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Reflections of an ecologist on regional bias in biodiversity and conservation research

by Nathalie Jreidini

The Fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO5) was recently released during a series of virtual sessions in preparation for the UN Biodiversity Summit in late September 2020. The GBOs serve as a global summary assessment of the progress achieved towards the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. Among the several points the GBO5 tackles, one thing was made clear: countries are failing to carry out the goals set by the strategic plan, consequently failing to halt declines in the natural world resulting from damage, destruction and loss of habitats and wildlife. The countries are set to agree on new targets for 2030 – but what has to change in the next decade in order to actually achieve new goals?

During an internship at the United Nations Secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity last fall, I spent my days reviewing and evaluating National Reports – these constitute summaries of nations’ progress towards Biodiversity Targets. With these targets, also known as the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets expiry date around the corner, my work involved assisting in the design of post-2020 targets and my National Reports evaluations aided in the creation of GBO5.

I don’t intend on going into detail about the internship itself (although I highly recommend interning at the UN CBD!), but rather shed light on a fundamental issue that I noticed while going through 100+ National Reports: most countries’ governments have very limited information, if any, pertaining to their nations’ flora and fauna and consequently the state of their national biodiversity.

Now this shouldn’t have been shocking news to me – I grew up in a third world country where little to no ecological or environmental research takes place, and where environmental causes are not just the last item on governments’ agendas (as it tends to be, even in some first world countries) but rather do not even make the cut. Somehow, I hadn’t truly realized how global this issue was. No wonder countries are failing to achieve biodiversity targets – evaluation through ecological research is a necessary first step in order to consequently take the appropriate actions.

I know what you must be thinking: we can’t blame certain countries for tending to other pressing national matters, which often use up all available resources, before attempting to manage biodiversity issues. Research in underrepresented countries can, however, be carried out by foreign researchers when the country’s own infrastructure (the way their Ministries of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment are run, for example) does not facilitate research by its own institutions. The issue that arises then is that, often (but not always) when North American researchers conduct studies abroad, they publish their findings in their own countries, and the nations where the study actually took place either lack access to that information or simply do not know that it exists. As a result, a National Report submitted by the country in question to the UN for review would not be a correct representation of all the research that has been carried out in that country – research that could itself be beneficial in assessing the nation’s biodiversity and taking the appropriate actions.

The distorted map above illustrates what the world would look like if continents were scaled based on the number of scientific publications (across all STEM fields) issued from each country. The Northern hemisphere produces more scientific articles, in general, while little to no research is conducted in the global south (apart from Australia). Though scientific publications in journals are not the only representation of research output, it is the metric most widely used to measure “the amount of science” taking place in a country. In addition, it is unclear whether the map above takes population size into consideration, but the message it conveys remains a prominent one.

Looking at studies related to conservation biology specifically, the second map (below) classifies the number of national and subnational research articles per country based on where the study area itself was located. The US, UK and Australia accounted for 40% of articles published in the past 3 decades relating to biodiversity and conservation. However, Di Marco et al. (2017) found that some typically under-represented countries, such as China and Brazil, show a rise in the number of studies conducted in the past 3 decades. Though this is promising, there is still an alarming proportion of countries that receive less research attention (especially countries on the African continent), consequently impeding their ability to even begin carrying out global biodiversity targets and goals.

Di Marco, M., Chapman, S., Althor, G., Kearney, S., Besancon, C., Butt, N., … & Watson, J. E. (2017). Changing trends and persisting biases in three decades of conservation science. Global Ecology and Conservation, 10, 32-42.

Are we, as ecologists and conservation biologists, to blame for this bias in research location? Is it due to a lack of funding, or are we incapable of even getting permission to access certain sites? Could it be that so little is already known about some areas that we wouldn’t even know where to start? Should we change our motives for conducting research to begin with? Is it realistic to ask certain nations to allocate more funds towards biodiversity-related studies and assessments? The way I see it, research in the fields of ecology, conservation and biodiversity is a privilege. We cannot expect all countries to carry out the same type or amount of studies – should we then favor collaborations with underrepresented regions?

Despite the fact that this article does not really present a solution to this problem, I hope that I have convinced you to be mindful of where studies were conducted when reading scientific publications. Bottom line is, ecological research is biased towards certain regions as it is a privilege that is out of reach for certain countries, especially those experiencing high political turmoil. This, in turn, impacts nations’ abilities to take the correct actions related to improving the state of their biodiversity – you can’t fix something when you don’t know what’s broken. And so, will nations really be able to achieve more in regards to biodiversity in the next decade?

I realize that even as scientists with the correct training and resources, it is easier said than done to travel abroad and simply evaluate the state of other nations’ biodiversity. I left my home country at 17 in order to become an ecologist here in Quebec. I like to believe that ‘I never looked back’, but that’s not entirely true. The thought of going back equipped with skills acquired through my education abroad has definitely come to mind several times. Alas, it’s not that simple… 

Nathalie Jreidini is currently a PhD student in the Green lab at McGill University Biology Department & Redpath Museum. Her research pertains to population dynamics and movement ecology, for which she is studying the dispersal patterns of an endangered amphibian. She aims to pursue a career as a quantitative biologist where she can address large-scale questions relating to biodiversity.

Post date: September 18, 2020


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