While it’s already been reported that damage to biodiversity likely contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic itself could also have an effect on biodiversity going forward through challenges to environmental research. Like many other research areas, scientists in this field find themselves in new territory, with communication, travel, and education and career development all restricted by lockdown measures around the world.
Challenges to biodiversity conservation and research during a pandemic
In a recent editorial, editors of the journal Biological Conservation raise several concerns they’ve heard from their colleagues about the impact of the ongoing pandemic on biodiversity conservation research, including staff becoming sick with the virus, field research and labs being shut down, and communication and teaching being moved to a virtual format.
“Conservation is an applied science, like medicine, and students will miss the practical, hands-on experiences gained through labs and field courses.”
With in-person classes canceled, the authors note that “professors with little prior online teaching experience are now teaching students with little experience in online learning. This can work well for some topics, but conservation is an applied science, like medicine, and students will miss the practical, hands-on experiences gained through labs and field courses.”
With many courses, conferences, and career opportunities put on hold, students and early career scientists may be persuaded to leave the discipline altogether, they add. However, they also point out that the pandemic has made many people more aware of the consequences of environmental degradation, which could drive more students to study biodiversity and other environmental disciplines.
“Education and research in ecology, conservation, and environmental studies may appear more attractive and meaningful to young people who have been alerted to the global environmental crisis by this pandemic and made aware of the links between biodiversity conservation and human well-being,” the authors state.
Another challenge raised by the editorial is maintaining research when many facilities and labs are shut down—though some are slowly beginning to reopen—and field sites are inaccessible due to current travel restrictions. The authors urge researchers to do what they can to stay in touch with citizen scientists and continue efforts to reach out to governments at all levels to highlight the importance of environmental research, as they will likely be a low priority for funding once the pandemic subsides.
“Education and research in ecology, conservation, and environmental studies may appear more attractive and meaningful to young people who have been alerted to the global environmental crisis by this pandemic.”
“Conservation biologists must communicate the many benefits that both this research, and biodiversity itself, provide society,” the authors write. “Organizations reliant on external donors to employ staff and implement research and conservation activities will be particularly vulnerable.”
Some positives to lockdown
The news isn’t all bad for environmental research, though. The authors note that current conservation efforts appear to be staying on track early in the pandemic and, as several studies have found, stay at home orders and travel restrictions have meant less human pressures on sensitive ecosystems, along with reduced greenhouse emissions from travel.
For example, two recent studies in Geophysical Research Letters found that pollution from industrial activities, power plants, and cars had decreased by as much as 60 percent in the US, Western Europe, and China since lockdowns began. (Those studies can be found here and here.)
“Research has been disrupted, but only time will tell if this will have long-term consequences.”
Moving forward, the greatest concerns of the pandemic raised by the article are the training and education of future conservationists and maintaining the health of the planet in order to prevent other pandemics and save human lives.
“At this point, protected areas appear to be safe and, in many places, biodiversity is benefiting from reduced human activities,” they state. “However, this may not be true everywhere, especially where enforcement has weakened but threats have not. Research has been disrupted, but only time will tell if this will have long-term consequences.”
Despite bringing greater awareness to the key role environmental science plays in promoting and protecting global health, the coronavirus pandemic will likely force scientists to get extra creative to face the challenges the situation has brought to their field. Boosting their virtual communication skills and finding workarounds to restrictions on field work will be essential in this new landscape.