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PhD students Molly Brown and Megan Tarrant discuss participating in the Interdisciplinary Conservation Network

Posted on 3 November 2023

The Interdisciplinary Conservation Network (ICN) aims to provide opportunities for Early Career Researchers to develop transferable skills and leadership; come together to think through cross-cutting and topical issues; and develop collaborative research with other ECRs from around the world.

A group of staff and students attending the Interdisciplinary Conservation Network conference

Organised by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science at the University of Oxford, the workshop happens every two years and acts as the starting point for a piece of collaborative research, concluding in an output (usually a publication) authored by the participants. The three themes this year were “Qualitative Impact Evaluation”, “A Manifesto for African-led Conservation Research” and “Illegal Wildlife Trade”. 

The workshop was held in Oxford from 18 to 20 September, with meetings taking place online prior to this in our theme groups to discuss and develop plans for meeting in person. While in Oxford, the programme was split between meeting within our themes to develop our publications and training on a wide range of topics relevant for conservation practice. These included diversity, equity and inclusion; grant writing; conservation careers; scientific writing; positive communication; data analysis and GIS in R; participatory research; Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL); and the interface between conservation research and policy-making. 

Qualitative Impact Evaluation in Conservation (Molly Brown)

For the Qualitative Impact Evaluation (QIE) theme, we as a diverse group of early career conservation researchers and practitioners aimed to develop our understanding of QIE for conservation interventions. It is well established that impact evaluation is critical for understanding whether or not conservation actions are achieving their desired goals. However, qualitative approaches are often undervalued and seldom used in conservation practice, where quantitative approaches have dominated. We see this as a wasted opportunity for learning, as qualitative approaches could improve understanding of the processes involved in an intervention’s lifecycle (ie, design, implementation and monitoring) that lead to conservation impacts.

A group of PhD students and researchers working on Qualitative Impact Evaluation in Conservation as part of the Interdisciplinary Conservation Network conference.

We decided to focus our theme’s work on unpacking what it means to conduct QIE in conservation. We reflexively considered how we as a group are best positioned to meaningfully contribute to the nascent literature on this topic. This led to us realising that a fundamental consensus needed to be reached on what QIE means in conservation. As a group of natural and social scientists across research and practitioner roles, we held a widespread understanding of the importance of QIE and how to go about it. To make QIE approaches more accessible and valued higher in conservation practice, we are establishing an accessible definition of what QIE means, alongside practical applications, for conservationists to appreciate the wealth of unique insights qualitative approaches can bring to impact evaluation. 

Ultimately, we hope to help conservationists embrace understanding change alongside measuring impact effects. The value added from taking a qualitative approach to impact evaluation, either independently or in conjunction with quantitative approaches, can shine a light on the complexities involved in conservation interventions that lead to both positive and negative impacts. We hope our collaborative work as part of the ICN will help foster a more inclusive approach to conservation impact evaluation.

A manifesto for African-led conservation research (Megan Tarrant)

The aim of this theme is to create a bold vision for the future of African-led conservation research. We plan to write an impactful perspective paper that raises issues facing African researchers, and the industry as a whole, and address them through positive and forward-looking solutions. The working group mostly comprises representatives from Southern, West and East Africa with experience of a range of conservation topics and approaches. Eight participants gathered in Oxford, and a further 12 joined us online over the three days. Some of our number were unable to join us in Oxford due to being unable to obtain certain visas in time, which brought to the forefront of our minds some of the issues faced by African researchers wanting to collaborate on a global scale. 

Prior to the workshop, we had met online to discuss the topics that needed to be included in the manifesto. The list that emerged included sections on “An African Worldview on Conservation”; “Global North/South relationships” (particularly with regards to institutional arrangements), issues of skills gaps and capacity building; funding; finance; mobility; access; gender; and translating conservation into action. During the workshop we used fishbone diagrams to develop our understanding of causes and effects of different issues, and then turned these around to look at potential solutions. Over the next few months we will develop the manifesto into a high impact publication, and hope to launch it at an African institution in 2024. 

Attending the workshop was a fantastic experience and an incredible opportunity to have some very insightful conversations about individual and collective experiences of conservation. As a non-African, I was honoured by the invitation to be involved in this theme. I feel strongly that the conversation around African conservation research ought to be led by African researchers, but it is also important for researchers in the Global North to take time to understand, learn from and support such initiatives and to think reflexively about how our current research practices can be developed to make space for, and support, a much wider collective of researchers. Negotiating my position as someone with practical experience of conservation, but limited lived experience of some of the topics was challenging at times. I found it hard to tune out my inner voice telling me that I had little to contribute. However, my biggest take-away from the workshop was the extent to which collaboration across institutional and continental boundaries is necessary for developing stronger conservation research across the world. The whole experience was very positive and eye-opening, and we all came away from ICN keen to develop a bold and exciting manifesto. 

A group of PhD students and researchers working on a manifesto for African-led conservation research as part of the Interdisciplinary Conservation Network conference.

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Find out more about Molly Brown's and Megan Tarrant's research.