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Breaking out of the echo chamber: missed opportunities for genetics at conservation conferences

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Abstract

Genetic approaches have proven useful for addressing various conservation problems, but genetics remains poorly integrated into conservation practice. Multidisciplinary conservation conferences present excellent opportunities for bridging the conservation-genetics gap and facilitating cross-disciplinary projects. We hypothesize that there is a tendency for presentations featuring genetic approaches to be siloed into approach specific sessions, creating an “echo chamber”; geneticists are left talking amongst themselves, hindering collaboration across disciplines. To test this, we reviewed abstracts from the past six Society for Conservation Biology conferences and assessed how presentations featuring genetics/genomics were distributed throughout the respective programs. We found that: the segregation of presentations featuring genetics varied widely between conferences (22–78 %); that no other method or approach was segregated to the same degree; and that the vast majority (99 %) of presentations featuring genetics had broader applications that made them appropriate for other sessions. We argue that segregating genetics at conservation conferences in this way is unhelpful and serves to strengthen the idea that genetics is not relevant to a wider conservation audience. We recommend that; (1) conference organisers endeavour to facilitate the integration of genetics into sessions based on the conservation questions addressed, rather than the methods used to address them; and (2) geneticists make the practical application of their work clear at abstract submission and during presentations. These recommendations are not novel, but our data illustrate a clear need for them to be implemented to better facilitate integration of genetic research that will benefit conservation outcomes.
COMMENTARY
Breaking out of the echo chamber: missed opportunities
for genetics at conservation conferences
Helen R. Taylor
1
Kylie Soanes
2
Received: 11 February 2016 / Revised: 17 May 2016 / Accepted: 7 June 2016
ÓSpringer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016
Abstract Genetic approaches have proven useful for addressing various conservation
problems, but genetics remains poorly integrated into conservation practice. Multidisci-
plinary conservation conferences present excellent opportunities for bridging the conser-
vation-genetics gap and facilitating cross-disciplinary projects. We hypothesize that there
is a tendency for presentations featuring genetic approaches to be siloed into approach
specific sessions, creating an ‘‘echo chamber’’; geneticists are left talking amongst them-
selves, hindering collaboration across disciplines. To test this, we reviewed abstracts from
the past six Society for Conservation Biology conferences and assessed how presentations
featuring genetics/genomics were distributed throughout the respective programs. We
found that: the segregation of presentations featuring genetics varied widely between
conferences (22–78 %); that no other method or approach was segregated to the same
degree; and that the vast majority (99 %) of presentations featuring genetics had broader
applications that made them appropriate for other sessions. We argue that segregating
genetics at conservation conferences in this way is unhelpful and serves to strengthen the
idea that genetics is not relevant to a wider conservation audience. We recommend that; (1)
conference organisers endeavour to facilitate the integration of genetics into sessions based
on the conservation questions addressed, rather than the methods used to address them; and
(2) geneticists make the practical application of their work clear at abstract submission and
during presentations. These recommendations are not novel, but our data illustrate a clear
need for them to be implemented to better facilitate integration of genetic research that will
benefit conservation outcomes.
Communicated by David Hawksworth.
Helen R. Taylor and Kylie Soanes are joint first authors.
&Helen R. Taylor
helen.taylor@otago.ac.nz
1
Department of Anatomy, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
2
Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, National Environmental Science Programme, School of
Ecosystem and Forest Science, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
123
Biodivers Conserv
DOI 10.1007/s10531-016-1159-x
Keywords Collaboration Conservation Genetics Genomics Integration
Conservation genetics is a rapidly evolving field that has developed from the recognition
that genetic factors can play a role in population viability (Haig et al. 2016) and has been
used to tackle a wide range of conservation issues (Allendorf et al. 2013). Despite this,
there is a well-established disconnect between conservation genetics and conservation
practice globally (Haig et al. 2016; Hoban et al. 2013b; Shafer et al. 2015). Genetics has
been accused of making conservation management less transparent, as few people
understand the genetic theory behind management decisions (Kelly 2010). As a result,
genetic data are often poorly integrated into conservation planning and management, which
may lead to suboptimal conservation outcomes (Fallon 2007; Laikre 2010; Vernesi et al.
2008). There have been repeated calls for better communication between conservation
geneticists and conservation practitioners to bridge this divide (Frankham 2010; Hoban
et al. 2013b; Rodriguez-Clark et al. 2015). Recently, proactive efforts have been made to
increase the integration of genetics into conservation strategy (Pierson et al. 2015; Sgro
`
et al. 2011). The IUCN has added a conservation genetics team to its list of specialist
groups (http://www.cgsg.uni-freiburg.de) and new genomic techniques show great poten-
tial to improve conservation practice across numerous taxa (Allendorf et al. 2010; Garner
et al. 2016; He et al. 2016; Taylor et al. 2016). However, most applications of genomics to
conservation thus far have been for commercially important species (Shafer et al. 2016)
and genetic factors are still routinely ignored in the majority of species recovery plans
(Pierson 2016). Clearly, better integration of genetics into conservation strategy is still
required.
