Global biodiversity losses continue despite tremendous growth in the volume of conservation science, and many local successes. Research that can achieve conservation science’s aims—arresting declines in biodiversity and preventing extinctions—is therefore of ever greater importance. Here, we ask whether conservation science, as currently performed, is progressing in such a way as to maximise its impact. We present a simple framework for how effective conservation research could progress, from identifying problems to diagnosing their proximate and ultimate causes, and from proposing, to designing, implementing, and testing responses. We then demonstrate that for three well-known examples—South Asian vultures, whooping cranes, and bycatch of procellariform seabirds—published studies appear to follow this sequence, with considerable benefits. However, for a representative sample of the wider conservation literature, we find no evidence of such a progression. Instead, the vast majority of papers remain focussed on describing the state of nature or on mechanisms directly causing changes, with very little research on designing or implementing conservation responses. This lack of research on the sorts of questions that might most help conservation science deliver its stated mission strongly suggests we will struggle to translate the huge increase in research activity into real-world benefits.