Mapping the public’s perceptions of the biodiversity crisis and pathways to bend the curve.

Biodiversity loss is one of the major crises the contemporary world faces. The loss of species and habitats is evolving at an unprecedented pace, leading to enormous ecological, economic and social consequences.
Efforts from a broad range of stakeholder groups are needed to bend the curve from biodiversity loss to biodiversity recovery. However, biodiversity proves to be a concept that is difficult to grasp for the broader public. This is problematic since, as Baba Dioum already put it in 1968, "In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."
Utrecht University strongly recognises the problem of biodiversity loss and aims to improve biodiversity locally and globally (UU Strategic Plan 2025). This ambition also requires solid biodiversity knowledge 
and strengthening the engagement of different stakeholder groups.

To gather insights on how the biodiversity crisis is perceived and explore pathways towards restoring biodiversity, this project team will set up a longitudinal project to map these stakeholders perceptions of the biodiversity crisis and of strategies to bend the curve from biodiversity loss to biodiversity recovery. Through this project, the team will unveil pathways for bending the curve from an interdisciplinary perspective, combining social and policy sciences perspectives.

This proposal capitalises on a new tool that we recently developed to map mental models. A mental model 
is an individual’s perception of a system, including the system components and the causal relations between system components. We will adapt the tool to measure mental models (or system perceptions) of biodiversity of different stakeholders. Each group will be asked to draw their mental model of the biodiversity crisis, its causes and its potential solutions. The project researchers will then map the understanding of UU biodiversity experts to bring together extant knowledge on biodiversity within the university, and to create an expert model against which other perceptions can be compared. Next, we will sample UU employees, UU students and UU alumni to assess their understanding of the biodiversity crisis and options to restore biodiversity.

Subsequently, the project team will formulate a new proposal to acquire additional funding e.g. via NWA and/or through our partner institutions and will involve societal partners e.g. the municipality and the province of Utrecht, NGO’s such as National Park Utrechtse Heuvelrug, WWF, the Bird Protection, Deltaplan Biodiverity and farmers associations. The plan to map the mental models of stakeholder groups relevant to these partners and from the individual mental models, the team can compile a collective mental model per stakeholder group. They will first create an expert model that represents the current knowledge on biodiversity among biodiversity experts within the UU, and then compare the biodiversity mental models between the different stakeholder groups against this expert model.

These maps will offer relevant information on the assumptions of each specific group on the causes of biodiversity loss, and on the options they see to restore this loss. This approach discloses knowledge gaps and ways to strengthen stakeholder involvement to bending the curve. The project team then aims to collect mental models on a regular basis so that they can monitor any development in these perceptions of (preferably) the same individuals within these stakeholder groups. This trajectory will be integrated within the Boosting Biodiversity Community and its events to offer insight into how the public is connected to the issue of biodiversity and how engagement with biodiversity can be strengthened.