Multidisciplinary conferences are an excellent opportunity to promote cross-disci-
plinary collaborations, but the potential to bridge the conservation-genetics gap is stifled
when genetics presentations are confined to genetics-specific sessions. Conferences pro-
vide authors with a platform to network and share cutting-edge developments and insights
with their peers—the perfect setting to promote awareness of genetic issues and tech-
niques, and highlight their value to conservation. However, there is a worrying tendency
for conservation genetics presentations to be ‘‘siloed’’ into genetics-specific sessions rather
than integrated into sessions themed around the practical conservation applications of
genetic techniques. Practitioners and scientists in other conservation disciplines often see
genetics as, at best, complicated and intimidating or, at worst, irrelevant (Hoban et al.
2013a). Therefore, it seems likely that many non-geneticists would avoid genetics-themed
sessions at conferences, instead opting for sessions based around a conservation problem or
question of interest to them. This segregation may hinder cross-disciplinary collaboration
by creating an ‘‘echo chamber’’, where researchers using geneticists talk amongst them-
selves and others are reluctant to enter.
We investigated the degree to which genetics presentations were segregated at recent
meetings of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB); specifically the International
Congress of Conservation Biology (ICCB) and the regional SCB meetings in Europe
(ECCB) and America (NACCB). We chose these meetings as a model because they
exemplify large, cross-disciplinary conferences and bring together researchers and prac-
titioners from a diverse range of fields and backgrounds. We reviewed the abstract books
and programs of meetings from 2011 to the present: ICCB Auckland 2011, Baltimore
2013, and Montpellier 2015 (which was a combined ICCB and ECCB conference), as well
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123
as ECCB 2012 Glasgow, NACCB 2012 Oakland, and NACCB 2014 Missoula (N =4047
oral presentation abstracts in total). We identified oral presentations that incorporated
genetic and genomic approaches to conservation research using the search terms gene*,
DNA, and genom*. Other search terms such as inbre*, connectivity, and marker were also
trialled, but did not produce additional results. We then cross-referenced these abstracts
against the conference program to determine the sessions in which genetics presentations
appeared. We also reviewed the abstracts for the plenary talks at each of the conferences
(N =30).
The number of conservation genetics presentations varied between the six conferences
considered (5–12 % of talks at each conference featured implementation of genetic
methods or data), but genetics presentations were often segregated into genetics-themed
sessions (Fig. 1). The degree of this segregation varied from 22 % (NACCB 2012) to 78 %
(NACCB 2014), with ICCB conferences always segregating more than half of conservation
genetics presentations into genetics-themed sessions (61 % in 2011, 56 % in 2013 and
52 % in 2015) (Fig. 1). No plenary talks at any conference were focussed on conservation
genetics.
There were at least five sessions dedicated to genetics at each ICCB conference, with as
many as eight in 2011 (five generic ‘‘conservation genetics’’ sessions, one ‘‘conservation
genetics’’ speed talk session, one symposium on ‘‘conservation genomics’’, and one
symposium on ‘‘genetic management of fragmented populations’’). NACCB 2012 and
ECCB 2012 showed a more integrated approach, with fewer genetics-themed sessions (one
and two sessions respectively), but NACCB 2014 featured seven genetics-specific sessions.
An ideal conference would demonstrate good integration of genetics talks into broader
sessions (i.e., minimal siloing) even when there are relatively large numbers of genetics
talks to be integrated. While NACCB 2012 showed exceptional integration of genetics into
conservation issue-driven sessions (86 % integrated), this conference also had the lowest
proportion of genetics presentations (5 %) of the six meetings surveyed here. When the
proportion of genetics talks increased to 12 % at NACCB 2014, the vast majority (78 %)
were siloed. Conversely, 8 % of presentations at ECCB 2012 featured genetics, and 78 %
were integrated into non-genetics specific sessions. When ECCB was combined with ICCB
in 2015, this integration was lower (48 %), despite there also being a lower proportion of
talks featuring genetics (6 %) (Fig. 1). Given the legal recognition of the importance of
genetic factors in the US Endangered Species Act (Fallon 2007) and the fact that genetics
tends to be better integrated species recovery plans in America versus Europe (Pierson
2016), one might expect to see better integration of genetics at USA regional conferences
than at European equivalents. Our data do not directly support this assertion. Genetics talks
were far better integrated at ECCB 2012 than NACCB 2014 conference, and ECCB 2012
achieved almost as much integration as NACCB 2012 in spite of having a larger proportion
of genetics presentations in the program (Fig. 1).
No other approach to conservation research was as heavily segregated as genetics. Over
the six conferences, we identified only three other session themes that were based on the
research approach used rather than the research question addressed: conservation mod-
elling, remote sensing and GIS (including camera trapping), and conservation economics
and psychology. Each of these themes had between one and three sessions at any of the six
conferences reviewed. Even then, these approaches were better integrated throughout the
rest of the conference. For instance, at the 2015 ICCB-ECCB conference, only 32 % of the
oral presentations featuring remote sensing and GIS (15 out of 42) and 16 % of those
featuring conservation modelling techniques (30 out of 185) were confined to their three
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respective approach-themed sessions, compared to 52 % of the presentations featuring
genetics or genomics (31 out of 60) (Fig. 2).
