The history of an ‘outcome’

The science of conservation triage is becoming policy

Late last year, just before Christmas, we got another ‘outcome’! What’s more, this one came ‘gift wrapped’ in a front page story in the Sydney Morning Herald, making it easy for everyone to see.

What was that outcome? The NSW Government is adopting a version of ‘conservation triage’ that is based on our cost effectiveness approach – Project Prioritisation Protocol or PPP (see the article  on ‘Saving our Species’). PPP basically involves ranking which projects for threatened species you’ll invest money in based on the cost, the likelihood of success and the benefit to the species. Of course, not everyone is happy with the idea of conservation triage (see the box on ‘the cold calculus of conservation triage’) but it’s easy to demonstrate that the approach can generate enormous benefits for biodiversity conservation.DPoint76_Page_04_Image_0002DPoint76_Page_04_Image_0001

The red goshawk and the growling grass frog. Both are listed as threatened species. How do you decide how to prioritise resources for both species given that the total available funds are totally inadequate to save all threatened species? The Project Prioritisation Protocol is one framework designed to help support those making difficult decisions.



In any event, outcomes from our research are always welcome, and not the least now as the National Environmental Research Program undergoes a mid-term review. It’s easy to point to outputs (meetings, workshops, science papers etc) but being able to say something led to an outcome (change in policy, new approach to management, the introduction of transparency to decision making etc), that’s something special, it’s something that takes time.

“But wait a sec,” I hear you say. “What’s this an outcome of? What meeting, workshop or paper led to this? Was it NERP or CEED money that generated this? Or did this come from that earlier funding

 “The NSW Government is adopting a version of ‘conservation triage’ that is based on our cost effectiveness approach – Project Prioritisation Protocol (or PPP). PPP basically involves ranking which projects for threatened species you’ll invest money in based on the cost, the likelihood of success and the benefit to the species.”

called CERF.” Okay, maybe you wouldn’t have asked a question with this amount of specificity but I’m often asked “what are the outcomes from government funding?” And the honest answer is it’s impossible to attribute an outcome to a single paper, a single quantum of funding or a single person. A brief history of this particular outcome is a good case in point.

Applying a cost-effectiveness methodology to underpin conservation triage is not a new idea. I proposed it to the Federal Environment Department back in 1999 (at which time they said I was crazy) and the concept had been mentioned many times prior to this. It is, after all, basic common sense. Indeed, in 1998 an economist named Weitzman had published a similar approach although I didn’t know that at the time.

We published a paper on the idea in 2002 and the New Zealand government (Department of Conservation) started considering the approach in 2005 (led by the vision of Richard Maloney). We then worked with some of their people to turn the concept into a workable procedure. This resulted in papers in 2008 (on conservation triage, led by Madeleine Bottrill, see Bottrill et al., 2008) and 2009 (on PPP, led by Liana Joseph, see Joseph et al., 2009).

During this phase of its development, our group was receiving funding from the Commonwealth Environment Research Facility program (CERF) and the Australian Research Council. The thinking involved many people and much discussion by collaborators like Mick McCarthy, Tara Martin, Kerrie Wilson, Eve McDonald-Madden, Stephen Garnett, Mark Burgman and David Lindenmayer – to name just a few.

In 2010 Tasmania adopted conservation triage underpinned by cost effectiveness (unfortunately they had no money to implement it). Around the same time, we started working with New South Wales on similar approaches following meetings coordinated by Sue Briggs.

In the last couple of years we have developed the protocol and associated software, and two new papers advancing the process are currently under review. These later stages of development have all been supported by NERP and CEED funding – indeed the tool and thinking are being refined continuously.

Other states and other countries are also expressing interest in the approach. And even the Australian Government is working with us on tailoring aspects of the process for national policy (14 years after I originally broached the topic with them).

Which all goes to show that assigning an outcome to any single grant or paper or person makes a mockery of the scientific process. It’s the accumulation of many discussions, papers, grants and meetings usually over multiple funding and policy cycles. I’d suggest a good piece of research usually takes around ten to twenty years before it starts producing outcomes of note. This is the norm in medical science, too. Of course there will be exceptions but, on the whole, no-one should think a good paper is going to produce outcomes in weeks, months or even years.

Returning to the success of PPP, New Zealand has been doing it now for about five years. Richard Maloney, a senior scientist with the country’s Department of Conservation says early results indicate “a fantastic improvement” on how things were done before. Now that’s a worthwhile outcome.


Bottrill MC, Joseph LN, Carwardine J, Bode M, Cook C, Game ET, Grantham H, Kark S, Linke S, McDonald-Madden E, Pressey RL, Walker S, Wilson KA, and Possingham HP. (2008). Is conservation triage just smart decision making? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 1007:1-6. For a summary of this paper, see Decision Point #24.

Joseph LN, R Maloney & HP Possingham (2009). Optimal allocation of resources among threatened species: a project prioritization protocol. Conservation Biology, 23:328-338. For a succinct account of what PPP is and how it works, see Decision Point #29.

Leave a Reply