Scientific activities

bioSUSTAINABILITY (Core Project 3)

Issue 3 of the DIVERSITAS newsletter is featuring the bioSUSTAINABILITY project.


Dr. Steve Polasky
Department of Applied Economics
University of Minnesota
337E Classroom Office Buiding
1994 Buford Avenue
Saint Paul, MN 55108, USA
Tel: + 1 612 625 9213
Fax: + 1 612 625 2729

Prof. David Raffaelli
Environment Department
University of York
Heslington, YO10 5DD, United Kingdom
Tel: + 44 1904 434060
Fax: + 44 1904 432998


Dr. Alison Holt
Science Secretariat for DIVERSITAS CP3
bioSUSTAINABILITY (Core Project 3)
Environment Department
University of York
York YO10 5DD, United Kingdom
Tel: + 44 1904 434789

The judicious use of biodiversity is essential both for the maintenance of our life-support system and for the sustainable development of our world's resources. The primary driver of changes in biodiversity is human activity. Effective solutions for the sustainable management of biodiversity therefore lay in understanding how individuals and societies value that biodiversity, especially those who own and use living resources and the biogeochemical systems on which they depend. Many of the present international conventions and directives, national policies and local regulatory tools have not resulted in the sustainable management of biodiversity because they do not recognise and deal with the underlying motivations of individuals and governments (see, e.g., the global failure of marine fisheries policies). Adressing the causes and consequences of biodiversity loss requires good basic and applied science, together with their integration with the social sciences.

There has been considerable progress in understanding the more proximate mechanisms generating biodiversity changes, such as land-use changes, habitat fragmentation, pollution, invasive species (Core Project 1), as well as the effects of such changes on ecosystem processes, goods and services (Core Project 2). Incorporating such information into strategies that provide incentives for the sustainable use of biodiversity requires the integration of the natural sciences with political science, sociology and economics. Establishing such an interdisciplinary community of like-minded researchers is a primary aim of DIVERSITAS under Core Project 3. The task will be challenging and will most likely require the establishment of new methodologies to occupy the vacant ground between the traditional sciences. This core project will seek advice from and collaboration with IHDP.


Core Project 3 has two foci:








Focus 3.1. Evaluation of the effectiveness of conservation measures and incentives for achieving the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity

This focus has two objectives. The first is concerned with the scientific evaluation of the effectiveness of existing conservation measures. The second identifies the socio-economic causes of the failure or success of conservation measures.

3.1.1. Effectiveness of current conservation measures and regulations
Measures to conserve biodiversity in natural and managed sytems have been in place for some time, but they clearly vary in their effectiveness. At present, there is little scientific analysis of the effectiveness of such measures from which to draw lessons. Whilst there is a plethora of claims concerning the virtues of particular policy types, such claims need to be subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation.

This project will:

  • analyse international, national, local and non-governmental biodiversity conservation measures and associated policies in managed and unmanaged landscapes;
  • identify existing databases on resource and indicator species relevant to those policies to evaluate their success in achieving their stated aims;
  • develop comparative analyses of biodiversity measures and policies to establish their effectiveness in different socio-economic contexts and on different spatial and temporal scales.

3.1.2. Biodiversity changes: Social, political and economic motivators
If current strategies have undesirable but unanticipated consequences for biodiversity, we need to understand why. Focus 3.1.1 will identify measures and policies that have failed or succeeded in the past. This focus will review the socio-economic causes of failure, and the possible ways in which these causes might be addressed. Interdisciplinary teams of researchers from the ecological, social and economic sciences are neeeded to clarify which causes are most important under different conditions.

The project will:

  • identify the effects of individual and social preferences; of culture, tradition and spiritual values; of property rights, legal and regulatory measures; of local, federal, and international environmental policies and agreements; of incentive effects of local and global market conditions and economic policies on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
  • identify local, national and international governance and market structures that promote the conservation of biodiversity on the appropriate temporal and spatial scales;
  • identify the nature of property rights, including intellectual property rights, that support biodiversity conservation.
  • foster research into novel economic and regulatory instruments to promote sustainable biodiversity use;
  • research the ways in which local biodiversity conservation efforts that yield global benefits may be encouraged.








