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How conservation biologists can think like economists

If you are a conservation biologist at some point you will probably find yourself writing about $. Conservation often requires restricting people’s use of natural resources, at least in the short-term. Also funds for conservation are limited. So as we recently wrote about* if we can find ways to make conservation cheaper, we can often protect more species, habitats and ecosystems. Writing about money is difficult, particularly if like me, you were trained in the biological sciences. This is where I have got into trouble. I have had several papers (fairly) rejected when they were reviewed by economists. I went back to the drawing board and have eventually had some of them published. So, to avoid this happening to you, (and to remind myself for next time) here are a few tips for how to think like an economist if you are a biological scientist.

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Healthy ecosystems can bring benefits to people and economies, as well as biodiversity

Tip 1 Consult a professional

This goes without saying. The problem is often finding an economist who has time or is willing to help. I have been lucky in a few collaborations. In general though, when I have managed to corner an economist, they have been quite keen to talk, given what they see as a disappointing ignorance of economics amongst biological scientists.

Tip 2 Get your terms right

Consult a basic economics text book before you use words like ‘cost’, ‘value’ and ‘profit’. We use these everyday in colloquial language, but economists attach special meanings to these words. I won’t try to define them here in case I get it wrong, but as an example, value might be what you make from harvesting a resource before you factor in costs, whereas profit = value - costs. Also, don’t forget that values can be also be non-monetary, like cultural values. If you use the word ‘value’ in an ecological context, like the value of prey nutrition to predator growth, be sure you make the context clear. Otherwise, you will set alarm bells ringing when it appears you have mis-used an economic term.

Tip 3 Ask yourself how costs, profits might vary

As biologists, we are interested in the causes of variability in nature. For instance, in my models of fish populations I ask how interactions among predators and prey vary over space and time. Sometimes, this variability has implications for the profitability of fisheries, for instance when we overfish prey species to the detriment of their predators. Well you might have done something very clever with modelling predators and prey that an ecologist would be imminently impressed with, but if you article is reviewed by an economist they probably won’t care much.

The economist might criticize you for not having the price of the predator fish change with supply of that fish or, ask why fishing industries should care about a benefit 50 years down the road when they only think about next year’s profits (high discount rates). Obviously, economists are interested in the causes of variability in economies. So your work in conservation biology should address the main causes of variability in economies, like how supply and demand affect prices. It is often enough to approach economic dynamics in a relatively simplistic way, as long as you think about it. After all, your main focus is probably still the biological dynamics.

Tip 4 Optimise something

Economists, especially the mathematically minded theoretical type, like to know what the optimal solution is. For instance, what arrangement of protected areas protects the most species for the cheapest cost? Of course, the optimal solution should also account for some important economic dynamics, like changes in the value of resources over time (e.g. discount rates).

Tip 5 Have a hard look at the economics literature

Whatever you are doing, you will probably find out that some economist has analysed the same problem 20 years ago (I did when I wrote about the economics of restoring fisheries using marine reserves). Of course, it is hard to search the economics literature when they often use very different terms than biologists. I have been lucky so far in having helpful economists review my papers and point out those references I couldn’t have possibly found myself. Of course, the best thing to do would be to work with an economist that knows that literature from the outset.

Conservation biologists should think more about the cost of conservation for society

As conservation biologists we need to think more about the cost of conservation on society than we currently do. Often doing so results in new insights and findings that can help make conservation science more realistic to real world situations. We might even find ways that conservation can be profitable to society. So go forth, collaborate with economists and good luck!

* the irony of writing about how my articles have been rejected in the face of criticism on their economics, a month after we published an article criticizing others for ignoring economics, is not lost on me. We can all do better.

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