The Nature Conservancy’s Hugh Possingham Discusses Research and Conservation Priorities

Possingham spoke as part of the Dean's Seminar Series on May 14

Hugh Possingham discusses how applications of simple mathematical tools have transformed nature conservation at The Nature Conservancy and around the world.

Natural areas are changing rapidly, and so is the science behind their preservation. Hugh Possingham, The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC’s) Chief Scientist, presented his approach for using decision science to develop conservation science priorities during a visit to Northwestern University on May 14. The lecture was part of the Northwestern Engineering Dean’s Seminar Series and was co-hosted by the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN).

The lecture room was filled with students, staff, and faculty. William M. Miller, professor of chemical and biological engineering, hosted the visit and exchange. “The main reason that we invited Hugh to come is to get a better appreciation for some of his and TNC’s priorities, and also for him to get a better idea of the diversity of what is going on here at Northwestern,” Miller said.

Possingham joined The Nature Conservancy in 2016 and continues to serve as a professor at The University of Queensland in Australia. He was eager to share his insight with attendees and expressed his appreciation for the opportunity to learn about aligned priorities within Northwestern during his visit to Evanston.

He discussed the evolution of The Nature Conservancy in recent decades as it changed from a national organization that buys and protects natural areas to an international organization that builds sustainable systems. The nonprofit’s Shared Conservation Agenda includes five central priorities including supporting the development of sustainable cities as urban populations grow, and finding natural solutions for climate change such as through forest management and sustainable food production.

Possingham moved on to discuss three central components of conservation success. 

Engage to Achieve Results

First, he explained, it is important to engage to achieve results. It’s something Possingham has experienced firsthand, perhaps most notably when he authored a letter to the government of Queensland, Australia that resulted in a reduction of deforestation in the state from 500,000 to 50,000 hectares per year. Timing for engagement is critical, he explained, however consistent participation is also important, especially when working with policymakers.

Math and Science Help Build Protected Areas

Possingham brings the logic of an applied mathematician to the field of conservation science. When faced with a common conservation problem such as determining which portions of a large natural area to protect, he prefers to use integer linear programming. The approach is often used by engineers and allows sites within a natural area to be selected in a way that maximizes outcomes and minimize costs. For Possingham, that means identifying as few sites as possible so as not to disrupt human activity, and to protect as many species as possible while doing so — ideally in a connected system.

“Math is no more science than arts. This is the process of translating humans’ hopes, dreams, and fears into some equations,” said Possingham, who had great success with the strategy prior to joining the Conservancy when he guided the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef. The immense problem there required an evaluation of 70 different bioregions and took into account ecology, math, and social economic information. When the rezoning plan was made in July 2004, the system, which had largely been open to fishing, went from 5 percent to 33 percent protected.

The algorithm used for this problem was also developed into a piece of software by Possingham’s Lab, called Marxan. “This piece of software…has built half the protected areas systems on the planet in the last 10 years,” said Possingham, who now works with TNC to provide tools such as Marxan to people around the world. 

Prioritize Research

Think carefully about what research to pursue, advised Possingham, who advises his colleagues in conservation to consider the potential results of their research and whether the expense of the study is essential to inform responding actions.

He referenced an effort in Scotland to study if climate change was affecting a puffin population, where he challenged the group to consider whether their limited funding was better spent on determining the cause of the problem or advancing solutions.

He advocates using science to reduce uncertainty. He said researchers should “make sure that every time they do some science it’s tied to a narrative that connects the science and knowledge to the choosing between the actual actions they deliver, or developing a new action that they hadn’t otherwise thought of.” However, he does not wonder how soon to collect data as the world changes. “Don’t wait,” he said. 

Strength in Numbers

Possingham concluded his talk with a nod to the future and the potential of partnerships with universities including Northwestern to help solve big challenges. The Nature Conservancy currently works with Northwestern through a partnership managed by ISEN.

According to Professor Miller, “based on the visit, we and The Nature Conservancy are both exploring ways to expand our interactions.” Later in the day, Miller introduced Possingham and Dawn O’Neal, who directs the NatureNet program for TNC, to Northwestern researchers and students from civil and environmental engineering to science journalism. “This visit has confirmed that there really are many opportunities for further collaboration, but also has opened up other perspectives that we hadn’t previously considered,” Miller said.

Current collaborations between The Nature Conservancy and Northwestern include joint research south of Chicago at TNC’s Indian Boundary Prairies preserve and a NatureNet fellowship studying hydrologic flow of the Magdalena River in Columbia.