Podcast: Professor Bill Sutherland | Cambridge University

In this episode of the Conservation Careers Podcast, Nick Askew talks to Professor Bill Sutherland – Miriam Rothschild Chair of Conservation Biology, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge and Founder of Conservation Evidence. Bill is proposing a ‘revolution in conservation practice’, and we talk today about his drive to develop a sound evidence base for conservation. Doing more of what is proven to work, and less of what isn’t. Bill also shares his thoughts on the ways to progress an academic career, along with practical advice on how to apply for PhDs (and jobs), and which mistakes to avoid.

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Audio Transcript

NICK: Welcome to the Conservation Careers podcast, Professor Bill Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology in the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge. It’s really great to have you on the podcast today so thanks for carving out some time to speak to us. Maybe we can start at the beginning, if it’s ok, and just explore where your passion for nature and ecology. Can you remember a person or a special moment or a place where you really connected first with the natural world?

BILL: Well the earliest memory I have is in the park next to my primary school, where there was this peculiar bird that I didn’t know what it was, I’d heard that my brother had a bit of an interest in birds and I looked it up in his book and it was a swan goose. And I don’t think I’d ever seen a swan goose illustrated in a book but there it was and I thought, well that’s kind of cool, you can see birds, you can look them up in books and you can identify them. I thought that was kind of neat. And from then I just became more interested and more obsessed in natural history and then somehow landed in this career.

NICK: What steps did you take in your career? Obviously you’re at university, you’re an academic professor now; where did you go from those early childhood days that have led you to where you are? What were the key moments when you replay it all back?

BILL: So I took some of the standard academic route, did an undergraduate degree, did a PhD, did a number of post-docs, moved around in a number of places. I actually was mainly an ecologist and animal behaviourist and I used to do conservation in my spare time sort of as a hobby, so I used to be involved in nature conservation sites and movements and I cared a lot about nature conservation but I didn’t actually do it as a living. For my academic career I did modelling of populations, I was understanding animal behaviour, and then increasingly I started bringing in the conservation side and then it just became a larger and larger slice, and now that’s pretty well all I do.

NICK: When you look at the work you’ve done so far, which bits are you most proud of? Which bits stand out to you as key moments in what you’ve managed to uncover or to study or to achieve?

BILL: I’ve done bits of theory and I’ve produced three equations in my life that are just fantastically exciting when you produce an equation, and you think well now I understand something about the world. There is a real excitement in science and discovering things, and the purity of doing that theoretically is a joy that I can’t, I think most people can’t understand, you know, outside the academic world. But finding out something that nobody else knows is just wonderfully exciting. But as well as that I’ve been more involved in science and policy and it’s interesting to get more involved in that world and see people start to adopt your ideas and take things up, that’s all very exciting.

NICK: A lot of scientists feel they spend a huge amount of time on their research and publishing their results, and then worry a little bit that the results maybe sit on a dusty library shelf or don’t create the impact that they would like, that their results aren’t used. Is that something that you’ve felt in your career to date and is it something you’ve tried to address?

BILL: Well initially as I said there was this more theoretical side. I just wanted to do the normal theoretical career, the scientific career and just sort of get people to adopt my ideas and get use from my ideas. I think to me one of the big changing points was I decided to edit a book on managing habitats through conservation, and I did also see some articles I read in British Wildlife about managing habitats, I thought it would be good to bring all that together so I got a group of authors to provide their advice as to how you manage different habitats.

And the thing that really struck me was that they would say, this is what you should do, and I didn’t know what the basis of that was. What’s the basis, there was a solid body of scientific information, which they haven’t given but is actually there, or there’s one or two references they might have given. Or was it that there was a single paper, was it something they’d observed, or is it just an idea they’d had? And you can’t really tell. And that is true for most conservation practice, people say ‘this is the truth’ and you don’t know whether or not they’ve just invented it or whether or not it’s based on the great body of scientific information.

And that struck me as being really peculiar. I used to work at the University of East Anglia and I was on a very boring university committee to look at the future of science which wasn’t going very far. But a colleague of mine who was interested in medicine mentioned this idea of evidence-based medicine and this was in the 1990s so this was before, it was an up-and-coming idea which I’d never heard of and I then read about. And that struck me, the idea of testing ideas, collecting the information and seeing what works, it’s a really powerful thing to do. So putting those two together meant that I became quite committed to telling other people what seems to work and not from science.

NICK: Right, and is that where the seed of the idea for Conservation Evidence came from?

