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B324: Determining the biases and consistency in the evidence for conservation biology (Lead Supervisor: William Sutherland, Zoology)

Supervisors: William Sutherland (Zoology) and Tatsuya Amano (Centre for the Study of Existential Risk)

Importance of the area of research:

There have been increasing calls for the collation and use of evidence following the success of evidence-based medicine.  The medical model usually assumes that patients are similar and so all studies are combined and assumed to have equal relevance.  Conservation practitioners, however, are typically confronted with a confusing mix of studies differing in species, habitat and location with some more similar than other to the conditions the practitioner is considering. Furthermore there is often a range in responses across studies with often some showing beneficial responses while others are ineffective or detrimental. There is thus a need to analyse the sources of variability in order to interpret the science.

The dream is to have an automated process that states the likely effectiveness and the quality of the evidence for a given problem in a given location. This will be a major step towards such a process.

Project summary:

This project will provide new means of assessing published evidence, which will have implications across conservation and other policy fields. It will take advantage of the massive database compiled from our extensive (and continuing) search extracting research papers that test interventions. The output is expected to be a series of analyses examining questions relating to the variability in ecological responses to conservation interventions and testing means of dealing with this noise. Practitioners routinely make decisions without any formal analysis so this project aims to determine the rules they use and how that compares with the responses suggested by the analyses.

What the student will do:

Through we have collated and summarised 4,500 papers on the responses to conservation interventions and have a catalogue of 7,000 further papers. The task will be to extract effect sizes of the response to various interventions from these papers along with data on location, taxa, experimental design, sample size etc. Then carry out a series of analyses examining the causes for consistency and variation across studies. As examples - can we weight studies according to the quality of the experimental design (e.g. are well replicated randomised controlled experiments more likely to give consistent results than other designs?)? Are some treatments (e.g. treatment of invasive plants) more globally repeatable than others (e.g. social interventions)? Is the variation in response greater than it is in medicine? What are the geographic features (closeness, latitude, biome etc.) that give consistent results? We also aim to determine how practitioners actually deal with confusing conflicting information.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Amano, T., Lamming, J. & Sutherland, W.J. 2016. Spatial gaps in global biodiversity information and the role of citizen science.BioScience66:393–400. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biw022.

Sutherland, W.J., Dicks, L.V., Ockendon, N. & Smith, R.K. (Eds.) 2015. What Works in Conservation. Open Book Publishers: Cambridge, UK. http://dx.doi. org/10.11647/OBP.0060

Walsh, J.C., Dicks, L.V. & Sutherland, W.J. 2015. The effect of scientific evidence on conservation practitioners’ management decisions. Conservation Biology 29: 88–98. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12370.

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project



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