Research & innovation: a conflict of interest for conservation biologists?

By Paul Caplat

CaplatAn example of applied research – helping managers decide which stand of invasive trees to cut down in priority (inspired from Caplat et al. 2014 Biol. Inv.). Selling a piece of software to do so would be opposite to the idea of large-scale application.


Lecturers (Ass. Professor) in the UK are encouraged to contribute to research & innovation. A naïve view would be that all research is innovation, but here we are talking about something quite specific: making scientific discoveries that may have commercial applications (aka “business innovation”). This is not unique to the UK, I have witnessed pressure on academics to “innovate” in other EU countries, as well as Australia, and I am sure it is becoming common in many universities around the world.  It is, if I understand correctly, a trendy way for universities to generate income.

There is a tendency amongst my colleagues to resist this demand based on a number of principles: we have other things to do; it is not what we are trained for; it is not what we signed for. I do not want to go into these, as fair as they are (except maybe the “not trained for” aspect that overlaps with my point).

After a few meetings with the dedicated office at my university, I spent quite a lot of time thinking about innovation projects. Until I realised that there is something intrinsically difficult with that demand, a kind of conflict of interest. Here it is: as a conservationist / environmental scientist I have been trained to produce cost-efficient methods to maintain or enhance biodiversity or tackle environmental problems. For instance, if I identify a method that could be effective in getting rid of an invasive species (see the picture above), my first reaction is to check whether land managers can use it in numbers high enough that it will have an impact. Or to design guidelines for land managers, or possibly governments, to have as large an effect as possible. Conservation biology, I have been taught, and have taught my students, has to operate in a world of limited resources – thus solutions should be as cheap as possible. A lot of our energy is spent convincing stakeholders to change their practices, which would be impossible if they had to pay a lot to implement whatever method we are proposing.

Now, innovation (as it is presented to us) means basically making a profit, or allowing someone to make a profit, from tools we develop. I could partner up with a company that tests a piece of software helping invasive tree management and sell that software to farmers. But what if I was able to make that software freely available? All these years of training would make me choose that second, non-profit making, option. Better for the environment, as it could be adopted by many farmers, very soon.

Environmental consultancy companies sell their services; I don’t see it as quite the same thing. Selling time, brain space and computing tools to companies that need to, basically, fulfil requirements demanded by environmental laws is one thing. Selling by-products of my research to companies for profit when I should make sure my research is widely applied, is another one.

Am I missing something? Maybe I am biased by the type of research I do, oriented towards land and species management at quite large scale. Or maybe I got the message of innovation wrong, and it doesn’t have to be about making profit (but from the point of view of University management, I’m pretty sure it should). What experience have you had working in the area of business innovation? I’m looking forward to reading your views on the topic.

Author Biography: I am a conservation ecologist working on species’ response to global change at multiple scales. I use different types of modelling and analytical approaches to link population biology, landscape ecology and macro-ecology, mostly in complex forest-farmland landscapes. I love trees.


2 replies »

  1. At the heart of our work as scientists is the principle that we need to make our processes, data, and methods transparent and reproducible. Essentially selling our methods or processes inherently works against that mission, since, I assume, it would then become proprietary. If you gave it to every company that wanted to use your methods or processes, for example, no one company would be able to make a profit using it; they cease to become competitive in that scenario. I think I’m with you in that this seems like a sticky conflict of interest.