BILL: Yep. It was from those two elements; it was from realising there was a problem, and the other thing that struck me was as someone who was interested in conservation practice, you would learn lots of things from people but most of it wasn’t written down, you would just pick up lots of hints and advice and you’d be chatting to people and you’d learn things, and you’d gradually accumulate this information and become more and more expert, but you couldn’t actually put your finger on what the basis of this information was.

People would say, this is the way you do things, and then you tell other people, this is the way you do something, but without really knowing where it came from. And that struck me as very peculiar.

NICK: So the practice isn’t being captured anywhere, it’s almost like culturally transmitted from person to person and through that it might change and evolve and become more or less accurate.

BILL: Yeah, and it might be based on a great body of information, it might just be based on someone saying, this is what I think and then that becomes the norm. And we know that since that there are lots of examples of practices that just don’t work.

NICK: Like what?

BILL: Well planting of mangroves is a very popular thing to do, it makes great footage, great publicity, planting mangroves where there are no mangroves is a good thing to do, and we must have spent hundreds of millions of pounds in planting mangroves in places where mangroves just aren’t going to grow, and they just die. So I’m not saying it never works, there are places where it does work, but if you just pick and you pick the wrong species of mangrove and you put it in somewhere that it isn’t going to survive and it doesn’t.

NICK: So for people that don’t know much about Conservation Evidence, it’s largely a website that provides the evidence for practitioners and policy makers, is that right? How would you describe it to people that haven’t come across it yet?

BILL: So we’ve got this brilliant idea. The brilliant idea is that we should do more of the things that work and less of the things that don’t work.

NICK: (laughter) Mind blowing!

BILL: Indeed, and if that happened that would revolutionise the world. And the practitioners and policy makers very often don’t look at the evidence before they decide what to do. And when we started off that was partly because it was quite hard to collect the evidence, we’re now making it much easier, and the internet makes it much easier.

A lot of the problem we believe is what we call evidence complacency, that people think they know what the answer is and so they don’t bother checking it up. So we’re trying to search the global evidence in a range of different languages, we’ve shown that 35% of biodiversity literature is not in English so it’s really important to search other languages as well.

So we’re searching that literature and then collating it to say, for these different things you want to do, this is what the evidence base is and then you can look at that and decide whether or not you think it’s going to work or not for you. We’ve done 1700 reviews of different actions and we’ve got another 1000 in the pipeline.

NICK: Where do you prioritise your work, if you can’t obviously do everything straightaway do you focus on the highest priorities first or are you working through A-Z? What ordering are you doing for things?

BILL: It’s partly a bit opportunistic, according to funding opportunities and what we think is important. But we pick off big topics, and that’s the heart of the way in which we do it rather than take topics one at a time, we’ll pick off something like bird conservation or peatland conservation or forest conservation.

List all the different things you can do, list all the threats, all the problems, list all the solutions to those problems and then we’ve been searching the literature and we then put the papers under the different possible solutions and then review those. So it’s a way of collating evidence on an industrial scale.

NICK: Yeah, indeed. And have you uncovered anything surprising through the work so far?

BILL: It’s surprising how little evidence there is for a lot of things. It’s also surprising how mixed the evidence is. So for almost everything, when you put it together, it works under some circumstances but not under others and we think that that’s key to the future of this, is for you to be able to look and see where the different studies come from and then decide what’s most appropriate to you.

So in medicine, it isn’t strictly true and medics would dispute this a bit but basically people are the same. So if there was a study of a drug to treat something and there have been some studies in Argentina and Australia and the Philippines, you’d treat those as sort of pretty well equivalent studies. And you’d say well if it works there, I’m pretty sure it’ll work for me.

But if there’s a conservation practice that had happened in those countries, you would treat them more sceptically because they’re different communities, different specifies and a study in Britain you’d treat a lot more seriously because the local conditions really matter. And so we’re really interested in how you can pull together all of that information to decide what works for you. And that’s what we think you have to do.

NICK: Right, ok. What should a conservationist do who’s, I mean it’s a bit of a no brainer, you follow the evidence to show what works and don’t do what doesn’t work but what if there isn’t much evidence available? What if the conservationist is tackling a problem, a species or a habitat or communities declining rapidly and something needs to happen, but for some reason there isn’t any scientific context or studies to inform the activities, what would you advise conservationists to do in that particular instance?

BILL: So pull together what information there is on similar species, on similar problems, work out what’s likely to work and then make your best judgement. You always have to make your best judgement on imperfect information. And then ideally, if it’s something really important, try and test it. If you can, try and run a test on one element of that and see whether or not it is effective or not.