Focus 3.2. Establishing scientific approaches for optimising multiple uses of biodiversity, considering possible trade-offs between economic and environmental goals, and the uncertainty associated with novel developments

Societies make choices regarding land management, such as the conversion of a natural system to a production system, or the incremental changes in a production regime, which have impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services. These impacts are often not taken into account, and the trade-offs between the production of market commodities and ecosystem services are not assessed. This may be because the scientific information on which to assess alternatives is lacking. It may also be because decison-makers lack incentives to take the effects of biodiversity loss into account.

This focus will develop the science required to optimise multiple uses of biodiversity, including the production of goods for the market, the provision of ecological goods and services, and the recreational/cultural value of scenic areas and native species. Modelling the sustainable use of biodiversity in this way could facilitate adaptive management plans that respond to changing economic and ecological factors.

The focus has two objectives. One is to identify the economic consequences of biodiversity change in particular systems of landscapes, to evaluate the trade-offs involved in alternative strategies, and to identify the scope for biodiversity enhancement. A second is to develop the scientific basis of precautionary decision-making, and to apply this in specific cases.

3.2.1. Optimising multiple uses of biodiversity
It is important to develop studies for the optimal use of biodiversity in agricultural landscapes, forests, rangeland and fisheries, as well as in animal production systems (e.g., chicken, pigs, aquaculture). There are currently few such studies, and all take a very restrictive view of biodiversity. `

The project will:

  • foster research into the economic consequences of biodiversity changes due to new technology and other human activities;
  • promote studies of the vulnerability of managed systems and the ecological, economic, and institutional regulation and political measures required to prevent such systems from reaching critical thresholds;
  • develop crosscutting networks for agricultural and forestry goods and services which will consider trade-offs between economic and environmental goals.

3.2.2. Establishing the scientific bases for applying the precautionary principle
The precautionary principle holds that if the costs of current activities are uncertain but potentially both high and irreversible, society should take action before the uncertainty is resolved. It has been widely adopted, but its application has been largely ad hoc. There is little agreement on what a precautionary decison or a precautionary approach involves. The approach needs to be made more precise and placed on a rigorous scientific footing if it is to be used operationally. One basic concern is the nature of the biological and ecological tests required to implement the principle. The scientific community needs to provide guidelines about what information is needed to apply the principle, when care needs to be exercised (e.g., identify situations where nonlinearities in biodiversity change make the precautionary principle particularly important) and when ingnoring caution leads to biodiversity change. A major objective of this project is the identification of the precautionary tools required to objectively and rigorously apply the principle in different contexts.

The project will:

  • foster research on the existence of biodiversity-related thresholds in natural and managed ecosystems;
  • identify the critical thresholds, if they exist, that need to be avoided with the aid of the precautionary measures;
  • promote development of protocols for precautionary action in the face of novel activities involving potentially irreversible costs;
  • foster research into measures and instruments to support precautionary decision making;
  • illustrate the application of precautionary approaches using, for example, the cases evaluated under 3.2.1








Future Foci

In addition to these two foci, DIVERSITAS will be interested, in the future, in developing under Core Project 3 particular aspects of conservation and restoration strategies related to biodiversity. Conservation and restoration ecology are relatively young fields that are central to the mission of DIVERSITAS.

In conservation ecology, many new approaches have proved useful, especially research on metapopulation dynamics, reserve design, and the use of DNA markers to understand processes like migration, colonisation, founder effects, inbreeding, and hybridisation. Further studies along these lines will be extremely useful for managers and decision makers.

In the field of restoration ecology, many efforts focus on regaining basic ecosystem services such as erosion control and improved water quality, but this may or may not entail restoring or at least improving biological diversity. For example, restored or artificial wetlands often have low biodiversity. Given the importance of biodiversity to many human endeavours, further research is needed to understand how various restoration methods affect biodiversity. A future DIVERSITAS project could encourage research on the methods and economics of restoring biodiversity in various habitats and regions.









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