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Published

7 June 2017

Researcher portrait: Neal Haddaway teaches error avoidance

Neal Haddaway travels around the world teaching people how to carry out systematic reviews that allow evidence-based environmental management. He has come a long way since he studied crayfish in watercourses at home in Britain at the outset of his career. Now he hopes to be able to influence environmental work throughout the world.

A single image is not enough to depict Neal Haddaway. One side of him is the practically-oriented researcher who works to conserve biodiversity; another is the computer guy who systematically wades through scientific reports to get an all-round picture of environmental efforts implemented, but also to identify any knowledge gaps in important areas. He is also a dedicated photographer who likes capturing street life or wildlife somewhere in the world, unless he is on a climbing trip.

‘I’ve been lucky and able to leap from one thing to the next and still find something that interests me whenever I stop. But now I’ve found my real thing: working on environmental systematic reviews.’

He has been wholeheartedly engaged in this task at the Mistra Council for Evidence-Based Environmental Management (EviEM) since autumn 2014. It was no foregone conclusion. Becoming a palaeontologist used to be his big dream, but when he applied to the University of Oxford he was advised to read biology instead. During his student years, he became aware of environmental and conservation issues. Since then, accordingly, his research has ranged from crayfish in England to seaweed in the Middle East, with frequent forays in the field.

However, he took a new career leap in 2012. This time he landed at Bangor University in Wales, with Andrew Pullin, the world’s first Professor of Evidence-Based Conservation, i.e. of environmental management according to scientific evidence.

‘There, I learnt how to work on systematic reviews. During that time, I was in touch with Mistra EviEM, which meant I visited Stockholm nine times in two years.’

Finally, it was just as well to go all the way — simply move to Sweden and take up employment at Mistra EviEM.

‘I started working here almost three years ago, and I’ve lived in Stockholm since January 2015,’ he says. He is making progress in learning Swedish, but for the time being performs best when he is listening and reading, and less well when he wants to express something more complicated.

Haddaway’s duties at Mistra EviEM are primarily to conduct systematic reviews in various subject areas. Currently, he is engaged in several about how various farming methods can affect the capacity of arable land to store carbon.

‘It’s an area I don’t really know much about, but that’s unnecessary for heading a review project. My contribution is to bring about a structured mode of working, while the expert knowledge comes from the researchers we engage for each individual review.’

At least as important is the task of travelling around in the world, teaching people how to do reviews. His destinations are many and far-flung. Recently, within a short time, he led workshops in three continents — one in Chile, one in Lebanon and one in Kenya.

‘The course I held in Nairobi was particularly interesting: first, because it attracted participants from all over Africa, and second because we broadcast via link to participants in Bangkok, which meant I didn’t have to travel,’ he says, while somewhat apologetically confessing that his carbon footprint is very large.

‘My consolation is that perhaps I benefit the climate and environment by improving the scientific work.’

The method taught by Haddaway and his colleagues is already used intuitively by many researchers when they evaluate and assess various scientific reports. What is new is to make it a deliberate process, to ensure a reliable outcome and, in particular, minimise the risk of subjective judgements.

Systematic reviews also help to minimise the self-doubt that often affects researchers.

‘Many constantly wonder whether they’ve done all they should, or whether they’ve overlooked a relevant report. By working systematically, we can avoid that feeling and instead have the security of knowing we’ve done everything possible.’

As an example of an occasion when a systematic review would have contributed to higher quality, Haddaway mentions the report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007. It contained an assertion that the Himalayan glaciers would most likely be completely gone by 2035. The conclusion was a gross exaggeration and, as a result, the credibility of the entire report was called into question.

‘We’re living at a time when scientific findings are increasingly questioned, and that makes it even more important for us, the researchers, to present reliable results. The IPCC overlooked that. If they had, instead, used the method we now teach, they would have found the error more easily, thereby avoiding the massive criticism.’

Environmental systematic reviews are not unique to Sweden. However, according to Haddaway, this country is far ahead of others, in terms of both how the work is carried out and the number of reviews. His explanation is that Mistra EviEM has had secure funding.

‘Although we’re a small organisation, we’ll have completed 17 reviews by the end of next year. That’s more than anyone else has achieved,’ says Haddaway, himself responsible for four of them while also involved in a few others.

Speaking for yourself is easy. However, his opinion is supported by the evaluation of Mistra EviEM recently conducted by an international panel. Their conclusions are positive almost across the board, although they recommend improvements at a detailed level. One is that Mistra EviEM should broaden the scope of its reviews. Specifically, for example, the potential impact of climate change on global worldwide could be included.

Haddaway also appreciates the evaluation panel’s clear stance on who they consider should host Mistra EviEM when Mistra’s funding ceases at the beginning of next year.

‘Since last year, the Stockholm Environment Institute has been our host organisation, and it’s worked very well. Here, we can work in an intellectual environment that’s fruitful both for us and for the rest of SEI. So we’re a bit worried about what’s going to happen to both our future funding and the hosting.’

Whatever happens, Neal Haddaway has a mission stretching a couple of years ahead, which means that he will probably stay in Stockholm.

‘You complain about the weather, but I don’t. If you come from a place where the rain pours down at least 200 days a year, as I do, you like the fact that it’s so dry in Stockholm.’

There is also a review about crayfish on his wish list. But he is not tempted to eat them.

‘Since I started doing research on them, I’ve no longer wanted to eat them. But it doesn’t stop me from going to a crayfish party if someone invites me.’

Facts about systematic reviews

A systematic review is a thorough compilation and review of the scientific fundamentals of a particular issue. Guidelines for environmental systematic reviews have been prepared by the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence (CEE).

A review may involve assessing effects of various environmental management actions or of how various human activities affect nature. A systematic review thus shows, respectively, what we know and what we lack knowledge of, but provides no recommendations on how its results should then be used. The purpose of these reviews is to give decision-makers better documentation for their decisions. Mistra EviEM’s work on systematic reviews for evidence-based environmental management is unique in Sweden and has few international equivalents.

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