Decision making matters: career advice from multi-award winning conservationist Hugh Possingham
In a world run by politicised decision-making, how can conservation compete?
Decision science runs the world – from manufacturing to the military, from transport to economics. And according to multi-award-winning ecologist Professor Hugh Possingham, conservation decision-making is also the best way to solve environmental problems.
“Conservation is an applied science; it’s all about helping people take actions,” explains Possingham, a University of Queensland Professor and Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions.
“You only make something happen because you change policy or somebody takes an action on the ground. And the science of choosing between actions is decision science.”
With limited time and resources to work with, decision ‘science’ – which is just a logical quantitative approach to solving problems – should be at the core of solving planetary problems. But its transparent approach runs contrary to most political decision-making.
If a government has money to build new hospitals, Possingham says, a decision scientist would list all the possible options to choose from. “But a politician doesn’t go to every town and announce, “We’re not giving you a hospital because we’re putting it somewhere else,” he explains. “All they do is say, “We’re building three new hospitals.” And then we get suspicious because we find that politicians seem to spend a lot of money on hospitals in electorates that voted them in.”
Just as for hospitals and healthcare, the best conservation decisions are transparent ones. Whether a government agency selects sites for marine reserves or an NGO chooses between restoring a small endangered ecosystem in Australia versus purchasing a large conservation concession in the Amazon, transparent decision making means listing all possible choices and justifying the result based on costs, benefits and feasibilities.
Backwards into biology
Possingham’s career in conservation started with a bang and a bulldozer. When a farmer cleared his favourite bird-watching spot, which he’d visited since age 12, the permanency of that act hit home.
“When somebody takes out 50 hectares that had 200 species of plants and a whole heap of birds, you realise that’s an irreversible act,” says Possingham. “It’s like taking the Mona Lisa and burning her and then somebody says, “Well we can repaint it.” It’s never going to be quite the same.”
But rather than directly pursue ecology, Possingham studied maths and biochemistry at The University of Adelaide (where the most inspiring professors were). It turned out to be a clever combination.
Of the three main arms of applied ecology – pest management, harvesting and conservation (or as Possingham puts it, “killing things you don’t like, killing things you do like, and trying to stop things dying that you like”) – conservation is the last area to embrace decision science.
Possingham thinks this is because most people that care about saving biodiversity are not trained in maths and struggle with the predictive models and economic thinking needed to assess the benefits of conservation decisions.
To help fill this gap, Possingham co-developed the spatial conservation planning software Marxan, a decision-support tool for designing reserve systems, developing multiple use zoning plans and reporting on their performance.
His lab has also developed a simple approach to prioritising threatened species funding based on cost-effectiveness that has been used by governments and NGOs in New Zealand, Australia and beyond.
His work has helped slow land clearing rates in Queensland, Australia, an issue Possingham continues to advocate against. Meanwhile Marxan has been used in more than 150 countries to expand their marine or terrestrial park systems – including informing the network of reserves in the Amazon, The Nature Conservancy’s ecoregional assessments and rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef.
Making a difference
For anyone who wants to help nature and have impact, Possingham’s first piece of advice is to not study biology – or at least not study solely biology.
Instead he recommends building up a broad skill base of things that you are interested in. “You’ve got from the age of 12 to 30 or later to gather skills. Use your undergraduate, master’s and PhD to gather as many skills as possible – whether those are quantitative, computational, writing or communications skills.”
For example, Possingham discovered that the debating skills he picked up during university helped him immensely because he could organise an argument quickly.
To get engaged with decision-making, Possingham suggests starting with an issue that’s important to you and gaining experience with an organisation such as a local, national or global NGO. “That’s where you learn a lot, all the way from how they use science and information, to how they lobby, how they move the public to do things.”
Possingham spends most of his time providing guidance to people and groups who want to make a difference through conservation.
“I’m passionate about conservation, and that makes me passionate about education. Whether it’s trying to educate a federal environment minister, the people who read the newspaper, NGOs or my students, it’s all about dialogue, values and how to do things better.”