Engineering Resilience Workshop Report

September 11 – 15, 2017  /  Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia 

The September 2017 Engineering Resilience workshop was hosted by Revive & Restore and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) at Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef, with co-sponsorship from CSIRO’s Health & Biosecurity Business Unit and the Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform. With Heron Island and the climate-change imperiled coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef as background, serving as a reminder of how great the need is for workable conservation solutions, participants of the Engineering Resilience workshop developed real-world solutions to the most pressing conservation issues.

Typically, science conferences are designed for speakers to present their latest findings to an audience with little time for interaction or the type of collaboration required for developing solutions to large and complex conservation problems. Audience members are often passively taking notes and moving from one topic to the next, rarely attending conferences outside their own specialties. In contrast, Revive & Restore has developed a different type of conservation meeting designed to foster solution-driven collaboration.

At Heron Island, the goal was collaborative problem solving. Scientists with unique expertise worked together in teams; combining diverse conservation sub-disciplines with biotechnology expertise to develop solutions to problems that traditional conservation techniques are proving unequipped to solve alone: coral bleaching caused by climate change, exotic wildlife diseases, and invasive species. The projects developed at this workshop employed new genomic technologies as tools and focused on how best to engage communities and earn the social license needed to make the projects a reality.

Participants

Participants broke into four working groups: (1) Climate Resilience; (2) Invasive Species; (3) Disease Resistance; and (4) Stakeholder Engagement. Each group was tasked with identifying key conservation problems and potential genomic solutions, and then selecting just one to become their case study ( the focus of their work over the consecutive days).  The goal was to develop a research project over the 2 days and to be prepared on the final day to present and defend the idea before a panel of potential funding sources representing industry, government, and philanthropy. The pitches were developed over two days, with participants alternating working group sessions with plenary (reporting/feedback) sessions.

Workshop Design

The workshop began with a plenary session aimed at bringing the group to a common understanding of the importance of new tools for conservation. Participants then broke into their working groups. Work progressed in several phases or sessions:

Session 1: Participants in each working group developed ambitious ideas for solutions to pressing conservation problems within their specific focus. In this phase, potential projects were evaluated as if funding was not an issue. With all these experts in one room, a major goal of the session was to pinpoint breakthroughs in agriculture and/or biomedicine that could be applied to their specific conservation problem. Finally, each group prepared a brief presentation for the entire workshop. The feedback given by the broader group guided the next iteration of development.

Session 2: The goal of this session was to be pragmatic, with participants tasked with thinking beyond the science toward the practical development of a program, including the social, ethical and regulatory challenges-all before the second round of feedback.

Session 3: In this last session, each group was asked to develop a business like “pitch” for review by the panel of funders. Projects were broken down into manageable milestones and realistic budgets and time lines were created.  The working groups were given one afternoon to put together a full deck before pitching it to a panel of judges, but many worked around the clock that evening to refine their pitch.

Final session: Presentations and critique before the Funding Panel was for many the most challenging, constructive, and consequential aspect of the workshop

Results

Building on a collaboration that already exists between CSIRO and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), the Climate Resilience working group developed and presented a pitch entitled “Reefs for the Future: Next Generation Corals for Tomorrow’s Reef.” The research plan developed at the workshop will be incorporated into a proposal for a Reef Restoration Initiative currently being develop by CSIRO/AIMS and other partners.

The Invasive Species working group developed a pitch entitled “Future-Proofing Biodiversity: Restoring Indigenous Cultural Stories.” Funders have already discussed building on existing funding for rodent gene drives targeting mice and rats from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Predator Free New Zealand (PFNZ).

The Disease Resistance working group developed a pitch entitled “Combating Rapid Ohi’a Death: Saving Hawai’i’s Forests.”  Several new collaborations were formed between CSIRO scientists and international researchers in this group. Dan Lindner of the U.S. Forest Service and Michelle Baker of CSIRO will submit a collaborative proposal for genetic control of White-Nose Syndrome in bats, building on existing funding that Dan recently received, and a group of workshop participants has already coalesced to explore genetic approaches to control chytrid fungus in frogs.

The Stakeholder Engagement pitched a “World Institute for Synthesizing Engagement”, a boundary-spanning “go-to” organization for engagement design solutions for genomic tools in conservation, available to both project practitioners and funders.

Conclusion

Though the judging process was only an exercise, with no money on the table, the panel of judges representing significant funding sources. It was a unique opportunity to gain the perspective of what funders are looking for in a project. Just as important, the funders included in this panel were diverse – representing not just government agencies, but funding sources from corporate offsets, private trusts, and international consortiums, sources with unique and varied priorities, business models, and values. And while the scientists were given this advantageous opportunity to gain the perspective of a reviewing funder, the funding representatives had the vantage point of seeing and participating in the entire process, adding a dimension to the workshop that no other conservation meeting in the world offers.

The experience at this unique workshop was incredible. Minds from all over the world were brought together, many meeting for the first time, and in a matter of hours they designed an entire program to confront a conservation challenge that eludes a solution. While there is no guarantee the pitches will materialize into fully funded projects, the workshop concluded with a feeling of hope. That is the news headline behind this new type of conservation workshop: there is hope for all of conservation’s toughest problems, even the struggle for funding and public support. We simply need to adopt new paradigms and work together to develop innovative strategies.

Prepared by Ben Novak, Revive & Restore