Dr. Thomas Brooks Interview
14 December 2012 | Article
We pose three questions to Tom Brooks, IUCN's new Head – Science and Knowledge Management, in the Global Policy and Programme Group (PPG).
1. What is your vision for the future of science and learning in IUCN?
That’s a big question to start off with! – and indeed, my distinguished predecessors Jeff McNeely and Sue Mainka brought very broad visions to the role. It might be useful to start with a couple of words on what the vision is not: specifically, in my view, it is not one of individual research projects or programmes. These are crucially important, of course, but are the role of the IUCN members, commissions and their supporting thematic programmes. With this distinction in mind, I’d like to emphasize three themes which I think are the most critical for science and knowledge in IUCN.
Above all, I see the development, scientific standards, integration, and sustainability of IUCN’s central “knowledge products” as essential. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has been IUCN’s flagship product for many decades. The union has half-a-dozen other such “knowledge products” in existence (World Database on Protected Areas, EcoLex, Invasive Species Data Base), under development (Key Biodiversity Areas, Red List of Ecosystems), and in concept (Human Dependency on Nature Index, Natural Resource Governance Framework). The maintenance of these “knowledge products” plays well to our strong suites of scientific excellence through the commissions, legitimacy through the membership, and convening power through the secretariat. I see supporting these standards, and making their data available through platforms such as the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool, as absolutely crucial to IUCN’s continued success.
Two other thoughts. Over the last few years, a veritable alphabet soup of new science-based and biodiversity-focused institutions and programmes has emerged. These all have potentially valuable, complementary roles to play, but there seems to be a perpetual tendency for such new initiatives to reinvent the wheel and duplicate existing work, rather than focusing on filling the gaps. Staying abreast of such initiatives, and supporting them in the identification of important empty niches, is a key role for IUCN science, and one for which we can powerfully leverage the breadth of our commissions and membership. Finally, I’d like to see attention paid to strengthening what we might call the “culture of science” in IUCN and in conservation generally. This requires developing incentives to support scientific outputs – peer-reviewed publications and presentations – and tracking the volume, uptake, and impact of our science. It also requires strengthening the union’s connections with universities, and developing mechanisms which support scientific capacity-building (e.g., internships, scholarships, literature access, etc).
That should keep us busy!
2. Given your past experience working with business and biodiversity, what do you view as the most pressing information gaps that business requires from conservation science?
I’d group the conservation science information gaps faced by business into three categories: maintaining data and data standards; improving analysis; and developing novel concepts.
Superficially, maintaining data doesn’t sound like a gap. However, this is in fact likely the most severe shortfall – biodiversity conservation related data are by nature dynamic due to changes in both knowledge and status (as new species are discovered, or, awful to say, become extinct; new protected areas are established; and so on). Without rigorous systems to maintain data currency, this dynamism represents a major liability for business users – a shifting baseline of being held to account with data from time t+1 against plans developed using data from time t. The work of BirdLife International in comprehensive revision of the IUCN Red List for all bird species every four years might be the gold standard for maintaining conservation data currency. Moreover, maintenance and improvement of data is only possible if strong, consensus data standards are in place, and so the processes to consolidate those “knowledge products” currently under development or in concept are also filling important gaps in this light. The emerging Key Biodiversity Area standard is a good example, building from and adding value to existing products (e.g., Important Bird Areas, Alliance for Zero Extinction, etc) to provide datasets critical to business in avoidance and minimisation of impacts on biodiversity.
The maintenance of rigorous conservation data in turn enables improved analyses to address specific biodiversity-related challenges facing business. Some such analyses are wholly possible through the integration of the IUCN “knowledge products” (e.g., how well do plans developed using data for vertebrates and plants serve as surrogates for invertebrate biodiversity?). Others link these with additional data from beyond biodiversity (e.g., how should the potential impacts of climate change be factored into application of the mitigation hierarchy?). Still more link these data with experimentation on the ground (e.g., under what circumstances do different restoration tactics for a particular ecosystem work?).
Additionally, there are a number of “unknown unknowns” – areas where the concepts underpinning private sector interaction with biodiversity conservation science have themselves not yet been developed. One example is that of “biodiversity banking” through the establishment of aggregated offsets in advance of business activities detrimental to biodiversity, stimulated by the strong new safeguard policies established by the financial sector (like the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standard 6). These have the potential to address the challenges of permanence and cumulative impacts which face typical restoration and offset projects, while also providing economies of scale. However, much scientific research, hand-in-hand with testing on the ground, will be necessary to bring such concepts into operation.
3. How can business further contribute to the science of biodiversity conservation?
Well, this is a pertinent question, with the November 2012 Deepwater Horizon settlement of $2.4bn to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to support restoration and conservation in the Gulf of Mexico representing the largest funding to a single environmental programme in history. Clearly, upfront investment in the science of biodiversity conservation, with respect to both environmental impacts and their mitigation, represents a huge bargain in avoiding such disasters, and hence the need for such massive settlements, in the future. And there’s a lot going on already – other sectors have much to learn from the innovative conservation science being driven and supported by businesses.
I’ll highlight four specific examples here.
First, I think that business can make substantial contributions simply by sharing data, for example the results of environmental impact assessments and of certification processes, and on ecosystem service measurements (e.g., hydrology, forestry, fisheries). The UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Center has been pioneering mechanisms to support such data-sharing. A second valuable avenue is through in-kind contributions to conservation science. The efforts of some of the technology companies such as Microsoft and ESRI in supporting the IUCN “knowledge products” are noteworthy in this light. Third, those companies, like Rio Tinto, who are getting ahead of the regulatory curve through making voluntary commitments to have a “Net Positive Impact” on biodiversity (or at least to incur “No Net Loss”) are making great contributions by stimulating the science necessary to implement – and to assess – their applications of the mitigation hierarchy. Finally, it’s important to remember that businesses can make important philanthropic contributions to conservation science: the two decades of support from BP to the Conservation Leadership Programme, for instance, is a stand-out example.
The IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju provided a powerful showcase for improved support from business for biodiversity conservation issues. I was impressed with the depth and quality of interactions with the private sector during Forum events, where there were many more positive engagements compared to past congresses where their interactions were less prominent. This “shift” towards greater participation of business as a major stakeholder in biodiversity conservation can be contributed to many things including encouragement from IUCN Members as well as shifts in financial institutions toward improved safeguard policies.
Thomas Brooks joins IUCN from NatureServe where he was Vice President for Science and Chief Scientist. He previously held biodiversity science positions in The Nature Conservancy and in Conservation International, as well as visiting appointments at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in the University of the Philippines Los Baños and in the Department of Geography of the University of Tasmania. His field experience is primarily from tropical forest hotspots: in Kenya, Paraguay, and Indonesia and the Philippines.
Tom is an ornithologist by training, with a B.A. (Hons) in Geography from the University of Cambridge (1993) and a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Tennessee (1998). He served on the Executive Committee of the BP Conservation Leadership Programme (2002–2010), and the co-chair of the IUCN-Rio Tinto Net Positive Impact Protocol & Review Panel Team (2010–2012). He has a long-standing involvement with IUCN, and has served as co-chair of its joint taskforce on ‘Biodiversity and Protected Areas’ since 2009, the Steering Committee of its Species Survival Commission since 2004, and its Red List Committee since 2001. Tom has authored 198 scientific and popular articles.