Investing in research can boost nature conservation and save public money

A recently published study shows that investing in research (e.g. a doctoral dissertation) can significantly increase the impact of conservation actions and contribute to save public money.

Environmental conservation is becoming increasingly important. However, the field is plagued by a lack of knowledge as to which actions are most cost effective in solving a problem and which are of poor value, or even a complete waste of money. Consequently, decision makers often are not in the position to make the best decisions that could result in the highest benefits for nature and of the best value for taxpayers or other funders. There is a strong need to provide decision makers with the scientific evidence in relation to which actions work best in conservation, and how much they cost.

A large amount of money, often tax-payers money, are channelled towards solving human-caused environmental problems every year. A range of different tools and actions are used in order to solve conservation problems. Some of these actions are successful and some fail, some of them are very cheap and some are more expensive.

However, few scientific studies have been done on the impact of conservation actions and their relative costs. This means that selecting the most effective conservation measures relative to their costs is currently very difficult. This uncertainty heavily constrains the benefits that limited available resources could generate to nature conservation.

Investing in researching the impact of different conservation measures would allow making better use of the scarce resources available. The newly gathered scientific evidence may not only convince investors of the positive impact of their support, but also boost the commitment of researchers and volunteers to perpetrate environmental work.

 “You might think that the financial resources for conservation should be directed towards implementing measures on the ground, not towards additional research. However, our work proves that research can make the use of environmental funding significantly more effective” says researcher Andrea Santangeli from the Finnish Museum of Natural History, an independent institute of the University of Helsinki.

Impact of a doctoral dissertation

Andrea Santangeli, together with his colleague Professor Bill Sutherland from University of Cambridge, studied whether the financial investment in a doctoral degree could generate environmental benefits and allow reducing the costs of conservation practice. They used three research projects included in Santangeli’s dissertation as their research material. Two of the projects sought to boost the production of young Montagu’s harriers, which nest in agricultural fields in France and Spain, while one tried to protect the nests of Finnish White-tailed sea eagles. Santangeli’s dissertation focused specifically on the impact of conservation measures.

In their recent publication, the researchers compared the financial efficiency between the status quo and an ideal case when the results of the dissertation were widely applied by conservation managers. They calculated how much money would be needed to reach a common nature conservation goal if environmental work were to continue as before, or if resources were allocated according to the recommendations in the dissertation.

The results were astounding. The calculated profit of an individual dissertation was hundreds of thousands of euros over the span of ten years, representing a return on the initial investment of around 300 percentage.

Santangeli and his colleague believe that such an incredible outcome may not be restricted to this dissertation only. They list several similar dissertations on the topic that also had a considerable impact for improving the efficiency of conservation.

Engaging students to help nature

 “There is an immense number of doctoral dissertations and Master's theses in ecology and biology completed every year. If we could focus even a small fraction of this research on studying the impact of conservation measures, it would greatly improve the practice of conservation and reduce unnecessary waste of resources,” Santangeli explains.

Increasing the number of dissertations could also create a positive feedback loop whereby an increasing number of students would engage in conservation biology studies and perhaps continue in the field after graduation.

Andrea Santangeli PhD
Postdoctoral Researcher
The Helsinki Lab of Ornithology
Finnish Museum of Natural History
University of Helsinki