NICK: Well it sounds like a really fantastic resource, conservationists and practitioners should be taking more notice of it if they’re not already, but I’d like to just cycle back a little bit if I can to your beginning, your career and your job actually right now, there’s a lot of people in academia, a lot of people going through degrees and masters and PhDs and post-docs and so on and so forth. But there’s not that many people that have the level that you have, if you like. What’s it like to be a university professor? What are your duties, day in day out? Can you paint a typical day or week, or perhaps there isn’t one, I don’t know?

BILL: I think I’m fantastically lucky to have landed up here, and there is a lot of luck in it, I think. And it is, I’m just staggered that I’m paid to do what I do, you know, I just have this lovely enjoyable life and I enjoy talking to people, I enjoy being with students, I enjoy the different elements of the job, I enjoy thinking about problems.

And increasingly we’re involved in policy and practice, talking to practitioners and policy-makers about how things could work. So it’s just hugely enjoyable and stimulating. So my day, I spend a lot of time just talking to people about a whole range of different problems, different issues and thinking things through.

NICK: Are there any downsides to your role or is it just all happiness and bliss?

BILL: I tend to work too hard, as lots of academics do. I think partly if things are fun to do, and so you take on more responsibilities than you should.

NICK: Yeah, so the lines between work and life can often blur, I guess, when your work is your passion.

BILL: Yeah.

NICK: What are the secrets, do you think, to a successful academic career? If there’s someone looking to kind of follow in your footsteps and to stay in academia and to achieve as much as they can in terms of impact through their career, what do you think are the kind of core elements that people should focus on?

BILL: So the obvious ones about do good science and publish that good science, etc. I think for… so my experience for conservationists, when I’m looking for someone at the beginning of their career, I want someone that shows they’re a conservationist. So someone that’s applying to me as a PhD student, it depends what their background is. If they’re a theoretician, and quite often I just want a good theoretician.

But for many other areas I’d like them to have some experience of the outside world, and to be able to show that actually they are naturalists or that they’ve done things. And so, I think going outside, learning how to identify things, particularly learning how to identify groups other than birds, which is what I started off doing, but if you can identify plants or something, that makes you a lot more employable. So being able to identify a diversity of things.

Also gaining some experience, going and seeing lots of science, learning about conservation, hands-on conservation in different places, that’s good. And the other things that I think is quite good is to get involved in organising things. So, I’ve organised things and made lots of mistakes in doing so. And it’s kind of good to make small-scale mistakes, you know – if you run the Bird Club, as I did, and you make a hash of various things, as I did, it’s not the end of the world. And you learn a lot. So by organising and doing things, and getting some things right and some things wrong, you gain from that experience. So I’d encourage people to get involved in running things, even quite small activities, because you then learn a lot and it gives you the confidence in order that you can run other things. And I guess the other thing I do is I very much look for opportunities so I’m very open to new ideas, perhaps some people would say too much so and also I jump around a bit more but if an idea I find is interesting, I’m very happy to run with it and develop it and explore it. And I think that’s often a good thing to do.

NICK: Are you happy to receive idea suggestions from potential PhD students? If someone comes to you and says, I’ve got this great idea, I’d love to do this, would you be supportive of that or would you prefer, as an academic, to be designing your own PhDs, finding the funding and then finding the student later? Is it a two-way flow or is it one rather than the other?

BILL: No it’s very… so sometimes people just want to do something, and then you’ll say, well do I want to do this? And sometimes I do. I’ve taken on many students on that basis. Sometimes students say, I’m interested in doing a PhD and here’s one possibility. And that’s a good way of showing that you can think, showing that you’ve got good ideas and I might write back and say, well I’m not interested in this but I like the way you think, how about doing this? And you then have that negotiation.

NICK: Right, great, yeah.

BILL: So in terms of writing, I get quite a lot of letters from people wanting to do PhDs and a lot of them I think are pretty unsatisfactory so I think the way to think about it is it’s a pitch. So it’s a pitch in which you say, this briefly is me, I know that you do this, I’m interested in this so we could do something together. And that really is sort of the key structure. So make it clear how your interests combine with the interests of the person you’re writing to.

NICK: And what are the biggest mistakes that people make when they write to you? Is there any things that you see again and again which people just need to address?

