Biodiversity: from research to policy?

SSRN is planning to launch a new content hub focused on Biodiversity at the end of September, in collaboration with our Elsevier colleagues Michiel Kolman (SVP Research Networks) and Paola Barr (Global Strategic Networks Analyst), who have also recently published a new report together with Valeria Rinaudo. Their report provides a global overview of biodiversity research with a focus on Dutch biodiversity research.

SSRN got a chance to chat to them both about the findings of the report, and the importance of turning biodiversity research into policy action which will help address one of the biggest challenges facing humanity – protecting and preserving the biodiversity of our planet.

Q: People might think of biodiversity as very much a biology domain issue, so I was interested to see the mention of informatics, big data, and even AI in the report, can you talk a little about that?

Paola: When I looked at the research area distribution, I saw that two-thirds of the research is in the fields of agriculture and the environment. However, the field of biodiversity is very multidisciplinary, and we are seeing increased contributions from the physical sciences, engineering & technology, and the social sciences. For example, engineers are developing new technologies for conserving and restoring habitats, and computer scientists are developing new tools for collecting and analysing biodiversity data. AI is being used to develop new models for predicting the effects of climate change on biodiversity, and to identify new ways to conserve and restore ecosystems. In the same way that a decade ago we saw how these technologies boosted gene editing technologies (think CRISPR), allowing for massive advances in medical treatment, now the use of these technologies are allowing us to collect and analyse data on a scale that was never possible before, and has the potential to revolutionise the way we study and conserve biodiversity.

Q: As you’d expect America and China dominate the field given the scale of their research output in terms of volume, but it seems like both African and South American researchers are also doing significant research in this space, do you have a sense of what’s driving that?

Michiel: The standout for me is Europe, the Europeans are really contributing more than you might think and they’re outperforming the US and China, but if you look at the impact relative to the size of their research, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Indonesia all jump out.

Paola: In absolute terms, the EU stands out a lot. Typically the US and China tend to dominate in research output, so it seems to me that the data indicates the stronger focus that European countries are putting into this topic. Regarding the strong presence of Latin America, Indonesia and Africa, I suspect it is because these regions are more concerned and more affected by these issues (they are home to the most diverse ecosystems in the world and are also facing some of the most pressing threats such as deforestation, climate change and pollution). What’s really encouraging is that the research-intensive countries in Europe are reaching out to collaborate with countries areas where concern is really high and where biodiversity issues really have an impact.

Q: The report mentions that Russia, India, China, and Japan are all underperforming in this context, why do you think that is? We used to talk about the BRICS – but I believe you single out Brazil as doing particularly well in this field…

Paola: I think I can’t speculate on why, but I can say that I see a similar trend in research from these countries in other areas. For example, when we look at research output in the Sustainable Development Goals, specifically SDG 13: Climate Action and SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, we see the same kind of split. While Russia, Japan, China, and India show more focus on the technical areas of research, such as energy, innovation, and industry, in Europe you see more activity related to the broader concerns of climate change, such as social impact, health, pollution, environment, and circular economy.

Michiel: We can say it’s a massive concern, Russia is a huge country as are India and China, home to much of the diversity on our planet, and the fact that they are so underperforming means that biodiversity is not high on their research agenda. We didn’t look at policies in this research, but you could speculate that it’s simply not that much on their policy agenda either. That’s of course very worrisome. These are massive countries with very strong influence globally – it’s great of course that Switzerland is doing pretty well in biodiversity research, for example, but it’s not going to change the world…

Paola: You are also talking about areas that have a huge amount of influence not only in the production and use of fossil fuels, but also in the green energy transition. This includes the mining of critical materials, such as lithium, cobalt, and the rare earths needed for batteries and semiconductors. All of these activities have a strong impact on the planet and on biodiversity. We need to do all of these things to transition to a green economy, but there is a real concern that if we don’t do them with respect for nature and in a balanced way, we risk creating more damage to the planet than the other problems we are trying to fix.

Q: You open the report with a reference to the Dodo, which is a wonderful symbol of the sadness of extinction. The Dodo reminds Lewis Carroll fans of the caucus race that the Dodo initiates in Alice in Wonderland, in which “everybody has won and all must have prizes.” As an image of the contemporary political response to the climate emergency – running around in circles and giving each other meaningless awards, that’s a tough metaphor to beat. Do you see signs of hope for biodiversity in what you learned from your report?

