Turning Science into Action and Crafting a Career that Works for You
An Interview with Dr Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at BirdLife International
In this conversation with Dr Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at BirdLife International, we talk about his fascinating career driving forward the conservation of birds and their habitats. Dr Butchart shares a wealth of advice for other conservationists with disabilities, and for anyone wishing to build a career in conservation science.
What inspired you to work in conservation?
I enjoyed travelling but was struck by the devastation of natural habitats. The first experience I had of conservation fieldwork was in the Atlantic forest in Paraguay, where 98% of the forest cover has been lost and what remains are isolated patches.
I remember reaching the forest edge after spending days deep in forest and looking out over a sea of devastation. The surrounding land had been clear-felled, with only a few isolated stumps and tree-trunks remaining. They looked like skeletons in an isolated landscape of arid pastureland, which grazing by cattle had left bereft of all its biodiversity.
It really illustrated the damage that we are doing to the planet and the impact we are having on nature.
What key steps have you taken to build your conservation career?
I did a degree, a PhD and a postdoc. My academic background was not related to conservation directly – I worked on behavioural ecology.
However, during my undergraduate years, I hooked up with a bunch of other friends who were into birds and wildlife, and we organised expeditions to undertake biodiversity surveys in a number of developing countries, raising funds from charities and foundations, and working with counterparts in local institutions.
Create opportunities to explore your strengths and skills!
These were opportunities to get fieldwork experience and direct exposure to the challenges of conservation in developing countries. Those experiences, combined with my scientific training, gave me the skills and experiences that got me my first conservation job, which was working at BirdLife to undertake IUCN Red List assessments of extinction risk for the world’s birds.
Once arriving at BirdLife, I worked my way up through a variety of different roles, learning what my strengths were, playing to them and trying to shape my job in ways I felt I could most effectively contribute.
What are the main activities and responsibilities in your current role?
Emails and meetings! Broadly, my role as Chief Scientist is to head up the science team in our Global Secretariat. We undertake the data gathering, research and priority setting that underpins the conservation programmes of the 100+ national nature conservation organisations that comprise the BirdLife Partnership.
The areas we focus on range from identifying the most important sites for nature, to assessing climate change impacts on biodiversity, prioritising islands for eradicating invasive species, assessing the benefits that nature provides to people, and developing biodiversity metrics as indicators of sustainable development. My job includes:
- Providing strategic oversight and input to guide the work we do
- Building and developing collaborations and partnerships, and initiating new relationships with other organisations or individuals
- Leading or (more typically) contributing to research and publication of papers
- Using our science to inform policy engagement
- Keeping an eye on the horizon for emerging threats and novel opportunities
- Engaging with the media to communicate our work
- Recruiting and managing a team
- Raising funds and overseeing budgets
What’s it like being a scientist within a non-governmental organisation (NGO) partnership (vs an educational institution or governmental department)?
In academia, the primary driver is publishing papers. Within an NGO, the drivers are very different: ultimately, we’re trying to deliver conservation. Science is seen as one of the core pillars and underpinning foundations of our work at Birdlife. But even so, the effort we place on publishing our science in the peer-reviewed literature is to a degree self-driven; we are more immediately judged on whether we’re supporting the delivery of conservation. So, trying to marry those two things is often a challenge.
“Ultimately, we’re trying to deliver conservation”
We’re very resource-constrained because there’s a lot of project delivery as well. We try to create projects and craft budgets that allow some of the resources and time to be spent doing the underpinning science.
The other challenge we have is trying to manage long-term programmes through short-term project funding. We’ve got long-running initiatives to identify the most important sites for biodiversity and support their conservation, and to understand the extinction risk of the world’s birds. It’s very difficult to raise money for that kind of cause directly, so we have to fund this work through projects which involve some component of identifying important places or vulnerable species. So, there’s always a challenge of maintaining long-running datasets and analyses through small-scale projects.
Being in an NGO partnership, do you feel like you have a more direct impact on conservation than if you were still in a university?