BILL: So sometimes, it sounds slightly egotistical but if I get something that says, dear sir, I’m very interested in your research, can I do a PhD? That won’t go very far. You have to sort of show… write it to the individual, show that you know that this is not the standard letter that you’ve written to a hundred people. It might be that you’ve written a hundred of these letters but you really want to tailor it to each person individually. Make it clear you understand what that person does and how your interests fit into what they might do.

Always put in a CV, you can say, I can send a CV if you want, and then you think well I’m then going to get into this discussion and I’m a busy person. You really want everything there so you can look at them, say this is what they’re interested in, this is what they’ve done, I think this is one of the small number I’m going to take forward or not. And you want to do it in one go.

NICK: I see, yeah. Any suggestions on length? We’re talking cover letters, really, essentially here which is great advice for also any job application beyond a PhD but are you an advocate of keep it to one side, are you happy to see longer letters?

BILL: Normally, a short letter or email equivalent to one side or less often does, because you just say, here’s the idea. This is what I’m interested in. So if it’s pages… unless there’s a really… if you’re planning to go work somewhere that is politically complicated and technically complicated you might want to give that explanation to show that it’s feasible but normally you’re just explaining a broad idea, so keep it short.

NICK: Yeah, great advice. And good advice, as I say, for job applications as much as academic PhD application too. I would like to just start to kind of wrap up the interview, if I may, by just asking you some more broad conservation questions to see how you think and what’s important to you as well. So for the first one I’d like to ask, if you could change one thing that would make a huge impact on the planet, and that could be the environment or however you wish, what would you like it to be? If you could flick a switch or enable or new law or legislation or whatever it might be, what would you seek to tackle?

BILL: I guess if we costed the environment in all decision-making, that would be a game changer. And if I’m allowed two, if we viewed whether or not something worked in all decision-making, that would be another game changer.

NICK: In all decision-making, so beyond environment, just any laws, any…

BILL: Crime, education, everything across the board. This is a… so medicine has this pretty well sorted out. I can’t think of another area that does. Almost everything else… agriculture perhaps has it reasonably well sorted out. Almost all other areas where we do an awful lot of guesswork.

NICK: And how would you convince the Donald Trumps of this world that biodiversity is important?

BILL: I think when he can see that they’d had an impact on him and that there are nature-based solutions to the sorts of issues that he really cares about, that environmental change, that global change is making a real difference. When you can see it in his golf course – his golf course, they were at a wind farm outside, so something for environmentalists to push, but he was viewing an environmental change, a change in the view as being detrimental to the value of that golf course. And so when he can see that part of the attractiveness of that golf course and of places where people live is nature, that he might value it a bit more.

NICK: And actually financially value it, which is kind of coming back to your earlier comment about actually valuing nature, yeah, indeed.

BILL: Part of the value of those golf courses is they’re in super attractive places, utterly destroyed in essence by doing so, but in attractive places and that’s one of the reasons why people want to stay there and play golf there, is because there’s great nature there.

NICK: Yeah, so it needs conserving, yeah. Final question then, do you have a role model, and that could be within conservation, ecology or wider, is there someone that you’ve looked up to through your career and has inspired you?

BILL: We’re in the David Attenborough building and this is kind of corny because he’s everyone’s role model. His knowledge and passion and his ability to enthuse anyone is just breath-taking. He’s just a complete inspiration. I have seen him talking to a whole range of different people from vice chancellors to builders and he treats them all with complete respect and equality and they all love him, as they should, because he’s fantastic.

NICK: Yeah, he’s a huge inspiration to, well, thousands of conservationists and everyday people.

BILL: Indeed, and I tell you a remarkable thing. If you watch Life on Earth or any of his major series, they’re really technical. They are explaining… so Life on Earth explains the major evolutionary advances. Technical issues, the sort of things that you teach in undergraduate degrees. And he makes that prime time television. That is remarkable. He explains, he takes hard-core science and makes the public interested in it. And that is remarkable.

NICK: Yeah, makes it totally accessible. Absolutely irreplaceable. Bill Sutherland, thank you so much for finding the time to talk today, it’s been really fun getting to know you, hearing your career’s story. If people wanted to find out a little bit more about you or Conservation Evidence where should they go?

BILL: Well Conservation Evidence is ConservationEvidence.com and I’ve got a website, not a very good website actually (laughter), I guess a good bit of advice is to have a website and one that’s better than mine! And I’m always very happy for people to get in touch if they’ve got work that they want to do.

NICK: Fabulous, great. Well thanks once again, great to chat Bill.

BILL: Good to chat to you, thanks for an interesting chat. Bye!

Conservation Leaders, Podcast