Hugh Possingham

Hugh Possingham

Andrew Benison

Q&A: Mathematical ecologist to be new chief scientist of Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a major conservation organization based in Arlington, Virginia, has recruited a chief scientist from the other side of the world. Hugh Possingham, an Australian mathematical ecologist at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, in Brisbane will take over the role in November. Possingham, 53, led a group that developed conservation planning software, called Marxan, that has been used in more than 150 countries for designing nature reserves, zoning plans, and other purposes. The Australian government relied on the software when it rezoned the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2004, greatly expanding and diversifying the protected areas. Possingham also has advised the Australian government on other conservation issues, such as reducing the amount of forest converted to pasture, which has several negative effects including destroying koala habitat and emitting greenhouse gases.

TNC has about 3500 staff, including more than 600 with Ph.D.s, although the number of active researchers is much smaller. Although most well-known for its work purchasing land in the United States, the organization is active in many other countries. Possingham takes over from Peter Kareiva, who now heads the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kareiva has been an iconoclast in the conservation community, emphasizing the resiliency of nature, arguing for the role of business and economic development in conservation.

ScienceInsider spoke with Possingham this week about his new position. (The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Q: Why did you decide to take this job?

A: My main interest in life—ignoring my family for a moment—is conservation. I wake up in the morning thinking about how I can protect the diversity of life. For me, science and math are means to an end. I can’t think of a scientific position in the world that has more opportunities for saving species. Chief scientist of an organization which has a strong commitment to science. … Why wouldn’t I take it?

Q: What will you do as chief scientist?

A: I wish I knew! I’m not starting until November, so I’m still in a learning curve. [TNC] has been rapidly changing from being largely U.S.-based and acquiring land as their main strategy. Now, they’re in many more countries with many other methods to advance conservation. They’re moving into areas like climate, water, and cities. And the importance TNC puts on science is being elevated. I’m going to make sure that the quality of the science that we bring to decisions is the highest it can be.

Q: You’re an advocate of “conservation triage.” How will you apply that at TNC?

A: Triage is just prioritization, and every manager prioritizes. To me, triage is nothing more than making smart choices. I think this is where I can help TNC. They’re facing important questions: How do you allocate resources? How much effort do you spend on reaching out to policymakers? So many things are part of conservation. What’s the business case for these diverse activities? And what new knowledge do we need to make these decisions? To me it’s a massive intellectual problem in allocation of resources.

Q: What's going on with science at TNC?

A: They’re interested in diversifying their science base, encompassing the whole of land-use planning. We need a lot of people with diverse backgrounds. This covers economics, social science, political science, engineering, mathematics. My undergraduate degrees are in math and biochemistry; now, I’m an ecologist. I think of myself as an economist; I could be a geographer. I’m from a family of engineers. I’m able to talk to soil scientists and philosophers. That’s part of why I’m doing this.

Q: What specifically would you like to accomplish?

A: I hope there will be a huge armada of small things. The thing I’m most proud of in my career so far is Australia rezoning the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park with our software. There are other policy changes I’m proud of, like slowing down land-clearing in Queensland; it’s like taking half the cars off the road in Australia. I hope there will be individual stories like those.

I wouldn’t have joined TNC if I didn’t like their philosophy. It’s a solutions-based philosophy. They don’t just say, “You can’t do this, you can’t have power, water, dams.” But they ask how can we do this in a win-win way. Everything we do should be win-win-win. I believe every activity of humanity could be like this.

Q: How would you compare your style with Peter Kareiva’s?

A: I think both of us occasionally like to wind people up a little bit. I’m not, maybe not quite as provocative as Peter, but slightly provocative. My feeling about leadership in science—the three key words are autonomy, purpose, and authenticity. You want your staff to have autonomy. What’s key is that I’m absolutely clear about my purpose.