Experience from the United Kingdom. Interview with Andrew Pullin

Environmental management is often based on opinions or traditions, more rarely on the most reliable scientific evidence, says Andrew Pullin. Different interests simply seek out the research that suits their business best. “We get policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy”.

Methodology for health care is applied to environmental management

In 2007, Andrew Pullin became the world’s first professor in evidence-based environmental management, i.e. environmental management based on scientific evidence. His research career began with studies of how butterflies are affected by an increasingly fragmented landscape. Today he devotes a lot of his time to prevent fragmentation, albeit in a slightly different way.

Andrew Pullin. Photo: Denny Lorentzen

Andrew Pullin. Photo: Denny Lorentzen

After realizing how rarely environment protection organisations use research, Andrew started the Centre for Evidence-Based Conservation, CEBC, in Birmingham ten years ago. Later, he moved to Bangor University in Wales and developed a methodology that has long been used in health care. Within the framework of systematic reviews, thousands of scientific articles are now being gathered, analysed, quality-assessed and compiled to form the foundation for decision-making for the authority or organisation that commissioned the review.

– Some research is published in reputable journals, other results are not published at all, and many scientific articles are read by only a few. Awareness-raising activities are haphazard and not necessarily based on what is important. We create fragments of information. We may think we know what the scientific evidence tells us, when we do not really have an overview at all, Andrew Pullin says.

Environmental management is a broad and large research area. Yet, the gap between what science says and what actually reaches the public and decision-makers can be large.

So far, CEBC has conducted some fifty environmental reviews. Some of them have created strong controversy, for instance when environment protection organisations wanted to ban heather burning. British landowners have for more than a hundred years engaged in burning of heather to optimise the number of grouse. Grouse hunting is a lucrative business with a turnover of millions, but the conservation movement argued that heather burning reduces biodiversity. CEBC’s review showed that there is no conclusive evidence for that standpoint.

– It surprises many how much substandard evidence is coming forward, and how difficult it is to predict the effect of an action. The environmental movement has been smug, and has often proposed measures without evidence of their effectiveness. They need to wake up.

A successful review does not avoid sensitive topics

Controversy is likely to be part of the everyday life of CEBC, but for Andrew Pullin, a successful systematic review is not one that avoids sensitive topics, but one conducted in a proper manner. He speaks warmly of syntheses as the best way to provide politicians and authorities with a basis for environmental decision-making. A synthesis of his own conclusions would read roughly like this:
– Without a comprehensive overview of the most reliable scientific knowledge, we risk a trench war between interest groups that make use of the research that supports their particular cause. Without an overview the deadlock persists. You never really solve anything.

There are clear examples. Fisheries policy is characterised by locked positions, the “entrenched views” he is talking about. On one side are environmentalists who advocate marine sanctuaries and reduced fishing pressure. The fishermen, on the other hand, are convinced that the current catch volumes do not harm the fish stocks. Both groups advocate vigorously for their cause. CEBC is currently reviewing the effectiveness of marine reserves. Can sanctuaries protect fish stocks and biodiversity? It depends, Andrew Pullin says, and he stresses that what is interesting is what factors it depends on.
– Which marine reserves will be better and more effective than others? We hope to get a better possibility to predict that.

Biggest success so far – international cooperation

Future challenges are about spreading the knowledge of systematic reviews. A fundamental requirement of scientific studies is that they have to be repeatable. One must be able to see exactly how they have been conducted. Systematic reviews report every step of the review process and can therefore be pretty dull reading.

– We have to find better ways to reach out with our results. It becomes problematic if we try to compress the conclusions into entertaining messages. Complex things are not always easy to express.

So after ten years, what is the biggest success? That we have established the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence, CEE, he quickly responds. CEE started in 2007 as an international network linked to CEBC in Bangor, its goals including global communication of existing reviews. CEE also develops new guidelines for systematic reviews. Two centres similar to the one in Bangor are now established; one in South Africa and one in Australia.

– Getting a whole new generation of researchers who can conduct systematic reviews will make a big difference. It will give us a more effective environmental management.