When does research help environmental management?

Think of the case where a manager needs to decide which action to take to stop a species  declining, or to eradicate a pest, or to increase sustainable harvest levels. It is rare in environmental management to know, with certainty, which action to take.

In response to such uncertainty, a scientist might recommend that the manager should trial different management actions, and use the results of that trial to decide on the best course of action. Such trials can certainly improve subsequent management.

But research costs money – money that might have been better put toward management. Further, even trialling two options means that, almost inevitably, one of the trialled actions will be inferior to the other. So opportunity costs are likely to exist in almost any trial, even if the research itself were cheap.

The trade-off between learning and doing lies at the heart of adaptive management. My recent paper led by Alana Moore addresses this trade-off, using the simplest formulation of the problem that we could muster. In that case we only considered resolving a choice between two management options. Our hope was to gain greater insight into the question of the circumstances in which research assists environmental management.

The answers surprised us in several instances. One surprise was the threshold behaviour that existed in many parameters. For example, as the expected difference in performance of the two management options increases, the optimal effort to spend on experimentation increases, but only up to a point. Once the threshold difference in performance is sufficiently large, the optimal level of experimentation declines to zero.

This threshold makes some intuitive sense; once we are relatively sure of the difference in performance, then we shouldn’t bother with an experiment to evaluate that. However, prior to reaching that threshold, the optimal effort to spend on the experiment increases with the expected difference in performance; that is somewhat counter intuitive. Other thresholds also exist.

Another surprise is that circumstances in which the investment in management trials is greatest do not necessarily correspond to the circumstances in which the benefit of trials is the greatest. Cases exist when relatively modest investment in trials can lead to large expected management gains. And counter-cases exist in which large investments in trialling options is the best thing to do, but the benefits of those trials are quite small.

I love this sort of modelling – simple models leading to somewhat counter-intuitive insights. You can read about them more in the paper, or in a previous blog post I wrote regarding a talk I did on this topic.

The paper is:

Moore, A. L., Walker, L., Runge, M. C., McDonald-Madden, E. and McCarthy, M. A. (2017). Two-step Adaptive Management for choosing between two management actions. Ecological Applications. doi:10.1002/eap.1515


About Michael McCarthy

I conduct research on environmental decision making and quantitative ecology. My teaching is mainly at post-grad level at The University of Melbourne.
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