Emma Soh is a student studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London, and doing her work placement with the PREDICTS team at the Natural History Museum, focusing on communicating the science of biodiversity to policymakers. She shares how biodiversity indicators are important for communicating the state of nature and tracking global progress towards protecting it.
What are biodiversity indicators?
Biodiversity indicators are used to monitor, understand, and communicate changes in biodiversity – the variety of life – globally, nationally, or in particular sites. This can include changes in the state of species and ecosystems or the types of threats they are facing.
Biodiversity is highly complex, from the molecular scale of a gene to whole ecological communities, and all the interactions that occur in between. Having a single indicator to capture the state of the whole of biodiversity would be like grading a piece of music on how good it is based only on its melody! Therefore, scientists use more than one indicator, each monitoring a different component of biodiversity. An indicator can measure anything from how likely a species is to go extinct to the impacts of human activities on entire ecosystems.
Calculating and using different biodiversity indicators can give us a clearer picture of the state of biodiversity without being overwhelmed by the complexity of ecosystems or the massive amount of data surrounding them. Since indicators are based on different types of data and may use different data science techniques and processes, each indicator will have its own strengths and limitations. For example, some indicators measure biodiversity at the global-level, whereas others may focus on specific species or threats.
Each indicator tells a story about an aspect of biodiversity. It is therefore important to recognise how indicators are different from one another and what each indicator is measuring.
As Dr Neil Brummitt, leader of the Plants Under Pressure research team at the Museum, puts it, “Different indicators all [measure] slightly different things, but [they are] all informative…Drill down into the data: What is the geographical coverage? What is its taxonomic scope (i.e. the type of species included)? What timescale is it over? What is it that they’re doing?”.
Having a clear understanding of what each indicator is saying and using multiple indicators alongside one another can help us gain a more holistic picture of the state of biodiversity.
Why are biodiversity indicators important?
Indicators help us to understand ecosystems and appreciate the diversity of the natural world around us, as well as understand how biodiversity is changing in response to threats. From the impacts of global warming, to the loss of natural habitats for farming, biodiversity is facing an uncertain future that will inevitably affect us all – humans rely on biodiversity and nature for our survival.
Indicators can not only be used to monitor these threats and impacts on biodiversity, but they can also track changes over time and help us to plan for the future.
Indicators are especially important when we set out global goals and targets for biodiversity and conservation. Biodiversity indicators form an essential part of global monitoring frameworks, such as measuring progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework by the Convention on Biological Diversity, to be negotiated and finalised at the second part of the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 in Montreal in December 2022.
Good targets need to be measurable, and that requires biodiversity indicators. Indicators can be used to track progress towards – or away from – global targets over time and inform global action. It is therefore important for policymakers to understand goals for biodiversity and how indicators can be used to monitor our progress.
Communicating research – indicators for change in the Museum
Scientists at the Museum work to understand and monitor the state of biodiversity, both by gathering biodiversity data and by improving biodiversity indicators. My science communication work placement is with the PREDICTS research team, working on communicating the science of biodiversity indicators to policymakers. The PREDICTS database contains biodiversity data from terrestrial ecosystems across the world, and researchers in the team use models to understand the impacts of human activities on biodiversity.
These impacts can be seen with the Biodiversity Intactness Index , which estimates the percentage of the original number of species that remain and their abundance in an area. Meanwhile, scientists in the Plants Under Pressure team are improving our understanding of plant biodiversity and threats to plants.
One of their projects aims to get a clearer picture of extinction risk in plants. They do this by studying a representative set of plant species across all major taxonomic groups, leading the production of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants to track the overall extinction risk of plants. The two indices tell us about two different aspects of biodiversity, with the Biodiversity Intactness Index showing changes in the composition and abundance of species, while the Sampled Red List Index for Plants focuses on the global risk of plant extinction.
In the lead-up to COP15, as countries re-establish global goals for our planet’s biodiversity, making biodiversity research accessible to policymakers is crucial. This can be through providing channels and platforms for people involved in policy to explore indicators and be informed of biodiversity trends.
One of the Museum’s newest initiatives is the Biodiversity Trends Explorer, a free, interactive, online tool to track changes in the Biodiversity Intactness Index, showing change across time periods, different geographic regions, and even forecasting future changes under different trajectories of human development. Having the Biodiversity Trends Explorer as a platform to communicate biodiversity data in a visual and accessible manner represents a step towards making policymakers aware of the valuable work of scientists at the Museum, and how it can be used to understand the state of biodiversity and make more evidence-informed decisions.
The Museum has more plans for the Biodiversity Trends Explorer, and part of my placement has been to write website text in preparation for the addition of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants onto the platform.
Speaking to lots of people at the Museum, from scientists to staff members engaged with policy, has been an eye-opening experience, and has shown me the importance of providing channels for scientists and policymakers to share information, discuss issues, and to work together for the future of biodiversity.
The Museum is continuing to build its vision for policy-engagement through its new policy unit. Emma Woods, the new Director of Policy at the Museum, says “Ultimately, I want the Museum to be impactful and to add value, whether that be through building influential networks, translating evidence into something that will resonate with policymakers, or convening leaders across science, government and business to debate the big issues of our time.”
Biodiversity indicators and tools like the Biodiversity Trends Explorer are exciting means to communicate the science of biodiversity to policymakers and beyond, opening up future pathways of engagement and working towards a future for nature.