Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 1.30.30 pmI am a Biologist and am currently doing my PhD at the University of Melbourne in the marine spatial ecology and conservation lab. In my project, I try to assess how people make decisions for conservation in the published literature: which species are planned for, at what locations, with what type of management? Was the decision checked for its robustness? Are decision-makers open for different alternative actions or are they trying to optimise on an already chosen path? How complex are the decisions that are described in the literature? Do people use quantitative or qualitative methods to prioritise the options? Are social or economic objectives included?

To illustrate how quickly complexity can build up in a decision process, here an example:

If you imagine the problem of how to improve the situation for a threatened bird species, you might decide the best way forward is to plan a protected area, you just have to find out where to put it. You might look into the distribution of the bird and the number of animals across the landscape, choose the area where there are the most, and you are done.

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Seems straight forward…But what if you would choose a different data set? Would you still choose the same area?

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Or what if you think it is a better idea to place the protected area where there is the least amount of cats that would hunt the bird.

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Maybe an alternative action to a protected area, such as restoration of habitat, might benefit the bird more. Which area would you chose for that? And what if you not only care about the bird, but also about other species? Very quickly, your possible options multiply to a garden of forking paths…and this by only considering your alternative options for objectives, actions, metrics and data.

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When people come together to talk and plan, additional types of uncertainty play a role, such a cognitive biases and group dynamic effects. Framing, anchoring and dominance (to name just a few of these phenomenons) are well-studied effects that can influence people in groups in ways that are counterproductive.

I am curious to find out how decision makers deal with these complexities, and if they check how robust their decision are to changes during the process.

In order to find out, I am currently trawling through about a thousand papers that describe decision-making processes for conservation management, and keep track of the different descriptive factors. The aim is to produce an overview of decision-making approaches from the last decade, together with a database of all examples: which species are planned for, at what locations, with what type of management, and was the decision checked for its robustness? I hope I can soon show you some results.

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