Conservation funding is finite and needs to be allocated optimally, but that won’t happen until the conservation community improves upon a spotty past record for defining measurable goals, evaluating outcomes and sharing their unvarnished results – good or bad – with all those concerned about biodiversity conservation.

That’s the message of an editorial in the June issue of Conservation Biology, written by seven faculty members of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences and the Duke Center for Environmental Solutions.

Kathryn A. Saterson, executive director of the Duke Center for Environmental Solutions and a research scientist at the Nicholas School is lead author. Her co-authors are Norman L. Christensen, professor of ecology; Robert B. Jackson, professor of environmental sciences and biology; Randall A. Kramer, professor of resource and environmental economics; Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology; Martin D. Smith, assistant professor of environmental economics; and Jonathan B. Wiener, professor of law and professor of environmental policy.

“Our collective efforts to convince all sectors of society of the value of sustaining biodiversity depends on our ability to measure and articulate clearly the consequences of conservation decisions and actions,” the faculty members write. “To achieve this, two important issues require attention.”

First, they argue, conservationists must do a better job of evaluating and monitoring the impacts and costs of their work, with special attention paid to providing more empirical, site-specific information that will allow comparisons of the relative effectiveness of their conservation approach versus others. Failure to do this makes it difficult to assess which approach or approaches make optimal use of available funding and resources. It also puts the conservation community at risk of repeating mistakes and missing chances to replicate successes.

For example, claims that past approaches such as community-based conservation have been ineffective and that new approaches, such as direct payments, will be more effective are difficult to assess, Saterson and her co-authors say, because neither approach has been fully evaluated.

Second, and equally important, there must be stronger links between groups conducting specific conservation initiatives and groups monitoring global biodiversity. The editorial’s authors cite effective coordination between conservation and monitoring activities as a key factor in the comeback of the western Pacific gray whale, and in preserving habitats from deforestation in Costa Rica. In contrast, lack of coordination between conservation and monitoring activities has handicapped efforts to protect China's dwindling giant panda population.

Saterson believes that the challenge of measuring the biological, social and economic costs and benefits of various conservation approaches can be facilitated by partnerships between academia, conservation organizations, government, the private sector and other institutions. She is working to design a research partnership that attempts to help meet the needs identified in the editorial.