As the now famous “snowpocalypse” blizzard raged across Washington DC in February of 2010, a small group huddled in a downtown office to create a “Top 40” list. This top 40 chart was not being drawn up for the ubiquitous DJ Ryan Seacrest, nor does Lady Gaga merit a slot. Rather, the list outlines an ambitious research agenda for what we need to know to better conserve and manage America’s wildlife and ecosystems. 

Just published in the April issue of the journal BioScience, the article Top 40 Priorities for Science to Inform U.S. Conservation and Management Policy, of which I am one of the co-authors, lays out some of the most pressing research questions in the fields of conservation and ecology. 

Understanding changes in land cover and climate will be key to managing wildfire. Photo by John McColgan, BLM.

The resulting research agenda is unique both for the highly participatory way in which it was prepared—reflecting input from more than 400 people—and for its focus on the real world needs of land and water managers and policymakers. 

Highlighted research questions span a range of environmental concerns and issues. Particularly notable is the inclusion of many that not only require attention from the biological and physical sciences, but also an understanding of social sciences and economics. Here’s a sample of just a few: 

  • How does the configuration of land cover and land use affect the response of ecosystems to climate change?
  • How will changes in land use and climate affect the effectiveness of terrestrial and marine protected areas?
  • What are the potential effects on ecosystems of developing new sources of renewable and non-renewable energy?
  • What ecological and economic changes will result from ocean acidification?
  • How do demographic and cultural shifts in the human population of the United States shape conservation values, attitudes and behaviors?

All too often a gulf exists separating the scientific community and those responsible for setting policy or making management decisions. This effort was designed specifically to help bridge that gap, and tease out those questions that policymakers find most pressing. Ultimately, the goal is to encourage investments into the research needed to answer these questions and improve the basis for conservation and management. 

The Top 40 Project was led by Erika Fleishman of the University of California Santa Barbara and supported by a grant from the Kresge Foundation. You can read UCSB’s press release about the project here