Grouping genetics presentations together might be appropriate if the work presented
was method-based and lacking practical applications, but the vast majority (99 %) of
studies we reviewed used genetic techniques to answer a broader conservation question.
For example, of the studies presented in the genetics-themed sessions at ICCB-ECCB 2015
(n=31), 11 focussed on the recovery and management of threatened species, five
Fig. 1 Summary of presentations featuring genetics/genomics at six major SCB conferences since 2011.
Large (blue) circles indicate total number of oral presentations at the conference. Smaller (yellow) circles
indicate number of oral presentations featuring genetics/genomics. Degree of overlap between circles
illustrates number of presentations featuring genetics that were integrated into non-genetics specific, applied
conservation sessions. Degree of smaller circle not overlapping indicates number of presentations featuring
genetics that were assigned to genetics specific sessions. (Color figure online)
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addressed species monitoring and detection, four addressed translocation planning, two
addressed illegal wildlife trade, and one addressed invasive species management. These
presentations would have been well-suited to other sessions in the program such as ‘‘en-
dangered species recovery’’, ‘‘wildlife trade’’, and ‘‘alien and invasive species manage-
ment’’. Genetics-specific sessions still have a place at multi-disciplinary conferences,
specifically for the discussion of new methods and seeking expert-advice on preliminary
results. However, we argue that integrating genetic and non-genetic approaches within the
same session will help close the gap between conservation genetics and conservation
practice. At the very least, such integration would create opportunities for attendees less
familiar with genetics to learn how genetic approaches might benefit their own research or
management interests. If successful, it would result in powerful collaborations between
researchers from contrasting disciplines, more holistic conservation solutions and
improved efficacy of species conservation attempts.
Better integration of conservation genetics at large conferences requires action from
both conference organisers and conservation geneticists themselves. We suggest confer-
ence organisers attempt, where possible, to create sessions that incorporate presentations
on a diverse range of approaches being used to tackle a specific conservation issue or
question. Sessions on habitat fragmentation and corridors, illegal wildlife trade, invasive
species, translocations, wildlife monitoring, captive management, and recovery of small or
critically endangered populations would all be appropriate for, and benefit from, the
inclusion of presentations that incorporate genetic techniques. A plenary talk showcasing
applications of conservation genetics would also reach a wider audience.
Researchers using genetic techniques can help bridge the conservation-genetics gap at
conservation conferences by emphasizing the applied outcomes of their research when
preparing abstracts and presenting their work. For genetics in particular, the use of large
Fig. 2 Degree of segregation of presentations featuring three different categories of approaches at the
ICCB-ECCB 2015 conference in Montpellier. N =total number of presentations featuring that approach
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amounts of discipline-specific jargon can be intimidating to an audience unfamiliar with
the subject (Hoban et al. 2013a). The rising number of computationally-intensive tech-
niques and massive data sets associated with genomic approaches could exacerbate this
problem (Shafer et al. 2015). Thus, researchers presenting results based on genetic
approaches (or any other specialised technique) must not only be proactive in presenting in
broader sessions, but also be prepared to tailor their presentations to a potentially naı
¨ve
audience.
The recommendations given above are certainly not novel, but our data clearly illustrate
that they are not being implemented and so they bear repeating. The aim of conservation
conferences is often to promote integration and interdisciplinary discourse. The SCB states
that the ICCB brings ‘‘together conservation professionals and students from every sector
of the field including the biological and social sciences, management, policy and planning’
(Society for Conservation Biology 2016). However, our review suggests this is not wholly
achieved when it comes to conservation genetics. A slight reassessment of conference
organisation and a reminder of the solutions suggested above could help improve cross-
disciplinary integration across a large number of conservation conferences.
The current biodiversity crisis demands integrative, cross-disciplinary solutions (Liu
et al. 2015). Conservation genetics remains a valuable tool, but must be more widely
understood, accepted and adopted by conservation practitioners to make a more mean-
ingful impact. The current structure of interdisciplinary conferences exacerbates the
established disconnect between genetics and conservation. This could be rectified with
only a few small changes. Conference programs designed to foster collaborations between
genetics and other conservation disciplines, combined with more effective communication
from conservation geneticists, could contribute significantly to improved integration of
genetics into conservation. The resulting conference sessions would be richer, the audi-
ences broader, and the presentations would have more reach, creating clear benefits for
attendees and speakers alike. Conservation geneticists would gain a new audience for their
research rather than constantly preaching to the converted, while developing a broader
appreciation of the context in which their work is carried out. Meanwhile, attendees
unfamiliar with genetics would gain access to tools that could benefit their work in ways
previously unappreciated. If approached correctly, taking conservation genetics beyond the
established conference echo chamber can only lead to more holistic conservation
partnerships.
Acknowledgments We thank Neil Gemmell and two anonymous reviewers for comments on previous
versions of this manuscript.
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