ALARM Assessing LArge-scale environmental Risks for biodiversity with tested Methods


Maculinea nausithous, mating on the flower of a Great Burnet

Based on a better understanding of terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, ALARM developed and tested methods and protocols for the assessment of large-scale environmental risks for biodiversity in order to derive policy-relevant knowledge on how to minimise negative direct and indirect human impacts.

Research focused on the interdisciplinary assessment and projections of changes particularly in biodiversity but also in structure, function, and dynamics of ecosystems. This related to selected ecosystem services and included the multiple relationships between society and its institutions, economy and biodiversity. In particular, risks arising from climate change, environmental chemicals, biological invasions and pollinator loss in the context of current and possible future European land use patterns have been assessed and integrated into scenarios as the basis for specific recommendations to policy-makers on how to mitigate these risks.

Target / objective

There is an improved understanding of how environmental risks subsequent to a large variety of impacts act individually and affect living systems. The knowledge on how they act in concert is poor and ALARM was the first research initiative with the critical mass needed to systematically deal with such aspects of combined impacts and their consequences in a reflective manner.

Risk assessments in ALARM were hierarchical and examined a range of organisational (genes, species, ecosystems), temporal (seasonal, annual, decadal) and spatial (habitat, region, continent) scales determined by the appropriate resolution of current case studies and available databases.

Socio-economics as a cross-cutting theme centrally contributed to the integration of driver-specific risk assessment tools and iterative methods and developed instruments to communicate risks to biodiversity to end users, and to indicate policy options to mitigate such risks.


ALARM is an Integrated Project (IP) within the 6th Framework Programme of the European Commission. The ultimate aim of ALARM is to develop and test methods and protocols for the assessment of large-scale environmental risks for biodiversity.  To do so, ALARM had to integrate the research results of more than 250 scientists from 68 institutions in 35 countries. Their analyses form the basis for policy recommendations, in an attempt to strengthen evidence-based decision making on biodiversity relevant issues.

The challenge then is how to integrate multiple disciplines, dimensions, perspectives, spatial and temporal scales, based on diverse knowledge sources, tools and methods, under the condition of prevailing uncertainty, high stakes and urgent decisions. How can scientifically sound conclusions relevant for policy be drawn under these circumstances?

To achieve this, we needed to create a common language between disciplines to produce common knowledge compatible with the established body of expertise of all disciplines involved. This knowledge – through integration ‑ should lead far beyond the state of the art, and finally needs to be linked to action (the science-policy interface): decision makers need to understand how the policies they adopt could impact upon future biodiversity, and in turn upon ecosystem services. The ALARM project has aimed to do this, at a European level (but also beyond), by contributing a) to the integrated assessment of socio-economic drivers affecting biodiversity and b) integrated, long-term oriented means to mitigate them.


Some major achievements of ALARM:

The creation of integrative work packages and modules was an appropriate tool to make researchers aware that there is a clear obligation to work across disciplines. Although this process of integration took some time, it was the ultimate goal of ALARM and is about to lead to a high number of multi-disciplinary publications often written by very international teams of authors. Until early 2009 ALARM had contributed to more than 1000 scientific publications, with a number of papers which may well develop into citation classics and which might shape the way science is conducted in the future.

Case studies offered ideal opportunities for transdisciplinary integration and for experiencing multiple scales and their interactions through the linkage of local/regional scenarios with those on the continental scale. An ALARM specific example of a case study is the ALARM-FieldSiteNetwork. This joint infrastructure made people think of further opportunities of integrated analysis.

Through a Consultative Forum, participation of EC policy officers in all major meetings, and presentations at the Commission and the EEA, a high degree of stakeholder involvement has been achieved within ALARM.

Besides the typical scientific paper outputs in international peer reviewed journals, it is particularly worth mentioning that there have been numerous outreach activities. Research findings have little opportunity to influence policy if the policy-makers themselves are not influenced by an increasingly informed public. That is why the media outreach performed in ALARM has been so important. It has included TV and radio shows, coverage in magazines, and newspapers. Last but not least the Atlas of Biodiversity Risk to a very large extent is an output of ALARM with exactly the aim of informing the public and policy-makers. The foundation of the new open access journal “BioRisk” should also be mentioned here.

Briefing sheets and policy recommendations, partly produced specifically for Commission purposes, have been adjusted to the timing of the development of important political documents and thus have been included in Directives and other legal material of the Commission. These were a very important and successful means to achieve pertinence of ALARM results in the political realm, and are prime examples for a productive science-policy interface.

The science and art of coordination; recommendations for the future

The key issue, especially in larger undertakings, is surely the science and art of coordination. Often downgraded as being managers and administrators we think that coordinators are firstly scientists with the challenging task to conceptualise promising new approaches. It is the coordinators setting the scenes, developing the proposals and putting together elements which potentially have new value to the scientific community. A further challenge is to keep the diversity of characters and the disciplines they represent together in order to maintain the opportunities for productive interactions. At the end it is the direct contact and open-mindedness one has to maintain in order to keep a tanker manoeuvrable – and that’s rather an element of art or psychology than of science.

Follow up

Based on the working atmosphere which developed in the course of ALARM, many new initiatives built on established trans-disciplinary contacts from within ALARM (while at the same time taking new partners on board) and due to the positive experience adopted the coordination and management structure (e.g. MACIS: STEP: SCALES: COCONUT).

The establishment of the field site network might also have a potentially important long-term impact derived directly from ALARM as, due to its pragmatic structure, it should have a high chance of prevailing for a long time after the end of the ALARM project, e.g. within the LTER-Europe network.


Name of funding organisation

European Commission

Contacts of project leader

PD Dr. Josef Settele
PD Dr. Josef Settele