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Decision Theory in Conservation Biology, from Systematic Conservation Planning to Scenario-Based policy assessments

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Conservation practitioners are constantly faced with hard choices about what to do, where and when, in order to minimize biodiversity loss. Decision-theory can aid this process by formalizing the problem mathematically. Using decision theory, one can specify the sub-models governing the system (e.g. land use change, population dynamics), the decision variables (e.g. what we can do to prevent biodiversity loss), state variables (e.g. the biodiversity value of an area), the costs and constraints of each action, and, most importantly, the objectives to meet (e.g. protecting at least 20% of each species’ range). At the fine scale (e.g. that of landscapes or small catchments) it is possible to construct a model of the system and optimize the problem to maximize benefits for biodiversity. This is the domain of Systematic Conservation Planning where spatially explicit options for conservation are compared to select the optimal combinations of actions required to reach a set of objectives. At broad scales (e.g. continental or global) the coupled social-ecological systems are far more complex, less understood and heterogeneous (e.g., governance is not contiguous). Therefore, the uncertainty in models and parameters of global systems is such that optimization makes little sense. Scenarios are a useful tool in these circumstances of high uncertainty because they explore the implications of different plausible futures and improve our understanding of the system. Each scenario can be represented as a different set of assumptions about how the system might evolve. For example, global socio-economic scenarios are defined by assumptions regarding future human population growth, per capita consumption, energy use, etc. The conservation implications of different socio-economic and conservation policies can be assessed by estimating projected declines in native vegetation cover, or number of species predicted to go extinct in response to changes in socio-economic parameters.

In this talk I will describe how I have applied Systematic Conservation Planning and Scenario-Based conservation to investigate different conservation problems at a variety of scales (from local to global) and to provide theoretical and practical advancement to the field of biodiversity conservation. I will also talk about my current research interests and future directions that are highly relevant to CEES and the broader Cambridge conservation community.

This talk is part of the Microsoft Research Cambridge, public talks series.

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