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16 October 2012

Joint international handbook for environmental reviews

Systematic environmental research reviews are helping to improve the basis for decision-makers in the environmental sphere. Mistra EviEM reviews issues of relevance to Sweden’s environment. Collaboration with British researchers is now beginning, to update and develop international guidelines for environmental reviews of this type.

The Mistra Council for Evidence-Based Environmental Management (EviEM) will embark on its first three reviews during the autumn. These will involve studying overfishing of carp as a method of reducing the impact of eutrophication in lakes; the effects of grazing reindeer on vegetation in mountainous areas; and the capacity of constructed and restored wetlands to absorb nitrogen.

‘It’s great that the work has now started. It provides excellent scope for showing how reviews of this kind can be done and serve useful purposes,’ says Andrew Pullin, Professor of Evidence-Based Conservation, a member of Mistra EviEM’s Executive Committee.

Professor Pullin founded the Centre for Evidence-Based Conservation (CEBC) at Bangor University in Wales nearly ten years ago. Since this was where a method of systematic reviews of environmental issues was first developed, CEBC is a model for Mistra EviEM.

‘Working close to various conservation organisations, I realised that communication of environmental research was poor. Surprisingly often, various measures of nature conservation were tested to find out which ones worked, although research that could have helped people to find the best method already existed,’ Pullin explains.

Evidence-based healthcare a model

The inspiration for CEBC came from the healthcare sector, where regular reviews of medical research provide the basis for evidence-based care. Some 50 environmental reviews have been carried out by CEBC and other environmental researchers to date. These relate, for example, to liming of lakes, the impact of wind power on bird life, sustainable fishing methods, translocation of predators and how scarcity of fresh water affects society.

In a systematic review, scientific results are collected, analysed and assessed in terms of quality. Comparable data from various studies are compiled to provide unified and easily accessible documentation for decisions. The subjects for the reviews are chosen on the basis of explicit knowledge needs defined by a public agency or organisation.

‘How far the reviews then contribute to policy or practical environmental conservation is, of course, hard to determine. But I know that our reviews of marine protection and fishing, and also the health effects of access to natural environments, have been used here in the UK,’ Pullin says.

In his view, another key requirement for drawing up reliable reviews is to work in an extremely transparent way. A plan is published in advance for every review, and the review work is then documented in detail.

‘Since a growing number of researchers have started doing this type of review, we realised a few years ago that a standardised procedure was necessary. The model was the Cochrane Collaboration in the healthcare sector, in which thousands of researchers worldwide are working together to compile and evaluate medical studies.’

Disseminated through international cooperation

Andrew Pullin has established a cooperative body, Collaboration for Environmental Evidence (CEE), in which researchers in Australia and South Africa are now also involved. Aspects of its work include drawing up guidelines for systematic reviews and issuing an open access journal on the subject.

Pullin hopes that Mistra EviEM, too, will join CEE. Collaboration is already under way on the current update of the handbook on systematic reviews. The work is being done, starting this autumn, by Dr Neal Haddaway of CEE, who is a guest researcher at Mistra EviEM.

‘This is an exciting joint project, and the fact that Mistra EviEM can be part of it is important since there will be many reviews carried out in the future,’ Andrew Pullin concludes.

Andreas Nilsson, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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