Conservation Scholars: Georgina Mace

16 11 2009

The Conservation Scholars series highlights leaders in conservation science and includes a small biography, a list of major scientific publications and a Q & A on each person’s particular area of expertise.

Georgina MaceOur fifteenth Conservation Scholar is a real stalwart in conservation science and its applications – Georgina Mace. She is famous for many things, although one thing in particular stands out – the IUCN Red List. We’re really lucky to have someone of Georgina’s calibre, highly demanding schedule and international reputation to  agree to be highlighted on, so I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did.


Georgina Mace was born and grew up in London, UK. After an undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Liverpool, she moved to do a PhD at the University of Sussex, working with Paul Harvey on comparative ecology in small mammals. After postdoctoral appointments in Washington DC and in Newcastle-upon-Type, she moved back to London where she has worked ever since. From 1986, she was a research fellow at the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London and was involved in the earliest scientifically based conservation breeding programmes for rare species, based around genetic and demographic principles from population biology. It was this work that ultimately led to her leading the process to develop, test and document criteria for listing species on IUCN’s Red List of threatened species. This work started in the early 1990s, a first set of criteria were approved in 1994 and, following review and testing, a slightly different set were approved in 2000. These criteria are now used routinely be IUCN and have been increasingly adopted at national level. Subsequently, she was involved in the biodiversity elements of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, in the development of measures for the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010 target, and is now working on the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Her research has interwoven with these processes, involving testing the traits that contribute to threatened status in mammals, examining the impact of different species concepts on conservation planning, devising methods for testing the effectiveness of conservation projects, and most recently, developing trait-based approaches to assessing species vulnerability to climate change.

During the 1990s her work was supported by the Pew Scholars Program (1991-1994) and by a NERC Advanced Fellowship (1995-1999). In 2000 Georgina was appointed Director or Science at the Zoological Society of London where she led the 70+ researchers in the Institute of Zoology. In 2006 she moved to Imperial College London, first as Director of the NERC Centre for Population Biology and later as Associate Head of the Division of Biology. She was awarded an OBE in 1998 and a CBE in 2007; elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2002, and was the 2007 winner of the international Cosmos prize. She has served in a number of scientific societies having been Vice President of the British Ecological Society (2001-2004), President of the Society for Conservation Biology (2007-2009) and Vice Chair of the international programme on biodiversity science DIVERSITAS (2007-2010).

Georgina is married to Rod Evans and they have three children (Ben, Emma and Kate), all of whom have a healthy respect for the environment and commitment to working towards a better world, but seem to think that doing science is a hard way to go about it!

Major Publications

Questions and Answers

1. You were the architect for the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. This is clearly the world’s authority on threatened species listings. Can you explain how the Red List came about and describe the major challenges along the way?

The Red List had been around for a long time – since the mid 1960s at least. Initially it was a list of species nominated by experts as being at risk. In this way it raised the profile of the growing risks to species, but the way it was compiled meant that the species included were rather subjectively assessed, and species that were not on the list were not necessarily secure. As the Red List started to be used in both legislation and for conservation planning it became important that the listing process was more systematic and objective. This was when I became involved in around 1989. There were many challenges in getting the criteria established and that is why it took us over 10 years before there was a system that was approved by IUCN Council and used consistently for producing the IUCN Red List. I think one of the hardest things to deal with is that this is never going to be a perfect system – we wanted a process that was simple, could be applied even when we know rather little about a species, and would deal fairly with everything from mosses to elephants. Inevitably, some people feel the system gives the wrong answer for their species. All I can say is that we tried really hard to minimise the risk of wrong answers that would be damaging for species conservation. While acknowledging that the system will never be perfect, we think it is effective at sorting the species most likely to be at high risk from those that are not.

2. How do you define ‘biodiversity’, and what should we be focussing on in biodiversity assessments?

I like to use generic definitions for ‘biodiversity’ such as that adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity: the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part. This includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems. I like this because it emphasises the scope of biodiversity and the importance of interactions which gets missed out in some narrower definitions. Of course if you try to use this kind of definitions for assessment it becomes impossible. This is why we have ended up with long, long lists of indicators for the 2010 assessments. My personal preference would be to select a smaller number of measures that reflect what we really care about in biodiversity and use these as the core of our assessments.

3. What, in your opinion, is the biggest research gap in climate change research for biodiversity conservation?

I think that to a large degree the biology is missing! Many approaches to assessing the impacts of climate change tend to treat species and ecosystems as if they were just response variables in an environmental model. Yet we know that populations and communities have their own processes and internal dynamics that will determine how they respond to a changing environment and also make it quite difficult to generalise across systems and species. I fear we are over-estimating some risks, under-estimating others, but most of all forgetting about the biological processes that will allow biological adaptation (or maybe won’t allow it). Another important gap is a recognition in climate models that the biosphere plays a key role in the climate system – one that is not well represented at the moment and that could offer cheap, low-risk techniques for both mitigation and adaptation.

4. How do you mesh the quantification of ecosystem services with biodiversity assessments? Should we be reducing our emphasis on the latter and investing more effort in characterising the former?

I’m sure we have to do both ecosystem services and biodiversity. I don’t think that ecosystem services and biodiversity assessment are the same thing – there are ecosystem services that we need that rely hardly at all on biodiversity, and there are components of biodiversity that we should care about that do not clearly provide ecosystem services. I see ecosystem services at the end of a delivery chain to people from ecosystems and those ecosystems and their features and processes are intimately linked to biodiversity. But it becomes impossible hard and confusing if we don’t separate them out and think about both.

5. Given humanity’s appalling conservation track record to date, do you have an optimistic outlook for the future of biodiversity on which we depend?

Generally it is hard to be optimistic – we are not yet even embarking on doing the right things for the planet. And, as I think the negotiations to Copenhagen show, governments are simply not able to take the bold steps that are necessary. However, all the evidence to date is that when societies put their mind to solving a problem, they can generally do it. People are ingenious and determined and form a creative, problem-solving community, and so I believe that the means exist to solve even some very hard problems. I think the challenge is to break the problems down into manageable chunks and solve them – being careful not to set aside the difficult and important ones, and remembering that ultimately the benefits need to flow to all people and societies.

CJA Bradshaw

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5 responses

30 11 2011
Better SAFE than sorry «

[...] we had a look at this in the original paper by Georgina Mace and colleagues justifying the abundance thresholds. First, While some values seem to have some [...]

28 01 2011
26 10 2010
An Open Letter about Scientific Credibility and the Conservation of Tropical Forests « CIFOR's blog

[...] Georgina Mace, PhD, FRS, CBE, Professor and Director of the NERC Centre for Population Biology, Imperial College London, Ascot, UK [...]

2 03 2010
Covet thy neighbour’s paddock «

[...] by a previously highlighted Conservation Scholar Georgina Mace, the paper by Boakes and colleagues entitled Extreme contagion in global habitat clearance is [...]

18 11 2009
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