Conservation Science: by invitation only.  

At the beginning of this year, I called one of my best friends (and esteemed colleague) and asked her to join me as a business partner for a dream project. We knew that we wanted to address complex conservation issues through the application of a new business structure and by using innovative methodologies to address conservation issues. By mid year, we established Resolve Conservation. Resolve was the culmination of years of academia and government work, where funding was relatively easy to secure and the possibilities seemed endless… At least until you run into the grinding gears of large bureaucratic organizations. In my previous positions, there were topics and issues that we would not be able to address because they were just too hot, and even when we did address them, the inefficiency of the public engagement and regulatory processes made it almost impossible to implement feasible and timely solutions. As a response to these limitations, our business structure is based on an agile system where we can help address hot topic issues without the baggage and boundaries of the politics and bureaucracy inherent to large organizations.

Once we had jumped through the hoops of creating and registering Resolve, paid lawyers and accountants to help us get the business going, we turned to the conservation issues we wanted to tackle, and began looking for funding from groups we believed shared our purpose, and aligned with our conservation goals. We created Resolve, to fit into a unique niche; we all want to save the African lion, but we knew that the African lion conservation world is packed with many types of organizations trying to do the work. Resolve was created to address conservation challenges that require a deep understanding of values and behaviors; where we can explore long term solutions that include the affected communities throughout the whole process. Now that we knew who we were and where we could help, we turned to well established funding organizations to present our ideas, only to find out they accept projects “by invitation only”. 

Most of the organizations I am referring to are big, and they all talk about the value of inclusion and diversity, but unless you know someone that can introduce you, or you are an already established and well known conservation group, you cannot even find an email to introduce yourself. You know why we don’t have diversity in the conservation sciences? Because the only people that can get funded are the ones that are very well connected or know wealthy people; and you who those are. I understand that these big funding organizations must be tired of receiving all sorts of random project ideas.  Perhaps they could have a very specific open call for the type of project or organization they want to fund, maybe do it every other year if every year is too much, maybe even cap the number of proposals and let people know that once that cap is reached, they will not accept new proposals until the next funding cycle. But there has to be an opportunity for small organizations to communicate with the large ones.  If the only chance you get to pitch your project is at a high dollar a plate gala, then new, small, diverse organizations do not stand a chance. This system perpetuates itself by rewarding the same people over and over. This system is also expensive, because funds have to pass through 3-4 organizations until finally getting to the people that will be doing the work, with each organization having overhead and operating expenses, thus reducing the amount of money that will actually be used to research and implement solutions. This system rewards free labor, a luxury that only a few can enjoy. Most of us in the scientific world have been through many years of school, tens of  thousands of dollars of debt and are now older, which in some cases means we have a family to support and in all cases means that we have been underfunded for a very long time. So a logical way into conservation is working for the government, maybe trying your luck in academia (although it will not be that easy), maybe even working for one of those large funding organizations. But these options stifle creativity.  We are losing our most creative individuals to organizations that have very clear limitations, from politically assigned projects, to having to do “new” research, regardless of usefulness, in order to publish, publish, publish. So unless you have some rich friends that can introduce you to their rich friends at a very fancy and expensive conservation event, or you have some family money to support yourself and your organization through many years of underfunded projects, starting your own science-based conservation business may not be an option.

Additionally, as a female in the sciences, I can tell you that my impostor syndrome has a long term rental in my head, so as I see the conservation needs and start to creatively look for methodologies that may help us solve the problems, I hear its voice saying: “well, maybe your ideas are not worth funding”, and that is definitely an option, but without being able to present these ideas to anyone that could decide to fund them (or not), there is no way to know, no way to test if there is a place for these approaches and models to be explored and implemented.

In contrast, the tech world is doing it differently. Of course, if you know the right people, your chances of getting funded are a lot better, but small newly founded companies have opportunities to get in front of possible funding sources.  Creativity and risk are rewarded regularly, and the results are pretty impressive, with technology innovation that moves faster than our brains can absorb it. But not in the conservation science world; in this world risk is frowned upon and people without a track record are removed from the race and not even allowed to email their idea to most organizations that could evaluate it. As a small company, our options are limited. A possible option would be to approach universities with our ideas, get them to back us up as we look for funding, and then have to pay for overhead and keep data and results waiting for the publication process, instead of making them immediately available for others to build on. This makes the system slow and in some cases ineffective. In conservation, we do not have the time to wait until we are the ones that are established and well known, we need creative and unique methodologies and solutions that can be implemented in the very near future if not immediately; conservation challenges are urgent.

I really don’t know if there is any way for someone like me, or an organization like Resolve to change the rules of the game, but I know there has to be others with good ideas out there bumping against the same limitations as we are. So how can we work together to change a system that is not ideal? How can organizations, big and small, partner up to change this system? We need to build a space for creativity, innovation and opportunity for all sorts of groups to share their ideas, in a constructive and fast paced environment that can address our most dire conservation needs in a way that makes a difference now and into the future.