Michiel: It certainly provides hope that we have outstanding biodiversity research of high quality, such as in the Netherlands; the research quality is really high; and is cited widely around the world. However if you look at my own country the Netherlands and our biodiversity track record, it’s down to about 20% of species since the 1700s. You also see that in the biggest political problems, climate change in general and issues around nitrogens levels in construction and in farming, and it’s just not being tackled. In the few areas of where we still do have nature there seems to be a disconnect in really moving to change things.

Paola: I have some hopeful thoughts. It’s clear that this is a global issue, and it goes beyond national borders. The report shows a particularly high level of international research collaboration, which is a great because it’s only by working together that we can make any improvement. It also gives me hope that we are seeing more and more multidisciplinary research. We are making more use of new technologies to address this issue. The fact that some developing countries are actively involved in research is also a good sign. I am not saying that we are all doing enough, but these elements provide some hope. Initiatives like this (the report, the topic hub on SSRN) are also good for helping to promote the issue. We need people all over the world to be aware of the importance of biodiversity and put pressure on their governments to address it.

Michiel: We have a specific small chapter in the report on biodiversity research in Africa, it’s really quite impressive, more than 10K articles, it’s got good collaboration between Africa and Sweden and Africa and Brazil, and in South Africa, the average FWCI is off the scale, so now we’re seeing not only quantity but also quality.

Paola: We are also seeing a much higher than average number of citations in policy documents. The fact that governments are citing biodiversity research and using it to write policy is incredibly encouraging. Biodiversity research from some small countries, Netherlands, Switzerland, for example, is particularly highly cited in policies, not just within their borders but by the governments of hundreds of countries. This is a great example of how even small countries can have a big impact in advancing the cause of protecting biodiversity on a global scale.

Q: A simple question – what needs to happen to improve global biodiversity in terms of both political policy and research?

Michiel: This translation from research into impact is the most important part here – I see a disconnect here. The impact we need is in practical solutions, ten steps to improve biodiversity. We are going to have to take concrete steps to improve biodiversity, in the Netherlands and at the broader EU level, to steer towards big international policies, I really hope this report contributes a little bit: it’s great that we have an enormous amount of high quality research into biodiversity but it’s not really translating into actual policy on biodiversity.

Paola: We need to not forget about biodiversity, we need to talk about it, we don’t want our politicians to forget about this, and this is very important. My concern is that while biodiversity is very important it’s not in your face so much as other problems such as inflation or war. I am very concerned that in the firefighting mode we are in today, it may not be addressed as urgently as it should be. Think about something such as the war in Ukraine: Russia is the largest country in the world and they are are not thinking about biodiversity, that is a big problem.

Q: It does feel like the connection between research and policy is the key…

Paola: Yes, I agree. There’s a new module in SciVal called Impact that shows how citations translate into policies. You can actually go and view those policy documents. I recently started using it, and I’m finding it to be a very exciting and useful development. It provides a further connection between research and its social impact, and that’s what it’s all about.

Q: Have you been pleased with the impact of the report so far?

Michiel: It has been picked up in the media, one Dutch University which is one of the leaders in Europe for biodiversity research has done their own press release, and tomorrow I am going to Hague to visit a Dutch MP who is keen to discuss the impact of biodiversity research on national policies which is also very surprising and encouraging.

Paola: One of the very positive surprises is that this report has travelled a lot further than I had anticipated, there is a strong interest from many out there. I have produced some data points focusing on Europe and Italy in particular, and it has been picked up across the Italian media, from La Repubblica to La Mia Finanza and many others. We also had colleagues overseas at a conference in Indonesia who asked me for a regional cut from the report (Michiel also attended the conference) and so they’ve picked up on what we’re doing. Media in Brazil also wrote a feature from regional data I provided them with. Another colleague who works closely with the European Commission has also reached out to me for some data to see if we could do something there. People are really interested, they are listening. That was unexpected!

You can read the Elsevier Biodiversity report here: Biodiversity research in the Netherlands and worldwide.

You can check out the latest early stage research on Biodiversity in our new SSRN special topic hub launching at the end of September

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