Research frontiers: commonalities between Land Cover Change and Conservation Science Research

After attending part of this year’s NASA Land Cover and Land Use Change (LCLUC) meeting, I was struck by the synergies between the needs of that particular community and that of conservation scientists. Many of the same “big questions” and data needs that conservation researchers are currently grappling with emerged clearly from the dialogue. Here is a short synthesis of common themes between the current work of the LCLUC program and the work of conservation researchers and practitioners.

  1.  Both conservation and LCLUC communities are exploring big questions: how effective are conservation interventions? In what contexts? What works, where, and why? To address this, researchers are examining a diverse suite of interventions, including eco-certifications (Forest Stewardship Council forests) and protected areas. Little rigorous evidence to answer these questions exist. The call to mainstream impact evaluation has emerged from conservation-focused economists and has been gaining traction among researchers from many disciplines including ecology, anthropology, and geography.
  2. There is a need to understand mechanisms (through what causal pathway does a treatment affect the outcome) and feedbacks (what influence does the state of the outcome have on selection of the treatment?) The world is a lot more complicated than a simple line from input to output. For instance, how would you parameterize this diagram?

Theoretical linkages between the drivers and consequences of climate change. Source:

Even thinking through the possible “boxes and arrows” to include can help conceptualize the problem and create valuable theory.

3. The conference revealed a clear embrace of a more holistic worldview, including interdisciplinarity and the integration of both local and global drivers that affect land use change (and also biodiversity and ecosystem services).

4. Both communities have expressed the need for a better understanding of land cover and biodiversity data over time. Many land cover maps are static and categorical, with the exception of some newer datasets showing annual forest cover change. Without repeated observations of land cover and other conservation-relevant landscape features, there will be no way to detect to what extent landscapes are changing and measure the effect of human actions (e.g. conservation and development policies) on land cover or ecosystem services.

Global Forest Watch hosts data on annual forest loss and gain.

Global Forest Watch hosts data on annual forest loss and gain.

6. Science should be made as relevant as possible for decision-makers. Scientists are not funded to advocate directly, but data should be ready to solve complex problems about food security, poverty, and biodiversity loss. This priority is reflected by research groups, including SESYNC , which encourages “actionable” science catered to solving real problems.

7. There is a clear orientation of the research community toward global goals and priorities including the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. It is likely that these global agreements will drive priorities in the next 10 or 20 years to come.

I expect that many of these data needs, questions, and priorities are reflected across disciplines in the natural and social sciences. Have you noticed similar trends in your discipline? Comment below!

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