A paper cowritten by Sam Lovell ’16 and Loren McClenachan, the Elizabeth and Lee Ainslie Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, was published in Oryx Oct. 18. The paper, “Shifted baselines and the policy placebo effect in conservation,” is based on Lovell’s senior honors thesis and aims to understand how island communities perceive long-term and recent ecosystem degradation and recovery, changes that are “important for developing and implementing conservation measures,” according to the paper’s abstract.
Lovell’s research included 40 interviews she conducted with stakeholders on the islands of Barbuda, Antigua, and Montserrat, where she also found historical maps and other sources in small museums. Her research showed differing views among community members about long-term changes in marine animal populations: “older stakeholders with more experience identified more species as depleted and key species as less abundant than those with less experience,” the paper notes. These shifts can affect recovery goals. “If the public prematurely perceives recovery, motivation for continued conservation could decline. Alternatively, perception of rapid success could lead communities to set more ambitious conservation goals.
Lovell also discovered what she calls the policy placebo effect, “in which interviewees perceived some animal populations as recently recovering following passage of new conservation legislation but in the absence of evidence for actual recovery,” the paper notes.
The project originated with McClenachan’s collaborators at the Waitt Institute, who were interested in this project as part of their broader marine conservation planning efforts across the Caribbean. “We went into the project intending to understand how stakeholders view long-term change and to determine if there had been a shifted baseline among resource users (something that has been shown in other places),” McClenachan said. “But the policy placebo effect was something Sam discovered entirely on her own. It’s a really unique finding that I haven’t seen reported in other conservation papers, but I think it has application to other systems.”
Lovell was involved in a similar project earlier in her collegiate career with a paper published in 2015 in the journal Ecology and Society. Both projects prepared Lovell for her current role at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., where she focuses on advancing federal policies to reduce lead in drinking water, strengthen the chemical safety system, and remove harmful chemicals from food. The projects prepared her “for the type of work I currently do in multiple ways—from purely skills-based (for data analysis and visualization) to the ability to conduct in-depth research for a long-term project to getting experience with collaborating with multiple partners,” she said in an email. “The process also helped me understand the need to be flexible as projects progress since unexpected obstacles or findings inevitably come in research.”