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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Supervisor: William Sutherland (Zoology)  

Importance of the area of research:

Globally biodiversity is in decline. Considerable sums are spent on conservation practice but reviews have shown that the success is mixed with many well known interventions not working. As one example, despite the billions of Euros being spent on them each year, assessment of agri-environment schemes show they are of mixed success. Furthermore, reviews in some areas have shown that the details are critical, for example, different means of creating tunnels for amphibians to pass under roads shows that the precise details, such as whether there is water, the substrate, width, length, lighting, entrance location and tunnel climate matter considerably.

Other very different subjects have shown the power of innovation. Famously, the British cycling team sought ‘marginal gains’ by examining each component of practice and then considered a range of options in order to improve performance.

The aim of this project is then to both to find means of improving delivery in some areas of conservation but most excitingly find different ways of carrying out conservation practice to improve performance. This project has the potential to make considerable changes in conservation practice.

Project summary:

The project aims to change conservation practice by new means of testing and generating ideas. This will build on our strengths in evidence-based conservation . The student will have considerable say in the area or areas or conservation practice (for example birds, bats or amphibians) that will be the target of research.

The project will have three main types of output. Firstly, it will reveal problems in conservation practice and opportunities for improvement. Secondly, it will how ideas can be generated, tested and disseminated by working with communities of academics and practitioners. Finally, for the groups studied there should be real opportunities to generate new ideas and test them so resulting in improved conservation practice.

What the student will do:

The first objective will be to review the processes of innovation used in a wide range of different subject areas.

The next stage will be to consider how innovation affects conservation. What is the evidence that innovation has been beneficial? What is the evidence that practices are continued even when shown to be ineffective? How does the performance of typical practice differ from that delivered when using the best available practice? How much more biodiversity could be protected if best practice was widely adopted? How has effectiveness changed over time?

Using a subject area of the student choice (e.g. bat conservation) the student will test a range of techniques for generating ideas to improve an area of practice, such as improving the design of bat boxes, bat bricks, hibernaculum or means of reducing collisions with traffic. The possible ideas include prizes, benchmarking, sandpit meetings, online fora, expert teams etc. The aim will be to examine how these different methods compare in the capacity to create novel approaches or marginal gains in practice.

The student will work with communities to test some options.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Sutherland, W.J., Dicks, L.V., Ockendon, N. & Smith, R.K. 2017. What Works in Conservation 2017. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.

Sutherland, W.J. & Wordley, C.F. (2017) Evidence complacency hampers conservation. Nature Ecology & Evolution s41559

Law, E.A. et al (2017). Projecting the performance of conservation interventions Biological Conservation 215, 142-151

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project.

Other projects available from the Lead Supervisor can be viewed here.

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