Definitely, yes. Being based in an NGO, you’re much closer to the ‘coal face’ of conservation, and therefore there are more opportunities to see your science influence both action on the ground and policy. We work very closely with our policy colleagues to understand what the policy opportunities are and what science is needed to inform them. We can then undertake that science and provide the results to our colleagues, who carry out advocacy to influence policy.
“In an NGO, you’re much closer to the ‘coal face’ of conservation”
Nevertheless, academia plays a really important role in the wider conservation movement. Some applied conservation work builds off science that appeared more fundamental and less directly useful when it was carried out.
What challenges have you faced during your career? And how do you overcome these challenges?
I guess I should start out by saying I feel incredibly lucky in that I seem to have had more opportunities than hurdles, and I feel lucky to have started my conservation career when I did.
“I’ve been able to craft a career in which my need to use a wheelchair hasn’t held me back”
For me, a big challenge was getting a spinal injury when I was 29. I got shot when I walked into an ambush by bandits when birding on holiday in Guatemala. It was a life-changing experience, as you can imagine, but I guess I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to craft a career in which that injury and my need to use a wheelchair hasn’t held me back.
I no longer undertake fieldwork for extended periods of time in remote places in the tropics, but it is quite likely that this transition would have happened anyway, as people often tend to become more involved in management and desk-based as they progress to more senior positions in this type of career. I partly yearn for the days of going off and doing extended fieldwork, but you can potentially achieve much more – albeit indirectly – if you’re willing to give up some of that.
“Go with your gut instinct”
I think that people can often look back on a career and it seems to have been a logical progression, but at the time there’s a lot of luck involved. It’s really difficult to know what the consequences of a particular decision (such as applying for one job versus another) will be for you five, ten or twenty years down the line. You just have to go with your gut instinct in these things and hope that things will work out for the best, as they often seem to.
What advice would you give to other people with disabilities who are hoping to enter the conservation sector? Are there any resources or organisations that have helped you?
I guess it sounds a bit trite, but I’d say ‘know no limits’: assume that there is nothing you can’t do, one way or another. It could take considerable hard work and persistence, and there may be lots of challenges on the way, but I’d advise people to be creative and persistent – stick at it.
“There are other people out there like you”
In terms of resources, there are lots of great charities out there that provide a range of services and ways of supporting people, including careers advice in some cases. I think they tend to be tailored to particular disabilities, and the web is the first place to look to find out what is available.
It helps to know that there are other people out there like you, whatever your situation is, and you can get a huge benefit from sharing experiences and learning from others. When I was recovering in hospital from my injury, I had a wonderful email from someone who told me about two other people working in conservation who were wheelchair users, one of whom lived and worked in a developing country.
That was really heartening to hear because you’ve no idea how a change in your life like that may pose challenges for different careers and different sorts of work. Knowing that other people had overcome similar challenges was really encouraging.
What advice would you give anyone wishing to follow your footsteps into conservation science?
Get the best scientific qualifications that you can, alongside some practical experience. We’re always looking for people who have got the scientific knowledge and skills but also have experience of the challenges for particular issues, from conservation action on the ground around the world or political processes at the policy interface.
“Be persistent and you’ll be successful eventually”
Unfortunately, getting such experience often requires volunteering, internships or short-term contracts, which can be really tough – both economically and psychologically – but be persistent and you’ll be successful eventually.
The most important thing I’ve taken away from my conversation with Dr Butchart is the power in taking charge of your career, making the most of your unique strengths and making your career work for you.
If you would like some guidance in this, check out the Support section of the Conservation Careers website and our free resources to learn more about what we can offer.
You can read more about Dr Butchart’s work in his uplifting article for the RSPB, ‘Birds Provide Reasons for Hope’, and this Independent article.
Author Profile | Jenna Woodford
Jenna is a freelance writer, poet and natural sciences graduate. Wildlife and conservation are at the heart of their work, and they aim to make nature more accessible through their writing.