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NIMBioS Working Group:

Hierarchies in Conservation

Topic: Spatially optimizing investments in biodiversity conservation across decision hierarchies

Meeting dates: November 13-15, 2017

Paul Armsworth, NIMBioS, Knoxville, Tennessee
Kailin Kroetz, Resource for the Future, Washington DC.
Christoph Nolte, Earth and the Environment, Boston Univ.

Objectives: Governments and NGOs invest billions of dollars each year to establish new protected areas to combat continuing declines in biodiversity. Over the past 2-3 decades, mathematical biologists have led efforts to systematize and optimize how conservation funds are allocated. Software they have developed casts the task of identifying habitats for protection as an integer programming problem where the aim is to choose sets of potential protected areas that together offer complementary protection to species. While such tools have seen wide uptake by conservation organizations, the impact they have on informing actual conservation decisions and any associated gains in biodiversity protection has often been questioned. One obvious limitation is that currently available tools and approaches fail to acknowledge the importance of institutional structures and constraints on conservation decision-making. Resource allocation decisions in conservation often take place hierarchically; a state, national or international program allocates funding and other resources to regional programs or other local groups where staff then decide which parcels of land should be protected. This Working Group will examine how spatial optimization approaches that aim to inform protected area priorities should take into account this hierarchical structure. The group will pay specific attention to objectives of programs at various scales in the hierarchy, information flow (about species distribution, land costs, etc.) and propagation of uncertainty across the decision hierarchy, and will use game theory to examine possible consequences of and remedies for coordination and incentive misalignment problems that can affect conservation initiatives.


NIMBioS Working Groups are chosen to focus on major scientific questions at the interface between biology and mathematics. NIMBioS is particularly interested in questions that integrate diverse fields, require synthesis at multiple scales, and/or make use of or require development of new mathematical/computational approaches. NIMBioS Working Groups are relatively small (up to 10 participants), focus on a well-defined topic, and have well-defined goals and metrics of success. Working Groups will meet up to 3 times over a two-year period, with each meeting lasting up to 2.5 days.

A goal of NIMBioS is to enhance the cadre of researchers capable of interdisciplinary efforts across mathematics and biology. As part of this goal, NIMBioS is committed to promoting diversity in all its activities. Diversity is considered in all its aspects, social and scientific, including gender, ethnicity, scientific field, career stage, geography and type of home institution. Questions regarding diversity issues should be directed to Dr. Ernest Brothers, the NIMBioS Associate Director for Diversity Enhancement ( You can read more about our Diversity Plan on our NIMBioS Policies web page. The NIMBioS building is fully handicapped accessible.