14 October 2016

International conference on evidence-based environmental management

On 25–27 August, researchers and conservationists gathered at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm for a conference on systematic environmental reviews, held by the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence (CEE) network.

‘This was the first international conference for those of us who work on systematic reviews in the environmental sector,’ says Sif Johansson of the Mistra Council for Evidence-Based Environmental Management (EviEM), which hosted the event.

The Collaboration for Environmental Evidence (CEE), which formed in 2009, comprises six freestanding centres around the world, all of which carry out systematic reviews focusing on the environment. EviEM, one of these centres, joined in 2013.

The Collaboration’s objective is for decisions on a sustainable environment and preservation of biodiversity to be based on scientific evidence. Systematic reviews involve compiling and critically examining all available knowledge about a particular issue in an open, transparent way.

In the area of medicine, reviews of this kind have long been standard, with the Cochrane Collaboration as a self-evident model. In education, too, a similar development is under way with the Campbell Collaboration. In Sweden, the Swedish Agency for Health Technology Assessment and Assessment of Social Services (SBU) and the Swedish Institute for Educational Research represent the practice.

When the 100-plus delegates from some 15 countries met at the Museum of Natural History, it was to share experience of systematic environmental reviews and discuss ways forward. The theme for the conference was ‘Better Evidence, Better Decisions, Better Environment’.

‘We’re getting together to give researchers and decision-makers a chance of learning about evidence-based environmental management and sharing their knowledge and experience of it,’ says Sif Johansson, head of the Mistra Council for Evidence-Based Environmental Management (EviEM).

Broad experience of reviews

The keynote speakers included Hans Bruyninckx, head of the European Environmental Agency (EEA), who pointed out the importance of good reviews as a basis for decisions in the EU. Professor Andrew Pullin of Bangor University in Wales, CEE’s founder, spoke about the development of systematic reviews in the environmental sphere. Sandy Oliver of the EPPI-Centre (the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre) at University College London brought up the difficulties, but the necessity, of researchers from different disciplines working together to achieve good systematic reviews. Anna Jöborn (Director of the Science Affairs Department at the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management) stressed how important sound decision support is for an ability to clarify which environmental measures are cost-effective.

The conference delegates delved into such issues as the importance of involving stakeholders in the systematic reviews in a well-considered way and how to develop and improve the reviews.

‘For instance, there were intriguing discussions about how you can combine results from quantitative and qualitative studies by using mixed methods, as they’re called, in a systematic review,’ Johansson says.

As an up-to-date example, she mentions reviews of urban green spaces. There are both quantitative facts, such as distances to these spaces, to take into account and also qualitative facts, about how people perceive them. Here, in her view, there is interesting methodological development in the area.

Can reviews be done quickly?

Sif Johansson also says that discussions at this conference, as in all organisations that carry out systematic reviews, covered advantages and disadvantages of implementing rapid reviews, or knowledge overviews.

‘Sometimes you may need to draw up documentation for decisions more rapidly than it takes to do a systematic review, and then a knowledge overview or the like may be suitable instead. But you have to know, and be clear about, the limitations of these reports — that is, what it is they can’t capture.’

The conference was CEE’s first international one, but the baton is being passed on and a new conference is planned for 2018 in Paris, at the French CEE centre.

For EviEM’s part, an evaluation of the first five years’ work is planned for next year. But this will not stop the Council from having several reviews under way.

A couple of reviews are, for example, to be carried out in collaboration with centres in other countries. One will be about harmful effects of Neonicotinoids as plant protection products and the effects of a possible ban on these pesticides; this project will be conducted jointly with Harper Adams University in the UK. The other project, about evaluating knowledge of the effects of controlled forest burning on biodiversity, is to be implemented jointly with the CEE Centre in Canada.

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