Published 2019-05-21

This post is also available in Swedish

Unique handbook on systematic reviews

Mistra EviEM has now been concluded. The knowledge generated by the initiative will now live on in a handbook on systematic reviews of nature conservation and environmental management. The idea is that the book will boost knowledge of the method in government agencies, organisations and companies.

‘The handbook is a way to leave our experience as a legacy. The method isn’t new, but this is the first time it’s been presented in Swedish and adapted to Swedish conditions,’ says Sif Johansson, former Programme Director of the Mistra Council for Evidence-Based Environmental Management (Mistra EviEM).

Between 2012 and 2018, Mistra EviEM carried out some 20 systematic reviews. The purpose was to support environmental policy implementation with evidence-based decision data. Topics included the effects of using neonicotinoids as plant protection products, and the effects of prescribed (or controlled) burning. EviEM’s 20 reviews have now been summarised in a method handbook.

‘Systematic review is a complex activity. Clear guidance is needed to get started. I’ve tried to be as concrete as possible in the book, and give many examples from our own projects,’ says Claes Bernes, who wrote the handbook and used to work at Mistra EviEM.

Bernes hopes the handbook will help government agencies, environmental organisations and also, for example, major forest companies to continue the work independently according to the principles presented in the handbook.

‘It’s aimed primarily at the people who do the practical work on reviews, as either project managers or scientific experts. But it’s also intended for those who order systematic reviews,’ Bernes says.

A systematic review is resource-intensive. EviEM’s reviews each had a budget of approximately SEK 2 million, and took between one and two years to complete.

‘With the right project group and division of labour, that time can be cut.’

Reviews should be led by a method-based project group, which can do the ‘heavy lifting’, Bernes adds. Based on the question the review is intended to answer, two or three experts and researchers — preferably with international backgrounds — are also involved.

‘In our projects, we entrusted a lot of work to our experts. But researchers are very busy, which was one reason for the long waits. Our lesson is to use the research group in an advisory role only. Then you can cut the review time.’

Asking the right question is also crucial for a good result, Bernes says.

‘When you search the literature for relevant knowledge, grey areas always appear. What does the original question include? What can be left out? You have to be clear from the beginning and specify exactly what should be included.’

Another important lesson is to involve clients at an early stage, and also give them the opportunity to submit their views on the project plan.

‘It’s important to identify an organisation that will receive the review and has also expressed interest in studying and using the results.’

‘Systematic review was originally developed as a method for choosing the right medical treatment. In the UK in the early 2000s, biologists got interested in trying the method in nature conservation and environmental management as well. When Mistra EviEM started in 2012, it was a pioneer in Sweden, and over the years it helped to raise awareness of evidence-based environmental management in Sweden and the other Nordic countries,’ Johansson says.

‘With foresight, Mistra was an early funder of EviEM. It’s good to see that its work is continuing in so many directions,’ Johansson says.

EviEM’s conclusions have been used in various ways. The conclusions of the review on the impact of reindeer grazing on mountain vegetation have been used in the research community to coordinate further research efforts. Several reviews have also been used as a basis for making decisions on environmental management measures, which Johansson finds gratifying.

‘For example, we’ve shown that fish culling is a good method for restoring ecological balance in certain lakes. That conclusion has given support to many municipalities who have been doing it for years. When it comes to managing roads and biodiversity, too, the Swedish Transport Administration has shown great interest in our conclusions,’ Johansson says.

EviEM’s work has also been recognised by the Swedish Ministry of the Environment, and a few years ago the Government commissioned the Swedish Research Council Formas to carry on working on systematic reviews after EviEM was discontinued. Work in Formas is now under way, and a couple of new reviews have already started, Johansson says.

The Stockholm Environment Institute too, supported by two former EviEM co-workers, has established a group to perform systematic reviews. In the spring, Johansson visited Norway, where there are also plans to start initiate systematic review in national environmental management.

So although EviEM’s work ended in 2018, Johansson hopes systematic reviews are here to stay.

‘It’s great that the method has reached so many places, and we hope the handbook means that it’ll spread even more.’

READ MORE

Handboken Systematisk utvärdering av miljöfrågor (‘The Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Environmental Issues’) (in Swedish)

Mistra EviEM’s website (discontinued)