“Good intentions” and the need for evidence-based intervention

The introduction of evidence-based interventions in human medicine is one of the great success stories of the last millenium. There has been a massive increase in the quality of life over the past 100 years, due in a large part to better healthcare.

The basis for these advances is evidence-based medicine: the use of scientific principles to improve the success of management interventions over time.

The modern medical approach is relatively recent. In 1796 a bloke called Edward Jenner conducted what was, at the time, a very daring intervention. He took the pus from a milkmaid infected with cowpox, and injected it into an 8 year old boy. This child was then injected with smallpox, which at that stage had a 50% mortality rate and caused disfigurement of survivors. The “vaccination” was successful and the child did not develop the disease.

Jenner had a theory about vaccination, which he demonstrated effectively through this experiment.

This daring management intervention provided two important pieces of information:

  • That vaccination was viable,
  • That audacious intervention strategies can provide information that significantly improves future management strategies.

This second piece of information was critical to the success of modern medicine. The key concept is to design trials that test hypotheses, to inform future strategies for effective care of a complex system which is undergoing some disorder of structure or function. It works for medicine and it must be adopted by environmental managers. 

It could be argued that many who consider themselves “modern environmentalists” are equivalent to 18th century “doctors”. Medical interventions at this stage were generally based on good intentions. This included bloodletting,  yoghurt enemas and dosing with radium “to invigorate patients”.  Some current environmental practices will turn out to be just as disastrous/hilarious as these historical medical practices.

The thing is, until we test for efficacy, we cannot determine which environmental interventions are equivalent to vaccination and which are equivalent to bloodletting.

Good intentions are not sufficient if there is not a robust system for testing the efficacy of the management interventions. Conservation science must learn the critical lesson from modern medical science: interventions must be designed to test hypotheses, and not be based on good intentions.

Unfortunately, biodiversity continues to decline at an alarming rate despite the expenditure of considerable resources. Species extinctions continue, and often the cause is unclearSometimes the causes are understood, however there is no robust testing of different intervention strategies.

A recent review authored by Fenner researchers found it was exceedingly rare that publications on environmental and biodiversity management incorporated active management approaches. This means that most environmental managers are not adapting their strategies to take into account the outcomes of past interventions.

It is not acceptable to continue with well-intentioned management strategies that do not result in effective care of the environment. Conservation science needs to learn the 200-year-old lesson from medical science. Resources must be spent on good experimental design, monitoring for effectiveness, and dissemination of the resulting knowledge, and must not be wasted on good intentions and poor outcomes.

Further thoughts

The comparison with medicine obscures some important challenges for biodiversity monitoring. One major issues is the sheer scale and diversity present across each continent and ecological region. Existing information systems are fragmented (see further reading below) and high-level organisation will be needed to establish standards and categories for data. Existing research tools such as meta analysis will need to be integrated into this higher level organisation. Cataloguing the current health of ecosystems is similar in scope to the human genome project, and will require a similar level of resources and research intensity.

However, unlike medicine, conservation science can be practised by normal people, not just white-coated lab nerds. Successful biodiversity monitoring will inevitably embrace motivated volunteers, supported by social networks. Researchers are aware of these issues and continue to seek solutions.

The advance of technology has provided amazing tools to a fortunate group of people (if you are spending time reading this blog through an electronic device then you are in this group!). We must utilise the incredible opportunities to harness technological advancements. Nearly everyone we know carries a portable hand-held computer, which incorporates a GPS, camera and data transfer capabilities. These are the perfect tools to begin cataloguing biodiversity, and with some organisation, monitoring the effects of audacious management strategies, in order to improve future conservation decisions.

Author: Ed Cram

More info

Lindenmeyer and Gibbons (2012) Biodiversity Monitoring in Australia (Book

Examples of existing information systems:

Landsat satellite imagery

Australian Soil Resource Information System ASRIS

Flora of Australia Online

National Vegetation Information System NVIS

Atlas of Living Australia ALA

About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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2 Responses to “Good intentions” and the need for evidence-based intervention

  1. I was drawn to this post because of the title and talk of good intentions and evidence-based intervention. There is an issue right now in Ob/Gyn medicine that not many people are aware of that calls this question to the forefront.

    To summarize: diagnostic ultrasound is one of the most proliferate Ob/Gyn tools for fetal scanning. A grand majority of the mothers in the modern industrialized world receive ultrasounds during pregnancy. Yet, this is performed without sufficient evidence to attest its safety. The good intentions of the practitioners in helping see the baby are not based on evidence that it is safe.

    There are a slew of problems in data collection (sonographers do not record how much ultrasound they use) and so epidemiology cannot be performed effectively. Desperate to publish on the subject, some groups attest safety based on fallacious arguments and a lack of evidence..

    In actuality, there is clear evidence that ultrasound can cause a slew of changes to development. It is used in agriculture because it affects plant growth, used in microbiology because it affects bacterial growth, and in physical therapy because it affects human tissue growth. It is only logical that it affects fetal growth, but as to how needs to be further studied.

    So, that’s my rant… Good post. 🙂

  2. Lots of very thought provoking ideas in this blog. As we discussed today, finding reliable, simple and responsive indicators of biodiversity that can be used to evaluate conservation actions has been elusive.

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