Postgraduate research opportunity

Nature protection versus nature restoration: Who benefits and who loses out?

Sustainable Transitions - Governance, Ecological Management and Society - Leverhulme Doctoral Training Programme 2024-25


Project area title: Nature protection versus nature restoration: Who benefits and who loses out?

Course: Applicants wanting to undertake this research project should apply for a PhD in Biological Sciences

Funding: The University of Essex is offering six PhD research scholarships for students to participate in one of our Sustainable Transitions DTP projects.


This is an opportunity to conduct fully funded interdisciplinary research under the Sustainable Transitions Leverhulme Doctoral Training Programme at the University of Essex.

Decisions around whether to use limited conservation funding to protect “good” ecosystems or improve degraded ones are typically based upon economic and ecological considerations alone. Yet there are numerous potential ways in which this decision not only determines the costs and ecological benefits of conservation activities, but also the social outcomes. For example, in Europe and North America, nature protection almost certainly involves a greater focus on predominantly white rural populations and relatively affluent suburban areas. Cash for conservation in urban areas has the potential to benefit a wider diversity of the population. But, even here, the social benefits of investment in nature may not be shared equitably with regards to ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexuality. However, integrating social justice into conservation poses challenges as policy makers and planners typically rely on top-down decision making, while social outcomes are heavily influenced by local ("bottom-up") processes. Connecting conservation efforts with nature-based education can enhance the resilience and well-being of local communities. However, research on indigenous communities is more nuanced, with some studies indicating negative mental and physical health impacts of conservation due to displacement. Therefore, further interdisciplinary research in this area is urgently needed to support more holistic conservation decision making.

Interdisciplinary focus

This PhD project will take a critical ecological approach to assess how conservation decision making influences social outcomes. Supported by supervisors specialising in statistical ecology and both quantitative and qualitative sociology, you will seek interdisciplinary synthesis by combining large-scale modelling of social and ecological systems with place-based research involving the use of qualitative methodologies such as focus groups, interviews, and questionnaires.

Training and support

You will be supported through the Sustainable Transitions training programme which provides initial training in interdisciplinary research methods, training in the secondary discipline within the project area, and ongoing training throughout the duration of the programme. All doctoral scholars benefit from the support of Proficio, which entitles you to £2,500 that can be used to purchase training courses either within or external to the University. Additionally, all scholars are entitled to an additional £10,000 that can be used to cover research costs and further training. Doctoral scholars are encouraged to audit/attend University masters and degree level courses where appropriate. You will also have the support of the Sustainable Transitions management team as well as your own supervisory team. All Sustainable Transitions scholars will become part of the University of Essex Centre for Environment and Society through which ongoing events and networking opportunities are available.

Person specification

This opportunity would suit candidates with a strong background in conservation science and statistical modelling, as well as a keen interest in developing skills in quantitative and qualitative sociology.

Research proposal

The project area is broadly defined, leaving scope for the applicant to develop their own specific research proposal as part of the application. The successful candidate will further develop their proposal in close consultation with the supervisory team.


The primary discipline supervisor takes the lead responsibility for supervising the project. For further detail relating to supervision see the Guidance for Applicants (.pdf) document.

Additional background information

Equity and power dynamics are crucial considerations for nature conservation, yet these social dimensions are rarely factored into conservation policymaking and project planning. In particular, the decision to invest limited conservation funding into actions that protect the least degraded ecosystems, or into restoring areas that are heavily degraded, could have a fundamental bearing on social outcomes. For example, in Western societies, nature protection is likely to benefit wealthier, whiter, rural populations, whereas nature restoration holds potential to improve living conditions for diverse urban communities. However, informing conservation through the lens of social justice is challenging since policy makers and planners typically rely on large-scale (“top-down”) statistical modelling to support decision making, whereas social outcomes are strongly influenced by local (“bottom-up”) processes. Conservation efforts can be connected through nature-based education to enhanced resilience and wellbeing of local communities. Research on indigenous communities however is more nuanced, with some studies pointing to negative mental and physical health effects of conservation as a result of displacement. More research is therefore needed in this area involving a combination of methodologies through an interdisciplinary approach.

Supervisory team references

  1. Wilkes, M.A., Carrivick, J.L., Castella, E., Ilg, C., Cauvy-Fraunié, S., Fell, S.C., Füreder, L., Huss, M., James, W., Lencioni, V. and Robinson, C., 2023. Glacier retreat reorganizes river habitats leaving refugia for Alpine invertebrate biodiversity poorly protected. Nature Ecology & Evolution, pp.1-11.
  2. Gan, W.Y., Sulaiman, N., Law, L.S., Zalbahar, N., Ahmad Fuzi, S.F. and Wilkes, M.A., 2020. Exploration of food-seeking behaviour, food preparation, and restrictions to sufficient food among the Jahai sub-tribe (indigenous people) in Gerik, Malaysia. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(1), p.348.
  3. Wilkes, M.A., Bennett, J., Burbi, S., Charlesworth, S., Dehnen-Schmutz, K., Rayns, F., Schmutz, U., Smith, B., Tilzey, M., Trenchard, L. and Van De Wiel, M., 2020. Making way for trees? Changes in land-use, habitats and protected areas in Great Britain under “Global Tree Restoration Potential”. Sustainability, 12(14), p.5845.
  4. Demireva, N. and Zwysen, W., 2021. Ethnic enclaves, economic and political threat: An investigation with the European Social Survey. Frontiers in Sociology, 6, p.660378.
  5. Demireva, N., 2022. Social Cohesion, Community Responses to Sustainability, Food Insecurity and Alternative Food Networks: the Case of CoFarm.