Conservation experts from 24 world-leading organisations including the WWF, Conservation International and Birdlife International have identified one hundred key scientific questions that, if answered, would help conserve global biodiversity. Scientists say if the questions are answered swiftly, it could stem massive biodiversity loss.
Some of the questions include: 'are there critical thresholds at which loss of biodiversity disrupts ecosystem functions and services?' and 'how effective are different methods for assessing ecosystem services?' The conservationists are also keen to find out how nanotechnology impacts on biodiversity. Other contentious topics such as how ocean acidification might shape marine biodiversity and the effects of the changing water cycle on biodiversity - are also on the list.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), loss of biodiversity is accelerating despite a global convention committing governments to halt the decline. Experts say species and habitats are disappearing so fast there needs to be more effort focused on research that helps scientists understand what's behind the loss.
But there is a problem for conservation bodies trying to curb biodiversity loss. Sometimes, there is a mismatch between the conservation topics academics study and the information conservationists need to help them preserve biodiversity. The one hundred questions, published online this week in the journal Conservation Biology, could help address this issue.
"With the current crisis in the loss of habitats and species it is important that we ensure we are carrying out the most important research," says Professor William Sutherland of the University of Cambridge, lead author of the study and Miriam Rothschild Chair in Conservation Biology. "When research is designed to meet the needs of real natural resource protection projects, it can lead to substantial gains for biodiversity," he adds.
To address the mismatch, 761 conservationists from 24 of the world's leading conservation bodies and 12 academics generated a preliminary list of 2291 questions relevant to conserving global biodiversity.
The group of experts used email voting to short-list the 2291 questions before a smaller group of 44 met for two days at the University of Cambridge to decide on the final one hundred questions. The questions are not ranked.
Before a question could be included in the one hundred, it had to meet eight strict criteria, including: it had to be answerable through realistic research; it had to address important gaps in knowledge; and it had to be on a time and space scale that could be addressed by a research team.
The resulting questions are divided up into 12 key sections reflecting issues the conservationists are worried about, such as 'climate change', 'ecosystem management and restoration', 'impacts of conservation interventions' and 'ecosystem function and services'.
Many of the one hundred questions are at the heart of the biodiversity theme in Nerc's strategy: Next Generation Science for Planet Earth, 2007 - 2012. The main overarching challenge within the theme is to understand the role of biodiversity in key ecosystem processes. Specific goals include: understanding which biodiversity thresholds will ultimately lead to extinctions and ecosystem change; understanding the impact of biodiversity loss on health; and developing new methods to assess the direct and indirect value of biodiversity to society.
The list of one hundred questions builds on a hugely successful exercise conducted in 2008 to identify the top 25 emerging threats to biodiversity in the UK - also led by Professor Sutherland - widely used by researchers, funders and NGOs to direct their own research agendas.
The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.