you think we have to change our attitude to a) public outreach and b) implementing policy with certain modern political figures being the way they are these days?
BS: I think we do. My belief is that we need to make the evidence available, and very publicly available, so everyone can see what the science says. Medicine does that a bit. If your doctor gives bad advice, you can look it up and show that, and there will be consequences. We need to have evidence available in the same way, where we can all look it up instantaneously, and then people can decide whether or not to follow it.
It’s fine for people to put their values and local knowledge on top of the global evidence. That’s perfectly legitimate. But people should be able to see that you’ve done that, upon seeing the global evidence that’s available. And at the moment because the evidence is all hidden away, someone can say “this is what the evidence says” and someone else can say something different, and you can’t know what the truth is. So if we can create bodies that document what the evidence shows, you can question it, and we’re open to that criticism.
And I kind of hope that this will then change things. Because Trump has come along and he will bluff his way out quite often, but you see how he gets into trouble when the evidence clearly shows something else, and if you provide an authoritative evidence base which shows A, and someone says B, I think the truth will out.
KLM: I’m also from the UK, and might want to work again in the UK in the near future. As someone who was fairly heavily involved in the British Ecological Society, what do you think Brexit means for the future of research in the UK?
BS: I honestly don’t know. Everything is to play for. But to me, science is essentially international. Cambridge is extraordinarily international, which is great. There’s a strong mix of people from around the world. The British Ecological Society, we’ve been trying to make that more global. We’ve had a meeting in France, a meeting in Belgium. And the idea was to have more international conferences, where we reach out and collaborate, and that seems to have worked. And that to me is the solution. That’s important to humanity, to ecology, to conservation.
SP: You wrote “Why Conserve Estuaries” in 1980. How are we doing in general when it comes to conservation?
BS: A game I play is to ask people, if they could set the clock back to the 1970s, would they? Have everything revert, the species, the habitats. Most people in Britain say no. We always say everything is is a disaster, and yet there are a large number of success stories. Our rivers used to be heavily polluted, they no longer are. We used to have organo-phosphate pesticides that were killing off birds of prey, that’s no longer the case. Our nature reserve management was weak, and that’s gotten a lot better. We’ve reintroduced various species. There’s a whole set of improvements.
But against that we’ve got a whole lot of things that have gotten worse. Climate change is a big issue, agriculture has just gotten worse, there are big problems with forestry. But that’s a Western, UK perspective, and in other parts of the world, the position is even more depressing. There is a lot of loss of habitats, for example loss of mangrove habitats for shrimp farms, so it depends where you are in the world.
So I think in Europe, its not useful for us to say everything is completely terrible and going downhill. I think it’s dishonest, and it’s just not very encouraging. I think the story is, we have a patchy record, including very many successes, which we should be really proud of, and we’ve done that through science and working out what the problems are, and working out the solutions, and bringing those about. Now we need to do that for the remaining problems.