Sunday, November 2, 2008

Interview with Philip Platts, Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher, University of York, UK

Philip is currently studying for a Ph.D. at the York Institute for Tropical Ecosystem Dynamics (KITE). With a background in ecological mathematics, his research is now focused on the understanding of the spatial patterns of forest dynamics in the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania and Kenya.

Relevance of biogeography to conservation

Antje Ahrends. Do you think that biogeography has important implications for conservation in practice? Do you agree with Whittaker et al. 2005 (Conservation Biogeography: assessment and prospect. Diversity and Distributions 11: 3-23) that conservation biogeography should be regarded and consolidated as a sub-discipline of conservation science?
Philip Platts. An understanding of biogeography and spatial processes in general is fundamental for effective conservation. As a mathematician by training, I am fortunate to work alongside ecologists, geneticists and economists, as well as those involved in advising on policy. I think that collaboration across disciplines is the way forward, rather than debating the headings under which specific lines of research would best be placed.

Do you read conservation journals, or otherwise receive information on new developments in conservation practice/policy?
PP. My core reading is generally of modelling techniques and applications, though the thread of citations lands me amidst the conservation literature from time to time. When discussing the implications of my modelling work for conservation I read more widely and seek the advice of those with backgrounds in conservation.

AA. Do you think that biogeographers should contribute to conservation in practice, or should research be entirely free of political agendas? Does your research help conservation in practice? Which stakeholder groups are benefiting from your research, and how do you communicate your findings?
PP. I think most would agree that the life sciences should be focussed solely on furthering our understanding of the natural world, without getting caught up in political whims. In practice though, I suspect that research funding and thus publications are to some extent influenced by political trends. At KITE we work in collaboration with East African institutions, and believe that the advancement of African science itself will pay dividends for effective conservation management in the region. We discuss our research with Tanzanian stakeholders, and present our findings both locally in Tanzania, and internationally via journals and conferences.

The general practicality of incorporating new biogeographic findings in conservation work

AA. It is still uncertain to which degree predictive species models are applicable at a local scale. Also, there are necessarily a lot of uncertainties associated with the predictions at all scales. Do you think that the results of these models should nevertheless be communicated to conservation practitioners and potentially influence management decisions? Is there a risk that the validity of these models is over-estimated?
PP. There is a risk, yes. Models, by definition, are not perfect representations of reality, but rather tools for investigating specific aspects of a system. It is up to scientists to communicate their findings clearly and objectively in the literature, but it is the responsibility of conservation practitioners to utilise the clues that models provide responsibly and with the appropriate degree of caution.
AA. Implementing conservation strategies is partly reliant on the support of the public and decision makers. The communication of uncertainty or conflicting messages can be difficult. Do you feel that this aspect of conservation hampers the integration of newer research findings? Do you generally perceive a gap between biogeography science and conservation policy?
PP. I don’t know whether or not this hampers the integration of new research. It shouldn’t. The way in which uncertainty and ongoing scientific debate ought to be communicated for political and/or conservational ends is not something I feel qualified to comment on.

AA. Conservation planning needs long-term strategies. Do you perceive a gap between the comparatively rapid development and sophistication of tools such as species distribution models in science and their acceptance in the conservation world?
PP. Probably there is, yes, though I think it’s debatable whether or not this should be considered a bad thing. Techniques for estimating species distributions are developing quickly, and receive their fair share of criticism (and praise). One the one hand, the lag between scientific advances and their acceptance in conservation allows time for their validity to be challenged and defended – an important process that ultimately increases their worth. On the other, conservationists and policymakers must utilise all the knowledge and resources at their disposal if the world’s ecosystems are to be properly conserved and managed.
Model design requires an idea of how the underlying processes function, empirical and experimental data, and of course the guidance of experts in the relevant fields. Criticising simple distribution models for, say, omitting community interactions is sort of missing the point in my view: just because a model can’t tell us everything, that’s not to say it can’t tell us anything.

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