Conservation issues on the horizon

Following the recent publication of Sutherland et al.’s A Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation in 2019, a selection of the authors have come together to produce a series of posts on key issues emerging within conservation and applied ecology. Over the coming few weeks, we will be sharing ‘On the horizon’ commentaries on the future of conservation and management related to climate change, deforestation, plastics and more.

To start the series, Bill Sutherland and Nancy Ockendon offer an insight into their latest horizon scan article and how this project has developed.  

As the organisers of the most recent horizon scanning exercise, we are delighted that the outcomes of our tenth exercise to identify of emerging conservation issues has recently been published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution

We (well, Bill to be exact) remember being in Andrew Watkinson’s office in The Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia when Andrew mentioned the term ‘horizon scanning’ for the first time. At that point, Bill had also recently been struck by the announcement of a programme for the introduction of biofuels by President George Bush in the 2006 State of the Union address, which was followed by similar policy measures of the European Union. The potential environmental costs of these decisions had not been discussed by conservationists, and only became apparent much later. This was an issue for which it seemed we were truly unprepared as a community, yet it also seemed possible that we could have foreseen its emergence if we had been looking for it at the time.

The issue of plastic waste in our oceans is one we’re all becoming increasingly familiar with.

This haunting idea led to the first horizon scan of global conservation issues in 2009, with the aim of identifying nascent issues that could affect the future of biodiversity. The topics identified in this first scan included microplastic pollution, the use of mobile sensing technology and synthetic meat. We hear you say we did well on that first occasion! Being evidence-led, we however recently attempted to formally assess the success of this first horizon scan by examining the trajectory of the topics identified a decade ago.. This revealed that almost all the issues identified in 2009 have since increased in importance (it seems a few more people have now heard of microplastics and mobile phones), although some, such as changes in denitrifying bacteria, have not.

Over the last decade, our horizon scans have become a bit of a tradition, and we are pleased to report that our approaches has since been adopted and applied to a wide range of other ecological areas, ranging from control of invasive species and Antarctic research to biological engineering. The exercise does make for a really interesting and enjoyable, if intense day. We have always strived to make the process rigorous, democratic and enjoyable, and unsurprisingly it has evolved somewhat over time. For example, we have introduced measures to reduce bias, such as using the median, rather than mean, scores when calculating the rank for each topic. One ongoing challenge is to maximise the diversity of expertise and experience of participants, and their wider networks that contribute to the exercise. If you have a suggestion for people who encounter new developments and would be good members, please drop us a line! So far, we have particularly struggled to find people who have a good grasp of the wide range of new technologies.

Bill et al. have found it helpful to focus on specific issues, such as invasive lionfish

A question we are frequently asked is ‘What makes a good issue?’. Novelty is, of course, extremely important, balanced against a realistic chance that the issue will materialise into an issue with significant impacts. Based on our ten years of experience, we find that the most successful issues are often those that are specific e.g. invasive lionfish colonising the Atlantic, rather than vague or general questions that many people are likely to have heard of,and are difficult to respond to.

Since its inception, our annual conservation horizon scan has been funded by The Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) and the RSPB and we are grateful for their continued support with minimal administration. Our total annual budget is £9,000 and we often spend less, so for about £60,000 NERC has had 10 papers in TREE, as well as some additional related papers (such as the recently completed review), collaboration with a wide community, and policy-relevant work that contributes to their strategic planning. It has been said that this could be the most effective NERC funding ever, a view many of our participants would happily share.

Our horizon scans wouldn’t exist, and wouldn’t have had so much impact, without the support of all those who have contributed to the exercise over the last ten years, both as participants and by suggesting ideas. We thank them all. As organisers, we hope this tenth edition will be seen as a valuable contribution by the conservation community and help shape research agendas around the world.

A Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation in 2019 is available to read in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Read more from our ‘On the horizon’ series here:

Climate change and the capacity of Antarctic benthos to store carbon by Nathalie Pettorelli

Deforestation expansion of plantations and infrastructure threaten Indo-Malay island species by Nafeesa Esmail and Alice Hughes

Options for cultivating rice as climate changes and salinity increases by Erica Fleishman

Plastic alternatives – the ecological impact is not always clear by Becky LeAnstey

Mercury rising by Colleen Seymour

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