Full name: Professor Hugh Possingham, Professor Kerrie Wilson & Professor Erik Meijaard 
Date of Birth:
Affiliations (at the time of the award): Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED)
Field: Natural Resource Management

Summary of body of work recognised by MSA:

The group of Professor Hugh Possingham, Professor Kerrie Wilson and Professor Erik Meijaard is chosen as the winner of 2016 Mahathir Science Award for being the global leaders in sustainable natural resource planning and management. Through collaborations with government and other stakeholders, the nominees have had a significant impact on threatened species management, fire policy, and terrestrial and marine reserve design.

Latest Biography/Profile of Organisation:

Professor Hugh Possingham, Dr Kerrie Wilson and Dr Erik Meijaard are members of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED). CEED is a globally leading research centre for solving natural resource management problems and for evaluating the outcomes of management actions. The research from the Centre has had impact in over 50 countries, many of which are in the tropical realm. Professor Hugh Possingham is The Chief Scientist of The Nature Conservancy, Professor Kerrie Wilson is the Director of CEED, and Dr Erik Meijaard is an adjunct Professor and Director of the Borneo Futures initiative, which is a major partner of CEED.

The members of this group have been recognised individually at international and national levels for their scientific work and societal impact, but their individual contributions to natural resource management in the tropics or their extensive and productive research collaborations have not been previously acknowledged. Whilst many scientists focus on the biological aspects of natural resource management challenges, this group investigate how human well-being can be enhanced while also improving protection of the natural environment. Their research achievements have demonstrated the potential for substantial cost-savings, more efficient use of limited funds, and the capacity to enhance the equity of environmental and social outcomes from improved approaches to natural resource management. As a consequence, the group has been influential in recasting entrenched opinion amongst scientists and conservation organisations that conservation investments should be influenced by biodiversity values alone and instead must be cognisant of the broader socio-economic context.

The group has delivered an array of decision support tools and concepts to help managers, NGOs and policy-makers to make better natural resource management decisions. Their spatial planning concepts and software have altered investment in conservation at regional, national and global scales. Before their research a great deal of investment in national parks and reserves was haphazard or ad hoc. The development of the systematic conservation planning software – Marxan – is an example of the impact of CEED’s decision support tools. The demand for Marxan as the world’s premier conservation planning software has grown exponentially over the past decade with managers and practitioners in 167 countries utilising Marxan to support natural resource management decisions in both terrestrial and marine settings. The range of problems that Marxan has been used to explore is diverse. Marxan is now used by over 6,000 users worldwide changing the land and sea zoning of about 5% of planet’s surface. This tool is used for fine-scaled spatial planning, from the level of a regional body, to a state, or an entire country. The software underpinned the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the largest systematically designed reserve network in the world. The Nature Conservancy, the world’s biggest conservation NGO, uses Marxan for most of their terrestrial and marine eco-regional planning. Marxan is under continuous development and was recently transformed to accommodate land or sea use zoning. The scientific reach of Marxan is indicated by the thousands of scientific papers, books and reports that refer to its use.

The group’s work on Borneo has highlighted the important role of sustainable natural resource management for economic development and poverty alleviation. They have specifically researched and highlighted the value of intact forest systems on: regulation of local climate (local warming has been identified through village surveys as a major community concern); flood control (500,000 people are affected annually by floods in Indonesian Borneo alone); provision of non-timber forest products such as bushmeat (valued at USD 3 billion per year for Borneo), fresh water and marine fisheries, and medicinal plants; and prevention of regional haze and smoke (the regional economic impacts of the 2015 fires was estimated at USD 35 billion). The group is presently assessing values of forests for ecotourism (generating 10% of GDP in Sabah) and health (rapid deforestation often coincides with disease outbreaks). They focus their research on topics such as this in order to quantify both the benefits and costs of alternative options for managing natural resources and how these will impact the most marginalised groups of society (e.g., the rural poor, women, indigenous peoples). This is the type of knowledge that governments in the tropics can use to ensure that their development contributes to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The group has published a combined total of over 800 peer-reviewed publications, with over 40 articles and short features in Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA – the three top journals in the general sciences.